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The logistics of shipping and distribution of goods are amazing to think about. Even an ardent anti-capitalist has to admit that the ingenuity by which we distribute things around the world, even when they take tremendous resources, is impressive. Maybe I'm clouded by my love of trains, but rail is the mechanism that always invokes the most wonder in me. Ships are great, don't get me wrong, but heavy iron rolling on rails makes me feel like a kid when I watch them pass. Planes, too, because of the magic the demonstrate: for the natural engineer in all of us, trains and boats are more-or-less understandable, and the methods of their locomotion easily demonstrable. But planes rely on hidden physics, airflow over wings, incredible amounts of forward thrust, and a little white-knuckled hurling yourself into opaque clouds.
So imagine how exciting it is to see 737 bodies, not yet fully assembled, rolling by on trains through Seattle. They come from Kansas, where Boeing has a factory (unfortunately, to my point of view, who wished full assembly was done here in Washington even if it would negate the sight of the fuselages rolling through), and they are shipped north, then west, across Montana, Idaho, and Washington before crossing the Cascades near Everett and heading south through Seattle to Renton for final assembly.
I used to work at an office on the ground floor at the old Post-Intelligencer building on the waterfront, where the P-I globe is now. When a plane on a train went by, the view of the park would be eclipsed by this massive cargo — green, from the protective plastic wrapping, as if your new plane is the same as your new iPhone (if you love peeling the protective covering from a small thing, imagine doing it for a plane. I wonder how soon you'd learn to hate it, if it were your job?). Because I was obsessed, I'd run out on the balcony and take a picture as quickly as I could. I used to maintain a Twitter account to post those pictures, and then I assembled a photo essay when our offices moved from the building.
There's something about seeing a plane on a train that makes you appreciate the scale of trains themselves. They don't seem quite that big, until you see them carrying something that, in short order, will launch itself into the sky, clad in the livery of the final client. I want to see a model in a giant warehouse, with tiny trains traveling from Kansas to Seattle across America.
In Seattle, this common sight brings to light a number of interesting topics: Boeing, and its role in our local economy ("Will the Last Person Leaving SEATTLE — Turn Out the Lights"; Execs abandoning their Seattle, ostensibly due to traffic; factories moving around the country, and around the world), how trains run right through the heart of our city, and we can't really control what those trains carry past our doorstep, or how long they block traffic along the waterfront.
Not to mention how strangely hypnotic the sight is, standing on the bridge at Carkeek Park, or walking the waterfront, getting caught by the old Old Spaghetti Factory, seeing them roll past as you're caught going eastbound on Lander, watching planes roll by, green, with such a future.
Imagine now that you're trapped watching a train with five of them roll by. Imagine that each plane is destined for a future, and each plane will encounter thousands of people. That means that every train has a nearly limitless supply of stories. Let's find one for each plane.
The first plane — This is the one that, after pulling into the factory, after being positioned in the assembly area, between shifts so that the riveting guns were silent — an employee inspecting the fuselage removed one of her ear protectors to scratch an itch and she heard an almost-silent mewing. And after yelling for her coworkers to shut up for a minute, discovered the kitten that had hitched a ride across America on a plane on a train.
The second plane — It's on this one, on an Alaska flight from Las Vegas to Montana, where a man who went in big and came away lacking is fretting over facing his wife to explain their diminished savings. He drank before boarding. He drank when, at altitude, first service came around. Then, with a bear-like howl, he cried out. People all around him looked as his large, 250-pound body collapsed on itself, sobbing, shaking. A small elderly woman, on her way to visit her wayward daughter, who was finding herself at a yoga retreat near Glacier, moved next to him, placed her tiny hand on his shoulder, and leaned in to speak the most calming words he'd ever heard.
The third plane — It's ten years into its service when this plane flies a seven-year-old who will become the President of the United States. It's the last time this child will fly with their father, who will die in the year following. It's notable because they're going to see Washington, DC, where the child's father hopes to instill a sense of purpose and pride in the child for their country, and where they will have a coincidental run-in, checking into the hotel, with a former congressperson that the child will never forget. And the flight is notable because, due to great irony, the man who runs against this child in the future (and loses, by a narrow margin), a teenager at this point, is sitting in first class, coming to spend Spring Break with his own professional lobbyist father, flying from the boarding school he hates so much.
The fourth plane — It's this one that comes closest to having an accident. It's an air traffic control issue, and the plane is saved by a quick-thinking pilot — who had once been a test pilot on the 737 line — who immediately responded to an impending collision light by pulling up hard and increasing thrust to jet the airplane to a much higher altitude. And in the bathroom, a woman applying makeup and nearly poking her eye out and dropping her little zip bag full of beauty kit everywhere, devises an idea for organizing her kit that ended up becoming a multi-million dollar business.
The fifth plane — This is the plane that the aliens take. It's flying to Bermuda, and then blink, it's gone. Nowhere on radar, and no wreckage ever found. It just disappears from the world. In fact, everybody aboard passed out, as if by magic, and awoke to the plane on stable ground, quiet, engines off. They woke, and looked around. A scream from the front of the plane, a man looking out the window. It was obvious on first glance, they were nowhere in the world. It was obvious on first glance that they had been abducted.