Monday, October 17, 2005

Great Bend, Kansas

I got up at 4:00 AM this morning to catch a flight to Great Bend, Kansas. I am the keynote speaker for the "Jack Kilby Science Day" being hosted here. Jack Kilby, for those who didn't know (I didn't until recently), was the inventor of the integrated circuit, which is fundamental to all modern electronics. He won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2000, so as you can see, this is not a small thing. Kilby grew up in Great Bend, so in a very real sense, most of the modern conveniences we take for granted -- including the laptop I'm writing this post on -- had their origin right here in Great Bend. I think the town is justifiably proud.

The town itself is very much your stereotypical small-town America. They have a population of about 20,000, but that's spread over a pretty broad geographical area. As I was flying in, I was struck by how few and far between the buildings are here in Kansas, due to the huge land area given to farming. The main drag through town, right outside my hotel, probably hasn't changed much in character since the 1950's. Oh, there's a Wal-Mart and a Radio Shack and a McDonald's that probably wasn't here fifty years ago, but the feel of the place hasn't really changed. I get the impression the locals like it that way, and I think I can understand why.

Time capsules like Great Bend are spread out all over the U.S., but by their very nature it's sometimes hard to know where they are. Visiting these places can give you a great perspective that you can draw on in your own writing. If, for example, you're writing a story set during the dawn of the space program, places like Great Bend can give you a good idea of what life was like in many cities then. Even so, there is a very interesting blend of eras here. For example, the Great Bend Municipal Airport doesn't have a control tower. The pilots of the commercial plane I flew in on (18 seats, and it too looked like it was built in the 1950's) announced themselves on the "common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF)" just like the pilots of the little Cessnas and Pipers that were flying out of the field. The commercial airplane was no more priviledged than the little guys. Heck, even Glendale Airport, where I learned to fly, has a tower! As we flew in, I recognized the triangle pattern of runways as the type of airport that was built just after Pearl Harbor at the start of World War II. At that time they needed to train a lot of pilots, fast, so airports were hurriedly built all over the country. There was time to do a "wind study" to figure out the prevailing wind direction, so they always built three runways in the form of a triangle -- at least one of them would be pretty close to aligned with the wind. Great Bend has turned one of its runways into a drag strip, it seems. I wonder if they are aware of the heritage of the field? I saw a B-29 bomber memorial as we left the airport, so at least someone at the field knows. There's a lot of "urban archeology" that could be done with airfields that are now under cornfields.

When I arrived at the terminal, it was a small building, again, not much changed from the 50's with one major exception: they had added a TSA baggage screening station. This is the only reason commercial carriers can fly into the airport, but it seems dramatically out of place with its surroundings. Is this what a colony world on the frontier would be like? Extremely rural with a high-tech spaceport dropped in the middle of the farmlands? It could make for an interesting setting.

There's a lot to see in the world around us that we can use as writers. While I don't really like to travel without my family, one thing I will say for the travelling is that I get exposed to a lot of new surroundings that I wouldn't otherwise have seen!

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