This fall, the Jacksonville International Airport (JAX, as so many other things are called in Jacksonville) celebrates its 50thanniversary. In a 22-minute local news special reported by First Coast News’s own Lewis and Clark investigative team, we see JAX, then known as JIA, in its black and white
, 1960s glory. Preceding Disney World by three years, and sitting 180 miles north, the archival footage speaks to that same feeling of progress and innovation. Both were built in the middle of nowhere on swampland and dairy farms, full of the promise of the new.
The footage shows white men in suits and white women in heels. The new airport, the narration explains, would replace the military installation a few miles away, and would service Florida’s largest county (Duval) and city (Jacksonville) by area and population.
(I once saw Jerry Seinfeld perform in Jacksonville in the 90s and he made an excellent local joke about how some guy probably loaded the “county limit” sign into his pickup and drove until he ran out of gas. The crowd loved it.)
The original terminal was a brutalist square arising from coquina, the detritus of ocean life. Coquina is beautiful. I wouldn’t call the original terminal beautiful, but it’s an airport, so I’m not sure it needs to be. In the special anniversary video, Lewis (Turner) and (Jessica) Clark file their report in the dark from what used to be the old terminal entrance, now somewhere in the middle of the taxiway. It’s either very early in the morning or late at night; I can’t tell. They are very excited to be on the tarmac telling you about the transformation of JIA into JAX fifty years ago, wow.
Over the years, JAX was further renovated, with two new concourses constructed in the early Aughts. Like many things in Florida, this gave the airport a very Old Mall/New Mall feel. I must have flown out of the old airport in the late 80s, when I was in elementary school, but I don’t remember much of it. I remember low ceilings and industrial carpet and much less natural light. I do remember pulling up to the terminal in our station wagon and getting out of the car, parking at the curb, and walking to the gate to see my father off on a business trip. This might be an amalgamation of memories, but it’s there.
When I moved back to Florida for college over twenty years ago, I started what would become my at least twice-yearly treks through JAX. My dad would meet me at the gate and drive me to college in Gainesville. It felt natural, a homecoming (of sorts) through this airport,seeing my father in one of his many Gators polo shirts, his widow’s peak deepening every year, a gray-blond isthmus. He stood just outside the crowd of people at the gate (this was back when you could wait at the gate) so that I always had to look a few seconds longer for him than I expected, a moment’s panic that he was late, or forgot. He never forgot.
The terrazzo floors sparkle with quartz,inlaid with various oceanic shapes: turtles, starfish, jellyfish, generic fish shapes. In fact, these won the 2013 Honor Award from the National Terrazzo Mosaic Association. It’s very pleasing to deplane in JAX, especially after the horrors of La Guardia or JFK, to the light and sparkle and general quiet that belies an airport that serves over five million people a year.
Looming at the end of each concourse are two of the most ridiculous examples of airport art I’ve ever seen. Thirty-five feet high and wide, Concourse A features a photorealistic picture of a man mid-stride, shown from shoulder to calf, wearing a watch and a bracelet, holding a newspaper in one hand and carrying a messenger bag decorated with a road map of Jacksonville (???????) on the other shoulder. Such a casual stride, this towering man has—he’s definitely not late for his flight.
Concourse B is the female counterpart to A. Thin arms and sensible skirt, conspicuous bracelet, her own briefcase decorated with that map of Jacksonville. It’s called Gotta Go (!!!!!!!). I laugh every time I see it. My dad would have found them hilarious, though I don’t know if he ever saw them—we never talked about them, at any rate.
This airport art invokes movement,which makes a certain obvious sense. But to me it looks like the man and woman are walking away from something, much like Florida, as a state, often walks away from old buildings. Tearing down malls and rebuilding them. Reshuffling planned communities into retirement communities into assisted living facilities.
These days, when I’m at the gate at JAX, I’m coming or going from vacation at the same beach condo my family has been going to for over 60 years. I learned how to swim in the pool there. Soon, I’ll teach my daughter how to swim in that same pool. Depending on which way I turn when I’m on the jetway, the past is behind me and the future ahead.
JAX is a good airport, I think. Writing this article, I am pleased to learn that it has been rated number one in customer service by Airports Council International two years in a row. It has three galleries including fine art, cultural, and historical exhibitions. First opened in 1995, they feature local history and artists. One of them is an aviation gallery, where you can watch planes take off and land and view aviation-related exhibits.
When you leave the new terminal, its Brooks Brothers and Brighton and chair massage place, the Starbucks and Firehouse Subs, and Chili’s To-Go, you enter what’s left of the old building.There’s the Burger King and the gift shop where I always consider buying another University of Florida shirt. The floors are new, the windows are bigger, maybe there’s even more of them. But you can still feel the low slung old building underneath the new finishes. Or at least I can.
Through security is the Atrium and if you’re lucky, the saxophonist will be there, an elderly African-American man on a small stage not far from the Burger King, playing standards on his soprano saxophone. There’s a piano behind him, but he’s a solo act. There’s a bucket. He’s busking. You add your dollars.
If you don’t catch the saxophonist in the Atrium, you might see if the singing bartender at Vino Volo is working. Her rousing performance of “Summertime” can be seen at the 20:30 mark in the anniversary video.
The video, as of this writing, has 276 views. Some of those are mine.
I still see my father in every airport I travel through. Not just JAX, but especially JAX. I see him in his khaki shorts and boat shoes—so Florida. Or I see him as he was when he was younger, making his connection in a crisp white shirt, tasseled loafers, his matching LL Bean luggage monogrammed TAM. I’ll catch him out of the corner of my eye and turn, ready to greet him in his regular place, right by the gate.
As a kid, he brought me gifts from the dozens of airports he traveled through on his frequent business trips. Too-large t-shirts with plasticky images—from New Orleans, San Jose, San Francisco. It was his way of saying hello, I’m thinking of you, but I never wore them. I didn’t understand, then.
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Kate McKean, Jacksonville, Florida, My Airport