On Holiday Travel

About two months ago, my spouse announced she’s going to visit our daughter (George) in Florida for Christmas. She didn’t expect me to want to go because of… well, let’s just say “issues.” Our other daughter, Fred was also going.

“Count me in,” I said, without a lot of enthusiasm — as when agreeing to go to a much-needed dentist appointment. Frankly, I didn’t want to relive the angst that ultimately led to a series of cardiologist visits like last time.

“Are you sure?” she said.

“No,” and I wasn’t. “but add me to the reservation.”

Coordinating with Fred, my world-traveling expert, she set up our travel plans.

The trip to Florida was (nearly) painless, but tiring. We sat next to a nursing mother who was the quintessential good mom. While the infant (about nine months old) was vocal, the mom kept him entertained and (relatively) happy. Her trick? She was relaxed and calm. The baby reflected her attitude. We’ve all sat next to the parents who have no idea how to travel, or who come unprepared to keep kids entertained and within the boundaries imposed on them by the seats and situation.

We arrived in the swampy Florida panhandle (Navarre) where if it wasn’t warm and rainy, it was warmer and foggy. George arranged for us to stay in a delightful (really nice), beach condo which she had pre-screened. She wisely turned down the one with water damage and rotting floors. Thanks. This gave us a pleasant respite and recharging station, away from the unspoken tension that so often had made family visits more like a Tennessee Williams play than a Neil Simon comedy. Another plus.

In the few days I visited, I rediscovered my granddaughters who had morphed into teenagers — two very different young people than the last time I saw them in their home environment of horses, chickens, cats and bounding dogs. This made the trip worthwhile and make me wish I could spend more time with them. We spent the days shopping and doing things moms, teens and grandmothers like to do. Grandad tried to be positive and quietly took a pain pill when things got dicey. When the much-anticipated Christmas morning finally arrived, the kids woke us at dawn (literally). And then the payoff: The priceless expressions on their faces when discovering the gifts, they were certain they could not live without, were indeed under the tree.

On the last half-day, the sun came out (sort of). For a Seattleite, it was very sunny. For a Floridian, it was overcast. We played on the beach, dancing out of the way of the waves pushing over quickly-sculpted sand castles — a metaphor for the brief happy days between the teen years and the day kids pick up and move away to find their own happiness and raise their kids away from their parents.

And then Fred and I headed home. After kisses, hugs and handshakes at the airport, we began our odyssey, leaving my spouse to stay another week. We flew out of Fort Walton Beach airport on a 1 + 2 plane that needed only olive oil to make it more like a sardine can. Once they sealed the lid, we got an ominous warning from the pilot. We’ve all heard them before — something about “ground delays.” I closed my eyes to try to reclaim some sleep I had lost during the week. About twenty minutes from Dallas’s DFW airport, the pilot started to circle.

“Not good,” I whisper to Fred. She nodded.

Twenty minutes later, the pilot says we’ve been diverted to Waco. He didn’t have to tell us why and remarkably, very few seemed surprised. To the north, the sky had been putting on a violent light show like a scene from Star Wars or Apocalypse Now. Some poor souls were catching hell from the sky. What we didn’t learn until later is a tornado had hit near our old neighborhood in Garland, killing at least ten — some blown off an overpass. Our temporary inconvenience pales in comparison to the ordeal these people had to endure. They don’t have homes to return to.

At this point, American Airlines was doing it’s job — keeping its passengers safe and out of harm’s way. While we sat on the ground in Waco, the flight attendant (on her own) did her best to keep us happy, filled with granola bars and liquid refreshments. Each twenty minutes or so, the Captain would update us with football minutes estimates of when we would know more or get back in the air. His voice betrayed his lack of optimism.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with “football” minutes, they’re the measure of time used to indicate how long the last minute of an NFL game will really take. They’re not as long as “basketball” minutes.

Knowing the (single) toilet was full (I’m afraid I contributed to this issue), the Captain called for stairs to be brought up so we could use the restrooms in the (tiny) terminal and raid the vending machines. Unfortunately, (or fortunately, as it turns out), the one set of stairs was being used by another plane in the same predicament. Suddenly, he came on the PA.

“We have clearance. We’re leaving as soon as they can push us off.”

We breathed a sigh of relief. There was a chance we could make the next flight out of DFW. Knowing we couldn’t possibly make our connection, Fred called ahead and changed our reservation to the next outbound flight. Smart lady.

We arrived at DFW to a sea of stranded passengers. Everywhere the departure screens were pockmarked with the dreaded word “CANCELLED” as several hundred passengers wandered about like lost sheep or stood in formless lines hoping to find a way back home or to a job or that wedding or vacation they had planned for a year. Fred (wisely) went to an idle gate agent and got us new boarding passes. An hour later they were useless. The next flight to Seattle was cancelled. So was the next and then all outbound flights were cancelled. Reports from two flights that had made it out described horrific turbulence and airsick bags.

Littered all over the floor were people of all description (a little) like refugees fleeing tyranny in the Mideast. The Husky Cheer squad was among them. Elated that their team won the game, some were in tears as they were stuck far away from home. There were singles and families large and small who sat staring at monitors hoping they would suddenly announce the resurrection of their cancelled flights. And then there was the young lady whose boyfriend thought it was a good idea to rent a car and drive toward the storms to Oklahoma City (ground zero for tornadoes) to catch a flight to Miami. I smiled and suggested Houston, or to simply drive — they would be there in eighteen hours.

But Fred and I were lucky. I’m a writer and had no immediate need to get home. Sure, I wanted to sleep in my own bed with my own cats, but my job didn’t depend on me getting back to Seattle. Fred was in the same boat — she had planned to take a (muchly deserved) ski-trip to Whistler once she returned. We found a seat in Friday’s and had dinner. I paid for the meal, left a nice tip and left my credit card on the table. <sigh>. I didn’t miss it until later that night.

At this point, it was after eleven and all we had were standby positions on the next flight leaving about 07:00 the next morning — about eight hours away. We didn’t want to sleep in the airport — been there, done, that, no thanks. Thankfully, Fred found a friend willing to get out of bed and drive forty-five miles to the airport and put us up until five in the morning when she drove us back. Now that’s a friend. They had a nice visit while I tried to sleep.

When we arrived back at DFW (thanks, Ms. Parker) at six AM, we were met with more exhausted people at the edge of their ability to remain civil and sane. A man threw his duffle bag across the floor in frustration — his phone breaking into pieces. They had been trapped in the airport for three days. Apparently, this travel ordeal had been going on at DFW for some time. We talked to his wife who was crying into her hands. She was afraid her cats would be dead by the time she finally made it home. We assured her they would be hungry and thirsty but fine and clingy.

We sat and watched the “standby” board like lottery contestants watch the Tuesday night results. Thanks to Fred’s MVP status, she and I were 10th and 11th on the list. Sweet. We had a good chance as the airline website showed a few seats on the flight. Ten minutes before departure, they started calling names — none of which were on the standby list. These were names of booked, confirmed passengers who had not shown up — or couldn’t get to the airport. Perhaps they were on other flights stuck in towns like Waco or Oklahoma City. Then they started calling names on the standby list. The first two raised their hands in the restless herd of ninety-six standby passengers. The agent said to call out so he would know if they were there and could check them in. Two more then, one then four more and we were next. He hesitated, looked at his screen and called out “Vaughn, party of two.” I said in the voice I used to correct soccer refs, “HERE!” A few laughed and the herd parted for us to move to the front. “That’s how it’s done,” I said. Fred was mortified (again). We ended up with an aisle and middle seat on a nice, new 737. Swell. We’re on the plane. Now all we had to worry about was the fact we were flying into a storm — it was raining pretty hard outside with lightning outlining dark, swirling clouds on the horizon.

Three and a half hours and a Merrill Streep movie later, we arrived at SeaTac, and Fred bet our bags wouldn’t make it. I won the bet. Both bags came down the chute in the first group. We both made it home safely.

This entire ordeal could have been much worse. I know, Fred and I have both been through far more chaotic travel experiences. Thankfully, the oft-maligned American Airlines personnel, handled most situations with remarkably pleasant attitudes, patience, skill and (with a few exceptions), dedication. Fred watched one male agent “take a break” just as the announcement that all flights had been cancelled. The female agent, now facing an endless line of exhausted, confused and (often) demanding passengers, kept on doing what she could to help — even though there were no seats to assign — all flights were totally booked for several days in advance. We saw fellow passengers helping others, wait-staff at the overflowing eateries, doing the best they could and people just being kind — despite being on the edge of tears or their fallback emotional state when stressed. Even the TSA agents seemed to be working hard to keep us moving through security. And we saw a few (very few) passengers unloading their wrath on the agents who were doing their best to do their jobs.

Lessons learned? Well, I did keep my medications in the bags I took with me, but not a toothbrush, razor or change of clothes. I guess I didn’t really need to smell that fresh and stand out among the other unwashed masses trying to get back to a familiar bed. I also learned that friends are those who are there when things don’t go right. I had friends back home who came over to pick up the mail, pet the lonely cats and reset the lights so the house looked like we were still at home. Thanks a million. And if you’re wondering about that credit card, Friday’s already shredded it and the bank cancelled the account. Sorry.

I also learned that the world is really full of nice people. Sure, there are some stinkers, but aren’t we all from time-to-time when we’re worried about a loved one in need, or a pet who might not be in the best of care? This was not a “Christmas” story. Not nearly all of these travelers were Christians — we were all human and we were able to show our humanity. Sometimes we get to show by example how to treat others as we wished others treated us.

Bill

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