Lessons from airports

To say I grew up in airports is a bit of an exaggeration, but only slightly. International travel in the 60’s was still rather new and exotic and very unreliable. Long layovers to coordinate connections were common, and delays due to weather or mechanical issues were even more common. My parents were adventuresome and thought nothing of towing three young children around with them. In the photo, my brothers and I are cooperating dutifully on the luggage cart at the Colombo airport having arrived from Dhaka for a little R&R.

The vintage “where in the world” posts are from trips we took while stationed overseas with the US Diplomatic Corps. Even by foreign service standards we moved a lot, fulfilling only one DC assignment which lasted less than three years. The school years spent on Chesapeake Street between Reno Road and Connecticut were idyllic, only blocks from Murch Elementary.

On the weekends we would go for hikes off the scenic Skyline Drive or ride our Shetland ponies on an acreage in West Virginia. But this tame American experience couldn’t match hiking the terraced tea gardens of Malaysia or climbing up to the crater lake at Mount Zuqualla or even the rather urban stroll up to Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. The whole family was eager to take back to the skies. I didn’t return to live in the US until college.

With so much time on our hands at Heathrow or Narita or Charles de Gaulle my brothers and I would play games eavesdropping and then betting on the nationalities of our chosen observation subjects. Of course there was language to give us some guidance, but also mannerisms and apparel. If we were lucky they would pull out their passports to allow us to settle our bets.

Fifty years ago, as pre-covid, airports were busy places with passengers rushing anxiously to catch flights. Perhaps forgotten now, is that by 1972 a total of 150 US planes had been hijacked. Commandeering aircraft was in a golden age. Airport security was considerable. I remember the Rome airport in particular crawling with camo clad soldiers, each carrying an assault rifle. The true power, however, was held by the typically slender uniform behind the passport control counter. He (usually, but sometimes she) could question or detain you. Have your luggage searched.

The approach was straightforward. Only answer the questions when asked. Don’t offer additional information. Do nothing that could antagonize the one person who could delay your travel. I still think of these very prompts when I travel abroad.

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