IN A SMALL private lounge which was sometimes used for VIPs, the young girl in the uniform of a Trans America ticket agent was sobbing hysterically.
Tanya Livingston steered her to a chair. "Make yourself comfortable," Tanya said practically, "and take your time. You'll feel better afterward, and when you're ready we can talk."
Tanya sat down herself, smoothing her trim, tight uniform skirt. There was no one else in the room, and the only sound---apart from the crying---was the faint hum of air-conditioning.
There was fifteen years or so difference in age between the two women. The girl was not much more than twenty, Tanya in her late thirties. Watching, Tanya felt the gap to be greater than it was. It came, she supposed, from having been exposed to marriage, even though briefly and a long time ago---or so it seemed.
She thought: it was the second time she had been conscious of her age today. The first was while combing her hair this morning; she had seen telltale strands of gray among the short-cropped, flamboyant red. There was more of the gray than last time she had checked a month or so ago, and both occasions were reminders that her forties---by which time a woman ought to know where she was going and why---were closer than she liked to think about. She had another thought: in fifteen years from now, her own daughter would be the same age as the girl who was crying.
The girl, whose name was Patsy Smith, wiped reddened eyes with a large linen handkerchief which Tanya had given her. She spoke with difficulty, choking back more tears. "They wouldn't talk that way... so mean, rudely... at home... not to their wives."
"You mean passengers wouldn't?"
The girl nodded.
"Some would," Tanya said. "When you're married, Patsy, you may find out, though I hope not. But if you're telling me that men behave like adolescent boors when their travel plans get crossed up, I'll agree with you."
"I was doing my best... We all were... All day today; and yesterday... the day before... But the way people talk to you..."
"You mean they act as if you started the storm yourself. Especially to inconvenience them."
"Yes... And then that last man... Until him, I was all right..."
"What happened exactly? They called me when it was all over."
The girt was beginning to regain control of herself.
"Well... he had a ticket on Flight 72, and that was canceled because of weather. We got him a seat on 114, and he missed it. He said he was in the dining room and didn't hear the flight called."
"Flight announcements aren't made in the dining room," Tanya said. "There's a big notice saying so, and it's on all the menus."
"I explained that, Mrs. Livingston, when he came back from the departure gate. But he was still nasty. He was going on as if it were my fault he'd missed the flight, not his. He said we were all inefficient and half asleep."
"Did you call your supervisor?"
"I tried to, but he was busy. We all were."
"So what did you do?"
"I got the passenger a seat---on the extra section, 2122."
"He wanted to know what movie was showing on the flight. I found that out, and he said he'd seen it. He got nasty again. The movie he'd wanted to see was on the first flight which was canceled. He said, could I get him another flight which was showing the same movie as the first one? All the time, there were other passengers; they were pressing up against the counter. Some were making remarks out loud about how slow I was. Well, when he said that about the movie, that was when I..." The girl hesitated. "I guess something snapped."
Tanya prompted, "That was when you threw the timetable?"
Patsy Smith nodded miserably. She looked as if she were going to cry again. "Yes. I don't know what got into me, Mrs. Livingston... I threw it right over the counter. I told him he could fix his own flight."
"All I can say," Tanya said, "is that I hope you hit him."
The girl looked up. In place of tears, there was the beginning of a smile. "Oh, yes; I did." She thought, then giggled. "You should have seen his face. He was so surprised." Her expression became serious. "Then, after that..."
"I know what happened after that. You broke down, which was a perfectly natural thing to do. You were sent in here to finish your cry, and now you have, you're going home in a taxi."
The girl looked bemused. "You mean... that's all?"
"Certainly it's all. Did you expect us to fire you?"
"I... I wasn't sure."
"We might have to," Tanya said, "much as we'd dislike it, Patsy, if you did the same thing again. But you won't, will you? Not ever."
The girl shook her head firmly. "No, I won't. I can't explain, but having done it just once is enough."
"That's the end of it, then. Except that you might like to hear what happened after you left."
"A man came forward. He was one of those in the line-up, and he said he heard, and saw, the whole thing. He also said he had a daughter the same age as you, and if the first man had talked to his daughter the same way he talked to you, he would personally have punched him in the nose. Then the second man---the one from the line-up---left his name and address, and said if the man you had been talking to ever made any kind of complaint, to let him know and he would report what really happened." Tanya smiled. "So, you see---there are nice people, too."
"I know," the girl said. "There aren't many, but when you do get one like that, who's nice to you, and cheerful, you feel you want to hug him."
"Unfortunately we can't do that, any more than we should throw timetables. Our job is to treat everyone alike, and be courteous, even when passengers are not."
"Yes, Mrs. Livingston."
Patsy Smith would be all right, Tanya decided. Apparently, she hadn't thought of quitting, as some airls did who suffered similar experiences. In fact, now that she was over her emotion, Patsy seemed to have the kind of resilience which would be helpful to her in future.
God knows, Tanya thought, you needed resilience---and some toughness---in dealing with the traveling public, whatever job you held.
Downtown in reservation departments, she was aware, personal pressures would be even greater than at the airport. Since the storm began, reservation clerks would have made thousands of calls advising passengers of delays and rearrangements. It was a job the clerks all hated because people whom they called were invariably bad-tempered and frequently abusive. Airline delays seemed to arouse a latent savagery in those affected by them. Men talked insultingly to women telephonists, and even people who at other times were courteous and mild-mannered, turned snarly and disagreeable. New York-bound flights were worst of all. Reservation clerks had been known to refuse the assignment of telephoning news of delay or cancellation to a flight load of passengers destined for New York, preferring to risk their jobs rather than face the torrent of invective they knew awaited them. Tanya had often speculated on what it was about New York which infected those headed there with a kind of medicine-dance fervor to arrive.
But, for whatever reasons, she knew there would be resignations among airline staffs---in Reservations and elsewhere---when the present emergency was over. There always were. A few nervous breakdowns could be counted on, too, usually among the younger girls, more sensitive to passengers' rudeness and ill humor. Constant politeness, even when you were trained for it, was a strain which took a heavy toll.
She was glad, though, that Patsy Smith would not be among the casualties.
There was a knock at the outer door. It opened, and Mel Bakersfeld leaned in. He was wearing fleece-lined boots and carrying a heavy topcoat. "I was coming by," he told Tanya. "I can drop back later, if you like."
"Please stay." She smiled a welcome. "We've almost finished."
She watched him as he walked to a chair across the room. He looked tired, Tanya thought.
She switched her attention back, filled in a voucher, and handed it to the girl. "Give this to the taxi dispatcher, Patsy, and he'll send you home. Have a good night's rest, and we'll expect you back tomorrow, bright and breezy."
When the girl bad gone, Tanya swung her chair around to face Mel's. She said brightly, "Hullo."
He put down a newspaper he had been glancing at, and grinned. "Hi!"
"You got my note?"
"I came to thank you for it. Though I might have made it here without." Gesturing to the door through which the girl had gone, he asked, "What was all that about? Battle fatigue?"
"Yes." She told him what had happened.
Mel laughed. "I'm tired, too. How about sending me off in a taxi?"
Tanya looked at him, inquiringly. Her eyes---a bright, clear blue---had a quality of directness. Her head was tilted, and an overhead light reflected red highlights from her hair. A slim figure, yet with a fullness which the trim airline uniform heightened... Mel was conscious, as at other times, of her desirability and warmth.
"I might consider it," she said. "If the taxi goes to my place, and you let me cook you dinner. Say, a Lamb Casserole."
He hesitated, weighing conflicting claims, then reluctantly shook his head. "I wish I could. But we've some trouble here, and afterward I have to be downtown." He got up. "Let's have coffee, anyway."
Mel held the door open, and they went out into the bustling, noisy main concourse.
There was a press of people around the Trans America counter, even greater than when Mel had arrived. "I mustn't take long," Tanya said. "I've still two hours more on duty."
As they threaded their way through the crowds and increasing piles of luggage, she moderated her normally brisk pace to Mel's slower one. He was limping rather more than usual, she noticed. She found herself wanting to take his arm and help him, but supposed she had better not. She was still in Trans America uniform. Gossip spread fast enough without helping it actively. The two of them had been seen a good deal lately in each other's company, and Tanya was sure that the airport rumor machine---which operated like a jungle telegraph with IBM speed---had already taken note. Probably it was assumed that she and Mel were bedding down together, though, as it happened, that much was untrue.
They were headed for the Cloud Captain's Coffee Shop in the central lobby.
"About that Lamb Casserole," Mel said. "Could we make it another night? Say, the day after tomorrow?"
The sudden invitation from Tanya had surprised him. Although they had had several dates together---for drinks or dinner---until now she had not suggested visiting her apartment. Of course, going there could be for dinner only. Still... there was always the possibility that it might not.
Lately, Mel had sensed that if their meetings away from the airport continued, there could be a natural and obvious progression. But he had moved cautiously, instinct warning him that an affair with Tanya would be no casual romance but a deeply emotional involvement for them both. A consideration, also, was his own problems with Cindy. Those were going to take a lot of working out, if they could be worked out at all, and there was a limit to the number of complications a man could handle at one time. It was a strange commentary, he thought, that when a marriage was secure it seemed easier to manage an affair than when the same marriage was shaky. Just the same, Tanya's invitation seemed too enticing to pass up.
"The day after tomorrow is Sunday," she pointed out. "But I'll be off duty, and if you can manage it, I'll have more time."
Mel grinned. "Candies and wine?"
He had forgotten it would be Sunday. But he would have to come to the airport anyway because, even if the storm moved on, there would be aftereffects. As to Cindy, there had been several Sundays when she had been out, herself, without an announced reason.
Momentarily, Mel and Tanya separated as she dodged a hurrying, florid-faced man, followed by a redcap with a loaded luggage cart, topped by golf clubs and tennis rackets. Wherever that load was going, Tanya thought enviously, it was a long way south.
"Okay," she said when they rejoined. "Candles and wine."
As they entered the coffee shop, a pert hostess recognized Mel and ushered him, ahead of others, to a small table at the rear, marked RESERVED, which airport officials often used. About to sit down, he stumbled slightly and grasped Tanya's arm. The observant hostess flicked her eyes over them both with a half-smfle. Rumor machine, stand by for a bulletin, Tanya thought.
Aloud, she said, "Did you ever see such crowds? This has been the wildest three days I remember."
Mel glanced around the packed coffee shop, its bedlam of voices punctuated by the clatter of dishes. He nodded toward the outer door through which they could both see a moving, surging swarm of people. "If you think this is a big horde tonight, wait until the civil version of the C-5A goes into service."
"I know---we can barely cope with the 747s; but a thousand passengers arriving all at once at a check-in counter... God help us!" Tanya shuddered. "Can you imagine what it'll be like when they collect their baggage? I don't even want to think about it."
"Nor do a good many other people---who ought to be thinking about it, right now." He was amused to find that their conversation had already drifted into aviation. Airplanes and airlines held a fascination for Tanya, and she liked talking about them. So did Mel, which was one of the reasons he enjoyed her company.
"Which people aren't thinking?"
"Those who control policy on the ground---airport and air traffic. Most are acting as if today's jets will fly forever. They seem to believe that if everybody keeps quiet and still, the new, big airplanes will go away and not bother us. That way we needn't have ground facilities to match them."
Tanya said thoughtfully, "But there's a lot of building at airports. Wherever you go, you see it."
Mel offered her a cigarette and she shook her head negatively. He lit one for himself before answering.
"Mostly the building going on is patchwork---changes and additions to airports built in the 1950s or early '60s. There's little that's farseeing. There are exceptions---Los Angeles is one; Tampa, Florida, and Dallas---Fort Worth are others; they'll be the first few airports in the world ready for the new mammoth jets and supersonics. Kansas City, Houston, and Toronto look good; San Francisco has a plan, though it may get sunk politicatly. In North America there's not much else that's impressive."
"How about Europe?"
"Europe is routine," Mel said, "except for Paris---the new Nord airport to replace Le Bourget will be among the finest yet. London is the kind of inefficient mess which only the English can create." He paused, considering. "We shouldn't knock other countries, though; back home is bad enough. New York is frightening, even with changes being made at Kennedy; there simply isn't enough airspace above New York---I'm thinking of traveling there by train in future. Washington, D.C., is floundering---Washington National's a Black Hole of Calcutta; Dulles was a giant step sideways. And Chicago will wake up one day to find it let itself get twenty years behind." He stopped, considering. "You remember a few years ago, when the jets first started flying---what conditions were like at airports which had been designed for DC-4s and Constellations."
"I remember," Tanya said. "I worked at one. On normal days you couldn't move for the crowds; on busy days you couldn't breathe. We used to say it was like holding the World Series in a sand lot."
"What's coming in the 1970s," Mel predicted, "is going to be worse, far worse. And not just people congestion. We'll be choking on other things, too."
"Such as what?"
"Airways and traffic control for one, but that's another whole story. The really big thing, which most airport planning hasn't caught on to yet is that we're moving toward the day---fast---when air freight business will be bigger than passenger traffic. The same thing's been true with every form of transportation, starting with the birchbark canoe. To begin with, people are carried, plus a little freight; but before long, there's more freight than people. In airline business we're already closer to that than is generally known. When freight does get to be top dog---as will happen in the next ten years or so---a lot of our present airport ideas will be obsolete. If you want a sign of the way things are moving, watch some of the young men who are going into airline management now. Not long ago, hardly anybody wanted to work in air freight departments; it was backroorn stuff; passenger business had the glamour. Not any more! Now the bright boys are heading for air freight. They know that's where the future and the big promotions lie."
Tanya laughed. "I'll be old-fashioned and stick with people. Somehow freight..."
A waitress came to their table. "The special's off, and if we get many more people in here tonight, there won't be much else either."
They ordered coffee, Tanya cinnamon toast, and Mel a fried egg sandwich.
When the waitress had gone, Mel grinned. "I guess I started to make a speech. I'm sorry."
"Maybe you need the practice." She regarded him curiously. "You haven't made many lately."
"I'm not president of the Airport Operators Council any more. I don't get to Washington as much, or other places either." But it was not the whole reason for not making speeches and being less in the public eye. He suspected Tanya knew it.
Curiously, it was a speech of Mel's which had brought them together to begin with. At one of the rare interline meetings which airlines held, he had talked about coming developments in aviation, and the lag in ground organization compared with progress in the air. He had used the occasion as a dry run for a speech he intended to deliver at a national forum a week or so later. Tanya had been among the Trans America contingent, and next day had sent him one of her lower case notes:
spch great. all'v us earthside slaves cheering u 4 admitting airport policy- makers asleep at drawing boards. somebody needed 2 say it. mind suggestion? wd all be more alive if fewer fax, more abt people.... passenger, once inside belly (air plane or whale, remember jonah?) thinks only of self, not system much. i'll bet orville/wilbur felt same way once off ground. wright?
As well as amusing him, the note had caused him to think. It was true, he realized---he had concentrated on facts and systems to the exclusion of people as individuals. He revised his speech notes, shifting the emphasis as Tanya suggested. The result was the most successful presentation he had ever made. It gained him an ovation and was widely reported internationally. Afterward he had telephoned Tanya to thank her. That was when they had started seeing each other.
The thought of Tanya's first message was a reminder of the note she had sent this evening. "I appreciate that tip about the snow committee report, though I'm curious how you managed to see it before I have."
"No mystery. It was typed in the Trans America office. I saw our Captain Demerest checking it, and chortling."
"Vernon showed it to you?"
"No, but he had it spread out, and I'm adept to reading upside down. Which reminds me, you didn't answer my question: Why does your brother-in-law dislike you?"
Mel grimaced. "I guess he knows I'm not overly keen on him."
"If you wanted to," Tanya said, "you could tell him now. There's the great man himself." She nodded toward the cashier's desk, and Mel turned his head.
Captain Vernon Dernerest of Trans America was counting out change as he paid a bill. A tall, broad-shouldered, striking figure, he towered above others around him. He was dressed informally in a Harris tweed jacket and impeccably creased slacks, yet managed to convey an impression of authority---like a Regular Army General, Mel thought, temporarily in civilian clothes. Demerest's strong, aristocratic features were unsmiling as he addressed a four-striper Trans America captain---in uniform---who was with him. It appeared that Demerest was giving instructions; the other nodded. Captain Dermerest glanced briefly around the coffee shop and, observing Mel and Tanya, gave a curt, cool nod. Then, checking his watch, and with a final word to the other captain, he strode out.
"He appeared in a hurry," Tanya said. "Though wherever he's going, it won't be for long. Captain D. is taking Flight Two to Rome tonight."
Mel smiled. "The Golden Argosy?"
"No less. I see, sir, you read our advertising."
"It's hard not to." Mel was aware, as were millions of others who admired the four-color double-page spreads in Life, Look, the Post, and other national magazines, that Trans America Fight Two---The Golden Argosy---was the airline's crack, prestige flight. He also knew that only the line's most senior captains ever commanded it.
"It seems to be agreed," Mel said, "that Vernon is one of the finest pilots extant."
"Oh yes, indeed. Extant and arrogant." Tanya hesitated, then confided, "If you're in a mood for gossip, you aren't alone in not caring for your brother-in-law. I heard one of our mechanics say not long ago, he was sorry there weren't propellers any more because he'd always hoped Captain Demerest would walk into one."
Mel said sharply, "That's a pretty savage thought."
"I agree. Personally, I prefer what Mr. Youngquist, our president, is supposed to have said. I understand his instructions about Captain Demerest are: 'Keep that bumptious bastard out of my hair, but book me on his flights.' "
Mel chuckled. Knowing both men, he felt sure the sally was true. He should not have let himself be drawn into a discussion about Vernon Demerest, he realized, but news of the adverse snow report and the nuisance effect it would have, still rankled. He wondered idly where his brother-in-law was going at the moment, and if it involved one of his amorous adventures, of which---reportedly---there were a good many. Looking toward the central lobby, Mel saw that Captain Demerest had already been swallowed up in the crowds outside.
Across the table, Tanya smoothed her skirt with a swift stroking gesture which Mel had noticed before and liked. It was a feminine habit and a reminder that few women looked as good in uniform, which often seemed to have a de-sexing effect, but with Tanya worked the opposite way.
Some airlines, Mel knew, let their senior passenger agents out of uniform, but Trans America liked the authority which its jaunty blue and gold commanded. Two gold rings edged with white, on Tanya's cuffs, proclaimed her Job and seniority.
As if surmising his thoughts, she volunteered, "I may be out of uniform soon."
"Our District Transportation Manager is being transferred to New York. The Assistant D.T.M. is moving up, and I've applied for his job."
He regarded her with a mixture of admiration and curiosity. "I believe you'll get it. And that won't be the end, either."
Her eyebrows went up. "You think I might make vice-president?"
"I believe you could. That is, if it's the kind of thing you want. To be the lady executive; all that."
Tanya said softly, "I'm not sure if it's what I want, or not."
The waitress brought their order. When they were alone again, Tanya said, "Sometimes us working girls don't get a lot of choice. If you're not satisfied to stay in the job you have through pension time---and lots of us aren't---the only way out is up."
"You're excluding marriage?"
She selected a piece of cinnamon toast. "I'm not excluding it. But it didn't work for me once, and it may not again. Besides which, there aren't many takers---eligible ones---for used bride with baby."
"You might find an exception."
"I might win the Irish Sweep. Speaking from experience, Mel dear, I can tell you that men like their women unencumbered. Ask my ex-husband. If you can find him, that is; I never could."
"He left you after your baby was born?"
"Goodness, no! That way Roy would have had six months of responsibility. I think it was on a Thursday I told him I was pregnant; I couldn't have kept it to myself much longer. On Friday when I came home from work, Roy's clothes were gone. So was Roy."
"You haven't seen him since?"
She shook her head. "In the end, it made the divorce much simpler---desertion; no complications like another woman. I have to be fair, though. Roy wasn't all bad. He didn't empty our joint checking account, though he could have. I must admit I've sometimes wondered if it was kindness, or if he just forgot. Anyway, I had all that eighty dollars to myself."
Mel said, "You've never mentioned that before."
"Should I have?"
"For sympathy, maybe."
She shook her head. "If you understood me better, you'd know the reason I'm telling you now is because I don't need sympathy. Everything has worked out fine." Tanya smiled. "I may even get to be an airline vice-president. You just said so."
At an adjoining table, a woman said loudly, "Geez! Lookit the time!"
Instinctively, Mel did. It was three quarters of an hour since he had left Danny Farrow at the Snow Control Desk. Getting up from the table, he told Tanya, "Don't go away. I have to make a call."
There was a telephone at the cashier's counter, and Mel dialed one of the Snow Desk unlisted numbers. Danny Farrow's voice said, "Hold it," then, a few moments later, returned on the line.
"I was going to call you," Danny said. "I just had a report on that stuck 707 of Aereo-Mexican."
"You knew Mexican had asked TWA for help?"
"Well, they've got trucks, cranes, God knows what out there now. The runway and taxiway are blocked off completely, but they still haven't shifted the damn airplane. The latest word is that TWA has sent for Joe Patroni."
Mel acknowledged, "I'm glad to hear it, though I wish they'd done it sooner."
Joe Patroni was airport maintenance chief for TWA, and a born troubleshooter. He was also a down-to-earth, dynamic character and a close crony of Mel's.
"Apparently they tried to get Patroni right away," Danny said. "But he was at home and the people here had trouble reaching him. Seems there's a lot of phone lines down from the storm."
"But he knows now. You're sure of that?"
"TWA's sure. They say he's on his way."
Mel calculated. He knew that Joe Patroni lived at Glen Ellyn, some twenty-five miles from the airport, and even with ideal driving conditions the journey took forty minutes. Tonight, with snowbound roads and crawling traffic, the airline maintenance chief would be lucky to make it in twice that time.
"If anyone can get that airplane moved tonight," Mel conceded, "it'll be Joe. But meanwhile I don't want anybody sitting on his hands until he gets here. Make it clear to everyone that we need runway three zero usable, and urgently." As well as the operational need, he remembered unhappily that flights must still be taking off over Meadowood. He wondered if the community meeting, which the tower chief had told him about, was yet in session.
"I've been telling 'em," Danny confirmed. "I'll do it some more. Oh, a bit of good news---we found that United food truck."
"The driver okay?"
"He was unconscious under the snow. Motor still running, and there was carbon monoxide, the way we figured. But they got an inhalator on him, and he'll be all right."
"Good! I'm going out on the field now to do some checking for myself. I'll radio you from there."
"Wrap up well," Danny said. "I hear it's a lousy night."
Tanya was still at the table when Mel returned, though preparing to go.
"Hold on," he said, "I'm coming, too."
She motioned to his untouched sandwich. "How about dinner? If that's what it was."
"This will do for now." He bolted a mouthful, washed it down hastily with coffee, and picked up his topcoat. "Anyway, I'm having dinner downtown."
As Mel paid their check, two Trans America ticket agents entered the coffee shop. One was the supervising agent whom Mel had spoken to earlier. Observing Tanya, he came across.
"Excuse me, Mr. Bakersfeld... Mrs. Livingston, the D.T.M.'s looking for you. He has another problem."
Mel pocketed his change from the cashier. "Let me guess. Somebody else threw a timetable."
"No, sir." The agent grinned. "I reckon if there's another thrown this evening it'll be by me. This one's a stowaway---on Flight 80 from Los Angeles."
"Is that all?" Tanya appeared surprised. Aerial stowaways---though all airlines had them---were seldom a cause of great concern.
"The way I hear it," the agent said, "this one's a dilly. There's been a radio message from the captain, and a security guard has gone to the gate to meet the flight. Anyway, Mrs. Livingston, whatever the trouble is, they're calling for you." With a friendly nod, he went off to rejoin his companion.
Mel walked with Tanya from the coffee shop into the central lobby. They stopped at the elevator which would take Mel to the basement garage where his car was parked.
"Drive carefully out there," she cautioned. "Don't get in the way of any airplanes."
"If I do, I'm sure you'll hear about it." He shrugged into the heavy topcoat. "Your stowaway sounds interesting. I'll try to drop by before I leave, to find out what it's all about." He hesitated, then added, "It'll give me a reason to see you again tonight."
They were close together. As one, each reached out and their hands touched. Tanya said softly, "Who needs a reason?"
In the elevator, going down, he could still feel the warm smoothness of her flesh, and hear her voice.