June 19th, 2013:


Dulles Airport Terminal by Eero Saarinen

Now that summer is in full swing and college/high school students are looking for summer employment, it brings back many memories of summers in Washington, D.C. My military father insisted that typing was an admirable and necessary skill. What a prescient suggestion or should I say “order!” It’s not exactly rocket science, but my fingers have been flying over keyboards of various sorts ever since senior year in high school.

When I was accepted at the College of William and Mary, my father made it clear that I would work during summer breaks and contribute to my college expenses. Typing skills meant I could qualify for one of the most basic jobs: clerk-typist, known in government parlance as a GS-3. I haven’t checked to see if it’s the same designation.

The summer after high school graduation I found a job with BuWeps (Bureau of Weapons) in the Navy Department located on the Washington Mall in a grassy area near the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial.  These multi-story  wooden buildings dated back to WWII and are now long gone.

I remember typing fourteen copies of documents on manual typewriters. A mistake required erasing (remember erasers?)  tiny or large portions on all fourteen copies. When the document was done, all the carbon paper had to be placed in burn bags because it was classified work regarding Navy missiles—I still recall the Terrier and the Tarter. I even looked it up to see if my memory was accurate and it was!

Boring work for the most part but it was good pay. Many of the girls working there brown-bagged it and we could go out onto the grassy area around the reflecting pool to eat. My mother believed in keeping trim: hard-boiled eggs and Triscuits were my usual lunch. I had my first glass of wine at a restaurant: a very sweet Mogen David when most of the office went out for some kind of celebration. A few sips had me polluted for hours! It wasn’t a habit I cultivated until much later in life when my taste buds matured.

Things picked up the summer after I started college when I got a job working in the office of the manager of Washington National Airport. Mr. Steiner, a longtime civil service employee, was a considerate, gentlemanly boss and his secretary, Helen Brewer, who could sense I wouldn’t need constant help and could follow directions, was the perfect supervisor.

The work wasn’t very challenging; I remember mostly typing arrival and departure reports and filling in by answering the phone. I had the time to type some exotic poetry from Asia from a library book and plan a school year abroad, perhaps at the University of London. The year in England never came to fruition—perhaps a reason I moved to Germany right after college graduation.

During the 1961 summer, a new airport, to be named Dulles Airport, was being constructed in lovely Chantilly, Virginia, 26 miles south of Washington. The architecturally unique terminal building was designed by Eero Saarinen, who described his design as “a huge continuous hammock suspended between concrete trees.” As I recall, the terminal was essentially finished by that time and it was gorgeous, in my eyes.

Passenger transportation was the most unusual factor for the new airport: mobile lounges were being designed to carry people from the terminal to special airplane parking areas and from the airplanes to the terminal. My boss thought the idea of using mobile lounges was not only stupid but costly.

I was excited when I learned the Federal Aviation Agency was going to use employees to test out these enormous lounges, and I was going to get an exciting field trip out of it. The lounges, over fifty feet long and equipped with very large tires, had room for 100 passengers. Originally, ramps led from the lounges to the airplane doors. Since the heights of airplane bottom floors were not uniform, we were going to test how well the ramps worked.

After a few ramp tests, the mobile lounge driver decided to give us a thrill and off we went on a fast drive down an empty new runway.  Years later, when I flew with my family to Virginia via Dulles Airport, I could brag how I had been one of the first to ride in one of these huge portable lounges. Apparently, most of them are now being phased out. Maybe my boss was right!

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