An eerie aspect of the hours following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington was the silence over Los Angeles, where I live. Commercial aircraft are so much a part of life that their absence was unsettling. The rumble of jet engines, the blinking of navigational lights—these are, in many ways, our society's vital signs.
That night I went to dinner with friends at their house in Venice. No one wanted to be alone. Traffic was light, as it might have been 30 years ago; there were no pileups for the grounded helicopters to monitor. Except for me, everyone at dinner had been raised in New York or one of its suburbs. (I myself had lived there for 18 years, and continued to visit once a month.) My hosts, in fact, had spent the first three years of their relationship commuting between the two coasts. Art from India that one partner had collected on his annual trips there was on display in the dining room. To fill at least a few minutes with talk of something other than the attacks, he recalled a harrowing second-class train trip through Rajasthan, relieved by a luxurious night at the Lake Palace hotel in Udaipur. We discussed flea markets in Paris, coffeehouses in Berlin. Our talk was deliberately superficial; we escaped into it the way we had once escaped by airplane to those far-off places.
Driving home, I realized how much we take long-distance travel for granted, as well as the technology that makes it possible. Technology alters our perception of distance; is a vast country still "vast" if you can cross it in an afternoon?I was suddenly nostalgic for the 1960's and the innocent glamour of a world that jets had newly made small. I thought of the so-called jet set, with their houses all over the globe. I envisioned their chic, tanned faces—all vaguely reminiscent of Lee Radziwill's—from photos in glossy magazines that I had seen as a child.
The jet set were about exclusivity, yet they inadvertently paved the way for others. Technology, in the form of affordable airfares, democratized this once out-of-reach lifestyle. But in the sixties a plane ticket was still something special. I remember my first flight, at age eight, from San Diego, where I was born, to my mother's hometown, New Orleans. It was more than a symbolic rite of passage; I was physically changed. After a few hours in that cozy, high-speed living room, I disembarked into fierce humidity, languid accents, the greasy scent of beignets. Books and postcards were no substitute for the original, once technology had permitted me to experience it. There was no going back.
The rapid progress of technology and the way we consume it has been much on my mind since 1997, when I moved back to California to write a book about the space program. My father was an aerospace engineer, and he instilled in me his faith in technology. We could transcend any limitation, he believed, if we applied our brains. From a mid-century perspective, this seemed self-evident. Gravity, distance—we conquered them, and in 1969 sent people to the moon. No one denies that the space program was a theater of the Cold War, but it was also a theater of spectacle. And it's hard today not to feel wistful for that innocent, happy show.
Nostalgia, though, can be deceptive. Sometimes we hanker for things as we would like them to have been, rather than as they were. The products of mid-century technology were not across-the-board benign. And if we thought they were, the backyard bomb shelters and grade-school duck-and-cover drills were there to remind us otherwise.
Similarly, what for most of the 20th century had been an emblem of freedom and escape has now been used for something sinister. It's a hard idea to wrap one's head around, but no harder than what, say, my parents' generation had to process during World War II. Blacking out windows against enemy aircraft, staying close to home (a consequence of gas rationing), they came to terms with the vulnerability of their own backyards. When that war ended, however, they left their fortified houses. They saw the U.S.A. in their Chevrolets. They flew the friendly skies. They weren't crippled by their own fear. In the aftermath of the attack on New York City, we shouldn't be, either. Technology may even rise to the occasion, with a new, reliable solution for security.
No doubt the members of today's jet set will continue to move easily among their international residences, insulated from anxiety by private jets and chartered planes. But I hope everyone keeps flying. I like to think of the multi-class plane as a metaphor for American democracy—stratified, yet united toward a common destination.