The Liberty Gazette
January 31, 2017Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: Their dark uniforms flap as the brisk wind slaps their faces. On this clear winter day, heads covered by fir caps, they stand; they wait. In the distance, the silhouette of an airliner silently grows larger. Touching down on the runway thunder erupts from the four powerful engines, sound reverberating as thrust is reversed and slammed into the air ahead, slowing the airplane. Once slowed, high-pitched whine replaces thunderous roar as the commanding and stately white and blue jet slowly trundles toward the ramp, finally stopping in front of the troops assembled at attention.
Air stairs are rolled up and the door opens. A man donning a long black overcoat and a woman dressed in bright red appear. Smiling, they wave and gracefully, purposefully descend to their greeters. Her dress flitters in the chilling wind. One final step…
Linda asked me if I knew much about or remembered President Nixon’s February 1972 historic goodwill trip to China.
Linda: Mike replied with what impressed me as excited, inspired confidence. “Oh, yes!"
“Really? What do you remember?” I was a small child then and have no memory of this event that changed U.S.-Chinese relations and had worldwide impact.
With eager anticipation I hung on the half second that seemed to last an hour until he answered me: “Air Force One then was a Boeing 707."
He doused the start of my chuckling with, "I remember the pictures of it landing in Peking," which fed the funny that grew into full-flown laughter.
"Wow, you really remember that historic event, don't you! Of course, the airplane!"
Mike: I guess when one hasn’t thought about a certain thing for a long time, one falls back on what one knows. A pilot (or a 15-year-old student pilot) knows and thinks about airplanes. That is the scene that has stuck with me all these years.
The significance of the moment President Nixon stepped onto Chinese soil cannot be lost. That step, like the one Neil Armstrong placed on the moon three years earlier, changed the world, opening the door to relations between the United States and China. The President even echoed Neil’s “One small step for Man, one giant leap for Mankind,” as he addressed the Chinese Premier and his wife for the first time. The Cold War began thawing. This was the first time a sitting United States President would visit China, the first time Air Force One landed on (up until that moment) hostile soil.
The reason for Linda’s inquiry: the Houston Grand Opera’s production of Nixon in China returned to Houston for the first time since its premier 30 years ago and we had tickets.
John Adams’ three-hour-long opera paints a picture based on facts, embroidered with creative liberty taken to present speculation of unspoken thoughts of an often vilified figure and those most central to the story.
The work was commissioned by HGO and premiered at Wortham Theater Center October 22, 1987 with performances following at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Netherlands Opera, the Washington Opera and the Edinburgh International Festival, to name a few.
The same Boeing 707 that made history in China also carried President Kennedy’s body back to Washington from Dallas as President Johnson took the oath of office on board. Now, it rests on display in the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
We Americans have a great ability to forgive transgressions. President Nixon fulfilled his role in opening very important doors that changed the world, and an airplane transported him there.