“Trans America Airlines announces the departure of Flight Two, The Golden Argosy, for Rome…”
Captain Demerest had stayed in the terminal longer than he intended. As he hurried, the announcement, clear and audible above the babel in the concourses, continued.
“…FLIGHT TWO, The Golden Argosy, for Rome. The flight is now ready for boarding. All passengers holding confirmed reservations…”
An airport flight departure announcement meant diverse things to those who heard it. To some, it was a routine summons, a prefix to another tedious, work-oriented journey which–had free choice been theirs–they would not have made. For others, a flight announcement spelled a beginning of adventure; for others still, the nearing of an end–the journey home. For some it entailed sadness and parting; for others, in counterpoint, the prospect of reunion and joy. Some who heard flight announcements heard them always for other people. Their friends or relatives were travelers; as to themselves, the names of destinations were wistful not-quite-glimpses of faraway places they would never see. A handful heard flight announcements with fear; few heard them with indifference. They were a signal that a process of departure had begun. An airplane was ready; there was time to board, but no time to be tardy; only rarely did airliners wait for individuals. In a short time the airplane would enter man’s unnatural element, the skies; and because it was unnatural there had always been, and would forever remain, a component of adventure and romance.
There was nothing romantic about the mechanics of a flight announcement. It originated in a machine which in many ways resembled a juke box, except that push buttons instead of coins were required to actuate it. The push buttons were on a console in Flight Information Control–a miniature control tower (each airline had its own F.I.C. or equivalent)–located above the departure concourse. A woman clerk pushed the buttons in appropriate sequence; after that the machinery took over.
Almost all flight announcements–the exceptions were those for special situations–were pre-recorded on cartridge tapes. Although, to the ear, each announcement seemed complete in itself, it never was, for it consisted of three separate recordings. The first recording named the airline and flight; the second described the loading situation, whether preliminary, boarding, or final; the third recording specified gate number and concourse. Since the three recordings followed one another without a pause, they sounded–as they were intended to–continuous.
People who disliked quasi-human automation were sometimes cheered when flight announcement machines went wrong. OccasionaHy part of the machinery would jam, with such results as passengers for half a dozen flights being misdirected to the same gate. The resultant debacle, involving a thousand or more confused, impatient passengers, was an airline agent’s nightmare.
Tonight, for Flight Two, the machinery worked.
“…passengers holding confirmed reservations please proceed to pate forty-seven, the Blue Concourse ‘D’.”
BY NOW, thousands in the terminal had heard the announcement of Flight Two. Some who heard were more concerned than others. A few, not yet concerned, would be, before the night was done.
More than a hundred and fifty Flight Two passengers heard the announcement. Those who had checked in, but had not reached gate forty-seven, hastened toward it, a few recent arrivals still knocking snow from their clothing as they went.
SENIOR STEWARDESS Gwen Meighen was pre-boarding several families with small children when the announcement echoed down the boarding walkway. She used the flight deck interphone to notify Captain Anson Harris, and prepared herself for an influx of passengers within the next few minutes. Ahead of the passengers, Captain Vernon Demerest ducked aboard and hurried forward, closing the flight deck door behind him.
Anson Harris, working with Second Officer Cy Jordan, had already begun the pre-flight check.
“Okay,” Demerest said. He slipped into the first officer’s right-hand seat, and took the check list clipboard. Jordan returned to his regular seat behind the other two.
MEL BAKERSFELD, still in the central concourse, heard the announcement and remembered that The Golden Argosy was Vernon Demerest’s flight. Mel genuinely regretted that once again an opportunity to end, or even lessen, the hostility between himself and his brotber-in-law had ended in failure. Now, their personal relationship was–if possible–worse than before. Mel wondered how much of the blame was his own; some, certainly, because Vernon seemed to have a knack for probing out the worst in Mel, but Mel honestly believed that most of their quarrel was of Vernon’s making. Part of the trouble was that Vernon saw himself as a superior being, and resented it when others didn’t. A good many pilots whom Mel knew–especially captains–felt that way about themselves.
Mel still seethed when he remembered Vernon, after the airport commissioners’ meeting, asserting that people like Mel were “ground-bound, desk-tied, with penguins’ minds.” As if flying an airplane, Mel thought, were something so damned extra-special compared with other occupations!
Just the same, Mel wished that tonight for a few hours he was a pilot once again, and was about to leave–as Vernon was leaving–on a flight for Rome. He remembered what Vernon had said about enjoying Italian sunshine tomorrow. Mel could do with a little of that, a little less, at this moment, of aviation’s logistics of the ground. Tonight the surly bonds of earth seemed surlier than usual.
POLICE LIEUTENANT Ned Ordway, who had left Mel Bakersfeld a few minutes earlier, heard the announcement of Flight Two through the opened doorway of a small security office just off the main concourse. Ordway was in the office receiving a telephoned report from his desk sergeant at airport police headquarters. According to a radio message from a patrol car, a heavy influx of private automobiles, crammed with people, was coming into the parking lots, which were having difficulty accommodating them. Inquiries had revealed that most of the cars’ occupants were from Meadowood community–members of the anti-noise demonstration which Lieutenant Ordway had already heard about. As per the lieutenant’s orders, the desk sergeant said, police reinforcements were on their way to the terminal.
A FEW HUNDRED feet from Lieutenant Ordway, in a passenger waiting area, the little old lady from San Diego, Mrs. Ada Quonsett, paused in her conversation with young Peter Coakley of Trans America, while both listened to the announcement of Flight Two.
They were seated, side by side, on one of a series of black, leather padded benches. Mrs. Quonsett had been describing the virtues of her late husband in the same kind of terms which Queen Victoria must have used when speaking of Prince Albert. “Such a dear person, so very wise, and handsome. He came to me in later life, but I imagine, when he was young, he must have been very much like you.”
Peter Coakley grinned sheepishly, as he had done many times in the past hour and a half. Since leaving Tanya Livingston, with instructions to remain with the old lady stowaway until the departure of her return flight for Los Angeles, their talk had consisted chiefly of a monologue by Mrs. Quonsett in which Peter Coakley was compared frequently and favorably with the late Herbert Quonsett. lt was a subject of which Peter was becoming decidedly weary. He was unaware that that was what Ada Quonsett astutely intended.
Surreptitiously, Peter Coakley yawned; this was not the kind of work he had expected when he became a Trans America passenger agent. He felt an absolute fool, sitting here in uniform, playing dry nurse to a harmless, garrulous old dame who could have been his great-grandmother. He hoped this duty would be over soon. It was bad luck that Mrs. Quonsett’s flight to Los Angeles, like most others tonight, was being further delayed by the storm; otherwise the old girl would have been on her way an hour ago. He hoped to goodness that the L.A. flight would be called soon. Meanwhile, the announcement about Flight Two, which was continuing, made a welcome, if brief, respite.
Young Peter Coakley had already forgotten Tanya’s cautioning words: “Remember… she’s got a barrelful of tricks.”
“Fancy that!” Mrs. Quonsett said when the announcement ended. “A flight to Rome! An airport is so interesting, don’t you think, especially for a young, intelligent person like you? Now there was a place–Rome–which my late, dear husband wanted us both to visit.” She clasped her hands, a wispy lace handkerchief between them, and sighed. “We never did.”
While she talked, Ada Quonsett’s mind was ticking like a fine Swiss watch. What she wanted was to give this child in a man’s uniform the slip. Although he was plainly becoming bored, boredom itself was not enough; he was still here. What she had to do was develop a situation in which boredom would become carelessness. But it needed to be soon.
Mrs. Quonsett had not forgotten her original objective–to stow away on a flight to New York. She had listened carefully for New York departure announcements, and five flights of various airlines had been called, but none was at the right moment, with any reasonable chance of getting away from her young custodian, unnoticed. Now, she had no means of knowing if there would be another New York departure before the Trans America flight to Los Angeles–the flight which she was supposed to go on, but didn’t want to.
Anything, Mrs. Quonsett brooded, would be better than going back to Los Angeles tonight. Anything! even… a sudden thought occurred to her… even getting aboard that flight to Rome.
She hesitated. Why not? A lot of things she had said tonight about Herbert were untrue, but it was true that they had once looked at some picture postcards of Rome together… If she got no farther than Rome airport, she would at least have been there; it would be something to tell Blanche when she finally got to New York. Just as satisfying, it would be spitting in the eye of that red-headed passenger agent bitch… But could she manage it? And what was the gate number they had just announced? Wasn’t it… gate forty-seven in the Blue Concourse “D”? Yes, she was sure it was.
Of course, the flight might be full, with no space for a stowaway or anyone else, but that was always a chance you took. Then for a flight to Italy, she supposed, people needed passports to get aboard; she would have to see how that worked out. And even now, if there was a flight announcement for New York…
The main thing was not just to sit here, but to do something.
Mrs. Quonsett fluttered her frail, lined hands. “Oh dear!” she exclaimed. “Oh dear!” The fingers of her right hand moved, hovering near the top of her old-fashioned, high-necked blouse. She dabbed at her mouth with the lace handkerchief and emitted a soft, low moan.
A look of alarm sprang to the young ticket agent’s face. “What is it, Mrs. Quonsett? What’s wrong?”
Her eyes closed, then opened; she gave several short gasps. “I’m so sorry. I’m afraid I don’t feel at all well.”
Peter Coakley inquired anxiously, “Do you want me to get help? A doctor?”
“I don’t want to be a nuisance.”
“You won’t be…”
“No.” Mrs. Quonsett shook her head weakly. “I think I’ll just go to the ladies’ room. I expect I’ll be all right.”