In July of 2016 I flew from my current home in Boston back to my childhood home in North Carolina, a trip I have made nearly a hundred times over the past 25 years. As the plane taxied toward the gate at RDU, the gleaming southern end of Terminal 1 passed by my window – brand new, but reassuringly familiar to those of us who can still make out the framework and proportions of the 1982-era terminal it replaced.
Continuing down the tarmac though, that line of continuity with the past was broken.
I looked out the window, and there I saw the much older north end of Terminal 1, once known as Terminal B. Constructed in 1955 and expanded in the 1970s, demolition machines were slowly tearing that low-slung building apart, clawing their way toward the stately rooftop control tower.
I should have been used to sights like that at RDU. After all, I remember flying out of RDU’s red-roofed and short-lived Terminal C American Airlines hub. That was demolished too.
But this was different.
Thirty-three years ago in the shadow of Terminal B’s tower, a New York Air DC-9 landed safely on the tarmac. I was on that airplane, sitting beside my parents and brother. I was 13 years old. My father’s company was in the process of moving from New Jersey to North Carolina, and I was about to set foot in my future home for the first time.
Like other children of businesses that migrated to the Research Triangle, my life in North Carolina had a clear beginning from that point onward, a start line from which so many memories would emerge. Playing flute in the Apex Middle School band, attending Enloe High School, music camp in Boone, discovering Vollis Simpson’s whirligigs and Clyde Jones’ wooden critters, college at North Carolina School of the Arts, reading books by Reynolds Price, walking Wrightsville Beach on a clear winter morning and tackling the Cryptoquote in The N&O – they are all lines branching out from a singular place: Raleigh-Durham International Airport’s old Terminal B.
I went off to school in Boston in 1993, where I still reside. But my parents live in Chatham County, and I fly back to the place I will always call home about every three months, passing by that old terminal and tower where my life in North Carolina began.
By the time I flew to RDU a couple weeks ago on another trip home, all that was left of Terminal B was a wide expanse of blue sky and red clay. And perhaps it was right and good that it was gone. Perhaps that artifact of the airport truly was long out of place, looking decrepit and forlorn next to Terminal 2’s sweeping grandeur and the minimalist sheen of the new Terminal 1. As I looked around it occurred to me that almost nothing was left of the RDU I remember from the 1980s.
But I suspect I was not alone as I filled that newly revealed patch of sky with memories of the regal old tower that once reigned over the runways. Terminal B will forever exist for me in the storytelling, right there, radiant and alive, like a grand gateway through walled cities of old, ushering in a new generation who would always call North Carolina home.
Jason Lyon lives in Boston.