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Life’s Funny

Project Runway

Sitting on a tarmac is boring: Sitting beside a tarmac is another story

By Maria Johnson

“Here comes one!”

Conversation freezes and heads swivel to the horizon, where two bright beams glow, side by side, above a distant tree line.

“Oooooh, that’s a big one,” says our airplane-obsessed friend, whose birthday we are celebrating with a parking lot picnic beside a runway at Piedmont Triad International Airport.

The four of us, all empty nesters, are way beyond the age of coveting stuff. Well, most stuff anyway.

Experiences, time together, moments that morph into stories and embed as warm memories — that’s what we prize.

So, recently, our wee gang has been celebrating birthdays with daytime excursions that introduce us to new places and people.

During one of these forays, a friend who was not being fêted at the moment came clean about her obsession with all things aero. As a young woman growing up in Rockingham County, she tinkered with the idea of becoming a flight attendant. That dream never took off, but her fascination with soaring above it all persisted.

As an adult, she regularly asked flight crews for tours of cockpits; bought toy jetliners with battery-powered engines and lights “for the grandchildren.” She even bought a captain’s hat from a former Piedmont Airlines pilot.

Side note: If you ever want to see a bunch of 60-plus North Carolinians get misty-eyed, ask them about Piedmont Airlines. It really was the best. Sigh.

Anyway, our well-traveled pal also revealed how much she loved to watch airplanes take off and land. She said she liked to imagine who was aboard, where they were going, what it was like there, and what the passengers would do when they got there.

Escapism? Totally.

The rest of us knew what we had to do for her birthday: Find a place to watch planes come and go. I remembered that there used to be a diner near PTI where you could catch the action aloft. An internet search confirmed that the restaurant had closed, but a few clicks later, I landed on a website called, where jet-heads post their favorite viewing sites.

A recon mission was called for. One pal piloted. I co-piloted, translating the map app’s instructions because who the heck knows what 500 feet looks like when you’re going 60 miles an hour? Just turn left where that blue car is coming out.

We cased several parking lots, some right next to the runways. I’m quite sure we appeared on several security cameras.

To dispel fear — and reduce the odds of being placed on a TSA watchlist labeled “HUH?” — we waved at the control tower as we drove past. Several times.

Maybe it was the time of day, late one afternoon in the fading light of fall, but we didn’t see much action.

The next day, I stuck my head in at one of GTCC’s aviation training buildings, “yoo-hooed” my way down a hallway and found a darkened classroom where three young men sat at computer screens doing . . . we’ll call it homework.

“Hey, fellas, I know this sounds weird, but do y’all know of a good place to watch airplanes take off and land?”

“Yeah, I know a great place,” one of the guys said, popping out of his seat and walking over to show me a map on his phone.

He pointed me to a gravel lot off Old Oak Ridge Road.

I drove right over. Jackpot.

I dropped a pin and shared it with our foursome. We booked a date.

A couple of weeks later, we packed up camp chairs and a knee-high table.

One of us brought fruit and crackers.

Another brought Biscoff cookies and packs of almonds.

Another brought prosecco.

The birthday girl brought her captain’s hat, which she wore proudly as we cheered and waved at the passing planes.

They looked so small, even the big ones, when you considered that these sleek aluminum tubes carried so many people, each connected to their own constellation of lives. The passengers would scatter as soon as they claimed their bags, and yet, for a precious few ticks of the clock, they were on the same trip.

Was it any different on the ground, at our makeshift celebration only a stone’s throw from barbed wire and warning signs?

Between the drones and roars overhead, we turned to our seat mates and talked of the things circling our hearts. Of joys and worries. Of health and family and friends.

As we chatted, sunset painted the sky in neon pink and somber purple.

A flock of starlings, headed for their evening roost, rippled like a flag in the sky.

The nighttime lights of the airport emerged like the skyline of a city.

Other people came and went from the parking lot: a lone young man perched on his motorcycle; a middle-aged woman and her small dog; a young couple who spent most of their time taking pictures of themselves and their car.

Small eddies of humanity swirled and dissipated here.

We were one of those swirls, sitting in a tight circle on a dusty patch of gravel, wrapped in throws against the deepening chill as we sipped and nibbled, nodded and mmm-ed, rode the crosswinds of laughter and tears, and occasionally looked to the clouds and let our imaginations fly.

We were determined to enjoy the ride.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. Email her at