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Marking the end of an era

It was August 9, 1974; a very emotional day for me, my return to Chicago from two years at Oxford.  What lay behind was everything I loved to do:  study history, travel and immerse myself in a foreign culture.  What lay ahead was seriousness and adulthood: learn my profession as a lawyer, settle down and become an American living in America again.
 
It also was a very historic day.  Sometime during my British Airways flight from London to Chicago, President Nixon was scheduled to board Air Force 1, and during his flight, his presidency would come to an end.  The Watergate scandal that had played itself out during my two years in England, had come to this.  Nobody was certain what kind of country we had become, but we knew that this first presidential resignation marked the end of an era.
 
I was startled when we prepared to land at O'Hare ahead of schedule -- way ahead of schedule.  On the ground, I noticed that we were taxiing away from the terminal.  We halted at some outer extremity of the airport complex, somewhere I had never been before, and I noticed emergency vehicles.
 
The captain made an announcement.  "There is a bit of security problem on this flight.  The stewardesses will instruct you about what to do."  A stewardess ran down the aisle from the front of the aircraft, tears streaming down her cheeks, screaming "Women and children first!"  This might have caused panic and confusion, but somehow, it did not.  The other men and I held back and allowed others to make their way first to the exits.  Nobody said a word; nobody pushed or ran, but we all moved quickly.
 
We backed up at the doors because the first emergency vehicles to arrive were hook and ladder trucks, and they started off by hoisting their ladders up to the aircraft.  (I don't know why we didn't use the slides, but, apparently, the fire fighters were in charge.)  By the time I reached the door, a mobile staircase had been wheeled up and the exit was smooth.
 
We were shuttled to an isolated corner of the airport and told we could not leave.  There was no explanation.  At some point, I remember asking permission to use the washroom.  I was accompanied by a uniformed policemen, who was at my side every step of the way as I went about my business.  Sooner or later, we noticed that all of our luggage had been spread out on the tarmac and that there was a team of people opening every bag.  I felt sorry for whoever was plowing through the accumulation of my two years at Oxford!
 
We were allowed to use the telephone.  Ironically, even though my parents were the worrying sort, they were blithely indifferent to my plight because it was still long before I was due to arrive.  They were relieved that I was on the ground, and the fact that I was not free to leave did not bother them as much as I thought it should have.
 
After a few hours, we were released.  There was a brief announcement that a credible threat against that flight had been made in London in the name of the IRA.  For that reason, we had speeded to Chicago, and all of our luggage had been checked.  They had found nothing.
 
Customs waved us through as a group.  I was glad that they took pity on us and that there was no further delay.
 
I watched the local TV news that night and turned to the newspapers the next day.  Only the briefest of items appeared in one of the papers.  The historic events of the day had crowded out any reference to our situation, but I also learned a lesson about journalism.  Threats that don't pan out are not news, despite what those involved go through at the time.
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Last updated September 13, 2002.