When Cultures Collide

Oct. 15, 2009

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.

The Allied rampies were in the midst of all of this, waiting to help load the casket onto the forklift and finally get it up into the aircraft. A loud altercation then broke out around the casket. The crowd was insisting that only members of their sect could lay hands on their leader’s casket. Bad enough the Allied rampies were not Hassidim, they were not even Jewish! On the other side, the Allied rampies took the position that only paid-up members of their Teamster’s Local could load this airplane and that, furthermore, no fuel or oil would be pumped into the airplane if they were not allowed to complete their designated duties. The police, both New York City and Port Authority were flummoxed. Ramp security was breached, although in those days it was considerably looser. They wanted to get the hundreds of mourners off the ramp but they would not comply. Normally, a crowd who ignored the instructions of a New York City police officer could expect to find as a final measure an application of an ash-wood club. The officers decided they could not use their nightsticks as the New York Post, a liberal paper then, would dearly have loved to feature a picture of a cop clubbing a Hassidim. It was a true scene. Angry shouts punctuated cries of grief.

Someone with the wisdom of Solomon finally came to the rescue. Allied rampies would operate the forklift. Hassidic men would be stationed on stands and ladders around it placing their hands on the coffin as it ascended, thereby at least symbolically doing the lifting and they could do the push to get it started into the baggage compartment. It was true, of course, that profane hands were waiting inside the baggage to drag it the rest of the way in, but you couldn’t see them with the box in the way. Miraculously this inspired solution worked without a hitch. The forklift raised it with a crowd of mourners steadying it and then ultimately sliding it back into the belly of the Connie.

At last the police made progress in clearing the ramp. I went up a ladder and quickly closed the baggage door. I carefully reattached the nose gear door actuating rods and pulled at them to test their security. The El Al flight engineer had come down to personally check them, as he had no wish of getting the nose gear jammed. I momentarily commiserated with him on the scene and he went back up the steps into the aircraft. By now the observation deck had refilled with the Hassidim. Their keening cries of loss were overwhelmed by the throaty roar of the big Wright engines. The Connie rolled forward and wheeled in response to the marshaler’s instructions, and we too departed the scene.