Prior to publication of Aviation Chicago Timeline, I often discussed the book with friends and colleagues.
The question asked most frequently was something to the effect of “Where does the book end?” or “How far does it go?” Those of you who know me can imagine how hard I had to restrain myself from accurately answering “It ends on the last page.” But seriously, it’s a legitimate question that I’ve struggled with several times during my life.
Back in the early 1960s, I attended a small high school with only about a hundred students. Everybody knew everybody. On the first day of our U.S. History class, all the students were in an uproar when the instructor distributed the syllabus. It showed our history class, which in previous years ended after WWII, now included the Korean War. It wasn’t fair! How could he expect us to learn all this other stuff which everybody knew was practically current events?
Of course, none of us realized that given a fixed class schedule, for everything the instructor adds he or she must drop an equivalent amount. It’s not like a book where you can always squeeze in a few more pages to cover something else.
While working on my book, I grappled with the question again, more seriously. On what date should I end the history of Chicago aviation … at least until the next edition?
The year 2000 seemed like a good, clean point to end, but that would miss the aftermath of 9/11 and the following years that drastically changed aviation in this country. Another possibility was the century milestone in 2003, but that had been saturated fifteen years ago. Every date I considered seemed unacceptable for one reason or another. In the end, I continued adding entries as close to press time as feasible.
However, dealing with “current events” as opposed to “history” presents two challenges: perspective and objectivity. In my opinion, these two challenges define the difference between a historian and a journalist.
Perspective allows the historian the benefit of hindsight to determine the importance of an event. For example, the book includes this summer’s proposal by Elon Musk of a high-speed rail system between the loop and O’Hare. Is this important enough to include? Will it be a prototype for a revolutionary method of implementing rail systems in urban areas? Or will it join scores of other proposed rail and highway projects that vanished into obscurity? In fact, the proposed starting point in the loop is an undergroud station from a previous project that fizzled. Only time will yield perspective to properly judge the impact.
Both historians and journalists strive to be objective and present the facts from all sides of an issue in a balanced, unbiased manner, although some may do so better than others. But the passage of time makes it easier for the historian to be objective.
Look at the June 1941 relocation of the Belt Line railroad tracks that bisected Chicago Midway Airport. It was easy for me as a historian to discuss the various aspects of rail traffic interfering with airplane operation and the effort and expense incurred by the railroad to reroute some of the busiest tracks in the country. I didn’t need to address the fact that the rails had to be relocated someplace else and that whatever was there also had to be relocated. None of the interested parties are living today.
But that’s very different from journalists today covering the multi-billion dollar O’Hare Expansion project. There are very substantial economic effects for the entire area depending on whether the airport operations expand or contract. Also, travelers using O’Hare as well as the airlines throughout the country are influenced by delays and problems created by limitations at the airport. On the other hand, expansion has a major impact on real people whose lives are disrupted by almost constant noise or the possibility of being forced to move. It’s impossible not to empathize with these friends and neighbors.
In the end, I elected to venture beyond history into the journalistic area without becoming a journalist. I attempted to identify events that have a good possibility of becoming significant. Unlike events from a century ago, detailed information about recent events is very abundant. My goal is less to explain what happened and why it’s important than to point out something that is worth watching.