After a lovely weekend celebrating my sister’s wedding, I left the farm in middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania where they got married and started the journey home. The distance to Louisville is 565 miles – a 9-hour drive without traffic or speeding.
It was 61 hours before I climbed into my own bed in Louisville last night.
It all started with a lack of communication: I booked my flight out of State College for Monday instead of Sunday. Nothing Priceline can’t handle. I checked into my hotel room exhausted from the weekend, watched old movies, caught up on sleep. The next day my flight wasn’t until the evening, so I worked on my laptop in the lobby.
I shared the airport shuttle with an older gentleman whom I’ll call Mr. C – for his privacy, but also because I can’t remember his last name, which was long and Italian. (I do, however, remember that he’s turning 90 next month.) Mr. C walks with a cane, so I offered to take his suitcase to the counter for him. He’s from L.A. and had flown out for a high school buddy’s birthday party. When I found out he was on my flight to Chicago, I waited for him to check in, figuring I’d walk him to our gate as well. His journey was much further than mine.
My back was turned when Mr. C fell over, so I don’t know whether his suitcase knocked him down or he knocked the suitcase down, but there he was on the floor, surrounded by concerned passengers and employees. We patched up his skinned elbow and helped him sit in a wheelchair – “You’ve been getting around just fine, but it’ll give you something to sit in while you wait,” I explained diplomatically. We got him checked in and I accompanied him to his gate – a long, long walk through that tiny airport, Mr. C still a little shaky, me adjusting my typical woman-on-a-mission stride and thinking about growing old.
At the gate I learned that Mr. C flew B-24s over Japan during World War II, going on 12 missions. He flew the day before they dropped “the big daddy,” as he called it. He told me how for a month leading up to Hiroshima they released pamphlets warning everyone of a massive weapon. “We called those pamphlets ‘bulls***’,” he said – because he and his buddies had no idea what was coming, either. “When they dropped it, folks stood there looking up, watching it fall,” he said. “They thought it was just another surveillance camera on a parachute.”
I helped Mr. C get on his plane, then off again in O’Hare. I had a couple of hours, so I meandered over to concourse B to pick up a good Mexican sandwich from Tortas Frontera – about the best airport food you’ll find. Airports are prime people-watching venues, so as I walked and ate I indulged in all kinds of wild assumptions. She seems anxious. Do those two really like backpacking, or just backpacks? He likes how important he feels with his suit and adamant phone call. That man flirting with that woman probably just met her on his last flight; I wonder if he’s married?
At some point it struck me that other people watchers may be watching ME. Why is she staring at people and smiling to herself? She probably doesn’t travel much. Her nose is running from eating spicy food; she must not know a thing about Mexican cuisine. Why is she talking to herself? And singing?
My flight was delayed, so I bought a cup of tea at a café just a few yards from my gate and camped out there, journaling. When I went to my gate, my flight to Louisville had left ten minutes before – earlier than the delayed departure time I’d been shooting for.
They gave me a phone number to rebook. After a couple of phone calls I was on a cab headed to my brother’s apartment. I slept on a fouton, woke up to the cat’s agressive need for attention, spent some quality time with my niece. Then I walked in the drizzle to buy a transit card, catch a bus, then take a train back to O’Hare.
Of course I got a little turned around so I was running late. I had to politely cut in line at security and run to my gate, holding my pants up with one hand because I’d removed my belt for TSA. I arrived, amped and breathless, to find our flight was delayed.
We finally boarded, forty minutes behind schedule. I texted my friend, on call top pick me up in Louisville since the night before: “I don’t think I’m ever getting home. I’ll probably die here. At least there are peanuts and tomato juice.” But there were neither peanuts nor tomato juice, and we didn’t move. After an hour of sitting motionless on the Tarmac, needing to pee but held captive by the “fasten seatbelt” sign, the pilot apologetically came on to tell us that, in case we hadn’t noticed, we hadn’t taken off yet. (We’d noticed.) A maintenance light had come on.
We waited restlessly another hour for a gate to return to. The Buddhist monk in front of me nervously ticked through his prayer beads. The kid behind my whined. I texted my friend: “If I don’t get out of this alive, please see to it that all my food in the freezer goes to a needy family.” The flight attendant passed around some cookies – a flimsy substitute for dinner. “I’m still hungry!” the kid behind me whined. Tick, tick, tick, went the prayer beads. The whiny kid started singing that song from Frozen, and his brother joined him. It woke up a snoring old man, who growled a bit. I started laughing so hard I snorted. I flirted with the idea of joining in, loudly, with all the arm motions: “Let it GO! Let it GO!” Maybe it would boost morale. It’s telling that the biggest deterrent was that I don’t know all the words.
We disembarked and grumbled communally, cheerfully. A friendly UPS employee, making his way home from Bahrain, shared his power strip so more of us could charge our phones. A college student knew everything about everything. A British guy’s accent got less and less sexy as his attitude grew more and more entitled and his language included more and more F-bombs – “the big daddies,” Mr. C might have called those words.
It took 45 minutes for them to decide to cancel our flight. While everyone dashed to the service desk to try to get on the last flight to Louisville, I remembered I still had the phone number they’d given me the night before. I reached a compassionate employee almost immediately and got a seat. I used my savvy-traveler voice to insist on a meal voucher, then went back to Concourse B for another torta. More people-watching: the girl standing on her longboard, gently rocking back and forth with a hamburger in one hand and a book in the other; the exhausted family of young Frozen fans draggin by; fellow passengers from my cancelled flight, still in line, still angry.
Of course my new flight was delayed, too, but miraculously, I got on and we took off. I woke up as we approached, saw the Ohio River snaking through the city lights, and couldn’t believe I was actually going to get home. So I wasn’t surprised when the pilot announced, “There’s an emergency on the field so we have to circle for about ten minutes.” We circled far longer. I wondered if they were going to drop us off in Indy and put us on a bus. I wouldn’t have been surprised. When they lowered the wheels to land, I wondered if they were bluffing to keep the peace. When we did land, I half expected the plane to pick up speed and take off again.
“We’d better pray for your car,” I told my friend when I finally walked out of the airport. Even the moving walkway in the airport hadn’t been running, and after everything that had gone wrong I wasn’t taking any chances. It was after 1 in the morning. Mr. C had finished his long journey home more than a day before.