Monday, November 08, 2004

Blogging for Books #5: Choose Your Own Adventure

My entry in this month's Bloging for Books contest held by The Zero Boss:

Blogging for Books #5: Choose Your Own Adventure (Guest Author: Debbie Farmer.)
For this month’s Blogging for Books, choose one of the three "starter sentences" listed below, and use it as the beginning of a blog post totaling no more than 2000 words:
1. Just when I thought my life couldn’t get any crazier…
2. Before I had kids, I thought…
3. I enjoy reading the stories in your magazine each month, but I never thought something like that could happen to me until a few nights ago, when…


Flight of the Tuna Can

Just when I thought my life couldn’t get any crazier, Stephan and I realized that if we had any hope of going back east for the holidays, we had better buy our tickets right away. We make this trip a couple of times a year since we both have a lot of family and friends there, so we have our routine down. We fly on our favorite airline, which has all direct flights, keeps prices down partly by not serving food, and has cable TV instead of a movie. The seats are a bit wider and offer more legroom than most other airlines too, which is crucial for Stephan and gives me just enough space to curl up and get comfortable. I change into my yoga clothes, which I am convinced are actually pajamas in disguise, we break open our own snacks and drinks and settle in. I once watched a marathon of Crocodile Hunter as the entire country zipped by 30,000 feet below us. Smiling, I typed our travel information into the airline’s website.

"But that’s over a thousand dollars!" I squeaked.

Stephan fiddled with the departure and arrival dates, but soon learned anything even vaguely near the holidays was going to cost too much to make the trip.

"Wait," I said, "I have some offers in my email. Maybe we can find something there."

Every direct flight was booked. Most flights with a single stopover were either booked or prohibitively expensive. Train? Car? That takes too long, we decided, we would have to find a flight. Finally, a search using very loose parameters turned up something that, while not wonderful, was at least possible. We grabbed it, plunking down the credit card with the speed that only the holidays can bring.

"OK," Stephan said with one hand across his eyes, "break it to me gently. How many stopovers do we have?"

"Just two," I offered hopefully. "Chicago and Pittsburgh." See there, I thought, that’s not so bad. So we stop here and there, as long as we get where we’re going, does it really matter?

"How long?" he asked.

"How long what?"

"How long are we sitting there for?"

"Umm… four hours in Chicago," I saw Stephan wince and hurried onward, "but less than two hours in Pittsburgh. Aww, honey, it won’t be that bad! We’ll bring crosswords and books, snacks and stuff."

I love the phrases that describe groups of animals – a murder of crows, a crash of rhinos, a charm of finches. The airport two days before Christmas was a crush of people. A seething, jostling, jangled mass of clashing sounds, smells, and bodies. I remembered pieces of lectures in social psychology, how rats living in crowded conditions start to display behaviors not seen under less stressful conditions. Bloody fights. Trampling. Insanity. I clutched Stephan’s hand as he blazed a trail from one long line to the next. I looked into one glazed over face after another, people stripped of their usual barriers of walls and personal space resorting to hastily built inner walls to hold themselves apart from the crowd. At long last, our bags checked and my sneakers x-rayed for the safety of all Americans, we arrived at the terminal. We double-checked – yes, that’s our flight number, yes, that’s going to Chicago, no, that’s not our flight time.

"It’s been delayed," chirped the airline hostess with a toothy smile. She was vague, purposely vague I thought, about the length of the delay. After a few rounds of nearing the new flight time only to have them delay it further, our plane arrived at the gate.

The second delay was courtesy of a woman determined to pack everything she owned into one bag and then drag it onto the plane with her. An airline employee explained her bag was too big for a carry-on and that she would have to check it. She actually hissed at the man. The back of my neck prickled in response to the emotions bubbling up from the woman’s reptilian brain, Thisssss isssss mine! Effective, too, as the man backed away from her.

"OK," Stephan whispered, "I’m taking bets. Will she get on the plane, and if so, will she still have that gargantuan bag, and if so, is it really the body of her husband she killed this morning because he suggested she pack lightly?"

I bet yes and no and yes, respectively, and lost. From our seats we watched her repeatedly try to cram her bag into an overhead bin that was clearly too small in every dimension. A steward approached her and told her she had to check it. She turned her angry crowded-rat eyes on him and he left her to it for a while longer. I exchanged looks with some of the other passengers. We all knew we were already delayed, and no one could understand why the airline was letting this one person hold us hostage. For one giddy moment, I wondered if she were an actress hired by the airline to put on this show so that we felt we were making progress when really we were still sitting on the tarmac.

Finally, an airline employee made his way down the aisle toward the woman. His expression was carefully neutral, the way I had seen an emergency room nurse greet a man who wandered in late one night. His entire left side had been torn and bloody, a motorcycle helmet dangling from his good arm. "May I help you?" the nurse had asked him, as though he had walked into a cheerful ice cream parlor.

"May I help you?" the airline employee asked the woman. She snorted at him and continued shoving at her bag, now wedged halfway into the overhead bin. "Here, let me try it," he said. She seemed stunned that someone was offering to help instead of opposing her and quietly stepped aside. After a few fruitless pushes, he stepped back, shook his head and said, "Looks like we need to check it. But don’t worry, you can sit down and relax, I’ll get that done for you."
Three full rows of passengers held their breath as we waited for the woman to respond. "Oh. OK," she said and sat down calmly in her seat.

"Whatever they’re paying that guy, it’s not enough," Stephan whispered in my ear.

A few hours later, as we started our descent into Chicago, the pilot came on the speakers with a long list of connecting flights and gate information ending with, "Be sure to check in at your gates right away, folks. O’Hare is experiencing delays." A collective groan filled the passenger cabin.

Chicago’s O’Hare airport made SeaTac airport seem deserted by contrast. People stood, sat, and slept on every available surface. Long lines snaked toward airline employees, who were hiding behind tiny desks and big plastic smiles. Fog had socked us all in.

The first time our flight was cancelled, we grimaced. So much for the four hour stopover. At least the airline gave us seats on a flight leaving just three hours later. When that flight was cancelled with no more flights until morning, we laughed. Neither of us was sure if we were finding humor in the ridiculous or if we were really starting to lose it. By the time we left Chicago, we had to disassemble our comfy nest of coats, bags, snacks, and books.

"Not to worry," the gate attendant had told us, "Pittsburgh to JFK is a commuter run. No matter when you get there, there should be a flight soon."

Pittsburgh was bright and cold and the breath steamed from our lips and noses as if we were dragons. The other six passengers looked as numb as we felt, our bleary red eyes scanning each other in that polite semi-acknowledgement reserved for strangers thrown together by circumstance. We were passed from airline employee to employee as we made our way along the terminal, down a hall, through a door, and onto the tarmac, where we were loaded like cattle onto a bus. We zipped across the tarmac. The long terminal building gave way to row after row of planes gleaming in the sun. At first, the planes were mid-sized, teenager versions of the grown-up plane we flew in on. Next came the grade school size, then the toddler size. At the end of the field came the itty-bitty baby planes. Their shiny black surfaces gleamed as we drove closer, then passed them. Our bus stopped at the last plane in the field, a lone white pile of scrap metal held loosely together by what appeared to be duct tape.

"They don’t expect us to fly in that?" a man muttered in disbelief.

All eight of us started murmuring at once.

"That tuna can?"

"Do you think it’s safe?"

"I am NOT getting on that heap!"

"How much do you think the bus driver would charge to just drive us to New York?" Stephan wondered out loud.

A brief consideration of this plan was followed by the bus driver explaining that being fired for driving the bus off airport property was worth more than we probably had on us. Clearly, our fate had been sealed by the airline. We boarded the plane, ushered inside by a flight attendant who looked as battle weary as the plane itself. Inside, each row was made up of a seat pressed against the window, a tiny aisle, and another seat pressed against the opposite window. The ceiling was low enough that even I, at five-foot-six, had to crouch to reach my seat in the front row. As the flight attendant moved from one passenger to the next, pulling the seatbelts just a touch past ‘snug,’ Stephan leaned across the aisle and whispered, "I could probably touch both wings at once."

Our ascent was sharp. Even my special anti-ear-pain earplugs barely made a dent in quieting the noisy cabin. My mind ran old news footage of astronauts experiencing high g-force, their lips and cheeks rippling back over grimaces. I tried to let fatigue spill me over into unconsciousness, when we suddenly leveled out. The flight attendant scribbled each passenger’s drink order on a piece of paper, then ducked behind a curtain at the rear of the plane. Our choices were: coffee, tea, water, or milk. Small plane, small choices.

"Do you think there’s a little room back there, or is she standing outside on the tail of the plane?" I said, leaning across the aisle to speak directly into Stephan’s ear.

He laughed, "Maybe she’s back there fixing the tail with some wire and chewing gum." He loves McGuyver.

When the flight attendant re-appeared, she had the world’s thinnest drink service cart. With the precision of an elite military squad, she halted the cart at each row and handed one drink to her left and one to her right. The hot tea felt like a tiny oasis of calm. My palms warmed against the soft styrofoam as tendrils of Lipton steam curled under my nose. We banked to the right, and I tipped the cup slightly to keep its full contents from sloshing over the side. Smiling, I thought, after nearly a full day of travel, I am in tune with the motion of planes. Nothing they do can surprise me now. I leaned in for my first comforting sip when a hand appeared and took the cup from me. The flight attendant poured the tea out and threw the cup into the cart’s garbage bin.

"We’re heading into our descent for JFK. Margie, prepare for landing," the captain said over the speakers.

Later, as my father-in-law loaded us into the van he asked, "Are you two hungry? Did you want to stop for lunch?"

"Don’t stop for anything," Stephan said, "We just want to get to the house."

"As long as there’s tea," I added. "I really want a cup of tea."

Note the yellow relective tape on the wing. Posted by Hello


At November 8, 2004 at 8:14 AM, Blogger Beetle Bryan said...

Awesome story. Thanks for sharing.

At November 9, 2004 at 7:36 AM, Blogger Robyn said...

OMG Lilly,

I laughed pretty good at that one and my mate chuckled all the way to the end. Well done!!

Love and Light

At November 11, 2004 at 12:10 PM, Blogger Michele said...

I completely understand the difference between Chicgo and Seatac. Seatac is so much nice the O'Hare too. Dulles is by far the oddest, and least likeable airport I've been too, and we took one of those hoppers there, but it was a tad bigger then yours. You'll have to share your normal airline with me, because we're moving to Seattle next year, and we want to find a way to come home to visit friends and family often.

Your post was awesome - totally felt for you, especially since I've spent hours and hours in the air and at airports these past few months! good luck on B4B


At November 11, 2004 at 9:02 PM, Blogger Elisson said...

As a frequent flyer, I read your story while alternating between chuckles and grimaces. My last trip that involved O'Hare doesn't sound all that different from your day o' fun. But I've found that a sense of humor will carry you through almost any travel situation.

Tuna can, indeed. Hah!

At November 14, 2004 at 6:56 AM, Blogger Robin said...

This is just so funny! I mean you know, it's funny because this did not happen to ME! I would've gone insane at the beginning. You must have a wonderful sense of humor to have survived that trip.
The taking away of your tea was really the last straw but at least you knew that horrific journey was ending.

Four years ago when Lillianna was 3, we flew to Florida to visit my mom. This was her first flight and the doctor told me to give her Benadryl one hour before the flight so that it would help her ears and she would be tired and probably fall asleep instead of crying from ear pain. Great theory, by the way. The flight was delayed so she slept in the airport sprawled across my lap for THREE HOURS!!!!! She was awake for the whole flight asking, "Are we there yet?????" Luckily her ears were ok.

Congratulations on blogging for books!!

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At October 26, 2005 at 3:34 AM, Blogger Baller said...

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