When Cultures Collide

It was the mid-1950s and Idlewild Airport was still very much a work-in-progress. We had just taxied an El Al L049 Constellation over from Lockheed’s Hangar 7 to the “International Terminal.” This was a hodgepodge of oversized Quonset huts and...


It was the mid-1950s and Idlewild Airport was still very much a work-in-progress. We had just taxied an El Al L049 Constellation over from Lockheed’s Hangar 7 to the “International Terminal.” This was a hodgepodge of oversized Quonset huts and corrugated metal-sided gate structures crowned by an observation deck. Many people came in those days to see their friends off and, since you had to walk across the open ramp to board your flight, you could wave back too. The entrance to the observation deck was up a flight of stairs from the ground level with turnstiles next to the grille called, in those pre-politically correct days, “The Greeks.” There wasn’t much choice of dining then except, of course, The Golden Door restaurant with its cocktail lounge and very pricey menu. This was obviously very much off limits to mechanics in stained coveralls. You might be surprised to hear that people used to actually come to the airport just to dine at the Golden Door. Imagine going with your date to eat at your local airport these days!

The war-built Connie sat there with its oil-dripping engines snapping and crackling as they cooled down from the taxi. We were contemplating a cup of coffee when an El Al agent hurried over to our service truck and asked us to disconnect the nose gear door links and get them out of the way as they had some long freight to load through the baggage door located at the aft end of the nose wheel well. Lockheed had cleverly put a door in there but to use it, it required getting the nose-gear-door operating links out of the way. This was not uncommon for the smallish baggage doors in the side of the belly wouldn’t accommodate long boxes. It was no big deal to wheel a small stand over and pull the pins out and swing the links away. I opened the door and then got down and moved the stand away.

Walking back to our servicing van, I noticed the observation deck above the El Al gate was loading up with first dozens and then hundreds of men and boys all dressed in long black coats and black hats. The men were all bearded, and the boys had their hair curling down the sides of their faces. I identified them immediately as being Hassidim, ultra-orthodox Jews who lived, in those days, mainly in Brooklyn. While a pretty common sight on the subways and streets, such a number at the airport was certainly unusual. As we watched their numbers continued to swell. Obviously some dignitary was going to depart to the Holy Land to draw such a turnout. We needed until the oversize “baggage” was loaded so that we could reconnect the links.

It was then we heard the wail of police sirens from down the ramp by the firehouse. A phalanx of New York City police motorcycles appeared leading a black hearse and a group of limousines. It proved to be the funeral cortege of the honored leader of a large sect of Hassidim. He had requested burial in the Holy Land. The need for opening the nose wheel well door was now explained as only it would accept a coffin. Allied Aviation Services were the handlers for many of the airlines at Idlewild then and had a small crew and a forklift ready to go to work. As the hearse pulled up near the nose of the aircraft a wail of grief broke out from the watchers on the observation deck. Men and boys extended their arms and cried out in unrestrained sorrow. The funeral director opened the rear doors of the hearse, and he and his assistants carefully brought the coffin out on a wheeled bier. The sight of the casket brought forth a still greater outpouring of grief, cries and lamentations in a show of almost Biblical proportions. Reverently, they moved it toward the waiting forklift. The Allied Aviation rampies prepared to move the casket from the bier onto the waiting forklift. With that, the doors of the terminal burst open and a stream of black-coated Hassidic men and boys poured out on the ramp. They surrounded the bier, and they wailed as they laid their hands upon the casket of their departed reverent leader.

This content continues onto the next page...

We Recommend

  • News

    Fun with Passengers

    Ruminations from the Ramp Fun with Passengers This month, Tony Vasko recalls how bygone technology offered opportunities for "rampies" to play a variety of pranks on airline...

  • News

    Miami's Honor Given to Arrival of Fall Soldiers Gains Attention

    Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue trucks spray water in ceremonial arches over arriving planes. Airport and federal customs officers form impromptu honor guards to greet caskets, covered with a U.S. flag they...

  • News

    Miami's Honor Given to Arrival of Fall Soldiers Gains Attention

    Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue trucks spray water in ceremonial arches over arriving planes. Airport and federal customs officers form impromptu honor guards to greet caskets, covered with a U.S. flag they...

  • News

    Ruminations from the Ramp

    Ruminations from the Ramp Ruminations from the Ramp By Tony Vasko February 2000 If you are reading this, you have survived into the new Millennium (or still have to wait one more year if...