By Steve Anzalone
The pandemic’s impact on me as a traveler became crystal clear when, a few months ago, standing in line to re-enroll in the TSA PreCheck program, I pondered something unimaginable just a few years earlier: Was PreCheck worth the $80? Would I be doing enough travel ahead to justify the investment?
Count me among the millions of Boomers now getting back on the horse.
Sidelined for so long by Covid and facing adjustments to retirement and the indignities of advancing age, we are traveling again. Our circumstances vary. We will have stories to tell.
My story is about a small first step and a small victory for optimism. I forked over the $80 and proceeded full speed ahead with the trip on the drawing board.
Truth be told, it wasn’t really my first post-Covid travel. During those heady days between a second booster and the arrival of the Omicron variant, I managed a trip to Boston from my home outside of Washington, DC.
Before retirement, my work required that I make this trip once a month. I could do it effortlessly. I would throw a switch in my head; algorithms would kick in. I would get to Boston and back with almost no expenditure of mental energy. But now I worried that those travel algorithms were gone.
As it turned out, many of them were still alive. Everything went smoothly. I was satisfied and ready for more.
“Connie” could carry only 100 passengers, but the sleek prop plane had an illustrious career nonetheless.
Quirky or Crazy?
The new trip I was planning would be a better test of how well equipped I was to take on real travel again. The pandemic had interrupted a continuous stream of travel that included at least one international trip every year since 1968. Thanks to my job, it was often four.
The travel now being planned would not get me off shore, but it was a step in the right direction. The upcoming trip was part of a birthday present for my son. When I announced our proposed itinerary to friends, not all of them shared my view of it as quirky. Crazy seemed a better word.
The itinerary went like this: Fly JetBlue from Washington to New York’s JFK airport with a stopover in Boston (necessary to use frequent flyer miles). Stay overnight at an airport hotel. Take a taxi the next morning in to Manhattan and board Amtrak at Penn Station for the trip back to Washington. End of trip.
The itinerary sounded less crazy when I filled in the details.
Destination: TWA Hotel at JFK
Our destination hotel at JFK was the TWA Hotel, which opened three years ago adjacent to Terminal Five. The nucleus of the hotel is the resurrected TWA Flight Center, which opened its doors in 1962 and closed them in 2001.
The architectural marvel is an extravaganza of curved lines. The lines of the Flight Center, like those of Washington’s Dulles Airport and St. Louis’s Gateway Arch, show that no architect did curves better than Eero Saarinen.
My son, a pilot, was into aviation since he was in pre-school. In the fourth grade, he did a class project on Saarinen’s Dulles Airport. His knowledge of aviation lore has deep roots. A visit to the TWA Hotel would be a kind of pilgrimage.
Return to Yesteryear
Though not by nature a nostalgia buff, I found myself totally captivated by this trip back in time. Hotel check-in, minus the digital technology, at the old TWA counters got the ball rolling.
We soon saw that the Sunken Lounge and the now-fictional arrivals and departures board were operational. Parked out the window was the sleek Lockheed Constellation called Connie. Connie’s curves echoed Saarinen’s vision.
The beautiful prop airplane with its propellers, long since silenced, represented better than anything else the fate of the TWA Flight Center. Connie could carry only 100 passengers.. As the sixties rolled on, travel on jets carrying hundreds of passengers rapidly took over. The smallish Flight Center was almost obsolete from the day it opened.
Connie an Ageless Beauty
After checking out our room with its wonderful curation of 1960s details, we made our way back downstairs to have a drink onboard Connie.
What a beauty she is. In her day, she held speed records and once served as Air Force One for President Eisenhower. My son pointed out many of the features of the cockpit that I would have missed on my own.
It was dinnertime. We passed on the upscale Jean-George’s restaurant in favor of some jerk chicken in the food court. Looking over our shoulder on the floor of the food court was an enormous old Chrysler.
No mistaking this one for a Mazda. The fuel-guzzling dinosaur of the sixties looked bigger than Connie. It was a good reminder of our shortsightedness back then — and even now.
Reliving a Golden Era of Aviation
After dinner we continued our explorations. We saw a recreation of Saarinen’s office. We spent considerable time admiring the classy uniforms the flight crews wore throughout the sixties.
It was indeed a golden age. Tucked in among the uniforms were some vintage sixties suitcases. They were like the ones my Mom and Dad used back then—a poignant reminder of happy family trips.
One small disappointment during the stay: breakfast. I have only myself to blame. I hadn’t noticed a counter where you could get Intelligentsia coffee and pastries. Instead, I made the mistake of returning to the food court, and I was treated to the worst cappuccino ever to pass my lips and a bagel that had no business being anywhere within 100 miles of New York City.
After breakfast, we had time to take in more. We went outdoors on the top floor. It was too cold to use the swimming pool. But the view and feel of the airport were great. Seeing the Singapore Airlines jet parked at the gate, I felt nostalgia at a more recent past and a hopeful tug to the future.
Papal Indulgence — and a First Class ride
One of the hotel’s attractions that delighted us most was a place called the Pope’s Room. This spot came to life in 1965 on the occasion of Pope Paul VI’s first visit to the United States.
We read that the room was built to give the Pope a place to rest before boarding his TWA flight back to Rome. It was hard to understand why we found ourselves gloriously alone. Sitting on the banquettes under the lovely golden-domed ceiling, I could imagine spending a whole day there with coffee and my laptop.
A taxi took us to Penn Station. My son and I were both eager to have a look at the new Moynihan Train Hall. Our tickets permitted us to enjoy it perched from the impressive Amtrak departure lounge.
Additional frequent flyer miles allowed a splurge on Acela first class for our return to Washington. On the Northeast Corridor, the price for Acela, especially business class, never seemed worth it.
First class, with more comfortable seats, onboard meals, and attentive service, changes the equation. For me, it offered a glimpse of what rail travel could be in the United States as we go greener. I am cautiously holding my breath.
As we pulled into Washington’s Union Station, I asked myself if I would recommend to others a visit to the TWA Hotel. Yes — especially for those overnighting or with time to kill at JFK airport.
Some may prefer visiting the hotel virtually. Easy enough. Just open YouTube and dial up The Luxury Travel Expert (a guy who now has a million followers). A search for the TWA Hotel will lead to a beautiful and informative video of this living piece of history.
That’s my story. Not a daring one, to be sure. I was lucky to have done the trip before the onset of the current airport chaos that will figure into many of the stories from Boomers now getting on the road again. I look forward to reading their own stories.
Top photo caption: The design of the Lockheed Constellation, dubbed “Connie,” complemented the curved lines architect Eero Saarinen employed in the old TWA terminal at JFK, which now features a spectacular airport hotel.
All photos except Sunken Lounge by Steve Anzalone.
Steve Anzalone grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His 45 year career in international development began with UNESCO in Paris and Lesotho. He has written widely on the use of technology and distance learning to support education in developing countries. His travels for work and pleasure have taken him to 100 countries.
Great piece, Umfundisi! Worthy of TransAtlantic Features. Any chance you can convince Clark to share an account of his own rather unusual journey to South Africa and Lesotho (circa 1978 if memory serves) in a Volkswagen — a beetle rather than a van? — Frank Viviano (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Clark Norton replies:
That 1977 journey to S. Africa story may yet be told, but not quite yet, Frank. I will say that a van would have been a tad more comfortable than the Beetle.
Stephen and I were actually on assignment for Transatlantic features when we traveled through Kennedy TWA in 1971. Unfortunately, we were at the wrong terminal and our flight to England was scheduled to depart in 15 minutes. We got to the correct terminal and our flight was 5 hours late. That said the charter flight had free booze. — MIchael Reiter (Reiters@aol.com)
Clark Norton replies:
Thanks for the reminiscence, Michael. It sounds like things worked out OK in the end, assuming you didn’t reach London with a hangover.
What a great read! I’m definitely going to make the pilgrimage or route my next connection through JFK! — Kit (K40275@gmail.com)
Clark Norton replies:
I agree, Kit!
This is a great article. It brings back many memories. Pape’s story of racing to get to a different terminal reminds me of my train story. At semester break of 1966-67 Steve and I rode a train from Escanaba, Michigan to Ann Arbor. We switched trains and stations in Chicago. A taxi driver raced (and I mean raced) through town and delivered us just in time for departure to Ann Arbor. — Gary Olsen (email@example.com)