Chicago: Up in the Air

We stood in the hot Chicago sun on a muggy Saturday in mid-August, scanning the horizon for any of the six F/A-18s lighting up the sky that afternoon. The Blue Angels were in town, the stars of the Chicago Air and Water Show.

Sweat dripped down my face and neck and back, the Italian ice cone I’d recently slurped through not so helpful in cooling me down. We’d seen a lot already, from a biplane twirling through the air to a helicopter somehow doing the same. Four red and white trick planes left glorious smoke trails through the perfectly blue backdrop. My buddy Dain and I looked left and right, wondering where these Hornets had disappeared to. But we didn’t think to look behind us, from where before we knew it, a massive boom erupted and two jets whizzed a few hundred feet over our heads before fading towards the sparkling Lake Michigan.

The beach was packed that day, a wide swath of Chicagoans and others in town for this spectacle. There were rowdy kids, covered in sand and cooling themselves down under the fountains, and their (mostly) patient parents, enjoying this opportunity to see them awed by screaming jets and spinning planes. What young kid isn’t fascinated by flight, isn’t left open-mouthed at the sight and sound of an F-16 tearing through the sky while doing 360-degree turns? I suspect the parents were nicely inspired by the sight too.

Chicago was the first big city I’d reached since Calgary, and the first true metropolis since Seattle. The towers here compare favorably with anywhere, the tallest of which arguably the least interesting. The boxy Sears (now Willis) Tower stands on the far west side of the central loop, a few blocks from the action to the northeast. Michigan Avenue’s oft-emulated shopping experience is the destination for many, but a boat cruise along the city’s waterways was one of my favorite memories from a childhood visit.

This time, I left all that behind to explore Millenium Park instead. I started too far south, wondering what all the fuss was about as I walked through empty baseball fields and uninspiring gardens. And then I turned north and went back west, seeing a shiny archway in the distance and thinking that had to be something important. And the names of the companies sponsoring each item proved as such – the place was a random draw of the Fortune 500: AT&T, Exelon, McDonald’s, Boeing, Chase. I got on a sculpted stainless steel wave of a bridge named for America’s least favorite company, BP, and walked right into the middle of one of the most interesting urban public spaces in the country. On my right were the billowing sheets of steel on Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion, as an orchestra on stage a long distance away rehearsed a performance. I walked in the curved shadow formed by the trellis structure above, walking over to Cloud Gate, the sculpture otherwise known as The Bean, catching a panoramic reflection of downtown Chicago with plenty of other curious tourists.

The fireworks went off that night above Navy Pier, crackling and booming in the dark sky. The attractions on the pier buzzed behind us, the Ferris wheel looping continuously, the restaurants and candy shops still alive. Even though the Blue Angels rested in a hangar somewhere, people once more looked up, streaks of light, booms and buzzes, because the air show was still going.

View pictures from Chicago.

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