TEXAS HAS SEEN NOTHING LIKE the official opening of the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport (DFW) last September since President Woodrow Wilson inaugurated the Houston Ship Channel in 1914. Forty-thousand gold-lettered invitations went out to diplomats, businessmen, and socialites all over the world. The Concorde, the Anglo-French supersonic transport plane, made its first American appearance. Eight thousand people attended a black-tie gala in one of the new terminals. There were bands, an air show, speeches, and general high spirits despite a few monumental foul-ups.
Dallas-Fort Worth boosters are convinced that the airport will mean as much, if not more, to their region as the ship channel has meant to Houston. They compare 20th-century Dallas to 19th-century Chicago. As the 19th century moved by rail, so the railroads meeting in Chicago made it a world center. The 20th and—who knows?—the 21st centuries are going to move by air. Air routes meeting in Dallas-Fort Worth should, the reasoning goes, make that area a world center in its turn.
Asked at a press conference whether NASA was considering using it as a spaceport, airport executive director Tom Sullivan smiled, but nobody laughed.
ANTI-DALLAS SORTS MIGHT HOPE THAT the new airport is not phenomenal, mind-boggling, futuristic, and the best in the world. Too bad. It is. They might then grumble that even if the airport is all that great, then to take such obvious pride in it is in poor taste: it is just an airport, after all, a place where airplanes land, pick up and discharge passengers and cargo, and take off again. Isn’t getting excited about an airport really in the same class of emotion as getting excited about a new bus terminal?
On the contrary, however, a lot of people with both good taste and good sense are excited about this airport. Considering how overcrowded, noisy, and cramped just about every major airport in the world is these days, DFW is a real step forward. It may be the last great airport built in the United States for the next decade or two; there is none other even on the drawing boards. If all goes well, DFW will have the future all to itself. It is the biggest, the best-planned, the most flexible, and, by default, the most environmentally conscious airport in the world (although the new Montreal airport will steal the environmental laurels when it opens in 1975). The Air Line Pilots Association says it’s the best. It is also an encouraging symbol of cooperation between two cities whose rivalry had lasted too long and been too divisive.
The opening was not without its problems, and the airport is not going to be without its problems, either. A number of the press from around the world became jaded by the incessant buoyancy of the airport boosters; somehow it fulfills too many stereotypes to hear Dallas talking about the biggest, the most advanced, the fastest, the best-planned, the most flexible, the greatest number, the best….The airport officials also consistently, if subtly, refused to deal head-on with the real problems confronting the airport, such as: delays in opening (planned for October, the airport won’t really open until January); the threat of Southwest Airlines keeping its commuter traffic at Love field and therefore siphoning off much of DPW’s potential high-frequency, high-density traffic; the fragility of the airport’s financing; and the potential difficulty in making the airport’s multi-gate design conform to federal anti-hijack security regulations.
The opening ceremonies themselves set the tone for the airport and its future. Planned to show off the highlights, they ended up showing some of the drawbacks as well. The whole event was truly a Texas occasion; one national magazine sent a writer down specifically to do a story on the “scene” at the airport opening. And scene there was….
FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT seen DFW, it is most easily visualized as a shish kebab. I confess I did not hit upon this metaphor until I was eating dinner on the fourth and last night of the opening, but I had known all along that its half-moon concrete terminals, pierced up the middle by the airport’s spine road, echoed some familiar shape. It’s true; the existing terminals, and the ones to follow as the airport grows, are impaled on the spinal road like Brobdingnagian tomatoes and onions on a giant skewer. Like the shish kebab, the airport is adaptable, modular, flexible. The same basic principle can accommodate any size appetite, whether for food or planes. The advantages of Central Asian nomadic cookery are thus incorporated by North American technology. The result: convenience, simplicity, and easy access to component parts.
On the other hand, like the shish kebab, the airport offers few surprises, no romance, and little opportunity for variety. These qualities have led architecture critics to call it “blandly repetitious,” and to compare encountering it to seeing Manhattan Island (which is about its size) filled end to end with the same building repeated over and over.
Gyo Obata, the terminal’s principal architect, not surprisingly has little patience with such criticism. “The humanizing thing about airports is not that they are pretty but that they are easy to use—to hell with monuments!”
While he appeared not completely comfortable amid the hoopla surrounding the opening, the forcefully pragmatic Obata typified the planning approach to the airport. There is a pervasive “can-do” spirit about the place, a sort of assumed confidence that nothing has to be as it once was, that technology and organization can solve any problem. The whole affair is like having the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders rooting for the Los Alamos nuclear development labboratory.
This approach, of making things easy to use, comfortable, and accessible, begins before I even arrive at the airport. The press bus is like no bus I have ever seen. Its old bench seats have been ripped out and swivel arm chairs put in; its oily floors are covered in royal-blue, deep-pile carpet; Muzak, a Sony color TV, a telephone, a complete bar, all have been added. On the back wall is an autographed photograph of Ray A. Kroc, chairman of the board of MacDonald’s (13 Billion Sold!) whose VIP bus it so appropriately is.
First on the schedule is an air tour of the Dallas-Fort Worth area on board a Braniff 747. Up in the cockpit before takeoff the navigator remarks indifferently that this airport looks just like any other as far as he is concerned—”It doesn’t make a bit of difference to us whether the plane is coming in over Manhattan Island or the Arabian desert: we just all sit here and do our jobs.” The whole crew looks profoundly bored.
We sit on the runway, the first flight ever out of the new airport, for 30 minutes, just like at JFK. An entire airplane filled with reporters and photographers can be a very restless place, particularly when everyone has a wild, “Where’s the action?” look on his face and particularly when they begin to suspect the action is somewhere else. After we take off Mayors Wes Wise of Dallas and Sharkey Stovall of Fort Worth intone various facts and statistics about their respective cities over the plane’s PA system. The press slowly begins to believe that the 747 won’t land soon enough to let them photograph/witness the arrival of the Concorde, clearly the consensus highlight of the day. “Get this plane down.” “Let’s move it down, c’mon, let’s get out of this crate. All you can see are clouds, anyway!”
The press, it turns out, has underestimated the power of protocol. Mayors Wise and Stovall are scheduled to greet the Concorde, so it will be kept in the air until they are on the ground. That makes the connections a little fast, since half the press are still on board by the time the Concorde lands.
I glance over the shoulder of a woman writing furiously in her notepad as the Concorde taxis up right in front of us: “Like a seamonster resurrected from prehistoric times to the space age,” she writes, “the Concorde rose sharklike out of the depths to float down from heaven.” Hmmmm. There’s a slight problem of direction there, but her sentiments seem to be about how everyone sees this sleek white plane with its down-slung, pouting nose.
What the Concorde really resembles is what would result if the 19-year-old dropout who’s chopped, dropped, raked and customized that ’57 Chevy were given a Boeing 707 to play with. As the Concorde is waved into position one of the Braniff pilots is rocking back and forth on his heels and staring with unconcealed envy at the Concorde’s French pilot, who himself has on—of course!—tan racing gloves. “It looks like a Don Garlits dragster, doesn’t it?” I ask the Braniff pilot. The pilot looks back at me with tolerant distaste.
Clearly I lack the proper reverence for this plane, a plane that has already cost three times more than the whole airport, a man’s plane—fast, sleek, powerful. THE plane. Pushing it past Mach I, out over the ocean, feeling those Rolls engines taking it to Mach 2, why, that’s no thrill a Frenchman should get instead of us! Here we Americans are stuck with our Ford Ranchwagon 747s while the French and British are cruising around in Corvettes!
I know how he feels. One does not scoff at the Concorde, even though it has placed a tremendous financial burden on Britain and France, even though no one wants to buy it (Braniff is the only U.S. carrier which even wants an option), and even though its $2.5 billion development cost could perhaps have been better spent. No, the Concorde is the fitting symbol and harbinger of the new airport. A technological marvel, it is filled with potential and gee whiz! statistics; it is also, even more than the airport, a gamble, a bet that the future will be on the side of big airports and fast planes, a bet which by all odds is not a sure thing.
The small crowd gathered to greet the Concorde on press day is filled with a certain privileged excitement. There are blacks in orange Braniff coveralls and fast-talking Frenchmen in sky-blue Concorde coveralls; there are chic Parisian women, one with her blouse unbuttoned a couple of notches too far for Dallas; there are chauffeurs—older, deferential black men in standard uniforms and younger black dudes in wide-lapel chauffeur’s outfits and platform shoes; there are Braniff stewardesses muttering about how out-of-date the Concorde’s stewardess’ beige dress looks; and there are airport police, hundreds of journalists and cameramen fighting for the best camera angle, publicity flacks, hangers-on, and dignitaries.
Along the top of the Braniff terminal are the hard hats who have built the place. I stand next to a couple of workmen, young, long-haired, hip. “Looks kind of like a Don Garlits dragster, doesn’t it?” I venture again. They look at me with tolerant distaste. Perhaps they, too, think it looks like “a sea-monster resurrected from prehistoric times….”
Meanwhile, the ground crew has been unable to adjust the exit stairs to fit the Concorde’s door, so the Concorde just sits there, mute and mysterious, like a strange beached white whale surrounded by curious vacationers. After flying at twice the speed of sound, the passengers must wait half an hour to get out of the plane. The thought crosses my mind, as I behold the eager, swarming crowd surrounding the plane, that maybe the people inside don’t want to come out. But come out they do, to applause and general well-wishing.
AND SO IT CAME TO pass that Dallas and Fort Worth got together and built themselves an airport. Two cities, one airport. As one might expect, the marriage of Dallas for culture, Fort Worth for fun, of Cowtown and Manhattan’s last westward outpost was not without its stormy courtship. Just across the road from the new airport is the most poignant monument to that rivalry: Greater Southwest International Airport, formerly Amon Carter Field, sprung full-blown like a concrete god from the megalomaniac mind of Amon Carter, the tough, crazy rich ruler of Fort Worth who hated Dallas so much only an Aggie who has had to go through life putting up with the smug superiority of U.T. grads could understand.
Old Amon was the best evidence for The Territorial Imperative walking around on two legs. Forced to go to Dallas on business, he’d take a full tank of gas and carry his lunch in a brown paper bag to avoid dropping his hard-earned Fort Worth coin in Dallas coffers. Amon loved Fort Worth as a father loves an only son: he boosted it like crazy, dressed up in cowboy gear and sat horseback for photos, figuring the best defense against being branded as Cowtown was a good offense.
So, damn ’em with their Neiman-Marcus and their Frank Lloyd Wright and their plastic state fair! Amon trumpeted the Fort Worth gospel from his paper, The Star Telegram, and played up the high points by endowing the best museum of Western art in the country. (Now that gets Dallas where it hurts, right in the clinking coffee cups of culture.)
What galled Amon most was Love Field: Dallas always seemed to get the inside track on mail runs, on route assignments, on everything. First, however, he decided to bury the hatchet and cooperate, in a rare moment of civic good sense. A mutual airport was planned, but it went down the drain back in 1941. It would have been closer to Fort Worth than to Dallas, and Dallas, of course, would never stand for Amon having that kind of ammunition. Old man Thornton, the ruler of Dallas, could have just heard Amon crowing about the airport being pracically right in the middle of the stockyards and so far from Neiman’s! Amon probably told him any time Thornton had to take a flight he could come over and stay with him in Fort Worth the night before so he wouldn’t have to drive so far to get to the airport. No, that wouldn’t do.
Amon then built his own airport northeast of Fort Worth, and when it opened it was the most modern, most forward-looking airport of its time. Its only drawback was that Dallas set about systematically to destroy it. With the cooperation of the airlines and the Civil Aeronautics Board, Dallas corralled the lion’s share of the area’s flights into Love Field, which they expanded and rigorously defended against all criticism that it was too small, too close to residential areas, too much a noise and safety hazard. (All of which it was.)
The coming of jet airplanes, however, meant that two airports 17 miles apart were an anachronism. In 1964, the Civil Aeronautics Board strongly urged Dallas and Fort Worth to have only one airport. The CAB gave a not-too-subtle shove by setting a cutoff date after which they would plan the joint airport if the two cities would not. Led by then-mayor Erik Jonsson, Dallas finagled its cooperation with Fort Worth past changes in the state constitution, past defeat at the polls by the voters of Dallas County, past financial setbacks and near disaster. Tarrant County, with old man Carter dead, fell right in line, and the new airport was located exactly between the two cities.
PRESIDENT NIXON CHOSE NOT TO attend the airport opening and share the platform with John Connally, Spiro Agnew being in such difficulty at the time. President Hammer DeRoburt of Nauru was the only head of state to attend. Therefore, he was number one in precedence—ahead, among others, of the ambassadors of Britain and France at the diplomatic reception Friday afternoon. With all due respect, the president looks like a Polynesian Rock Hudson surrounded by three aides in ducktail haircuts, pegged trousers, thin ties, and engineer boots.
I shrewdly get the inside track with President DeRoburt while all the other journalists are swarming around John Connally, who has just arrived—who is he, anyway, when I’ve got a real president right here? It turns out that Nauru really exists. It’s a small island off the northwest coast of Australia which became independent in 1968. It has 5000 people and one tiny airport. The island makes its living by exporting a high grade of phosphate. Another diplomat tells me that the country is composed entirely of guano, which the Naurans are shipping out from under themselves as fast as they can.
“Mr. President,” I begin with what seems to me the obvious question, “Why are you here?”
“Well, we were invited and since this is going to be the world’s largest airport, I wanted to see it. It is indeed very impressive.”
“It certainly is impressive. In fact, it’s bigger than Manhattan Island. How big is your country , Mr. President?” I ask, tactlessly.
“Well, it’s actually (the president takes a long drag on his cigarette) smaller than Manhattan Island. Ten square miles, in fact. I suppose that means it’s smaller than this airport.”
That information confronted me with a dilemma. They have a vote in the U.N., right? And there’s no telling when we’ll be putting phosphates back in Tide, right? Still, against all caution, I pose my final question.
“Well, Mr. President, if your country is only ten square miles and it’s made entirely of guano, uh, phosphate, and you’re exporting the phosphate, then aren’t you shipping your country away?”
“Well yes, in a way.” The President examined his fingernails. “We haveapproached the Australian government about letting us relocate on one of their uninhabited islands, but we’ve had no success so far. We may have to rehabilitate our island as we go along.”
Since President DeRoburt is the first chief of state I have ever talked to, I did not take the experience lightly. I liked him, really, and I ended up convinced that if I lived on an island made of guano then I would want him for my president. Over the next couple of days the presence of this entourage of Polynesians from a tiny speck in the South Pacific as the top foreign representatives, the highest of dignitaries, at an airport in North Central Texas came to symbolize for me a point of constancy amid the activity and the pomp, the public relations and the potential problems, the massiveness and the fragility of the incredible facility which surrounded us, bigger in size than an entire country.
The President of Nauru, after all, is only doing for (or to) his country what Erik Jonsson and the visionary leadership of Dallas-Fort Worth are doing for (or to) North Texas: applying a highly pragmatic ingenuity to their environment for the purpose of enriching their communities, and, it hardly needs to be added, in the process enriching themselves. That kind of resourcefulness transcends race and culture. Of course, the process of using their environment as a natural resource is eventually going to destroy Nauru. No one is really quite sure what the airport is going to do to Dallas-Fort Worth, beyond (hopefully) making it grow and prosper.
Most of the leading Dallas environmentalists, ironically enough, ended up supporting the airport, which, through a stroke of good fortune, was entering its final stage when the environmental battle of the century was being waged in Dallas. The issue was a vote on bonds to finance the Trinity River Canal (“The Unholy Trinity Incident,” TM, June, 1973), a multi-billion dollar project aimed at transforming the Trinity into a seaworthy stream, “bringing barges from every country in the world,” as Mayor Wes Wise put it, 250 miles from the Gulf right into downtown Dallas.
The Dallas Establishment got its machinery together, pushed the right buttons, pulled all the old switches, but the engine just didn’t run. The canal project was defeated soundly, opposed by environmentalists and maverick Dallas boosters who claimed as part of their anti-canal campaign that the airport—THE airport—was the hope and symbol of Dallas’ future: no belching heavy industries to feed those international barges, no stinking, gurgling ship channel for Dallas; No, indeed!
Instead (the hand of the PR man rests on the voter’s shoulder as the other arm gestures down the bright vista of the future) we’ll have sleek airplanes with cool stewardesses and soft-handed executives, with sky freighters coming into a big cargo area tucked away around the corner from the comings and goings of national and international business and insurance men, Dallas’ kind of men, non-polluting, bio-degradable executives shuffling papers and pumping up the local GNP. We don’t have to be like Houston to be better—right?
So, while environmentalists in London, Toronto, Miami, and Tokyo have bitterly opposed new super airports, in Dallas they raised hardly a peep. It was so much less objectionable than the canal that they could support it and in the bargain seem to endorse the growth of Dallas. Also, they had the romance of technology on their side. Imagine taking dignitaries on a barge, when they can fly on the Concorde. Consequently, the airport has yet to receive any sort of comprehensive outside environmental evaluation, which apparently suits its backers just fine.
THE MASTER OF CEREMONIES AT the airport opening is Julian Read of the public relations firm of Read-Poland. Julian is a former reporter for The Fort Worth Press and has worked with Governor Connally in his campaigns (which helps a lot, perhaps even helped get the airport’s $60,000 publicity account). Julian has lived this airport for a long time, and is prone in unguarded moments to lapse into a visionary, Saint-John-the-Baptist trance, when he sort of glows. Whenever he is around Tom Sullivan, the airport executive director, and Erik Jonsson, the board chairman, there is a shared, glowing energy, a beatific assurance that they are on the wave of the future and that scoffers and other persecutors will get their comeuppance when they’re stacked up at JFK or routed out of O’Hare into Duluth.
The airport opening is the public relations job of a lifetime: the largest collection of journalists for a single event in Texas history (except perhaps for the Riggs-King tennis match, which is going on simultaneously at the Astrodome—trust Houston to come up with something). It is very clear that Julian is not going to let anything spoil this opening—not unmerciful hassles, not small setbacks, not transitory embarrassments, not major foul-ups. Julian is positive. He’s the first person we see in the mornings and he’s still there late at night, running at the same high speed when we creep away, exhausted. Julian has the summer camp director’s personal touch with everyone: no matter how great or insignificant their status, Julian answers their questions and solves their problems.
After the arrival of the Concorde, Julian introduces Tom Sullivan to the assembled press. Sullivan is known as Mr. Airport. The builder of Newark, LaGuardia, and JFK, he was brought to Dallas in 1968 when progress was stalled and things were turning sour. Sullivan threw out the existing plans—about a million dollars’ worth—and started over. Twice it appeared the airport would not be built and that Sullivan would have to dismiss his staff. Twice Sullivan, along with some banking help, kept it going.
“This airport will make Dallas-Fort Worth the next Chicago,” Sullivan says, that glow coming into his face. “I hope I’ll live long enough to see it. Why, we’ll have rocket airplanes that’ll take off, go to 100,000 feet, fire a booster rocket and be in Japan in two hours or so. Of course, there isn’t anyplace for them to land there now, so they’d have to come back here to set down. But we can do it.
ON THE RUNWAY BENEATH US a stage coach with six horses and two waving girls in gingham appears, circles the Concorde, and departs as mysteriously as it appeared.
“What we’ve done here,” Sullivan continues, uninterrupted, “is to return to what airports were originally supposed to be. You drove up in your car, got out, and walked into the plane. Each gate here has its own parking lot. The distance from the door of the terminal to the plane will only be about 120 feet, or about half the distance from the door of a 747 to the rear. At other airports with gates stretching out on long fingers from one central terminal, you sometimes have to walk up to a mile. Then, when you get off the plane, we’ve got computerized baggage handling that’ll get you your bag in three minutes.”
ONLY A HANDFUL OF THE 300 reporters ask Sullivan any tough questions at all. What about the delay in opening the airport? What about the $60,000 budget for public relations? Is the airport big enough, since Montreal is allowing five times as much space? Sullivan hedges around about the delay, saying something about the Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday crunch being a bad time to make the change from Love Field; starts to answer the question about PR cost but only mentions how many invitations to the opening were sent out (that cost $60,000?); then wanders on to say that Montreal set aside that extra land for industrial development (not exactly true: Montreal claims the land is for noise abatement and to prevent land speculation). Sullivan gets a round of applause and a portrait of himself presented by Julian Read.
AFTER THE PRESS CONFERENCE I take my first ride on AIRTRANS, the ground transportation system. Julian Read is in the same car, chatting amiably with some Fort Worth Star Telegram reporters as we’re being swept along the narrow lanes that parallel the main airport spinal road. A TV reporter suddenly shoves a microphone in Julian’s face and motions for him to talk. Julian doesn’t even miss a beat, but alters his voice and manner to become AIRPORT GUIDE. The cameras roll.
“We’re traveling now in AIRTRANS, the most advanced people mover in the world. It runs on 13 miles of track and connects every terminal in the airport within ten minutes. It’s all electronically controlled. We needed this system because of the design of the airport. If you have to change flights, for example, AIRTRANS takes you to the next terminal. It also has special trash compartments to carry the airport’s trash out for disposal.
“To our right you can see the first stage of a complete landscape plan involving 10,000 trees and one-and-one-half million shrubs and plants. It’s the largest landscape project in the world. When it’s complete this bald prairie will look like a park. Of course, it won’t look entirely like a park (smile) because there’s over 3 million surface yards of concrete here, which, as you can see, is a tan color that blends in with the countryside. We developed a special environmental cement just for the airport, so that it wouldn’t look all hard and white but would be soft and inviting.”
And Julian goes on and on, the airport spiel pouring out of him. It is a very impressive performance. The TV man removes his microphone and Julian lapses immediately back into casual chatting. When we arrive at the next terminal, he’s off again, walking fast, collecting lost reporters, answering questions.
Despite Julian’s good work, the important issues about the airport never get raised. Under the environmental provision of the Airport and Airways Development Act of 1970, for a new airport to obtain federal funds it must “provide for the protection and enhancement of the natural resources and the quality of the environment of the nation.” Plans for new airports or even extensions of existing runways must fit both this general test and must also be compatible with urban planning. New airports are neeqed most desperately in the rapidly expanding urban corridors. Unfortunately, that is precisely where airports would not coincide with rational urban planning or protect and enhance the environment. When asked where Boston could build a new airport and be in compliance, a Massachusetts transportation executive unhesitatingly replied “Wyoming.”
The booming business in air traffic is therefore largely consigned to existing facilities, which will be sorely strained to handle the projected doubling of passengers from 183 million this fiscal year to 372 million in 1980. These existing airports, moreover, are coming under increasing criticism and attack. Los Angeles International has already been successfully sued for $650,000 by 250 home owners who saw their property decline in value because of aircraft noise. L.A. International could potentially be forced to pay $10 billion in such suits. Consequently, the L.A. city attorney has urged that the airport be shut down. By buying up surrounding land, to the tune of $300 million so far, L.A. International has tried, unsuccessfully, to create a noise buffer zone. Chicago’s O’Hare can’t afford even to do that, since land around it goes for $7 a square foot. Washington National has established a curfew: no planes in or out between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. As Sullivan says, “We were lucky; we started before the ecology movement.”
DFW appears on paper to have the noise problem solved. Its planners built it to accommodate the loudest existing planes. That’s why it covers 18,000 acres, big enough to take in a working 2500-acre farm and two historic cemeteries. It can also accept larger planes to avoid an increase in frequencies of flights. The runways at DFW are extra-thick and can be thickened to handle a two-million-pound plane (a 747 weighs 800,000 pounds). The short-run, smaller planes make the most noise, however, and much of DFW’s traffic will be short run. There will be nothing, however, like the truly terrifying sound of a 707 coming over houses in Oak Lawn on its final approach to Love Field.
The major thorn in the side of the new airport is not noise; it’s an audacious crew called Southwest Airlines, a strictly Texas operation which did not sign the agreement to move to DFW and which plans to keep its high-density, high-frequency Houston and San Antonio commuter flights right at convenient little old Love Field. Through the logic of competition, if Southwest succeeds in staying at Love, then Braniff and Texas International must bring their commuter flights back there as well. Southwest has won one court test already, and is prepared to fight on if necessary.
If the bulk of the Texas commuter flights stay at Love, then DFW will be in trouble. Such a development could be the first step in transforming the triumphant eighth wonder of the world into a neglected albatross, much like Washington’s beautiful, remote Dulles Airport, which cannot compete with convenient Washington National. “People are going to look for the one flight into the in-town airport,” a close observer of the national airport scene told me. “And if they find it at Love Field, then DFW won’t get the traffic. It’s quite possible that the new airport will not become the center of the universe, after all.”
The social event of the airport opening was the gala ball on Friday night, prior to the official opening ceremonies scheduled Saturday morning. Most of the guests at the afternoon’s diplomatic reception along with 8000 Dallas socialites converged on the Continental-Delta terminal, which had been decorated in lush greenery with little touches suggesting the various countries to be served by the airport. Three separate buffets—Indian, Italian, and French—were prepared, along with 15 different stations for hors d’oeuvres typical of the particular country or region.
Tickets cost $50 a person. They were in the form of a passport, which included a place for the bearer’s photograph (optional) and a map showing which particular country’s hors d’oeuvres or buffet could be found in which particular departure area, baggage claim area, or lounge. Three hundred car parkers were hired to provide individual valet parking to each guest. The combined Junior Leagues of Dallas and Fort Worth had organized the gala, and it promised to be a distinguished affair.
WE ENTER THE AIRPORT PROPER at 8:25, sitting carefully rigid in our car to avoid bending, stretching, crumpling, or wilting our formal clothes. By 9 p.m. we have traveled less than a mile, as far as the underpass leading into the terminal. Mercedes-Benzes to the right of us; Eldorados to the left of us; Continentals behind us; and a huge charter bus belching black exhaust fumes in front of us. The sea of cars creeps forward, barely moving. Cars and people begin to overheat. Scores of Halstons, St. Laurents, and Balenciagas begin to wilt. Large Cadillacs flying diplomatic flags begin to pull over, steam pouring from their radiators. Diplomats join women walking to the terminal while chauffeurs and husbands remain in the cars. I can feel male teeth gritting around me. The scene is like Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.
Our only hope, our only choice, is to reach the terminal building, glittering like a mirage just out of our grasp. We begin to be overcome by carbon monoxide and heat. The bus is no longer in front of us, but beside us; it is filled, perversely, with about 40 close-cropped celebrants who all look like they had gotten lost on the way to homecoming at Bob Jones University. For minutes at a time not a car would move from in front of the terminal. Once the car parkers had parked a car, they had to return to the terminal on foot, since the traffic jam was too thick to return them by car. As more cars were parked, more distant lots had to be used, and the distance the parkers had to cover on foot increased. We could see them jogging back. They looked exhausted. I remember thinking I wished I were John Connally and could have come by helicopter or however he arrived.
At 9:20 we were coming up over the overpass leading into the terminal. There was a line of buses in front of us. Each bus ran over the curb making the turn up the overpass. Apparently the computers had been too busy filling the skies with planes and working out runways to remember to allow buses enough room to get in the place. At 9:35, one hour and ten minutes after entering the airport that is pioneering the no-wait, easy-access parking system with individual gates, we arrived-hot, nauseated, exhausted. It was not a good beginning.
Shelly Katz, who was photographing the opening for Newsweek and 16 European newspapers, was standing by the terminal door, dressed in a tuxedo with six cameras slung around his neck.
“Connally is out there in all that mess,” Shelly said, with the conspiratorial glee and excitement of someone saying General Eisenhower had locked himself by mistake in the ship’s head the morning of D-Day. “He’s out there, and there’s no telling when he’ll get here.”
The ubiquitous Julian Read was pacing up and down behind Shelly, muttering, “I should have brought him in the back way…I should have brought him in by helicopter….”
Suddenly the gaggle of reporters and cameramen waiting at the terminal raced past Dallas Times Herald executive editor Tom Johnson, who was walking up the sidewalk. Could it be? Yes. JOHN CONNALLY. “Found him wandering around down at the other end of the terminal,” Tom says. “He’d been let off at the wrong place.”
The press surrounds the Connallys, and begin throwing questions at him. It’s all so easy for Connally; he doesn’t even have to take his warm-up suit off. They ask him about his ambitions: “Well, I want to be a better lawyer than I have time to be; I want to travel more than I have; I want to become better read; I want to learn to play the piano….” And all the reporters trying to get a hard fix on the vice-presidency or anything—Jesus, this is John Connally I’m interviewing here!—the reporters find themselves writing down “wants to play the piano.” Connally is so smooth and magnetic they think they should be trying to impress him. With an exaggerated “Not on your life!” Nellie Connally comes in right on cue and drags him away when he’s asked if he wants to be president. A female TV reporter turns to Julian Read who is (of course) standing by and asks, “Was I O.K.? How did I do?” I allow myself a few brief, if fearful, thoughts on the future of the press and follow Connally inside.
As soon as Connally enters the terminal, there is a moment, frozen in my mind as in amber, when no one moves, everyone simply stares. Then it happens. People are everywhere. The British Ambassador is trampled by the Junior League co-chairwoman who in turn is shoved out of the way by a TV cameraman just as she’s about to meet Connally. The scene around Connally becomes a milling mob of microphones, cameras, designer originals, and tuxedoes. The last time I had seen anything like it was with Robert Kennedy in 1968, only then the crowd were farm-workers.
And on the edge of the crowd is George Bush, holding back just a little, like he’s eating his heart out the way he always must when he’s around Connally and Bentsen and the whole LBJ crowd who’ve beaten back his political ambitions so many times. Even when he was ambassador to the United Nations he never seemed quite to have made it, never quite to have entered that exclusive club of easy, relaxed, assured power—Texas Democratic power. Connally and Bentsen have it—that security of kids who’ve been class officers all their lives and know they’ll be again next year. Connally doesn’t even need Bush now that he’s a Republican: he clearly has his own power base. So there’s a formal kind of greeting between the two men, and private citizen John Connally is swept away in the crowd. Bush, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, former U.S. Congressman and ambassador to the U.N., twice a candidate for U.S. Senate and perhaps one day for governor of Texas, wanders off alone to get a drink.
The whole mob around Connally moves off propelled by some invisible hand, down the long corridor filled with people and stretching as far as we can see, bouncing between Peter Nero on one end and, a half mile away, Doc Severinson on the other. Connally and his entourage go right up the middle, careening off walls and groups of people like Vince Lombardi in heaven.
At midnight I walk out to get my car. Gathered around an earnest, extremely polite young man are about 20 men in tuxedoes, looking like penguins around a zookeeper at feeding time—clucking, pleading, cajoling, intimidating, doing anything to try to get their cars. There are no cars in front and none being driven up. People are bringing chairs from inside and beginning to sit along the curb. The young man takes each car claim ticket and radios the number down to some unseen, and (everyone suspects) non-existent, dispatcher.
One man with a rip in his evening clothes and a wild look in his eyes bursts through double doors and heads straight to the bar with the air of a scout who’d just brought a wagon train through Indian territory.
“Found my car,” he mutters. Men around the bar look at him with undisguised respect and envy. “Now all I have to do,” he says, downing another drink, “is to find my wife.”
ALONG THE CURBS OUTSIDE THE terminal the cream of Dallas and the most dignified of diplomats begin to perch dejectedly, wilted designer original next to wilted designer original. Far away, in the dim lights of distant parking lots, shadowy figures are moving back and forth, stopping to check license plates against ticket number, trying to find a car to bring up. A drunk, redfaced man, obviously accustomed to power, begins to harangue the young man, who continues to collect tickets and radio numbers unperturbed. “Can you get my car or can’t you? I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you $10. $20. I’ll give you $50 to go get my car. Whaddya say? There’s gonna be real trouble if I don’t get my car.” With truly benign patience, the young man shrugs his shoulders, smiles, takes another ticket, and says, “We’re doing the best we can. It’ll just take a while.”
And take awhile it did. Some guests waited four hours. One consul waited from midnight till 3 a.m. The diplomats had been dumped unceremoniously into the gala without escorts, in contrast to the reception earlier in the day. Occasionally I got a glimpse of what I took to be the Nauru delegation, once while Willie Nelson was singing “Jambalaya, Crawfish Pie-ah” and once at the curb waiting for their car. The curb finally became the most popular gathering place of the gala, surpassing in consistent attendance the elaborate buffets, John Connally, and even Doc Severinson.
Taking things into my own hands, I go in search of my own car. After a surrealistic trip of half an hour around, under, and over the unfinished skeleton of a huge airport, I locate it parked behind a port-a-can underneath the terminal on a temporary construction road. It is by itself. I find it purely by luck. Heading for home, we do not pass a single other car.
The whole debacle was an embarrassment: to the Junior Leaguers who had worked together so well to plan it; to the airport boosters who saw diplomats and powerful Dallas backers go away angry; to Julian Read who saw it provoke a painfully bad press. Apparently civic cooperation, good will, technology, fine facilities, and the best interests of Dallas-Fort Worth don’t always go together without a hitch. Perhaps the airport itself will be in for some of the same.
For the opening ceremonies the next day, the planners made sure VIPs and diplomats didn’t get caught in the monumental traffic jam expected when 100,000 enthusiastic North Texans crowded into the airport. They flew them out from Love Field in a 747. We drove, and passed three cars on the way. By conservative count, taking away the people who had to be there, less than 5000 people attended the opening ceremonies, although the crowd did pick up for the air show in the afternoon.
At the ceremony 2600 band members from 25 high schools played one number. Dignitaries gave welcoming speeches. There was a moment of silent prayer, then balloons were released to float out over the terminals. The President of Nauru, in the first chair that diplomatic precedence gave him, slept through the ceremony.
And so, three months before it would actually open, the new Dallas-Fort Worth airport officially opened, delay or no delay, Southwest Airlines or no Southwest Airlines. On the way home we had dinner at a friend’s. I met a young man who is in the process of building “the world’s greatest roller rink” in Dallas, complete with a special floor that eliminates the noise of the skates, piped-in music, and just about everything you can imagine. I gave him Julian Read’s phone number. Dallas-Fort Worth is on its way.