The Exchange Student

Gardermoen Airport is Oslo Norway’s principal entry and exit point. It is a cosmopolitan facility of modern terminals, shops, and clubs catering to the multiple needs of international passengers. A high-speed railroad line offers thirty-minute service from and to the center of Oslo. This facility opened to the public in October of 1998, so I can imagine that more up-to-date improvements have been made or are on its horizon.

My one and only departure flight from Gardermoen took place in August of 1987 before any of these developments were contemplated. At that time, Gardermoen was a secure base serving the Royal Norwegian Air Force and NATO operations. The military authorities begrudgingly agreed to permit commercial airlines flying 747s to use their airbase as Oslo’s main airport, Fornebu, could not accommodate 747s.

Other than that experience, all my Oslo takeoffs and landings took place at Fornebu, a postage stamp of an airport that was Oslo’s version of New York’s LaGuardia, Chicago’s Midway or DC’s National. Most of the time, I flew in and out of Oslo on MD-80s, Boeing 737s or Airbus A-300’s so I didn’t quite recognize its size limitations.

I even had a near-miss on a SAS MD-80 flying in from Stockholm on a rainy morning with a low ceiling. I was flying with David Clarke, a colleague, who like me, kept his fears to himself. As we descended for our landing and broke through the clouds, what I saw were houses, lots of houses. An instant later, the pilot applied power and put the jet into a climb. When he leveled off, he announced to us, his nervous passengers, “Sorry, the tower brought us in a little too close. We will go around again.”

This was in November of 1990, and as he began our second approach, I complained to David, “Damn, just my luck, the Giants are 10 and 0 and I am going to die in Oslo, f***ing Norway!”      

But I digress! In 1987, the only way to reach Gardermoen Airport was via a two-lane highway and travel time was close to an hour without traffic. Fortunately, Steve Pires and I were returning to New York on a Saturday, so traffic was not an issue. As the taxi approached the perimeter, we observed double rows of fences topped with barb wire protecting the airbase, soldiers manning the guard towers armed with automatic weapons and the signs in English, Norwegian and German warning passengers not to stop their cars, not to get out or to take photographs. The road continued along the perimeter away from earthen embankments shielding military structures, F16 fighters and AC 135 AWAKS.

Ahead, our destination came into view, a shabby wooden passenger terminal standing alone at the far end of the base    

The inside of the terminal had the same charm, as the customs officials and airline staff on duty. The people who worked there hated their assignment and attitudes reflected the complete lack of ambience in this facility.

We shuffled along to their grunts observing the signs repeated in every room and corridor, NO PHOTOGRAPHS. Steve noted: “John, I believe if you even took out a camera, you would be arrested and interrogated for a long time.”

I have been in primitive airport facilities before. For years, a so-called Temporary Terminal at JFK served many domestic flights when the airport’s name was New York International Airport, or Idlewild, as it was commonly called. I do remember having to navigate that maze of plywood for flights three different times to find my gates on visit’s my father in Miami in 1957, 1959 and 1961.

This attitude and the physical layout of this joint at Gardemoen made us feel like we’d already crossed into the other side of the iron curtain.

Finally, we reached the main waiting room, a large area with tables and plastic chairs. Food and soft drinks were available cafeteria style. Part of the reason the room resembled an old high school cafeteria was the presence of many teenagers; boys and girls wearing the same outfits, white tee shirts and yellow shorts. They filled the space with the sights and sound of youthful energy. Clean, pretty, healthy with beautiful Nordic coloring and hair. We just looked at each other.

I decided to get us two Cokes and joined the line behind a pretty blond girl. “Excuse me,” I asked, “Could you tell me what kind of a group this is?”

“We are high school students on our way to America for our next year of school.”

“Ah, how nice. May I ask where in America you are going?”

“Kansas.”

“Kansas. Nice and good luck.”

With Cokes in hand, I returned to our table and told Steve all about my encounter. I waved to the girl so Steve would understand and let him think about it for a moment. I mentally counted to ten as timing is everything, then said,

 “You know Steve, right now, as we speak, there is a good looking, solid, tanned 17=year old kid eating a big mid-western breakfast on a large farm in middle of Kansas. He’s thinking about today’s chores, and he doesn’t have a clue that his ship is about to come in!”