LESS THAN a lustrum ago, the airport was considered among the world's finest and most modern. Delegations inspected it admiringly. Civic politicians were given to pointing with pride and would huff and puff about "air leadership" and "a symbol of the jet age." Nowadays the politicians still huffed and puffed, but with less reason. What most failed to realize was that Lincoln International, like a surprising number of other major airports, was close to becoming a whited sepulcher.



Mel Bakersfeld pondered the phrase whited sepulcher while riding in darkness down runway one seven, left. It was an apt definition, he thought. The airport's deficiencies were serious and basic, yet, since they were mostly out of public view, only insiders were aware of them.



Travelers and visitors at Lincoln International saw principally the main passenger terminal---a brightly lighted, air-conditioned Taj Mahal. Of gleaming glass and chrome, the terminal was impressively spacious, its thronged concourses adjoining elegant waiting areas. Opulent service facilities ringed the passenger area. Six specialty restaurants ranged from a gourmet dining room, with gold-edged china and matching prices, to a grab-it-and-run hot dog counter. Bars, cozily darkened or stand-up and neon lit, were plentiful as toilets. While waiting for a flight, and without ever leaving the terminal, a visitor could shop, rent a room and bed, and take a steam bath with massage, have his hair cut, suit pressed, shoes shined, or even die and have his burial arranged by Holy Ghost Memorial Gardens which maintained a sales office on the lower concourse.



Judged by its terminal alone, the airport was still spectacular. Where its deficiencies lay were in operating areas, notably runways and taxiways.



Few of the eighty thousand passengers who flew in and out each day were aware of how inadequate---and therefore hazardous---the runway system had become. Even a year previously, runways and taxiways were barely sufficient; now, they were dangerously over-taxed. In normally busy periods, on two main runways, a takeoff or landing occurred every thirty seconds. The Meadowood situation, and the consideration the airport showed to community residents, made it necessary, at peak periods, to use an alternative runway which bisected one of the other two. As a result, aircraft took off and landed on converging courses, and there were moments when air traffic controllers held their breath and prayed. Only last week Keith Bakersfeld, Mel's brother, had predicted grimly, "Okay, so we stay on our toes in the tower, and we cope with the hairy ones, and we haven't brought two airplanes together at that intersection yet. But someday there'll be a second's inattention or misjudgment, and one of us will. I hope to God it isn't me because when it happens it'll be the Grand Canyon all over again."



The intersection Keith had spoken of was the one which the Conga Line had just passed over. In the cab of the Snowblast, Mel glanced to the rear. The Conga Line was well clear of the intersection now, and, through a momentary gap in the snow, airplane navigation lights were visible on the other runway, moving swiftly as a flight took off. Then, incredibly, there were more lights only a few yards behind as another flight landed, it seemed at the same instant.



The Snowblast driver had turned his head also. He whistled. "Those two were pretty close."



Mel nodded. They had been close, exceptionally so, and for an instant his flesh had prickled with alarm. Obviously, what had happened was that an air traffic controller, instructing the pilots of both airplanes by radio, had cut tolerances exceedingly fine. As usual, the controller's skilled judgment had proven right, though only just. The two flights were safe---one now in the air, the other on the ground. But it was the need for a multiplicity of such hairbreadth judgments which created an unceasing hazard.



Mel had pointed out the hazard frequently to the Board of Airport Commissioners and to members of City Council, who controlled airport financing, As well as immediate construction of more runways and taxiways, Mel had urged purchase of additional land around the airport for long term development. There had been plenty of discussion, and sometimes angry argument, as a result. A few Board and Council members saw things the way Mel did, but others took a strongly counter view. It was hard to convince people that a modern jetport, built in the late 1950s, could so quickly have become inadequate to the point of danger. It made no difference that the same was true of other centers---New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and elsewhere; there were certain things which politicians simply did not want to see.



Mel thought: maybe Keith was right. Perhaps it would take another big disaster to arouse public awareness, just as the 1956 Grand Canyon disaster had spurred President Eisenhower and the Eighty-fourth Congress to revamp the airways. Yet, ironically, there was seldom any difficulty in getting money for non-operational improvements. A proposal to triple-deck all parking lots had won city approval without dissent. But that was something which the public---including those who had votes---could see and touch. Runways and taxiways were different. A single new runway cost several million dollars and took two years to build, yet few people other than pilots, air traffic controllers, and airport management, ever knew how good or bad a runway system was.



But at Lincoln International a showdown was coming soon. It had to. In recent weeks, Mel had sensed the signs, and when it happened the choice would be clear---between advancement on the ground, matching new achievements in the air, or impotently drifting backward. In aviation, there was never a status quo.



There was another factor.



As well as the airport's future, Mel's personal future was at stake. Whichever way airport policies veered, so would his own prestige advance or lessen in places where it counted most.



Only a short time ago, Mel Bakersfeld had been a national spokesman for ground logistics of aviation, had been touted as the rising young genius in aviation management. Then, abruptly, a single, calamitous event had wrought a change. Now, four years later, the future was no longer clear, and there were doubts and questioning about Mel Bakersfeld, in others' minds as well as in his own.



The event which caused the change was the John F. Kennedy assassination.



"Here's the end of the runway, Mr. Bakersfeld. You riding back with us, or what?" The voice of the Snowblast driver broke in on Mel's reverie.



"Hm?"



The man repeated his question. Ahead of them, once more, warning lights were flashing on, the Conga Line showing. Half the width of a runway was cleared at one time. Now, the Line would reverse itself and go back the way it had come, clearing the remaining portion. Allowing for stops and starts, it took forty-five minutes to an hour to plow and sand a single runway.



"No," Mel said. "I'll get off here."



"Right, sir." The driver directed a signal light at the assistant foreman's car which promptly swung out of line. A few moments later, as Mel clambered down, his own car was waiting. From other plows and trucks, crews were descending and hurrying to the coffee wagon.



Driving back toward the terminal, Mel radioed the Snow Desk, confirming to Danny Farrow that runway one seven, left, would be usable shortly. Then, switching to ATC ground control, he turned the volume low, the subdued, level voices a background to his thoughts.



In the Snowblast cab he had been reminded of the event which, of all others he remembered, had struck with greatest impact.



It had been four years ago.



He thought, startled, was it really that long ago?---four years since the gray November afternoon when, dazedly, he had pulled the p.a. microphone across his desk toward him---the microphone, rarely used, which overrode all others in the terminal---and cutting in on a flight arrival bulletin, had announced to concourses which swiftly hushed, the shattering news which seconds earlier had flashed from Dallas.



His eyes, as he spoke then, had been on the photograph on the facing wall across his office, the photograph whose inscription read: To my friend Mel Bakersfeld, concerned, as I am, with attenuating the surly bonds of earth---John F. Kennedy.



The photograph still remained, as did many memories.



The memories began, for Mel, with a speech he had made in Washington, D.C.



At the time, as well as airport general manager, he had been president of the Airport Operators Council---the youngest leader, ever, of that small but influential body linking major airports of the world. AOC headquarters was in Washington, and Mel flew there frequently.



His speech was to a national planning congress.



Aviation, Mel Bakersfeld had pointed out, was the only truly successful international undertaking. It transcended ideological boundaries as well as the merely geographic. Because it was a means of intermingling diverse populations at ever-diminishing cost, it offered the most practical means to world understanding yet devised by man.



Even more significant was aerial commerce. Movement of freight by air, already mammoth in extent, was destined to be greater still. The new, giant jet airplanes, to be in service by the early 1970s, would be the fastest and cheapest cargo carriers in human history; within a decade, oceangoing ships might be dry-dock museum pieces, pushed out of business in the same way that passenger airplanes had clobbered the Queen Mary and Elizabeth. The effect could be a new, world-wide argosy of trade, with prosperity for now impoverished nations. Technologically, Mel reminded his audience, the airborne segment of aviation offered these things, and more, within the lifetimes of today's middle-aged people.



Yet, he had continued, while airplane designers wove the stuff of dreams into fabrics of reality, facilities on the ground remained, for the most part, products of shortsightedness or misguided haste. Airports, runway systems, terminals, were geared to yesterday, with scant---if any---provision for tomorrow; what was lost sight of, or ignored, was the juggernaut speed of aviation's progress. Airports were set up piecemeal, as individually as city halls, and often with as small imagination. Usually, too much was spent on showplace terminals, too little on operating areas. Coordinated, high-level planning, either national or international, was non-existent.



At local levels, where politicians were apathetic about problems of ground access to airports, the situation was as bad, or worse.



"We have broken the sound barrier," Mel declared, "but not the ground barrier."



He listed specific areas for study and urged intemational planning---U.S. led and presidentially inspired---for aviation on the ground.



The speech was accorded a standing ovation and was widely reported. It produced approving nods from such diverse sources as The Times of London, Pravda, and The Wall Street Journal.



The day after the speech, Mel was invited to the White House.



The meeting with the President had gone well. It had been a relaxed, good-humored session in the private study on the White House second floor. J.F.K., Mel found, shared many of his own ideas.



Subsequently, there were other sessions, some of them "brain trust" affairs involving Kennedy aides, usually when the Administration was considering aviation matters. After several such occasions, with informal aftermaths, Mel was at home in the White House, and less surprised than he had been at first to find himself there at all. As time went on, he drifted into one of those easygoing relationships which J.F.K. encouraged among those with expertise to offer him.



It was a year or so after their first encounter that the President sounded Mel out about heading the Federal Aviation Agency. (It was an Agency then, an Administration later.) Sometime during the Kennedy second term, which everyone assumed would be automatic, the incumbent FAA Administrator, Halaby, would move on to other things. How did Mel feel about implementing, from within, some of the measures he had advocated from without? Mel had replied that he was very interested indeed. He made it clear that if an offer were made, his answer would be yes.



Word filtered out, not from Mel, but through others who had had it from the top. Met was "in"---a dues-paid member of the inner circle. His prestige, high before, went higher still. The Airport Operators Council re-elected him president. His own airport commissioners voted him a handsome raise. Barely in his late thirties, he was considered the Childe Roland of aviation management.



Six months later, John F. Kennedy made his fateful Texas journey.



Like others, Mel was first stunned, then later wept. Only later still, did it dawn on him that the assassin's bullets had ricocheted onto the lives of others, his own among them. He discovered he was no longer "in" in Washington. Najeeb Halaby did, in fact, move on from FAA---to a senior vice-presidency of Pan American---but Mel did not succeed him. By then, power had shifted, influences waned. Mel's name, he later learned, was not even on President Johnson's short list for the FAA appointment.



Mel's second tenure as AOC president ran out uneventfully and another bright young man succeeded him. Mel's trips to Washington ceased. His public appearances became limited to local ones, and, in a way, he found the change to be a relief. His own responsibilities at Lincoln International had already increased as air traffic proliferated beyond most expectations. He became intensely occupied with planning, coupled with efforts to persuade the Board of Airport Commissioners to his own viewpoints. There was plenty to think about, including troubles at home. His days and weeks and months were full.



And yet, there was a sense that time and opportunity had passed him by. Others were aware of it. Unless something dramatic occurred, Mel surmised, his career might continue, and eventually end, precisely where he was.



"Tower to mobile one---what is your position?" The radio enjoinder broke through Mel's thoughts, returning him abruptly to the present.



He turned up the radio volume and reported. By now, he was nearing the main passenger terminal, its lights becoming clearer, despite the still heavily falling snow. The aircraft parking areas, he observed, were as fully occupied as when he left, and there was still a line of arriving aircraft waiting for gate positions to be vacated.



"Mobile one, hold until the Lake Central Nord crosses ahead of you, then follow it in."



"This is mobile one. Roger."



A few minutes later, Mel eased his car into the terminal basement parking area.



Near his parking stall was a locked box with an airport telephone. He used one of his passkeys to open the box, and dialed the Snow Desk. Danny Farrow answered. Was there any fresh news, Mel inquired, about the mired Aereo-Mexican jet?



"Negative," Danny said. "And the tower chief said to tell you that not being able to use runway three zero is still slowing traffic fifty percent. Also, he's getting more phone complaints from Meadowood every time there's a takeoff over there."



Mel said grimly, "Meadowood will have to suffer." Community meeting or not, there was nothing he could do to eliminate overhead noise for the time being. The most important thing at the moment was to reduce the lag in operations. "Where's Joe Patroni now?"



"Same place. Still held up."



"Can he make it for sure?"



"TWA says so. He has a phone in his car, and they've been in touch."



"As soon as Joe gets here," Mel instructed, "I want to be notified. Wherever I am."



"That'll be downtown, I guess."



Mel hesitated. There was no reason, he supposed, why he need remain at the airport any longer tonight. Yet again, unaccountably, he had the same sense of foreboding which had disturbed him on the airfield. He remembered his conversation earlier with the tower watch chief, the line of waiting aircraft on the ramp apron outside. He made a spontaneous decision.



"No, I won't be downtown. We need that runway badly, and I'm not leaving until I know positively that Patroni is out there on the field, in charge."



"In that case," Danny said, "I suggest you call your wife right now. Here's the number she's at."



Mel wrote it down, then depressed the receiver rest and dialed the downtown number. He asked for Cindy, and after a brief wait, heard her voice say sharply, "Mel, why aren't you here?"



"I'm sorry, I was held up. There've been problems at the airport. It's a pretty big storm..."



"Damn you, get down here fast!"



From the fact that his wife's voice was low, Mel deduced there were others within hearing. Just the same, she managed to convey a surprising amount of venom.



Mel sometimes tried to associate the voice of Cindy nowadays with the Cindy he remembered before their marriage fifteen years ago. She had been a gentler person then, it seemed to him. In fact, her gentleness had been one of the things which appealed to Mel when they first met in San Francisco, he on leave from the Navy and Korea. Cindy had been an actress at the time, though in a minor way because the career she had hoped for had not worked out, and clearly wasn't going to. She had had a succession of diminishingly small parts in summer stock and television, and afterward, in a moment of frankness, admitted that marriage had been a welcome release from the whole thing.



Years later, that story changed a little, and it became a favorite gambit of Cindy's to declare that she had sacrificed her career and probable stardom because of Mel. More recently, though, Cindy didn't like her past as an actress being mentioned at all. That was because she had read in Town and Country that actresses were seldom, if ever, included in The Social Register, and addition of her own name to the Register was something Cindy wanted very much indeed.



"I'm coming downtown to join you just as soon as I can," Mel said.



Cindy snapped, "That isn't good enough. You should be here already. You knew perfectly well that tonight was important to me, and a week ago you made a definite promise."



"A week ago I didn't know we were going to have the biggest storm in six years. Right now we've a runway out of use, there's a question of airport safety..."



"You've people working for you, haven't you? Or are the ones you've chosen so incompetent they can't be left alone?"



Mel said irritably, "They're highly competent. But I get paid to take some responsibility, too."



"It's a pity you can't act responsibly to me. Time and again I make important social arrangements which you enjoy demolishing."



Listening, as the words continued, Mel sensed that Cindy was getting close to boiling point. Without any effort, he could visualize her now, five feet six of imperious energy in her highest heels, clear blue eyes flashing, and her blonde coiffed head tilted back in that damnably attractive way she had when she was angry. That was one reason, Mel supposed, why, in their early years of marriage, his wife's temper outbursts seldom dismayed him. The more heated she became, it always seemed, the more desirable she grew. At such moments, he had invariably let his eyes rove upward, beginning at her ankles---not hurriedly, because Cindy possessed extraordinarily attractive ankles and legs; in fact, better than those of most other women Mel knew---to the rest of her which was just as proportionate and physically appealing.



In the past, when his eyes had made their appreciative assessment, some two-way physical communion sprang into being, prompting each to reach out, to touch one another, impulsively, hungrily. The result was predictable. Invariably, the origin of Cindy's anger was forgotten in a wave of sensuality which engulfed them. Cindy had an exciting, insistent savagery, and in their lovemaking would demand, "Hurt me, goddam you, hurt me!" At the end, they would be spent and drained, so that picking up the skein of a quarrel was more than either had the wish or energy to do.



It was, of course, a way of shelving, rather than resolving, differences which---Mel realized, even early on---were fundamental. As the years passed, and passion lessened, accumulated differences became more sharply accented.



Eventually, they ceased entirely to use sex as a panacea and, in the past year or so, physical intimacy of any kind had become more and more occasional. Cindy, in fact, whose bodily appetites had always needed satisfying whatever the state of mind between them, appeared in recent months to have become indifferent altogether. Mel had wondered about that. Had his wife taken a lover? It was possible, and Mel supposed he ought to care. The sad thing was, it seemed easier not to be concerned.



Yet there were still moments when the sight or sound of Cindy in her willful anger could stir him physically, arousing old desires. He had that feeling now as he listened to her excoriating voice on the telephone.



When he was able to cut in, he said, "It isn't true that I enjoy demolishing your arrangements. Most of the time I go along with what you want, even though I don't think the things we go to are all that important. What I would enjoy are a few more evenings at home with the children."



"That's a lot of crap," Cindy said, "and you know it."



He felt himself tense, gripping the telephone more tightly. Then he conceded to himself: perhaps the last remark was true, to an extent. Earlier this evening he had been reminded of the times he had stayed at the airport when he could have gone home---merely because he wanted to avoid another fight with Cindy. Roberta and Libby had got left out of the reckoning then, as children did, he supposed, when marriages went sour. He should not have mentioned them.



But apart from that, tonight was different. He ought to stay on at the airport, at least until it became known for sure what was happening about the blocked runway.



"Look," Mel said, "let's make one thing clear. I haven't told you this before, but last year I kept some notes. You wanted me to come to fifty-seven of your charitable whingdings. Out of that I managed forty-five, which is a whole lot more than I'd attend from choice, but it isn't a bad score."



"You bastard! I'm not a ball game where you keep a scorecard. I'm your wife."



Mel said sharply, "Take it easy!" He was becoming angry, himself. "Also, in case you don't know it, you're raising your voice. Do you want all those nice people around to know what kind of a heel you have for a husband?"



"I don't give a goddam!" But she said it softly, just the same.



"I do know you're my wife, which is why I intend to get down there just as soon as I can." What would happen, Mel wondered, if he could reach out and touch Cindy now? Would the old magic work? He decided not. "So save me a place, and tell the waiter to keep my soup warm. Also, apologize and explain why I'm late. I presume some of the people there have heard there is an airport." A thought struck him. "Incidentally, what's the occasion tonight?"



"I explained last week."



"Tell me again."



"It's a publicity party---cocktails and dinner---to promote the costume ball which is being given next month for the Archidona Children's Relief Fund. The press is here. They'll be taking photographs."



Now Mel knew why Cindy wanted him to hurry. With him there, she stood a better chance of being in the photographs---and on tomorrow's newspaper social pages.



"Most other committee members," Cindy insisted, "have their husbands here already."



"But not all?"



"I said most."



"And you did say the Archidona Relief Fund?"



"Yes."



"Which Arcbidona? There are two. One's in Ecuador, the other in Spain." At college, maps and geography had fascinated Mel, and he had a retentive memory.



For the first time, Cindy hesitated. Then she said testily, "What does it matter? This isn't the time for stupid questions."



Mel wanted to laugh out loud. Cindy didn't know. As usual, she had chosen to work for a charity because of who was involved, rather than what.



He said maticiously, "How many letters do you expect to get from this one?"



"I don't know what you mean."



"Oh, yes, you do."



To be considered for listing in The Social Register, a new aspirant needed eight sponsoring letters from people whose names already appeared there. At the last count Mel had heard, Cindy had collected four.



"By God, Mel, if you say anything---tonight or any other time..."



"Will the letters be free ones, or do you expect to pay for them like those other two?" He was aware of having an advantage now. It happened very rarely.



Cindy said indignantly, "That's a filthy allegation. It's impossible to buy your way in..."



"Nuts!" Mel said. "I get the canceled checks from our joint account. Remember?"



There was a silence. Then Cindy asserted, low-voiced and savagely, "Listen to me! You'd better get here tonight, and soon. If you don't come, or if you do come and embarass me by saying anything of what you did just now, it'll be the end. Do you understand?"



"I'm not sure that I do." Mel spoke quietly. Instinct cautioned him that this was an important moment for them both. "Perhaps you'd better tell me exactly what you mean."



Cindy countered, "You figure it out."



She hung up.



ON HIS WAY from the parking area to his office, Mel's fury seethed and grew. Anger had always come to him less quickly than to Cindy. He was the slow-burn type. But he was burning now.



He was not entirely sure of the focus of his anger. A good deal was directed at Cindy, but there were other factors, too: His professional failure, as he saw it, to prepare effectually for a new era of aviation; a seeming inability to infuse others any longer with his own convictions; high hopes, unfulfilled. Somehow, between them all, Mel thought, his personal and professional lives had become twin testaments to inadequacy. His marriage was on the rocks, or apparently about to go there; if and when it did, he would have failed his children, also. At the same time, at the airport, where he was trustee for thousands who passed through daily in good faith, all his efforts and persuasion had failed to halt deterioration. There, the high standards he had worked to build were eroding steadily.



En route to the executive mezzanine, he encountered no one he knew. It was just as well. If he had been spoken to, whatever question had been put, be would have snarled a heated answer. In his office, he peeled off the heavy outdoor clothing and let it stay on the floor where it fell. He lit a cigarette. It had an acrid taste, and he stubbed it out. As he crossed to his desk, he was aware that the pain in his foot had returned, increasingly.



There was a time---it seemed long ago---when on nights like this, if his wounded foot pained him, he would have gone home, where Cindy would have insisted he relax. He would have a hot bath first, then after, while he lay face downward on their bed, she would massage his back and neck with cool, firm fingers until pain ebbed out of him. It was unthinkable, of course, that Cindy would ever do the same thing again; but even if she did, he doubted that it would work. You could lose communication in other ways besides the spoken word.



Seated at his desk, Mel put his head in his hands.



As he had done on the airfield earlier, he shivered. Then, abruptly in the silent office, a telephone bell jangled. For a moment he ignored it. It rang again, and he realized it was the red alarm system telephone on a stand beside the desk. In two swift strides he reached it.



"Bakersfeld here."



He heard clicks and more acknowledgments as others came on the line.



"This is Air Traffic Control," the tower chief's voice announced. "We have an airborne emergency, category three.