Gander Airport: When the Going Was Good

By Adam Gollner – NY Times March 20, 2005

Visitors to the island of Newfoundland, the easternmost part of Canada, are traditionally welcomed with a Screech In. This ancient ceremony, by which one attains honorary citizenship, involves kissing a cod on the lips -- or, absent that, a puffin's posterior -- and downing a shot of Screech Rum, Atlantic Canada's "golden elixir." Foreign dignitaries and heads of state are not excluded. His Royal Highness Prince Philip was treated to a variation of the ritual when he was the guest of honor alongside the queen at the inauguration of a new terminal at Gander International Airport in 1959.

At that time, Gander was the most important airport in the world. On the route between New York and London, trans-Atlantic flights had to land there to refuel, so everyone flying between North America and Europe stopped off at the Crossroads of the World, as it became known. Opened in 1938, it had the biggest landing field ever constructed. Business boomed following the onset of mass commercial flight after World War II, and major renovations were undertaken in the late 50's to accommodate the stream of passengers. Seeking to project a modern, stylish image of Canada, the government commissioned a futuristic terminal filled with avant-garde art and furniture. The Beacon, a newspaper in Gander, declared that the refurbished airport was "bound to convince every first time arrival from overseas that this, then, is paradise."

But paradise soon became frozen in time. With the advent of jet fuel, stopovers became unnecessary; in the 1960's, traffic slowed to a trickle. (These days, traveling to Gander, population 9,650, is itself like going back in time; Air Canada only flies there on tiny twin-turboprop planes.) Perfectly preserved, the terminal is a time capsule from the heady days when travel was exotic and airports were beacons of the future. "It's still one of the most beautiful, most important Modernist rooms in the country, if not the most important," says Alan C. Elder, the curator of the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

A 72-foot mural by Kenneth Lockhead, its paint tempered with more than 500 dozen eggs, looms over it. The terrazzo floor is a Mondrianesque caprice that children once used for hopscotch. "There's a playfulness to the room," says Elder, "but it's also so sophisticated." The mid-century furniture, mainly Canadian originals, is impeccably arranged on the geometric flooring: the Prismasteel seating was designed by Robin Bush for Herman Miller; the sleek black leather chairs and couches on the mezzanine look like they were designed for space travel. Not everything has survived, however. Charles and Ray Eames's Aluminum Group chairs, covered with an Alexander Girard fabric, are gone, but their fiberglass chairs can still be found, notable opposite a long mirror in the pink, maroon and gray powder room.

"A lot of very important people have sat in those chairs," muses Gary R. Vey, the airport's president and chief executive. Vey's office is filled with the orange leather Jacques Guillon seats that once occupied the Distinguished Visitors Suite. Ron Jones, the former head of catering, remembers those chairs well: "I was getting everyone wets" - drinks - "and the empress of Iran stopped in with the embassy entourage. When she went to sit down, the straps on the bottom of the chair gave way and her tail feathers hit the deck. Boom!"

The V.I.P. room guest list reads like a who's who of 20th-century arts, ideas and politics. The Beatles first set foot on North American soil at Gander. Frank Sinatra tried to butt in line at the bar and was asked to wait his turn. Jackie O., Churchill, Khrushchev, Marlene Dietrich, the king of Sweden, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Ingrid Bergman - the list of signatories fills encyclopedia-size ledgers. Gander resembled a real-life version of those Edward Hopper "Nighthawks" knockoffs with Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley all at one desolate - but spectacularly lighted - terminal.

The anecdotes are like a mainline into the Twilight Zone. "My memory is very vivid of the night I chatted with Albert Einstein," Mary Smeaton MacDonald, a former gift shop employee, says in a pamphlet for Gander's 1997 Airlines Reunion. What did they talk about? "Oh, the theory of relativity." Marilyn Stuckless, who was the airport's commercial developer, says: "When I was a teeny-bopper, we were out tobogganing when Castro and his bodyguards came to join us. It was the first time they'd seen snow, and they were playing like children."

On Sundays, the entire town congregated at the terminal to eat Brookfield ice cream and watch the jet set swoop into town. Because security was a nonissue, the locals were able to mingle with travelers in the terminal. "It was like a big club," Stuckless says. "You'd go up to someone and start speaking to them. I sat down next to Muhammad Ali when he was here, because that's what Newfoundlanders do. This is a little island in the Atlantic, and it's very relaxed compared to what most people are accustomed to. You could almost call us a bunch of innocents."

Indeed, that laid-back, charming demeanor is what put the Rock (as Newfoundland is known) on the map again. On 9/11, dozens of planes had to land at Gander, and locals took thousands of stranded travelers into their homes. This hospitality was reciprocated with an outpouring of gratitude culminating last December with President Bush's first and only official trip to Canada, where he offered thanks to the maritime provinces.

Today, the gigantic runway handles predominantly cargo and military planes. It also serves as an alternate landing base for space shuttles and an emergency drop-off point for air-rage passengers. It's not unusual to see soldiers in fatigues, returning from Iraq, reclining on the modular furniture. Private jets stop regularly to refuel: John Travolta, Mariah Carey and Bill and Hillary Clinton are among recent visitors to the V.I.P. suite. (Gander's main source of income was once Soviet-bloc aircraft, but mass defections, wherein passengers would flee into the surrounding woods, led to a crackdown by immigration authorities.)

Gander still exerts a magnetic attraction. A glass corridor has been built to accommodate those who come to view the international terminal. Though surrounded by turnip farms, moose and the occasional polar bear, this small town was, for a brief spell, the most cosmopolitan destination in the world. But one that embraced newcomers, at a time when the idea of the world's getting smaller filled us with hope, not fear.

Reprinted from the NY Times archives http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/20/travel/

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