FROM HIS CAR, which he bad parked on the nearby taxiway after quitting runway three zero, Mel Bakersfeld could see that the pilots of Trans America Flight Two were wasting no time in taxiing to the terminal. The aircraft's lights, now halfway across the airfield, were still visible, moving fast. On his radio, switched to ground control, Mel could hear other flights being halted at taxiway and runway intersections to let the damaged airliner pass. The injured were still aboard. Flight Two had been instructed to head directly for gate forty-seven where medical help, ambulances, and company staff were waiting.
Mel watched the aircraft's lights diminish, and merge with the galaxy of terminal lights beyond.
Airport emergency vehicles, which had not after all been required, were dispersing from the runway area.
Tanya and the Tribune reporter, Tomlinson, were both on their way back to the terminal. They were driving with Joe Patroni, who had handed over the Aereo-Mexican 707 for someone else to taxi to the hangars.
Tanya wanted to be at gate forty-seven for the disembarking of passengers from Flight Two. It was likely she would be needed.
Before leaving, she had asked Mel quietly, "Are you still coming home?"
"If it isn't too late," he said, "I'd like to."
He watched while Tanya pushed a strand of red hair back from her face. She had looked at him with her direct, clear eyes and smiled. "It's not too late."
They agreed to meet at the main terminal entrance in three quarters of an hour.
Tomlinson's purpose was to interview Joe Patroni, and after that the crew of Trans America Flight Two. The crew---and Patroni, no doubt---would be heroes within a few hours. The dramatic story of the flight's peril and survival, Mel suspected, would eclipse his own pronouncements on the more mundane subject of the airport's problems and deficiencies.
Though not entirely, perhaps. Tomlinson, to whom Mel had entrusted his opinions, was a thoughtful, intelligent reporter who might decide to link present dramatics with the equally serious long-term view.
The Aereo-Mexican 707, Mel saw, was now being moved away. The airplane appeared undamaged, but would undoubtedly be washed down and inspected thoroughly before resuming its interrupted flight to Acapulco.
The assortment of service vehicles which had stayed with the aircraft during its ordeal by mud were following.
There was no reason for Mel not to go himself. He would---in a moment or two; but for the second time tonight he found the airfield's loneliness, its closeness to the elemental part of aviation, a stimulus to thought.
It was here, a few hours ago, Mel remembered, that he had had an instinct, a premonition, of events moving toward some disastrous end. Well, in a way they had. The disaster had happened, though through good fortune it had been neither complete, nor had the airport's facilities---or lack of them---been directly responsible.
But the disaster could have involved the airport; and the airport in turn might have caused complete catastrophe---through inadequacies which Mel had foreseen and had argued, vainly, to correct.
For Lincoln International was obsolescent.
Obsolescent, Mel knew, despite its good management, and gleaming glass and chrome; despite its air traffic density, its record-breaking passenger volume, its Niagara of air freight, its expectations of even more of everything, and its boastful title, "Aviation Crossroads of the World."
The airport was obsolescent because---as had happened so often in the short six decades of modern aviation history---air progress had eclipsed prediction. Once more, expert prognosticators had been wrong, the visionary dreamers right.
And what was true here was true elsewhere.
Nationwide, worldwide, the story was the same. Much was talked about aviation's growth, its needs, coming developments in the air which would provide the lowest cost transportation of people and goods in human history, the chance these gave the nations of the world to know each other better, in peace, and to trade more freely. Yet little on the ground---in relation to the problem's size---had been done.
Well, one voice alone would not change everything, but each voice which spoke with knowledge and conviction was a help. It had come to Mel within the past few hours---he was not sure why or how---that he intended to continue speaking out the way he had tonight, the way he hadn't for so long.
Tomorrow---or rather, later today---he would begin by summoning, for Monday morning, an emergency special meeting of the Board of Airport Commissioners. When the Board met, he would urge an immediate commitment to build a new runway paralleling three zero.
The experience of tonight had strencqhened, as nothing else could, the arguments for increasing runway capacity which Mel had presented long ago. But this time, he determined, he would make a fight of it---with plain, blunt words, warning of catastrophe if public safety were given lip service only, while vital operational needs were ignored or shelved. He would see to it that press and public opinion were marshaled on his side---the kind of pressure which downtown politicians understood.
After new runways, other projects, so far only talked about or hoped for, must be pressed on; among them---an entirely new terminal and runway complex; more imaginative ground flow of people and freight; smaller, satellite fields for the vertical and short takeoff aircraft which were coming soon.
Either Lincoln International was in the jet age, or it wasn't; if it was, it must keep pace far better than it had.
It was not, Mel thought, as if airports were an indulgence or some civic luxury. Almost all were self-sustaining, generating wealth and high employment.
Not all the battles for ground-air progress would be won; they never were. But some of them could be, and some of what was said and done here---because of Mel's stature in airport management----could spill over into national, even international, arenas.
If it did, so much the better! The English poet John Donne, Mel remembered, had once written: No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. No airport was an island either; those which called themselves International should employ the kind of thinking to justify their name. Perhaps, working with others, Mel could help to show them how.
People who hadn't heard from Mel Bakersfeld for a while might quickly learn that he was still around.
And intensive work, a resumption of more of his old industry-wide interests, might help with personal problems by keeping his mind occupied. Mel hoped so, anyway. The thought was an abrupt reminder that sometime soon---perhaps tomorrow---he would have to call Cindy and arrange to move out his clothes and personal belongings. It would be an unhappy process which he hoped the girls, Roberta and Libby, would not be around to see. To begin with, Mel supposed, he would move into a hotel until he had time to arrange an apartment of his own.
But more than ever be knew that Cindy's and his own decision for divorce bad been inevitable. Both of them had known it; tonight they merely resolved to remove a facade behind which nothing existed any more. Neither for themselves nor for the children could anything have been gained by more delay.
It would still take time, though, to adjust.
And Tanya? Mel was not sure what, if anything, was ahead for them together. He thought there might be a good deal, but the time for a commitment---if there was to be one---was not yet. He only knew that tonight, before this long and complex workday ended, he craved companionship, warmth, and tenderness; and, of all the friends he possessed, Tanya had those qualities in greatest measure.
What else, between himself and Tanya, these might lead to would be known in time.
Mel put his car in gear and swung it toward the perimeter road which would take him to the terminal. Runway three zero was on his right as he drove.
Now that the runway was open, he saw, other aircraft were beginning to use it, arriving in a steady stream despite the lateness. A Convair 880 of TWA swept by and landed. Behind it, half a mile out, were the landing lights of another flight approaching. Behind the second, a third was turning in.
The fact that Mel could see the third set of lights made him aware that the cloud base had lifted. He noticed suddenly that the snowfall had stopped; in a few places to the south, patches of sky were clearing. With relief, he realized the storm was moving on.