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viewpoint

The planes at JFK

| Monday, September 25, 2017

In the 1970s, my grandfather would go to John F. Kennedy (JFK) airport to film the planes, and my father would go with him to make a small fortune.

The planes mesmerized my grandfather. He would pull off to the side of the highway near JFK, take out a lawn chair and spend two hours watching and filming the planes while enjoying some cigarettes. When I was growing up, my family would share a laugh comparing his plane footage to his footage from family weddings. He had a great eye for the planes, but we always had difficulty determining whose dress or suit jacket we were staring at in the wedding videos … Poppy always cut off their faces.

Watching the planes was hypnotic, my father told me: “It’s like sitting at the ocean watching the waves.” At JFK, the planes would come in every two to three minutes.

But the hypnosis of the planes was not enough to keep my father there, on the side of the road with my grandfather. No, my dad was more interested in making a fast fortune inside the airport.

Off he’d go, from one end of the horseshoe shaped airport to the other, raiding the phone booths for spare change. JFK is an international airport, and loads of non-English speaking visitors would arrive, attempt to use the phone booths, fail and — luckily for my father — not understand the phrase “coin return.” My father, 12 years old at the time, would go from booth to booth, terminal to terminal, pulling the coin return lever. He would exhaust the booths in all the terminals, but “by the time I got back to Terminal 1 they’d be full again,” my father said.

By the end of the two hour time period, he would have collected between $10 and $20, the same amount of money he’d make for a full week of delivering newspapers.

In those days, a kid could disappear for two hours inside an airport without worried parents calling SWAT teams to find out where they are. In those days, a man could pull off onto the side of the highway next to an international airport and film the planes coming and going without a second glance. In those days, when my grandfather’s brother and sisters would come visit him from Ireland, my family would be waiting in the terminal with champagne, cheese and crackers, ready to have an airport welcoming party.

It’s not bad that things have changed since then. If my kids disappeared in an airport, I’d be calling in the SWAT teams too. Kids will always be mischievous. If they’re not traversing international airports alone scavenging for change, they’re finding other ways to keep parents on their toes. But the planes at JFK remind us to take life slowly and to take a breath. As parents or busy adults, we should always take an hour or so to sit in a lawn chair with a cigarette, letting the loud, steady swoosh of the planes captivate our minds and steady our hands.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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