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On a wing and a prayer
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Peace. I’ve always loved it, even as a kid. Perhaps that’s why I try to maintain a little refuge of peace close at hand, out back on our screened porch, where I can sit in my favorite chair and contemplate birds, squirrels and chipmunks.

Peace and quiet were once hard to come by, as I frenetically taught school by day and worked at the Atlanta International Airport by night. I savored every second of peace I could glean back then. Sometimes, late at night in the employee parking lot which adjoined the south runways, I’d sit on the hood of my old car and look up at Orion, Taurus and the Pleiades Cluster and listen as silence blanketed the enormous complex.

The night sky is really big late at night on the south side of Hartsfield. It was just me and the airport and that vast sky full of stars stretching out forever for a few moments of pure peace.

Three years ago my wife and I finally made it to Pearl Harbor. I was stunned to discover a haven of peace in the most unexpected place – on the grounds of Honolulu’s International Airport. There a sprawling garden, half built in the Japanese style and the other half Chinese, which is hidden below the passenger concourses. Smack dab in the center of that airport sits a sanctuary from the noise, hustle and bustle of contemporary urban life. Who knew?

Last Thursday the daddy and brother of one of my wife’s very best high school friends rendezvoused with me at the Dwarf House in Hapeville. Marty Maddox and his son, Dale, then showed me around one of the best kept secrets of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport: the Flat Rock Cemetery, where several of Marty’s folks lie at rest.

About a decade ago, the movers and shakers decided that Atlanta needed a fifth runway. The only place to put that runway was south of the airport, right down the middle of the Flint River, which rises on the north side of the airport, flows under it, and exits to the south.

Roads were rerouted. Enough earth to cover 11-story buildings was moved. The Flat Rock Cemetery and the Hart Family Cemetery were protected in place, although a really ancient church adjoining Flat Rock, which had separate entrances for men and women, was razed.

Flat Rock Cemetery, founded in 1877 just off Sullivan Road, is now reachable via the Loop Road encircling the airport. Therein lay three known Confederate soldiers in marked graves, and several of Marty Maddox’s family members, including his infant brother and sister and his daddy, who was a chief machinist’s mate in the U.S. Navy during World War I.

Marty is good-naturedly considering making Flat Rock Cemetery his final resting place, as his daughter flies in and out of Atlanta regularly. He says she could wave hello and goodbye, and would know right where to find him.

That’s because taxiways, takeoffs and landings from the three southern runways are clearly visible from Flat Rock. Yet even in the midst of frenetic flight activity and almost constant construction, there’s a quiet peace about the place.

The Hart Family Cemetery is a little harder to find, as the rerouted Riverdale Road now skirts the west end of the new runway before making a huge "S" turn back to the north. The driveway to the cemetery is just north of the turn exiting the "S," and the little cemetery holding 26 family members is almost invisible from the road.

The Hart family bought the land in 1848, and established the cemetery in 1860. One vignette relates the tale of a family member, William J. Hart, a deserter from the Confederate Army. On his way to Washington, D. C., to receive a federal pardon after the war, he was struck and killed by a train.

Unlike the Flat Rock Cemetery about a mile north, no aircraft can be seen from the Hart Cemetery, as it is nestled right up against the towering north wall of the new runway. But similar to Flat Rock, there’s a palpable feeling of peace.

Surrounding all sides of the new runway is a wildlife habitat, which is home to a colony of red-tail hawks. Last Thursday, standing in Flat Rock Cemetery and looking south toward the Hart Family plots, I watched a red-tail soar lazily upward on a thermal.

The grace and sure confidence with which that majestic bird rode the wind, lifted up so effortlessly and caressed by its power, provided an inner sense of calm as I contemplated how those resting near the boundaries of the world’s busiest airport have found perpetual peace, literally, on a wing and a prayer.

Nat Harwell is a resident of Newton County. His columns regularly appear in Sunday’s paper.