I’ve always liked the Helsinki airport. Back in the olden days, when I was a wide-eyed boy – instead of this wide-eyed man I’ve become – the airport was one of the family’s favorite Sunday afternoon drive destinations. Back then, the planes took off and landed right in front of the main terminal, and kids, like myself, even got to climb all the way to the window to see them go up and down.
There was nothing more exciting than to hear my dad say on a Sunday afternoon:
“Wanna go see some planes?”
The airport was a magical place. Then the planes got moved a little farther away from the windows and I grew up, and started to travel a little more, and the magic disappeared a little. I was always too busy to get to my destination.
And then my uncle, my mother’s brother, got a job at the airport. He’s the kind of person who’s always been at the best job in the world, at least if you ask him about his work. He worked with the runway maintenance, keeping the runway dry and snow-free.
Every time I traveled from the Helsinki airport, it was exciting to look out the window, because there was the chance that I’d see my uncle driving a truck somewhere. Of course, there was never really a chance to see who was driving the tractors and other vehicles, so all drivers became my uncles.
When my mother, his sister, took off for Vietnam for a few months, he made sure to be close to her plane and to get out of the tractor so he could see her off.
Then my cousin, my uncle’s son, joined him at the airport’s maintenance team. Now there was a twice as good a chance for me to see somebody I knew at the airport, working behind the scenes, making sure the Helsinki airport was the best in the world, as they both liked to tell me.
And who was I to doubt that, with my uncle and my cousin making sure there weren’t any snowflakes on the runway, keeping it dry, and driving holes into a fog. Whenever my plane started its approach to Helsinki, I knew I was home free.
One night, a long time ago, my cousin called me and asked if I wanted to come and see the airport. I did so I got in my car and drove to the airport, and met him at their little room where they could rest during night shifts. We got on a big truck and drove around the airport for a while.
We drove up one runway, and down another. He showed me the hangars, and dropped off some nice trivia about the airport – the number of lights, the length of the white lines – most of which I have since forgotten. I was giggling out of excitement as my cousin drove back to their barracks, to catch some sleep.
Two years ago, when it got really snowy in Europe, and airports were closed, the Helsinki airport ran its business as usual. Dozens of international camera crews and reporters came to Helsinki to see how they did it. How my uncle did it.
I asked him about it, and he just chuckled.
“We know our stuff,” he said.
The last time I flew to Helsinki, I looked out the window as we got closer to the airport. I recognized a few landmarks. Some of them famous, others just houses and streets I knew.
As we approached the runway, I saw the lights, and the white lines, and when the wheels touched down on the runway, I smiled, and decided to try to see if my cousin or my uncle was out driving their big trucks somewhere before I realized that they don’t work there anymore. Cousin moved on years ago, my uncle retired recently.
And they took some of that airport magic with them.