In-flight musings on form and function

October 11, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 11, 2013

My Uncle Jack died early Sunday afternoon. We were not close, but I liked him, and I traveled to the Midwest for his funeral. What follows are some paragraphs I wrote in about an hour during my layover in Chicago.


I am no longer the boy who was once endlessly fascinated by the scenery below the airplane. Instead, I am more of, well, a contemporary adult — drawn into the view by a sudden, intense interest, and then almost as suddenly bored and restless, eager to switch my gaze to the printed page or an electronic screen of some sort.

My flight from Raleigh-Durham International Airport to Chicago O’Hare was aboard an Embraer jet with rows of two seats arrayed along its starboard side and solitary seats positioned along its port side. I sat in 18A, on the port side, one row up from the back of the plane — one row up from the lavatory.

Leaving RDU, we lifted off from the runway and rose above the landscape. Here we passed some kind of big-box store, its dull white roof marked at regular intervals by what I took to be skylights. The shape of the one-story building was either square or rectangular — that is, that is what its main shape was, but here and there the geometric simplicity was complicated by a small corner removed or added. What the purposes of these modifications to Platonic form were, I could not tell.

To one side of the store sat a residential neighborhood. The houses seemed big; surely these were mansions — although when compared to the area occupied by the bulky big-box store, they became almost modest in scale. This neighborhood was growing: To one side, the trees had been leveled and the topsoil scraped away, obviously in preparation for more houses to be built.

I took all this in and then turned away. I barely glanced out the window when the jet ascended through the clouds.

But at some point in the journey, we left the clouds behind. The skies around and beneath us were clear, and a bright shaft of light kept imposing its will on the tray table on which rested the book I read. As the plane adjusted course, the light would move. Depending on how large and rectangularly shaped the light was, and just what part of the page I was training my gaze upon, this forced me at times to squint or to shift the book around.

And sometimes, I would abandon fighting the light and instead look out the window. At one point, the land beneath us was green and wrinkled. I noticed a river meandering through the area, making the loops that a long-ago earth sciences class taught me to identify as oxbows. Here there was a line moving over the river and through the gentle ridge of hills: A road. It branched off at points to accommodate residential developments. There I spotted another line, or more accurately, perhaps, an absence; unlike the road, this was almost straight. It receded into the distance, interrupting the greenery to either side. This was, I decided, a firebreak. For a moment I peered at it, trying to discern the electrical transmission towers and wires that I was certain occupied the space, but I could not make them out.

I wondered if we were still over North Carolina, perhaps somewhere around or west of the Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point metropolitan Triad. Later, it occurred to me that I may have been gazing at part of Tennessee.

More reading, more jousting with the light. I turned my head to the left again.

A very different spectacle awaited. All the earth seemed flat and divided into squares of varying sizes: Farmland, surely. A few lines — in the true mathematical sense, it seemed: straight and infinite — defined the borders of some of the fields. And where one line met another, there was a cluster of structures. That must be a small town, I thought. I scanned the land and noticed, at another intersection, another gray cluster so unlike the olive and tan and brown tones of the crop lands. An even bigger town, I thought.

I read some more and then I pulled out my tablet and turned it on. There was no wireless Internet connection, but I was bored with reading, and also I was eager not to finish my book too quickly, because that meant I would have to buy another one — another book for a man already far too encumbered by novels and nonfiction volumes. Anyway, I turned on my tablet and opened the Web browser and browsed not the Web, per se, but pages saved from it over the past five or six weeks…

I burned through a number of articles before glancing out the window again. We had been descending. The ground, and the structures upon it, were much closer. A few minutes later, the flight attendant announced that we must prepare for landing by turning off our electronic devices and folding up our tray tables. I complied.

And I stared out the window, attempting to decode the pleasant urban place beneath me. Here was a large building: Why were there no cars by it? It was Tuesday, a school day, a work day. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. There was what seemed to be a school. A high school? There were three baseball fields by it. The plane advanced, revealing what seemed to be another school close by, also flanked by fields.

We were over a neighborhood with many houses, a pleasant-seeming place. I noticed a large building but couldn’t see any parking lot by it. Was that a boarding school? Was it part of a college or university? I had never been to the University of Chicago — alma mater of my late Uncle Jack, as it happens — so I could only speculate if that was what we were passing.

Moments later, I spotted a football stadium. Immediately, I thought that this was Soldier Field, or So-Cold-Your Field, as the football fans on the NFL Rants ’n’ Raves podcast like to call it. But it was right beside a baseball field, which seemed odd. What’s more, I noticed that a distinctly shaped N was formed at midfield of the football venue and in the outfield of the baseball park. Plainly, we were passing over Northwestern University. The football stadium, I believe, is called Dyche (rhymes with dike) Field. As a 20-something attending a game there years ago, I remember musing upon what an unfortunate moniker that was.

Now we came upon Lake Michigan, I believe. A beautiful circular building — a church of one type or another, I suspect — occupied a prominent spot by the shore. The plane arced over the water, which was shining and green and suggested some tropical setting, not a Midwestern lake near the beginning of autumn.

The plane continued curving around, crossing back over the shoreline. I attempted in vain to puzzle out the purpose and function of what might be a dry dock on the bank of the immense lake. I saw the dense core of skyscrapers that must be downtown Chicago, some miles south of us. The plane all the while slowly dropped altitude, and I could make out individual houses and yards and cars. I could read signs. This, I thought, seems like a pleasant residential neighborhood — but oh, what of all the airplane noise they must get?

And then the jet overflew one of the ring roads around the airport and there was a utilitarian landscape beneath us. Moments later, the wheels touched the ground and the aluminum tube rumbled and the nose dropped and we were once more land-bound. I resumed reading my book, trying to be patient until the moment I could turn on my iPhone and check my messages and undo my seatbelt and rise from my seat and make my way up the aisle and out the hatch and up the skyway and into the terminal, homing in on the next gate where I would wait patiently until it was time to board the next plane and take the next leg of my journey.


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