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Issue 160

Picture Piece: A Lighthouse in the Sky

Newfoundland's Gander International Airport

BY Stephanie DeGooyer in One Takes | 11 JAN 13

Postcard of Gander International Airport, c. 1959, from Leif Gustafsson's postcard collection

Gander International Airport, strategically positioned in a remote and unmapped part of northeastern Newfoundland, was once ‘the crossroads of the world’. Opened in 1938, the airport was originally a secret military base. After the war, it became an important fuelling hub for all transatlantic travel. Neither a destination in its own right, nor a completely unwelcome rest stop (this photograph was taken for a postcard), Gander was a space-between-places, an interstitial zone both desolate and bustling: on any given night of the week, it is said, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe or Fidel Castro could be found intermingling with locals at the Big Dipper, the only bar in Newfoundland to boast a 24-hour licence.

With advances in fuelling technology, Gander’s star faded in the 1960s and the airport remained open mainly for military aircraft. These days, fashion and design editors routinely dispatch photographers to the ends of the earth to capture the Mondrianesque floor and mid-century chairs that have ossified in the passenger lounge. What these pictures don’t show, however, is that contemporary passengers are cut off from the artefacts of their space-age ancestors by a green-tinted glass corridor.

This exterior shot, by contrast, highlighting the airport’s structural translucency, reminds us of modernity’s promise before its Icarian crash into the rules and regulations of homeland security. (The terminal has since been fortified.) Against the dying of the light, on 11 September 2001, Gander opened its runways to 6,122 passengers diverted from us airspace: a lighthouse in the maelstrom.

Stephanie DeGooyer is assistant professor of English at Willamette University, USA. Her book, The Right To Have Rights, co-authored with Alastair Hunt, Lida Maxwell and Sam Moyn, is forthcoming from Verso Books. Follow her @Stevie_DG