O’Hare International Airport has been on my mind these days.
We flew from there to San Francisco over Christmas. We flew from there to Philadelphia last month. And after spending a few days in Washington DC for some meetings regarding her current work project, Kim flew back into it this evening.
Every time you go to O’Hare, you cannot help but be reminded of Douglas Adams’ observation that there are no natural languages on Earth that contain as a common metaphor the phrase “as beautiful as an airport.” They’re utilitarian places, really – better than they used to be by a long shot, with nice stores and some attention paid to things like art and color – but mostly they’re places where people who’d rather be somewhere else gather together to try to leave.
Of course, sometimes it’s different. Sometimes people just go there. And then there are stories.
Two things you have to know about this one as background.
First, the abbreviation for O’Hare is “ORD.” Anyone who has ever looked at their luggage tag after a trip through O’Hare knows this, and most people know that this is because O’Hare was originally called “Old Orchard Field” back in the day. ORD, Orchard – it makes sense when you think about it.
And second, I used to run a local historical society. It was a great experience, and I met a lot of very nice people who were committed to preserving their own past, or even just the past of the place they now lived. Some of them didn’t even live there, but liked the place anyway. It was a fun group of people. I didn’t actually get to do much history as part of my job – the thing about the field of public history is that it is a great deal of public and not much history, and most of your time as the director of a historical society is spent on mundane things like trying to keep the lights on and the doors open. But sometimes I got to be historical anyway.
Part of my job was just talking to people, which I enjoyed when I could do it one on one. I’m not much on parties and festivities and such – the fundraising circuit that is such a central part of that job was hard on an introvert like me and one big reason why I eventually move on to other things – but when you can sit down with someone and just discuss things, it can be fascinating.
The town had a surprising number of people in their 90s, many of whom had vast collections of old things that their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren did not want. Rather than see them landfilled they’d call us up to see if we’d want any of it, and sometimes I’d go over to check the stuff out. And then we’d talk.
There was one sweet old woman named Mabel whom I got to know pretty well for a while. She had a lot of stuff, some of which we did end up accepting as donations. She and I would go through a bit here and a bit there, and then we’d talk.
She’d grown up in Chicago and was a young teen in the early 20s when Old Orchard Field was just getting started as an airport. Sometimes when they were feeling adventurous, she and her friend would ride the trolley all the way out to the end of the line, out to where the planes would circle and land, and they’d spend the day watching them. You could tell, eighty years later, that these were some of her favorite memories. I'm sure she could still picture them.
The thing I remember most about those stories was her telling me that in those days the place was rather more informal than it is now.
If you wanted a ride on one of the planes you had to walk across the field to the control tower and get their attention somehow. They’d lower down a coffee can on a rope, and you’d put your money in it. They’d reel it in and then point you to a plane, and off you went.
I thought about that last month in O’Hare.
Things have changed since Mabel’s day.