I guess it’s an artifact of both my age and living in the last century that I still stand in wonder of an airport. I loved the mystery of Greater Pittsburgh Airport; a concrete bunker-style building located in what had been a cow pasture. It was a 15-mile drive outside the city. I first flew out of the airport when I was in high school, feeling that grime of a place near where oil was discovered (Oil City) and where it was used to keep those lumbering planes in the air. Every wall and ceiling was made of a shiny kind of Formica, large panels that seemed to hold the hand prints of generations.
Greater Pitt had a restaurant and nightclub on the second floor of the terminal. In the words of my family, it was a special occasion kind of place, not one that you’d go to after Church, but only when someone else was paying. A place where people dined in coats, ties and fancy dresses there, often going just to go and not for a flight. Of course, flying was something that only businessmen did then, and you dressed for business.
That was the case this time: a friend of my dad’s, Dave Johns, was picking up the tab. Dave was the neighborhood guy people whispered about: seemed to be flush with cash, had three individual phones and phone lines, a large house, a nice family and a new Cadillac sedan every year. They said he was a bookie, and I know that he slept till noon most days. One time we went with him to a baseball game at Forbes Field to see the Pittsburgh Pirates play. Dave did not wait for a parking space, just stopped in front of the gates, told us to get out, then threw the keys to a bored-looking Pittsburgh cop with the admonition to bring the car back when the game was over. He did, and money changed hands, right there in front of us all.
I was just out of tenth grade in high school, working my way through Junior Year, keeping my head down and grades up. One day I told my family, sheepishly, that I really liked Joanie Summers, a female singer I’d been hearing on the radio. My dad, ever the arranger, mentioned this to Dave Johns, the real super arranger. I forgot to mention that Dave previously pulled off a miracle, having Tony Bennett come to our high school for a benefit concert when he was appearing at that same airport nightclub. Kids didn’t care much for the music but parents did.
Off we whisked to the airport one school night. It was after normal dinner, but Dave, of course, was ready for anything. We parked right in front of the entrance to the airport, just under the No Parking sign. Dave left the Cadillac’s engine running. He handed out a series of bills, fives I guess, to anyone he met as we entered the building and took the elevator to the nightclub. We got the best table right next to the stage and settled in for dinner. It was a steak sandwich, a huge hunk of beef on a small slice of toast. I picked at it, drank my Coke, and waited for the show to start.
Joanie Summers was wonderful, stood right next to us, performed well with a trio. After Dave Johns motioned for her to come over, putting his arm around her. To me, she was unbelievably beautiful, even more than I had imagined she was. He whispered something in her ear, and she looked directly at me, took me by the shoulders and kissed me full on the mouth. I was weak, embarrassed, excited and overwhelmed. She turned away, took one of the small place cards that were on the table and wrote on the back, “All my Love, Joanie.”
We left about midnight, after her second show. I don’t remember much of the ride home, just the afterglow of that kiss. I folded my note carefully, deciding if I’d ever mention the encounter with Joanie Summers to anyone, any time. These things had a way of being a liability in high school, so I mostly kept it to myself.
I found out she’s only three years older than I am. But we had our chance encounter at the airport in 1961. Thanks to Dave Johns, the neighborhood bookie.