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RDU’s Terminal 1: Gateway to a Life Unimaginable

April 11, 2014

This weekend, my home airport, Raleigh-Durham International, referred to throughout the Triangle simply as RDU, is shutting down its original terminal, now called Terminal 1, and opening its renovated grandchild. I am delighted this is happening–it’s the final chapter in the years-long massive redesign of RDU. The airport’s evolution demonstrates not only how much the region has developed, but also optimistically states that there is room for more growth, deeper personal and commercial connections with the world. There will be empty gates waiting.

My first trip to RDU was on Christmas Day 1989. Vicki and I had been married for all of four months. We were still living in California, and both of our families were back East. Rather than pick one family to share the holiday with, we decided to fly on Christmas Day so we could be with both sides for part of the day. We had done this the previous couple of years, and it worked well. Logan Airport in Boston was a little less crazy on the holiday than on the days preceding and following, and traffic on I-93 from Concord was lighter, too. Flying into modestly-sized Wilmington, NC, airport was easy, too, and Vicki’s parents had a short drive from their home to fetch us.

But in 1989 there was a glitch: a once-in-a-decade snowfall. In fact, the 13 inches on the ground in Wilmington remains a record for the holiday. So poor little ILM was shut down. But RDU was open, and so we got rebooked. Vicki’s incredibly patient and dedicated parents made the trek to fetch us. Today that trip takes about two hours each way, but the snow and the lack of interstate (I-40 would not reach Wilmington until the next summer) made it a four-and-a-half hour drive … each way. Yup, Don and Barbara spent nine hours of their Christmas Day driving on small, snowy roads, so we could be with them on Christmas. I’ve not forgotten their gift of time and patience that day. They didn’t even stop at the airport to rest; they just fetched us and turned around.

I remember three other things about that day: first, ballplayer and manager Billy Martin died in a truck accident; second, I saw NC State basketball player Brian D’Amico waiting for someone near the baggage claim; and third, I remember looking around the terminal and thinking, “Is this going to become my home airport?”

Vicki and I had married right before her last year of graduate school, and we were trying to figure out our next steps in our life together. Would she pursue a tenure-track job, which could lead us anywhere, or would we pick a place we wanted to live, and just look for jobs there? I had it easy. I was a high school history teacher, so I had lots of flexibility in choosing a place to live. It was tougher for Vicki. We were considering the Triangle as a possible landing spot because it had the things we liked about the Bay Area–universities, access to arts, a sense of moving forward–along with affordable housing prices. It would put us back on the East Coast, nearer our families, and looked like a good area to start a family. Vicki, whose selflessness I will cherish forever, opted for place over career. Six months after that Christmas Day at RDU, we were living in Raleigh. Six weeks after that, I had a teaching job at a middle school in Chapel Hill. A month after that, Vicki had her first job at Duke. Two years, Bobby was born, with Val arriving a bit more than two years after that.

There is no way my 1989 self could dream of the life we would have, just a few miles away from what was then called Terminal A. RDU now has two new terminals and a huge parking deck. I commute from the new Terminal 2–heading in and out of the airport for almost ten years now. We have welcomed Bobby home from college in Atlanta, and sent Valerie off on a school trip to Costa Rica. Vicki’s current Duke job (which is for a scholarship program including UNC) has her in and out of RDU all summer. To celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary we flew from RDU to Paris. We have made a life for ourselves that surpasses all I could want.

And here’s a final piece of this story I could not have imagined in 1989: I am writing this post on a laptop, on a plane, heading home. Gotta click that Publish button before we get to 10,000 feet.

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