Bingham moves effortlessly through “air world,” as he calls it, scarcely inconvenienced by lines at security check-ins, cancelled flights, endless delays and stale, recycled air. He’s fit, healthy and happy and might never have found himself in the middle seat of row 27, squeezed between two obese travelers on the redeye from Newark to LAX.
No, your flight experience hasn’t been like that, has it? Since 9/11, it has been unremittingly awful, has it not?
Travel was not always such.
Poking through a box of ephemera in the basement, I found a 1947 railroad ticket stub, describing the amenities of a trip from Kansas City to New Orleans.
“You are invited to visit the lounge/diner/observation car on the rear of this train (No additional cost to chair car passengers).
For your pleasure aboard the Southern Belle, a deluxe lounge/diner/observation car is on the rear of the train. Here you can procure refreshments or a fine meal at reasonable prices.
Here you can relax in comfortable lounge chairs, listen to the radio, write to your friends or relatives-or transact unfinished business in the office provided for that purpose. Upon request, our hostess will assist you in making up a bridge game.
Our train passes through six states between Kansas City and New Orleans. The scenery in the Ozarks and Ouachita Mountains is unsurpassed. The many beautiful lakes and rivers, orchards, cotton fields, oil fields and factories make our route a most interesting one. In this observation section, you may obtain an unobstructed view of this everchanging landscape.”
Kansas City Southern began service with the Southern Belle, advertised as “The Sweetheart of American Trains” during 1940 and ended it 30 years later when the airlines and the interstate highway system effectively killed off passenger railroads.
Taking into account that this charming little piece of puffery was written by a P.R. guy for the railroad, it still paints a sweetly nostalgic picture of an unhurried, leisurely time. Imagine writing letters on the train or “transacting unfinished business,” whatever that may have meant.
Travelers of that era had time and comfort, and apparently expected to pass the time playing cards or just raptly contemplating the “everchanging” American landscape. They weren’t mad. They weren’t harried. They weren’t insanely stressed out — in fact, they might have been delighted.
Part of their comfort came from the times. America had just triumphed in a war during which the future of western civilization was at stake, and in which tens of millions had perished. The national mood was one of relief, of thanksgiving, of joy tempered by a deep understanding of the world’s danger.
And the Southern Belle, so solid and earth-bound, must have seemed safe and comforting.
Some of us, like Ryan Bingham, may feel the same way about planes — but to many, planes are disquieting and unnatural. That may be why our post 9/11 fear of plane bombings is so acute and the danger of such bombings is so magnified in our minds.
Consider: since 9/11, nearly 300,000 Americans have died on our highways, and millions more have been seriously injured. Some 230,000 people died as a result of the great tsunami on Dec. 26, 2004. The 2008 Sichuan earthquake killed more than 80,000 people and injured hundreds of thousands.
No American passenger aircraft has been destroyed by terrorists during that period.
Our national response to potential bombings is driven not by logic but by atavistic fear. Terrorists on planes are the monsters under the bed. And just as we think that Daddy can make us safe from the monsters, we expect that Daddy George and Daddy Barack will keep all the bombers away.
Every year, hundreds of millions of passengers embark and disembark on planes throughout the world. Inevitably, a few would-be terrorists will slip through the screening process, but introducing even more draconian restrictions into the process (No bathrooms for you!!) provides the illusion of safety, not the reality.
Here’s the hard truth, which the generation traveling peacefully on the Southern Belle would have understood instinctively.
In a free, open society under siege from a loose, relatively impotent network of extremists, there will be successful terrorist attacks. They might take place in Madrid, or London, or New York or anywhere that citizens have chosen tolerance, diversity and personal freedom as governing principles. That’s the price we pay for liberty.
And air travel, unless you’re Ryan Bingham, will remain cramped, stressful, claustrophobic, thoroughly unpleasant and boringly safe, for you, that is.
As for me, I’ll be waiting hopefully for the Southern Belle to stop at the old DRG&W Depot, now Giuseppe’s, and transport me in style and comfort to the Big Easy.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 227-5861.