I had a very strange feeling of sensory overload this afternoon, and it nearly ended with me driving to the grocery store for the sole purpose of buying clam chowder. Now I feel compelled to explain why. Of course, I’ll understand if you’re not interested; this story doesn’t exactly fit with this blog’s two main topics (journalism and my mother).
When I was a kid, my family used to spend summers up in Nantucket, Mass. At the time, Nantucket didn’t have any popular sentiments attached to it. It definitely wasn’t cool, and it probably wasn’t uncool, if only because no one really knew it existed. Cape Cod was a big deal, and so was Martha’s Vineyard. But nobody really went to Nantucket. My family would go to the beach, and if we saw another person, we’d declare it a crowded day. We’d stay along the southern edge of the island, three quarters of a mile from the ocean. The only thing that stood between us and Portugal, my mother would tell us, was some scrub brush.
At the time, I had a strange obsession with airports. (1) Not with airplanes, mind you; I didn’t care much for flying in pressurized metal tubes. But I found airports fascinating. In D.C., I’d ride the subway down to National Airport with my dad and watch the planes take off and land. On airplanes, I’d flip to the backs of the in-flight magazine and trace the airport gate maps with my finger.
Nantucket had an especially unusual airport. It was built during World War II on the south side of the island, which locals know as the foggy side of the island. The move was intentional: the air force hoped it would prepare its aviators for the foggy conditions along the British coast.
When World War II ended, the air force moved away, but the airport never did. It stayed on the foggy side of the island, and in the evenings, the fog rolls in. Most days, it won’t clear out until noon. Nantucket’s airport became famous for delays. The airport’s gift shop — singular, mind you — started selling shirts that read, simply, “Fog Happens.”
I remember spending a lot of time at the Nantucket airport as a kid, probably because there wasn’t a lot to do on the island. You could go to the beach and the movies, and you could read or listen to the Sox game on the radio, and you could get ice cream, and you could go biking or play mini-golf. That was about it. My family stayed in a house without a TV. (2) On those foggy days, when the beach wasn’t an option, and when other kids were probably inside watching TV, we went to the airport.
It was a tiny airport, and it still is. Back then, it only had three gates, and most travelers showed up four or five minutes before departure. There were no metal detectors or security. There was no need.
At the end of the terminal, there was a restaurant called Hatch’s. They had a counter with seating for six or seven, and maybe a dozen tables. The food was average, except for one item on the menu: the clam chowder. For whatever reason, Hatch’s had the best chowder on the island. It was so good that people actually wanted to go to the airport to eat.
So my family would head down to Hatch’s for dinner some nights. We’d order our clam chowder, and my brother and my sister and I would run around the airport — all 150 yards of it — and back. We’d go outside, where we could press our faces up against a fence and watch the planes roll in with the fog. The airport’s mini-tanker would drive around and refuel the planes, and the passengers who’d shown up four minutes earlier would hop in these tiny Cessnas owned by Nantucket Airlines or Island Air — both of whom only offered non-stop service to Hyannis, a destination eight minutes away — and disappear into the fog.
More than anything else about Nantucket Airport, I remember the smell. The air stunk from the oil layered onto the runways. In my life, I’ve experienced few smells as strong as the Nantucket tarmac up close.
Which brings me back to today.
I was down at San Antonio’s Central library, walking back to my car, and I smelled it. I don’t know where it came from or why it was so strong in the air, but I’d never smelled oil that thick anywhere except at the Nantucket airport. It was chilly — it’s rained here for almost a week straight, and the front has settled in over south central Texas — and I almost expected my mother to pop out from behind me with a hooded sweatshirt, telling me to put it on and come back inside to eat at Hutch’s.
And standing there in downtown San Antonio, the scent of the tarmac filling the air, I suddenly felt the urge to grab a bowl of clam chowder.