A Prairie Home Companion from American Public Media

The Old Scout
Singing the Delta Blues
April 15, 2008


I flew to New York on the day spring arrived and all along 90th Street a lovely blue flower called Pushkinia blossomed which is named for the poet who, according to Russians, cannot be translated into English, but Tchaikovsky made a gorgeous opera of "Eugene Onegin," which is some consolation, and then there is the flower.

I flew on Northwest Airlines, which now, like Pushkin, will vanish into the earth, devoured by Delta, and this makes me a little sad. Not sad enough to write an opera but enough to write a column. The company used to be called Northwest Orient and was founded in Minneapolis in 1926 to carry mail to Chicago. I used to live in a house in St. Paul once owned by Croil Hunter, a president of Northwest Orient, who, when Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt was stranded at the airport by a blizzard, put her up in the guest room of his house.

The company grew after the war and launched the Minneapolis-New York route in 1945 and two years later started flying to Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and Manila. Back in my youth, Dad sometimes took us to the airport to watch planes take off and land, such as the Boeing Stratocruiser, a double-decker equipped with passenger lounges. There still were farms out by the airport then, and in the majestic Northwest Orient radio jingle I grew up hearing, a Chinese gong went whanngngngngn after the word "Orient" and you imagined lifting up from cornfields and flying away to the West until you got to the East.

Our family did not fly, we drove, and Spokane was as far west as we went, where Uncle Lawrence and Aunt Bessie lived, and so Northwest Orient was not a carrier to me, it was a romantic concept. We middle children are filled with restless longing, trapped as we are between the Sacred First-Born Miracle Child and the Darling Infants. I grew up with middleness, a B-minus student in the middle of the country, and I longed to get out of the Midwest and fly away to the edge of the world, and I knew that Northwest Orient would take me there.

(When I say Northwest, I am talking about a childhood romance, not a corporation as such. The company was founded by romantics, men who loved aviation, and in 1989 it fell into the hands of rapacious bandits who ate its heart and plunged it headlong into debt and could be as cruel to employees as any other big union-busting corporation. But we cling to childhood illusions.)

We are good travelers, we middle Americans, and when Northwest opened a route to Beijing, everybody and their cousin talked about going there, and this spring the direct Minneapolis-Paris route opened, a beautiful idea to us as we scrape the ice off our windshields. We don't actually go, of course—we go to work—but we could go on any given day, could write "Au Revoir, Ma Famille" on a paper towel and leave it on the kitchen table under a salt shaker and drive to the airport on the bank of the Minnesota River, abandon the car in a snowbank, flash the plastic, board the plane, and wake up in Paris, like Lindbergh.

I did not fly in an airplane until I was 28 years old and that was a late-night Northwest flight on a 747 to New York. I sat back in the 30th row, surrounded by empty seats, my nose to the window, and when we came down through the clouds to the great city spread like a blanket of glittering stars and into Kennedy Airport, I felt as if I'd been given a great prize.

And so I mourn the loss of my childhood airline and the silver planes with red tails that rose from the corn. What is a Delta? A delta is mud deposited by the river. Also the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. Also a sort of triangular shape. But to me it is mud which forms a rich bottomland where they grow cotton and late at night old black men sit in a juke joint and play an old beat-up guitar and sing: "I wanted to go to the Orient someday. Get on a silver plane marked NWA. But that plane that would take me, it done flew away. I heard it on the morning news. They're wiping out the Ns and Ws. That's why I got these Delta blues."

© 2008 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.



From the Desk of Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor
Photo by Cheryl Walsh Bellville


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