(photo credit: http://blog.evantinedesign.com/tag/philadelphia-art/)
(This is a part of A Summer of Flying.)
Once we were settling in New York City Dexter headed up to see Columbia, we drove out of the City to see Princeton and we popped down to Swarthmore to tour their campus. When we drove through Philadelphia we took an hour to visit the Barnes Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams. It is a gorgeous, nearly perfect building. We had too little time to really appreciate it, but I loved all of the details, materials selections, and the careful interaction of the spaces and the displayed artwork.
Between other little trips (up to New Haven, the eventual trip to Providence to check out Brown), I checked in with my friend Kip. He was out on Fishers Island with his family, and said we should stop in and visit. It didn’t look like a visit with Dexter was going to work (he had friends in NYC that were looking at Columbia and he went up and met them to do that), but Kip needed a ride back to Lincoln Park to collect his Twin Bonanza and Alex and I had a morning free where we could do that.
The weather the night before was a typical summer thunderstorm and Kip knew we wouldn’t show if there was any convective activity the next day. But it cleared (or cleared to a sort of hazy scattered of clouds) and we drove out to Caldwell, where the plane was fueled and waiting.
We climbed through haze toward Westchester, talking to controllers the whole way. Alex hadn’t been up in the plane since his last visit to the west coast, so it was a treat to have somewhere fun as our destination and some decent weather to enjoy the ride. We cruised on toward Bridgeport and then angled toward Groton, essentially flying the length of Long Island but along the northern shore of Long Island Sound. There was a great view of the beaches, the train running along the coast, and the sailboats dotting the Sound. We have the catbird seat and we see the little boats skating on their medium, the train constrained to its line, the turnpikes ducking in and out of the hills and hamlets, all these separate layers of motion, adjacent and sometimes overlapping, but distinct.
This was a landscape I have been through so many times. Not as frequently as the drive south to the Jersey shore, but certainly dozens and dozens of times. There was Westport down there and I have no idea how many times I went to Marc’s place with his family (and later, when we were older, without them). And back and forth to New Haven to see a girlfriend… Over and over that same set of hills, through the same groups of trees that have spent year after year cycling through their colors, losing their leaves and waiting for the warmth of Spring, sitting through the haze and thunderstorms of Summer.
And I think about the layers of information, of experience over time. When I first traveled that coast down there I only experience the journey from the back seat of a station wagon. There were episodic moments along the way, in each direction, that I would use to mark our progress. The merge from one highway to another, a particular business to one side of the road or another. Eventually the speed slowing and the series of turns that would bring us to the destination. But for many years I didn’t think about how any of these isolated, geographically-specific events were connected to a larger picture. This is New England, the second-settled bit of coastline after the fatal attempt at Jamestown. Over two hundred years of the same Puritans and those that came after sifting away at each little plot of earth. Communities and individuals, solitude and the warmth of company. Decades wash most of the experiences away. Mine, although bright and detailed to me, are no different in the end. No one will know we were in the sky at this point, and this time, any more than it is significant that I was sailing along a particular turnpike in the back of a dark blue station wagon on a Friday afternoon. They are tracings in the sand or in the sometimes-visible moisture in the sky, and even many of them added together over time doesn’t make a difference, doesn’t dent the perceptions of anyone coming along after me.
I am thinking about this in part because I am looking down on a train track that my mother travels back and forth to Providence to see my sister and her kids. It’s a long way. There look to be quite a few places where you can see out onto the water, and in a few weeks Dexter and I will roll along those tracks to Providence and then to Boston and I’ll get to see those views for myself. One experience will be layered over another and one of the amazing things about the little plane is that it is so different from the other ways I move across the planet. It totally shifts my understanding of the landscape, forever changing how I imagine those journeys.
It also has entered my mind because when I was younger, probably about ten years old, Alex brought us all out to Fishers Island to spend the weekend with his friend Tim Husband in the large rambling house Tim’s father had on the island. At the time the thing that seemed most momentous about those couple trips out to the little blip of land in the Atlantic were the trips to get the paper (and donuts) in the morning, since Alex let me sit on his lap and steer the car from the big old house to the battered general store in the little village. But now, when I look back, I think about the ruins. There are huge, concrete remains of the defensive gun emplacements along the eastern edge of the island built during the run up to World War II. The big guns, obviously, are long gone, but destroying the concrete that held them was not in the budget. So they are huge play areas for the adventurous, caverns for the imaginative.
Like the gun emplacements on Sandy Hook in New Jersey, there are tracks along the concrete bunker floors where the ammunition carts carried shells from the ammunition storage to the guns. And the sand is ramped up to the top of the thick concrete walls on the ocean side, burying these fortresses in the grassy dunes, ever watchful over the waves of the Atlantic.
When I would climb over these ruins I would imagine the soldiers with their drills, routines, and patrols. All those hours spent staring out to sea. I could look out there now and see how the rising and falling waves, the shadows on the water could look like ships or submarines ducking in and out of view. Years of those routines. Walking along the top of a wall or around the radius of a gun emplacement, probably right in the decades-old jet stream of some eighteen year old pissed off that he was here instead of Over There.
We have made it up along the shore to Groton, Connecticut. We talk to the tower controller there, since we are descending through his airspace. He releases us to the CTAF for Fishers and we are lined up to overfly the airport. Amazingly, as we turn toward the crosswind for runway three-zero we went right over the golf course and there was Tim’s house. One of the first weekends that Nell and I spent together was out at Fishers in that house. Fond memories of her jogging around the island with me serpentining ahead of her on my rollerblades flood my mind as we line up on short final. We need to come back to more of these places.
The runway is a little bumpy, but it was exciting to be landing at a place where I had only traveled to by water before. As we maneuvered onto a tie down the manager (or attendant) for the airport came out and collected ten dollars for the parking fee. Kip showed up as I was getting the chocks under the wheels.
Kip is Tod Williams’ son and he drove us over to the old army base structure that his father had renovated in the past few years. We hung out for a little bit and I got to see a space where an architect was his own client and every detail and material selection chimed with the same frequency as the overall design, a harmony so rarely achieved in a building. The terrace outside the kitchen area was tiled with leftover pieces from the Barnes project. When Bob Whitehead and I built houses we often wound up bringing home spare parts like that, stacking them in the garage in the hopes that we’d find a place for that door that was removed but still in good condition, or the glass tiles that you had to order in a number that didn’t match the kitchen backsplash. Architects really need to have a barn to fill with these sort of things, and every now and then a large, strange, eclectic project that allows them to empty out the barn.
Kip drove us to a stone beach on the ocean side of the island and we floated in the warm Atlantic for forty-five minutes, amazed that a couple hours ago we were hustling along the concrete sidewalks of Greenwich Village. But Kip needed to bring his plane back in daylight, so we returned to the house, changed back to street clothes, and headed to the airport.
There was a headwind, which was good. Getting three adults, nearly full tanks of fuel, and the DA40’s empty weight off a runway that short is not trivial. Kip is very used to the large engines of his TwinBo, which probably yank him off that runway halfway down. We climbed slowly off three quarters of the way and I stayed in ground effect over the beach and out to the ocean. I don’t have to fight the urge to pull up (and stall) anymore, but I am aware of the airspeed and my responsibility to keep the nose low enough that we keep flying. After we were at cruise altitude Kip said, “Were you nervous at all about that takeoff? Did it seem like we had enough power?”
Of course, at the other end, over Lincoln Park Airport, the DA40 had trouble slowing down. Or, rather, in the haze and summer heat I didn’t give it enough space to slow down so we rocketed over the 2,900 foot runway. I didn’t even bother getting down to fifty feet above it, I knew we were too fast. So we circled and I got a lot slower. But I worried about out inertia with three real-sized adults on board and felt that I was carrying too much speed. Kip said, “I’m pretty sure you could have made that,” but I like being certain rather than just pretty sure. I traced the traffic pattern over the field one more time. I got the stall horn a couple times on shot final as I brought it down to the numbers as slowly as I could. There was no question we could stop well before the end of the runway.
Kip hopped out and headed to his newly-repaired plane. Alex and I made the five minute hope back to the Caldwell airport and summoned our Uber to get back into the city. One of these trips to KCDW I will learn where NJ Transit is out here and get a ride to a train instead. But that was a great day of flying.