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Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Sometimes when I hear the whine of jet engines, I think of the beach.
I don’t expect that to make sense to you — unless, like me, your childhood was defined by an infatuation with jetliners and summers spent at a beach that sat directly below an approach course to a major airport.
That would be Revere Beach, in my case, just north of Boston, in the mid- to late 1970s.
Then as now, the city of Revere was a gritty, in many ways charmless place: rows of triple-deckers and block after block of ugly, two-story colonials garnished in gaudy wrought-iron. (Revere is a city so architecturally hopeless that it can never become gentrified or trendy in the way that other Boston suburbs have.) Irish and Italian families spoke in a tough, North Shore accent that had long ago forsaken the letter “R.” Shit-talking kids drove Camaros and Trans-Ams, the old-country cornuto horns glinting over their chest hair.
(For more on the Revere Experience, check out the work of Roland Merullo, the city’s second-most talented and famous author.)
Revere’s beach was the first public beach in the United States. Like the rest of the city, it wasn’t the kind of place that lent itself to niceties or sentimental descriptions. The roller coasters had long ago burned down and the boulevard was dotted by biker hangouts and the sort of honky-tonk bars and restaurants that, as a kid, you never dared set foot in, no matter how bad you needed to use the bathroom. Seagulls swooped and gorged on the garbage toppling out of overloaded barrels and dumpsters.
But it had the sand, and water that was clean enough to swim in — with those long, flat, shimmering low tides that seemed to recede all the way past Nahant and into the horizon. We spent our summers here, nearly all of the weekends and many of the weekdays too. My parents would have the car packed by 10 a.m. I remember the folding chairs, the towels and the endless supply of Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion, its oily coconut aroma mixed with the hot stink of sun-baked Oldsmobile leather.
I swam, dug around for crabs and endured the requisite mud-ball fights with my friends. But for me, the real thrill was the airplanes. Revere Beach’s mile-long swath lines up almost perfectly with Logan International Airport’s Runway 22L, the arrivals floating past at regular intervals, so low you’d think you could hit them with one of the discarded Michelob bottles poking from the sand. I’d bring a notebook and log each plane as it screamed overhead.
They’d appear first as black smudges. You’d see the smoke — the snaking black tails of a 707 or DC-8 as it made its final turn up over Salem or Marblehead. Then came the noise. Little kids — and grown-ups too — would cover their ears. People today don’t realize how earsplittingly loud the older-generation jets could be. And they were low, barely 1,500 feet above the sand, getting lower and lower and lower until finally disappearing over the hill at Beachmont, maybe 20 seconds from touchdown.
I remember all of them: TWA 707s and L-1011s in the old, twin-globe livery. United DC-8s and DC-10s in the ’70s-era bow-tie colors. Flying Tiger DC-8s and 747s. Allegheny’s DC-9s and BAC One-Elevens. Eastern’s 727 “Whisperjets” that did anything but whisper. And so on. I remember Braniff, Piedmont, Capitol and Seaboard World; TAP, North Central, Zantop and Trans International.
The term “regional jet” wouldn’t exist for at least another decade. Instead we had “commuter planes.” There was PBA and its Cessna 402s; Air New England’s Twin Otters and FH-227s and Bar Harbor’s Beech-99s. Pilgrim, Empire, Ransome and Downeast.
Fast-forward 30 years:
The arrivals pattern to 22L hasn’t changed. It still passes directly over Revere Beach. After I finally became an airline pilot, one of my biggest thrills was being at the controls on a 22L arrival into BOS, looking down at the same beach from which I spent a childhood looking up.
But other things are different.
The demographics of Revere and its beach have changed, for one. The Revere of my youth was a city in which pretty much every last family was Italian, Irish or both. At the beach it was no different. Today, both the neighborhoods and the sand are a virtual United Nations of the North Shore. Those harsh, R-less accents are only a portion of the mix, joined by voices in Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese and Khmer. The muscle shirts, Italian horns and shamrocks are still there, but those sunburned Irish complexions are contrasted against those from Somalia, Ghana, Haiti and Morocco. Not long ago the idea of a black person at Revere Beach was unheard of. In fact, I remember a day — it must have been ’77 or ’78 — when word spread across the sand that a black family had staked out a blanket down near the MDC bathhouse. This was such a novelty at the time that my friends and I took the quarter-mile stroll just to look at them.
And overhead, those plumes of oily smoke are gone. The jets nowadays are cleaner, much quieter. And, thanks to the generification of the modern jetliner, they’re also a lot less exciting. At age 12 I could tell a DC-10 from an L-1011 when it was 10 miles out. Every plane had its own distinct profile. Today’s jets are often indistinguishable, even at short range. And somehow the endless procession of A320s, 737s and regional jets just doesn’t get the pulse going, or the sunbathers pointing, the way a 707 or a DC-8 would — its motors shrieking, smoke spewing behind in a hellish black rooster tail.
Revere itself has both gained and lost character over the years. The skies above, though, have mostly just lost it.
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Related story: Logan Redux. The Deeper Meaning of Airports (and Pranks)
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Patrick Smith's Ask the Pilot, a long-running feature on Salon, is the Web's most trenchant and insightful source for all things air travel, from safety and technology to airline culture and airport security. Send questions to email@example.com and look for answers in a future column.
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