Notes from Away: Flyover Country
Wednesday, June 29, 2016 4:26 PM
ROCKPORT. “Dad, I don’t believe you.”
Stephen Harder is a resident of Rockport, living and teaching in China, home for the summer.
My credibility is often challenged within the family. Usually with great success, which seems to please everyone else. But recently I persuaded my college-bound son, while we were climbing the hills behind Camden, that this time I might be describing the truth.
When I am flying I always try to get a window seat. I know a bit about planes — from my father, who taught flying during the Second World War, and from flying gliders myself some years ago.
The flight about which my son was so skeptical left Newark Liberty Airport one late summer morning, bound for China. I was travelling on my own, pensive, having left family behind in Rockport. I had a window seat.
Often, when the wondrous GE-engineered power of the two engines begins thrusting the plane forward and forcing me deeper into my seat, I count on my watch the long seconds of thump, thumpety, thumpety-thumpety of the tires until the nose wheel rises and the inclining wings lift the plane — burdened by her hundreds of people and their baggage and many tons of fuel — gradually into the thin and invisible air. And if a wing dips for a long second during takeoff, I mutter under my breath, “Come on baby, get that wing up, good, now, okay here we go.”
The plane climbed slowly over the Hudson River, and I was intrigued when, still only a few thousand feet up, we right-banked to cross over Manhattan. To see this great city from the air is to say inwardly how wondrous is the work of man. There below was the rectangular green of Central Park, some paths clearly to be traced where I had walked just the day before. Still only a few thousand feet up, I could clearly make out the Natural History Museum on the Upper West Side and count the cross streets to where we now have an apartment. This part of the story, so far, son believed.
Usually the 14-hour non-stop United Flight 086 from Newark to Shanghai proceeds northwest: “up” over the Great Lakes and Canada and Alaska and the Arctic, and then “down” again over Korea. But this time — probably to make best use of the prevailing jet streams at cruising altitude, which can add or subtract an hour or more to a long flight’s duration — our path was northeast: “up” over Greenland and the Arctic and then “down” again over Siberia and Mongolia. That meant, I thought to myself as I looked out the window over the beaches of Long Island, then the forests of Connecticut, then the suburbs of Boston, that we might be flying somewhere over Maine.
An hour passed, and then — sure enough — I could recognize below the indented coastline of Maine, as clear as in the satellite photographs displayed at the Island Institute. From a far higher cruising altitude now, I was trying not to miss Rockland and Rockport and Camden harbors. As it turned out, I could not have asked the pilot to fly a better course for my search.
There below in the clear noon light were the familiarly shaped harbors, and lighthouses, and some streets and rooftops amid the trees. And I became even more hopeful that I might see — and later describe to an astounded family — our white house on Russell Avenue. I did briefly catch a glimpse of a white dot about where the house should be. At least I am pretty sure I did. And then, the plane flew on, towards the North Pole.
“You couldn’t possibly see it from that height,” son said. Indeed, disbelief was general around the dinner table.
Well, months later, and just a few days ago, son and I found ourselves standing on the cliffs above Camden (well back from the edge), and on that clear afternoon we could see over to North Haven and the white of its landmark water tower. So father said to son: “We know it is more than six miles across from Camden to North Haven, and we can see the water tower clearly. Six miles are a bit more than 30,000 feet, about as high as a jet flies. Like that one way up there, just above us now. That’s where I was. I really could see our house.”
“Well, Dad, maybe.”
My father, decades after he last flew as a pilot, took recurrent wistful pleasure in gazing up at the contrails of the jets passing high above the farmhouse in Warren. “He’s going to Europe,” he would say. “They fly right over the house.”
I don’t mind if my son doesn’t take my word for it. Just as long as he tries for a window seat, and looks out for himself.