SOUTH LATITUDE: Searching For Soul and Sky, In Florida and Beyond

Miami, 1999


“SORRY, NO, IT’S TOO DANGEROUS,” says the driver.

“Um.  Okay.”  To the best of my knowledge and experience, Port-au-Prince is the only place in the world where a cabbie will refuse a twenty-dollar bill to take a pilot into town for a quick tour.  Where else would this happen?  Maybe Monrovia or Freetown during the wars there?

I’m in Haiti for 90 minutes, on a two-stop turn out of MIA.  I was awake before dawn to the roar of the air conditioning unit when the phone rang, the scheduler rattling off the specs of an afternoon trip to Port-au-Prince and Santo Domingo — a three-leg out-and-back.  This means a grand tour of sorts of Hispaniola, the island shared in an east-west split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  The border between these nations is one of the few international demarcations clearly visible from 30,000 feet — the latter’s semi-intact tropical carpet abutting a Haitian moonscape of denuded hillsides.  Hispaniola is maybe the least glamorous landfall in the Caribbean.  But you can’t beat the weather and the onboard pineapple tray.

With nothing else to do I wander the Port au Prince apron.  Behind our dormant freighter a row of scarred, treeless hills bakes in the noon heat.  I notice a pallet of white, 30-gallon drums about to be loaded on board.  Something doesn’t look right — crewmember intuition — and concerned that we’re about to transport some illegal and dangerous chemical, I ask a loader if he knows what the barrels contain.  He lowers the forklift and pries off one the heavy plastic lids.

What’s revealed is a tangled white mass of what appears to be string cheese floating in dirty water.  A quiveringly rotten smell rises from the liquid.  The driver sticks in his hand and gives the ugly congealment a churn.  “For sausage,” he answers.  What we’re looking at, it turns out, is a barrel of intestines — casings bound for some factory to be stuffed with meat.  Welcome to the world of global commerce.

Thirty-three minutes away is Santo Domingo, the soot-and-stucco capital of the Dominican Republic — or the DR, as travelers and baseball announcers love to call it.  The neighborhoods around the airport are some of the poorest on the island, and we’re two days on the heels of a terrible storm.  Most of the roofs are missing, and as our jet drops its tires and aims for the runway at Las Americas, we look straight into the islanders’ concrete-block lives, their belongings violently mingled: plastic bags, rainsoaked clothes, corrugated tin.  And in all directions are the triangular, tornado-shaped plumes of garbage fires.

What it lacks in glamor, maybe, STO makes up for in history.  This is the oldest capital in the New World.  With some time to kill I hire a taxi, this time with no resistance.  I’m going to see Christopher Columbus, who died in Spain but whose remains, depending which historian you believe, are interred beneath the cathedral here.  To me there’s something about that name, Santo Domingo, that evokes images of 15th century explorers, their gray-sailed ships anchored offshore.  To others, maybe, it’s thoughts of the slave trade, of indigenous islanders keeling over from those special European gifts of smallpox and typhus.  Or boats taking cannonballs through their hulls, bars of gold falling to the ocean floor.

As with every big capital down here, the whiteness of the skyline is striking.  White paint splashed over everything: hotels, apartment blocks, schools.  From the highway it looms ahead, clusters of white buildings set against brilliant blue beachfront; against emerald hillsides; against the mushrooming, oil-black stormclouds.  And as the taxi brings me closer, I taste and feel that tropical force of humanity and heat — a grimy ooze through every white crack.

Later, in darkness, we’re loading up for the return leg to Miami.  They’ve unloaded our pallets of automobile parts and tractor tires — tools that will help turn the landscape of this small country into parking lots and strip malls like the rest of the world — and soon we’ll be gone.  I’m tired and I need a shower.  I’ve got grease on my shirt.  From the metal railing I see the moon.  It’s an odd, eerily dangling crescent surrounded by an inky redness, like the moon of the Turkish flag.  There’s something wild and strange about it.

Turner Book Cover

The next morning I’m cut loose for the day by a kind-hearted scheduler — a rare breed if ever there was one.  Celebrating my freedom in the breakfast bar, I spot two young pilots sitting at a table.  They’re dressed in polo shirts and sipping coffee, brand new leather flight cases at their feet.  Their names are Richard and Marty, and they are training to become 737 first officers with an upstart Mexican airline.  They wait anxiously for their simulator instructor.  We chat briefly, and their sense of preoccupation is palpable.  I know exactly what they’re going through: their thoughts nervously abuzz with checklist items and emergency callouts — all the things to do, and not do, when the engine catches fire during takeoff.  And it will, very soon.  Marty tells me he is 24 years old and has 500 flight hours, total, which is something I can hardly fathom.  When I was a 500-hour pilot, the biggest thing I’d flown, and would fly for the next thousand hours, was a four-seat Cessna.

“Okay guys,” the instructor chirps, stepping off the elevator, “Let’s go play.”  The pilots fling their cups into the trash and off they go in a rented Honda to one of the nearby flight academies, to sweat away four hours of mock disaster.

Half an hour later, I’m walking west along 36th Street abutting Miami International Airport.  The road is alive with 18-wheelers puking out clots of greasy smoke.  There are six lanes of highway, then a series of ugly lots and fortress-style buildings.  A long, clay-colored wall marks the beginning of the MIA complex itself.  A 767 is one of several planes sticking its nose over the wall, almost touchable to the passing traffic, like an elephant reaching its trunk to children at the zoo.

Miami International is a Latin crossroads, the nexus of air routes connecting South and Central America to the USA.  There are likely more Spanish-speaking pilots running through their checklists here than in Buenos Aires, Lima and Santiago combined.  The Lufthansas and Air Frances seem stodgily out of place among the spicy southern liveries of Avianca, LAN, TACA and TAM; departure boards flashing with the likes of Cali, Bogota, Guayaquil and Tegucigalpa.  All that’s missing is the right soundtrack.  Maybe Willie Colón doing “Como un Huracan” as the planes roar away.  It’s a planespotter’s heaven, and airliner geeks with tripod-mounted Nikons press against chain-link fences, clicking pictures and recording tail numbers.  I remember once, taxiing past a gaggle of spotters near runway 30, sliding open the right-side window and exchanging waves with our admirers.

Famous too as a kind of aviation chop shop, the airport is home to droves of maintenance and salvage companies.  In its corners and crevices one finds dozens of anonymous storage yards and rows of ramshackle hangars.  The old abandoned propliners are mostly gone now.  The carcasses of the DC-3s, DC-7s and C-46s that were once strewn about the field, bleached and rusting in the grass, have been broken up for scrap.  But there’s no shortage of Jet Age relics still to be seen along the MIA perimeter — dilapidated Douglases and Boeings in different stages of dismemberment, giving the airport’s far reaches the look and feel of an East LA garage: A wingless 727 with its markings sloppily whited out.  An L-1011 with a gaping hole beneath the tail, its number two engine cannibalized and carted away.

Beyond the tarmac, the people, roads and buildings form a kind of airport city — a round-the-clock hive where every surrounding establishment, it seems, extends one vital tendril or another to the MIA apron.  This is true of most large airports — a shockwave of aeronautical commerce blowing out from an epicenter of terminals and runways — but there’s something peculiarly, decadently flavorful about Miami.

All along 36th Street, I’m getting socked by wake turbulence.  Except it’s from trucks, not planes, as the sidewalks here are dangerously skinny.  To my right is a store, Tally-Ho Airline Uniforms, and another, the Oshkosh Pilot Shop.  Across the street a gigantic brown hangar rises like a filthy glacier, marked only by a huge sign that declares simply, in an oversized jolt of meaningless flummery, “AeroThrust.”

About four blocks down is a small shop called Plane World, which bills itself “the world’s best store for the aviation enthusiast.”  As another 18-wheeler bears down, I can’t imagine the world’s best anything is to be found along this noisy highway, unless maybe it’s the chance to get run over by a mufflerless Peterbilt.  But I’m lured inside by the display cases of diecast models, books, videos and postcards.

Ivan Hoyos is the young owner, a half-Cuban, half-Spaniard who opened the place about six months ago.  Curious about his background and clientele, I decide to play journalist and ask if he’ll do a short interview.  Hoyos is grateful to talk and suggests we sit in first class.  Literally.  The centerpiece of his store is a scavenged pair of seats from an Eastern Air Lines L-1011.  They’re a hideous beige dappled with orange and yellow, a testament to their early-70’s vintage.  They’re also for sale at $550.

“I plan to triple the price,” Hoyos explains, “if it turns out they’re from the wreckage of flight 401.”  What he’s talking about is the infamous Everglades crash in December, 1972.  Parts of the airplane were pulled from the swamps and stored for years at MIA, and Hoyos thinks these seats might have been among them.

I ask him about the store.  Why does it exist?  Why is there such a thing as an airline aficionado?  Why are so many people in love not with flying, per se, but with the airlines and planes that do that flying? “The airline industry is culture,” he answers.  “From the fashion statements of the uniforms to the beauty of the airplanes.  And it’s much more colorful, more faceted than you find in most businesses.  Glamorous, even today.”  There are those who’d beg to differ with that last point, but I let it ride.

Hoyos motions toward his collection of books.  One of them is called Airliner Hulks, and describes how to locate and visit crashed and abandoned airplanes around the world.  With it, a reader can track down the forsaken bones of a Lockheed Constellation in the jungles of South America or the Mauritanian desert.

When I bring it up, Hoyos bristles at the expression “airliner geek,” preferring the term fanatic instead.  I’m unsure what kind of compromise this is. “My customers are normal people,” he insists, a tad defensively.  “And they’re not just airline workers.  I also get doctors and lawyers and bank tellers.”  With that, two teenagers come in and he immediately begins a discussion with them in Spanish.  The words I pick out are “Fokker” and “DC-9.”

Hoyos does about half his business through mail order.  His biggest overall seller?  “Anything Eastern.”  By that he means the airline.  This is a Miami thing, I take it, as Eastern had a huge South Florida presence before its demise in the early 1990s at the hands of Frank Lorenzo.  “Miami Springs!”  Hoyos corrects me, making sure I’m aware of our exact location and its meaning.  Evidently the locus of Eastern culture is precisely here and not a Zip code further.  “Remember,” he continues, “for a time Eastern was the largest airline in the free world.”

I hadn’t heard that one in a while: free world.  For airplane buffs this is a way of discounting Aeroflot, the once giant carrier of the Soviet Union.  In its heydays, before being splintered into dozens of independents during the 1990s, Aeroflot was a truly enormous entity, around the size of all U.S. airlines put together.

A shelf across from us is covered with neatly-arranged souvenir cups and tumblers, all marked with Eastern’s famous trademark, a winking, blue and white oval — a modernist adaptation of the carrier’s falcon mascot from the 1940s.  Hoyos picks up a mug and runs his thumb over the symbol.  “Once upon a time, you’d see this everywhere.”

Maybe, but as far as famous logos go, what’s conspicuously missing from Hoyos’ merchandise, I realize, is any form of Pan Am memorabilia.  The most storied airline in history had its roots right here South Florida, but Hoyos tells me he avoids selling anything Pan Am “out of respect” for something called the Pan Am Aware store.  That’s a small establishment on the other side of the airport, a shrine to the Pan Am memory run by an octogenarian former employee.

“One thing for sure,” Hoyos proclaims with a pointed finger.  “About 95 percent of my clientele is male.”  This isn’t surprising, really, but he makes no mention of the woman whose order he was ringing up when I first walked in.  “We have our conventions too.  Each year Miami holds a national, and we get about people from around the country, buying and trading.  A couple of years ago we had the international, with more than 500 hobbyists from everywhere.”

I’m silently scrutinizing Hoyos as he speaks, wondering if I’ll catch a glimpse of myself.  Is there something, anything, perhaps even a physical trait, that we fanatics all share?  A glimmer in the eye, some mysterious praxis, a secret handshake?  He’s got the look and build of a Latin soccer player, hardly a techie or a nerd.

As for me in my ratty Tevas and an old pair of shorts, I’m disheveled, sunburned and unshowered.  It strikes me that Hoyos might have a hard time believing I’m a pilot or a pseudo-journalist.  And I’m rather uncertain if my little interview is going to expose any provocative gristle, assuming there is any, about the mind of an airplane lover.  And does anybody care?  I think of an old Raymond Carver poem, a favorite of mine, about the life of the famous highwire daredevil Karl Wallenda:

“When you were little, the wind tailed you…
when you bowed to the Emperor Haile Salassie.”

There’s a high-minded sexiness to the strangest things — tightrope walking, even.  But seldom to aviation, it seems.  I don’t know if any pilots have ever bowed before emperors — even Lindbergh.  Or think of the way Cirque du Soleil draws its share of upscale patrons while an air show is left for the six-packers.  Am I too devoted a partisan, or is there something wrong, a squandering of dignity and respect, in the way aviation packages and presents itself?

I make a few notes and pick casually at my brown cloth chair.  I’m now uncomfortable with the thought of this being an actual reclamation from the Everglades disaster.  I try to imagine how it was for some unfortunate man or woman on this same cushion in ’72, catapulted into the fuel-soaked darkness.  Hoyos is doing his best to further envenom the karma: “We had a cargo plane crash a few years ago.  It went down at 72nd Avenue.  The smoke was everywhere.  You can see where they laid new pavement.”  And in a hangar across the street, it turns out, a mechanic was crushed to death when he was caught in the leading edge slat of a 727.

I stand.  Before leaving, I decide to purchase a 7-inch diecast model of an Air-India 747.  The model costs $28.  Plane World has several shelves of these small metal models, lined up the way you used to see Corgis or Matchbox cars in a toy store.  They’re painted in excruciating detail, right down to the windshield wipers, and buyers look not only for favored liveries, but specific registrations of actual planes they may have once flown or worked on.  My Air-India jet is VT-ESO — the Khajuraho – in the older livery, with the little Taj Mahalian decals around each window that make each jet reminiscent of a Rajasthani palace.

I thank Ivan Hoyos for his time.

Walking back to the hotel, I’m stopped by a squad car at the corner of 36th and Lavilla Drive.  One of Miami Springs’ finest wants to know why I’m casing around the airport with a notebook.  I should tell her my name is Karl Wallenda and I’m researching an article on highwire daredevils.

Reaching the lobby, I catch Richard and Marty returning from their simulated misadventures.  Richard has sweat stains under his harms.  Marty looks as if he’s just crawled out of a crash.  “How’d it go?” I ask him.  He gives me a twisted grimace and a wavering thumbs-up.


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