SOMETIMES, when I hear the whine of jet engines, I think of the beach.
I don’t expect that to make sense to you — unless, like me, your childhood was defined by an infatuation with jetliners and summers spent at a beach directly below an approach course to a major airport.
That would be Revere Beach, in my case, just north of Boston, in the mid-to-late 1970s. Then as now, the city of Revere was a gritty, in many ways charmless place: Rows of triple-deckers and block after block of two-story colonials garnished in gaudy wrought-iron. (Revere is a city so architecturally hopeless that it can never become gentrified or trendy in the way that other Boston suburbs have.) Irish and Italian families spoke in a tough, North Shore accent that had long ago forsaken the letter R. Shit-talking kids drove Camaros and Trans-Ams, the old country cornuto horns glinting over their chest hair.
Revere’s beach was the first public beach in the United States. Like the rest of the city, it wasn’t the kind of place that lent itself to niceties or sentimental descriptions. The rollercoasters had long ago burned and the boulevard was dotted by biker hangouts and the sort of honky-tonk bars that, as a kid, you never dared set foot in, no matter how bad you needed to use the bathroom. Seagulls swooped and gorged on the garbage toppling out of barrels and dumpsters.
But it had the sand, and water that was clean enough to swim in — with those long, flat, shimmering low tides that seemed to recede all the way past Nahant and into the horizon. We spent our summers here — nearly all of the weekends and many of the weekdays too. My parents would have the car packed by 10 a.m. I remember the folding chairs, the towels, and the endless supply of Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion, its oily coconut aroma mixed with the hot stink of sun-baked Oldsmobile leather.
I swam, dug around for crabs and endured the requisite mud-ball fights with my friends. But for me, the real thrill was the airplanes. Revere Beach’s mile-long swath lines up almost perfectly with Logan International Airport’s runway 22L, the arrivals floating past at regular intervals, so low you’d think you could hit them with one of the discarded Michelob bottles poking from the sand. I’d bring a notebook and log each plane as it screamed overhead.
They’d appear first as black smudges. You’d see the smoke — the snaking black trails of a 707 or DC-8 as it turned final up over Salem or Marblehead. Then came the noise. The little kids, and grownups too, would cover their ears. People today don’t realize how earsplittingly loud the older-generation jets could be. And they were low, maybe fifteen hundred feet above the sand, getting lower and lower and lower until disappearing over the hill at Beachmont, just seconds from touchdown.
I remember all of them: TWA 707s and L-1011s in the old, twin-globe livery. United DC-8s and DC-10s in the ’70s-era bow-tie colors. Flying Tigers DC-8s and 747s. Allegheny’s DC-9s and BAC One-Elevens. Eastern’s 727 “Whisperjets” that did anything but whisper. Braniff, Piedmont, Capitol and Seaboard World; TAP, North Central, Zantop and Trans International. The term “regional jet” wouldn’t exist for at least another decade. Instead we had “commuter planes.” There was PBA and its Cessna 402s; Air New England’s Twin Otters and FH-227s and Bar Harbor’s Beech-99s. Pilgrim, Empire, Ransome and Downeast.
Fast forward thirty years:
The arrivals pattern to 22L hasn’t changed. It still passes directly overhead Revere Beach. After I finally became an airline pilot, one of my biggest thrills was being at the controls on a 22L arrival into BOS, looking down at the same beach from which I spent a childhood looking up. But other things are different.
The demographics of the city and its beach have changed, for one. In the Revere of my youth, pretty much every last family was Italian, Irish, or some mix of the two. At the beach it was no different. Today, both the neighborhoods and the sand are a virtual United Nations of the North Shore. Those harsh, R-less accents are joined by voices in Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese and Khmer. The muscle shirts, Italian horns and shamrocks are still there, but those sunburned Irish complexions are contrasted against those from Somalia, Ghana, Haiti and Morocco.
And overhead, those plumes of oily smoke are gone. The jets nowadays are cleaner, much quieter. And a lot less exciting. At age twelve I could tell a DC-10 from an L-1011 when it was ten miles out. Every plane had its own distinct profile. Today’s jets are often indistinguishable, even at close range. And somehow the endless procession of Airbuses and RJs just doesn’t get the pulse going, or the sunbathers pointing, the way a 707 or a DC-8 would — its motors shrieking, black smoke spewing behind.
Revere itself has both gained and lost character over the years. The skies above, though, have mostly just lost it.