The Legend of Wooley Swamp

What ever happened to nuance? Jabberwocky is being spewed up by the left and right as they try to drag us into their Wonderlands. This blog charts a path out of this swamp of simple truths and false certainties. And from time to time, it'll be a place for more light-hearted musings.

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Location: Palms - L.A, California

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

My Adventures at the Mother of All Airports

It’s not everyday you actually walk all the way to the airport. And it certainly isn’t everyday that you walk to an airport with the kind of history of Flughafen Tempelhof. Every since ‘discovering’ that Berlin had a third airport aside from the old West Berlin one (Tegel in the heart of the former French sector) and East Berlin (Schönefeld just outside of Berlin proper), I have wanted to depart the city from there. And when I moved to an apartment nearby, the option of walking entered the picture, and made it all the more enticing.

When I say discovered, I really need to qualify that. I mean, it doesn’t take much to locate what during the 1920s and 1930s was the biggest airport in world, especially when it’s in the middle of a large city. Add to that, a healthy dose of creepy and heroic history and ‘discovering’ Tempelhof seems equivalent to stumbling upon the Eifel Tower.

Still, the day I first walked into the airport terminal – during a Sunday walkabout – I was flabbergasted and when I told people about the experience, most confessed they had never been there. As you approach the main building, you are overcome by its sheer size and you notice similar looking buildings branching off in a semi-circular pattern.

The Main Terminal, (c) FCIT

The Tempelhof terminal’s bombastic appearance (the link is too a prematurely negative BBC story) is directly connected to it ominous presence, it was one of the first structures that Hitler’s architect Speer commissioned as part of Germania, the future capital of the Third Reich. Construction began just around the time of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and was completed in 1941. The world was going to land there, and in so doing feel awestruck. (There are two or three other Germania sites that remain in Berlin, including the rebuilt Olympic Stadium where the World Cup final will be staged next summer.)

Even if you are unaware of this part of the airport’s history, its architecture is unique enough to make you gasp. This is what led architect Sir Norman Foster to once call it ''the mother of all airports." During the Third Reich, the roof of the main building was used as a viewing platform, which had been built to hold a capacity of 100,000. People gathered there to watch displays of militarism and fantasies of Nazi superiority.

But it is the post-War tale of this airport, and living nearby, which makes it so compelling. Situated in the heart of the American sector, it quickly became the hub of Allied transport. And in 1948, it became the site of unbridled heroism. The Cold War was brewing, and as the Soviet Union had decided to blockade West Berlin, the air route was the only way of bringing supplies into the city. For nearly a year, flights took off day and night, during what became known as the Berliner Luftbruecke (the Berlin “Air Bridge” or Airlift.)

In a little park near the terminal, there is a large memorial in the shape of a bridge into the sky above. Inscribed at its base, the names of servicemen and women who lost their lives in what was a highly risky enterprise.

The Kids are Alright!

For Berliners, the coal and food supplies were essential. But the folklore is all about the “Rosinenbomber or Candy Bomber.” An American pilot named
Gail Halvorsen mounted what he dubbed Operation Little Vittles, and soon other airmen followed suit. Basically, he dropped candy and other vittles from his plane. These were attached to little parachutes sailed down to kids below. It was the mother of all modern-day “hearts and minds”, and a successful one at that.

Anyway, there I was in the wee hours of the morning, departure scheduled for 7 a.m. The Ice Bowl Freeze was still in full effect and the walk had been necessarily brisk. What can I say? I was as excited as the Candy Bomber kids, and checked-in, in the process signing a petition to save the airport. You see, despite the prime location, there are major efforts to have the place shut down (air pollution being the main gripe, never bothered me though.)


On the way to the gate, I walk by an “Airlines of the World” poster. It’s somewhat off kilter, it’s from 1987! And it is there more as a matter of fact, not as some historical souvenir. Someone forgot to remove it. Or perhaps they like being reminded of classic airlines like Pan-Am, TWA, Czechoslovak Airlines, JAT Yugoslavia, Flying Tiger Airlines, Air Somalia…

The gate set-up at Tempelhof is new to me. Basically, you just walk out a glass door and down a short flight of steps to the waiting plane. Since this part of airport is covered by canopy, in a hangar fashion, the noise is slightly deafening. I looked at my fellow passengers, most of who were about as excited as you can expect folks heading to Brussels to be. No familiar politicians off to kowtow to the Eurocrats either. But there were two real kids traveling with their mother and you could tell they appreciated this glorious moment at the crack of dawn.

All that remained was take-off. I often bike (and by mistake, once ran) around the perimeter of the airport, so I had seen landings and departures a million times. It is indeed an odd sight seeing a plane coming out of nowhere, popping down in what is, in effect, a residential area. This time I had a front row seat, the window seat.

Maybe it’s my imagination, but it sure seemed like it was all thrusters go as the pilot tore down the runway. Perhaps this is necessary considering the location, gaining elevation quickly being quite crucial. With my face glued to the plastic pane, I stared and stared.

It was awesome: identifying your own apartment building right after take-off, gazing into its courtyard, seeing as your neighborhood gradually assumes its shape as you climb, spotting the streets, avenues and waterways, while watching it all shrink and take its proper place in the metropolis you call home. For the tech savvy, it is basically the reverse of the Google Earth experience: i.e. coming in from outer space, down, down, and down to your hood, street and then house.

So off I went from Berlin to Brussels, always a mad trip in its own right. From the capital of a country to the capital of something. But thankfully Brussels is also the capital of Belgium and I’ll close by remarking that the Duty Free Shops at Brussels International take the cake. Sure, they carry the usual suspects, the sign says “LIQUORS, TOBACCO, PERFUMES, JEWELRY, but when you add “CHOCOLATES” and most importantly “BELGIAN BEERS”, you know things are going to be all right.

jo, whose final destination was NOT Brussels.


Anonymous Lars Vännman said...

So what was your final destination?
Not Oman where we are, I presume.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Give 'em enough rope said...

Yeah, c'mon, we're all waiting!

Is it this side of the Atlantic? Could be...

12:38 PM  

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