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The love story that lifted off
The old overlook at Charlotte's airport was an underappreciated place. It was also a spot where Bill and Annette Grier fell in love, and came to work on their marriage.
Back in the summer of 2021, I took my kids on a quick trip to Charlotte. Officially, we were there to drop off a car for my wife, who’d flown out of Greensboro but was flying back to Charlotte. (She changed her outgoing flight because of severe weather but couldn’t change the return trip.) We played at Freedom Park, ate lunch at Taco Mama, and met my father-in-law at Olde Mecklenburg Brewery to pay him in beer for bringing us our ride home.
After we dropped off my wife’s car, we slid over to the airport overlook that sat next to the center runway at Charlotte/Douglas. In terms of passengers, that airport is the sixth-busiest in the world. Jets take off and land, one after another, almost all day long. The overlook, which opened in 1989, was just a parking lot and a few benches. Before it closed, it was the greatest free entertainment spot in Charlotte.
I’ve been up there a bunch of times. The overlook was a great place to do television news live shots because because there were always planes taking off in front of the Charlotte skyline. Amateur photographers could make great pictures there with little effort. There was plenty of open space for kids to scurry around. Someone was always eating something at the picnic table in the back.
I thought about the overlook again recently because it’s moving to make room for a fourth runway and new taxiways (There’s a temporary overlook in place for now). I’m sure it’ll be in a great new place, but a lot of people still have a strong connection to its old location. Back in March of 2017, I was on a reporting trip for Our State magazine and drove up to the overlook to ask people a few questions for a story that never actually landed in the magazine. I just walked up to a couple, Bill and Annette Grier, told them who I was, and asked them why they were there. And then, they just started talking, as if they had been waiting to tell their life story to someone. I asked a question here or there, but for the most part, Bill and Annette just put on a show for about 20 minutes straight as they watched planes take off. It was part history, part love story, and part perspective on life. A few weeks later, I transcribed it all, wrote up a short story, and pitched it, but it never ran anywhere.
I caught up with Bill and Annette again this week, but before I tell you how they’re doing, I wanted to share that unpublished story here for the first time:
Bill sits on a bench, cigarette in one hand, a glass of iced tea in another. His wife Annette walks over from their green Mercury SUV, and stands behind him as a jet at the end of the runway in front of them throttles up its engines. “That Delta, it’s the only one that smokes,” she says. “Watch. When it gets in the air.” The plane lifts off, and a thin stream of smoke trails behind it. “That one has long engines.”
“Short engines, they don’t smoke,” says Bill.
“If you walked across here, how long do you think it would take to get to that blue building?” Annette asks Bill, gazing from the overlook at Charlotte Douglas International Airport toward the FedEx facility on the far side of two runways.
“Half an hour,” he says.
“I think it would take ten minutes.”
“Yeah, that’s what you think.”
“But he says…” Annette says, turning to me.
“It’d take ten minutes to walk to that runway!” Bill tells us. “That runway is a long ways from right here.”
How is he so sure? “I already know ‘cause I helped to build it! I already know! It’d take me 10-15 minutes to walk to that runway right there.”
An American Airlines jet takes off. “I helped to pour concrete, grade it, everything,” Bill says. “I was young. I didn’t have gray hair then.” Annette laughs, and Bill continues. “On the machine I was running, when we was grading it, at 12 o’clock we’d be on that end of the runway, and at 6:30, we’d be back up on this end of the runway.” It took six-and-a-half hours? “It was a small grader,” Bill says.
Annette puts her hands on Bill’s shoulders, looking at the taxiing jets. “I wish it were bigger,” she says of the overlook, which consists of eight benches and a small parking lot, surrounded by chain link fence. “I wish they would pave it, clean it up a bit.”
“They need another one, on the other runways,” Bill says.
“So we can see more,” Annette says.
“Years ago, they had another one!” Bill says. Over near the old terminal, which is still there, on the far end of the airport. “The oooooold terminal, man. We used to go in there late at night, 17, 18 years old, we’d go in and get a sandwich.” He nods at the new terminal, which sits in front of the Charlotte skyline. “You can’t go in there.”
“I know it!” Annette says, and then she looks at me. “And he’s never flown!”
“No man, no.” Bill says.
“I’ve educated him about—”
Now Bill looks at me, interrupting. “She’s trying to get me to fly.”
“—about flights and planes and what the stewardesses are doing,” she says. “So he’s ready.”
“When I get on there, you better have a whole lotta gin,” Bill says.
“We drive 12 hours to Memphis to see our grandson, right?” Annette says, before pointing out that the flight to Memphis takes 45 minutes.
Bill smiles. “I’m tired of driving to Memphis!” he says.
I ask where they live. “I live a mile from this airport. I see ‘em, sittin’ on my front porch,” Bill says of the jets. “I see ‘em.” So I have to ask: if they can see airplanes, all day and night, from their porch a mile away, why are they here, sitting on the bench at the Charlotte Douglas airport overlook, watching jets take off and land?
“We just come here,” Bill says.
“If we have things we need to talk about.” Annette says.
Like what? “My mother passed away three weeks ago,” Annette says. “So that’s been fresh.”
“We decided to come up here and get it together, just by ourselves, instead of being at home,” Bill says.
What else do they talk about? “Our marriage,” they both say.
“We’ve made it a year!” Annette says. Where did they get married? Right here at the airport?
“Right here in Charlotte,” Annette says. So, not the airport.
“On a Sunday,” Bill says, jumping in.
“We just did it. We just kinda winged it,” Annette says.
“I had been separated, divorced for about 30 years,” Bill says. “She had too.”
“The plus was, we’re older,” Annette says. “And we love each other. So we been there, we did that. We been around the block.”
“I don’t have any regrets of anything,” Bill says.
So, how did they meet? “At Home Depot,” they say in unison.
“I always go to Lowe’s,” Bill says.
“And what didn’t Lowe’s have that day?”
“Paint,” Bill says. “Some kinda paint that they sell that Lowe’s don’t carry.” The paint led to an argument with the guys who were working for him. “That day,” he says, a little exasperated. “That day.”
“I was standing out there,” Annette says.
“She was out there just looking at me, smoking a cigarette by myself.”
“I was on a spiritual mission,” Annette says. “I’m gonna talk to him about Jesus. He looks like good old working class kind of guy.”
“I ain’t never been to church until I met her.”
“I mean, he was just waiting to go to church!”
“And I keep going to church!”
“Now, I don’t want to go every Sunday. And he wants to go, every Sunday. But it really was love at first sight. Both of us have been single for a long time. I wasn’t looking for a husband. He wasn’t looking for a wife. But now, we’re a year married. And I’m just happy about it. My mother’s been real happy,” Annette says, still speaking of her in the present tense. “For the first time, she’s seen me happy.”
“I got four sisters, they love my wife to death,” Bill says.
“He’s the only boy.”
“Only boy,” Bill repeats.
“Our children are adults. Our grandchildren are cared for. We didn’t need anybody to give us permission to get married.” Annette was 63 when we talked. Bill was 62. “I was toddlin’ when he was born. So he’s a bit younger.” She laughs. “I was toddlin’.”
“And I still got my 91 year old daddy, still farming,” Bill says.
“You know what? That was impressive to me for him as an African-American man. The fact that at age 62 he has a father in his life — always been in his life — that he respects. So that makes him a son as well as a man. A husband.”
“And he had 300 head of hogs. 300 heads of hogs!” Bill says of his father. His great-granddaddy owned the farm before him. “The only Black man that I ever knew — that anybody else ever knew — that owned 194 acres of land,” Bill says. “A Black man.”
“That was a lot,” Annette says.
“He owned it as far as your eyes can see,” Bill says. “That way, that way, that way and the other way.”
What’s that last name again? “G-R-I-E-R,” Annette says. “Don’t mix it up now.”
I mention Grier Heights, a historically Black neighborhood in Charlotte. “Grier Heights, we got a part of that,” Bill says. A small part.
“What about Grier Funeral Home?”
“We got a part of that.”
What about the farm? “We sold it,” Bill says. “My father, he moved, and I’m still there. I’m not going. I don’t want to see another hog.” And they both laugh.
I ask Bill where, exactly, he lives. “Dixie, name of the little neighborhood,” he replies. “We didn’t have no town.”
“No special zip code,” Annette blurts out.
“When I rode the school bus, the road come right across here,” Bill says, pointing toward the terminal. “And Berryhill Elementary used to be right on the right, up the street there. They tore it down, big church, one of them old, uh, general stores where you went in to buy cheese, whatever you want, man. But the airport took it all.”
“All this was woods of course, at one time,” Annette says.
“It was so lovely. But I love this airport thing. I love it,” Bill says.
How often do they come up here? “Every day,” Bill says.
“We may miss a day,” Annette says. “Never miss two days.”
“We know pretty much what airplane come in at a certain time,” Bill says. “The eight-wheeler, we know when it comes in.”
Do they have a sixth-sense about what plane will come in when?
“I wish we did!” Annette says.
Bill looks at another plane, readying for takeoff. “It could be going to England!” he says.
“The Lufthansa comes in twice a day,” Annette says.
Do they ever get sick of the planes?
“No no,” says Bill.
Annette corrects him: “One day last week he said, ‘I’m kinda bored with going to the airport.’”
“Oh yeah, I did say that.”
“Well I didn’t feel the same way. So I was hoping that… that would pass over.”
“See, I’ve been seeing airplanes since ‘62,” Bill says. “Back then, when I was a kid, we didn’t have inside plumbing or nothing. So you go out in the woods, you can see the people on the airplane, heh, when you’re outside.”
“It’s really a good distraction for me,” Annette says. “And when he said he was bored that day, I was like… I hope he changes that feeling.”
Another jet takes off. Then another. And another. They keep going. Bill and Annette, they stay.
POSTSCRIPT: I talked to Bill and Annette this week. They’re now about to celebrate their seventh anniversary, and they’re still living in the same house near the airport, although The River District has brought a lot of development to their once-sleepy part of Mecklenburg County. “We still love each other,” Annette says. Even so, they don’t go up to watch the planes quite as often as they used to. They’re exploring a little more, opting for day trips around the Carolinas instead. “We’re kinda coastin’ along, enjoying life together,” Annette says. “It’s good to have a friend at a time like this.”