By Sue Bailey
The Canadian Press
The vintage international lounge at the Gander airport in central Newfoundland is a time capsule where Italian marble and designer furniture still exude the faded glamour of world travel.
It’s a vast room, its iconic yellow sofas whimsically arranged on a mezzanine overlooking terrazzo floors and sleek blue chairs where VIPs ranging from global leaders to the Beatles once stopped on transatlantic flights.
It was opened by the Queen as a showcase of Canadian modernity in 1959. But the growing costs of preserving this cultural touchstone have raised the prospect that a more practical, smaller terminal will replace it.
“We understand and appreciate the historical significance of this airport and this terminal building,” said Gary Vey, president and CEO of the Gander International Airport Authority.
“We’re hopeful that some solution can be found perhaps to maintain it. But we have to be clear that it can’t be at the expense of the airport authority because we don’t have a mandate for that.
“To put it bluntly, we’re not in the museum business.”
Unique ode to an era
The airport still has a strategic and vital role, but no longer sees nearly the traffic it once did, he said. Operating costs of the terminal are increasingly eating into profits, he explained.
Vey sympathizes with those who want to protect Gander’s unique ode to an era when boarding a plane was a luxury. He’s about to retire from an extraordinary 17-year career in a place like no other.
“I’ve seen everybody here from Fidel Castro, Vicente Fox, Prince Charles, the Queen. I saw Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, the list goes on.”
He once talked politics with former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr. for a cherished few minutes when they were en route to Moscow for the funeral of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin.
Vey still gets a kick out of sharing with visitors the room’s most prized features. They include the “Welcoming Birds” sculpture in bronze by Arthur Price and the 22-metre long futuristic mural that hangs overhead.
Called “Flight and its Allegories” by artist Kenneth Lochhead, its vibrant colours were fixed to last in the classical tempera style using egg yolk. At the bottom left is a male figure with binoculars that seem to follow you around.
Vey laughed as he showed off the row of chairs before a large makeup mirror in the original ladies powder room where Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy may well have freshened up.
Circular bank of pay phones
In the centre of the lounge is a circular bank of pay phones where members of the 101st Airborne Division Screaming Eagles formed long lines for what would be their last words with loved ones on Dec. 12, 1985. Their chartered Arrow Air DC-8 crashed just after takeoff early that morning, killing 248 troops and eight crew, as they headed home for Christmas to Fort Campbell, Ky.
Ice on the wings or a possible explosion were later blamed in a divided official report.
Margaret O’Dea was a teenager in Gander in the mid-1960s who spent hours at the airport when international and domestic passengers freely mingled.
“It was warm, it was safe, there was food and there was always people.” O’Dea said. “We became people watchers.”
She especially recalled listening to often terrified young American draftees, many of them just 18, on their way to the Vietnam War.
“They had just said goodbye to everybody they loved in their whole life and they knew many of them were not going to come back,” she said.
O’Dea said she wasn’t looking for pen pals or romance.
“It was trying to help them face what was coming, even though none of us had a clue what they were going to face,” she said. “It was just they needed someone to talk to.”
O’Dea is among many people who hope the lounge can be saved intact.
“If it’s taken apart, it’s destroyed,” O’Dea said.
Jack Marion once worked night shifts at the airport.
“It was part of the fabric of the town back in the ’60s and ’70s,” he recalled. “We made friends with the crews and with everybody in the terminal.”
Cary Grant arrived on a private jet one night and came in for a chat.
“What a nice man he was,” Marion said.