You know how some people are unlucky in love? I am unlucky in flights. Unlucky in love, too, now that I’ve mentioned it; but the flights are what chiefly concern me. Love a person can live without. Flights? Hardly. Not unless they want to be confined to a rural community on the backside of Wisconsin for the remainder of their known life.
Flying out to Virginia last week, I was disappointed, but not surprised, to learn that the first half of my flight, into Detroit, had been cancelled. I had a sense of the inevitable clutches of fate. Never mind that it was March, and warming. Never mind that flights were made into Detroit immediately before and immediately following mine. Detroit, at that hour, in my honor, had manufactured a snowstorm.
This unluckiness in flights was not apparent in my early life. The first flight I ever took was to Guatemala City, Guatemala, at the age of sixteen, and everything went smoothly, customs and all.
The problem began while teaching school in Virginia at the age of twenty-one. It had something to do with Christmas, with the O’Hare Airport in Chicago, and with brutal northern winters. The three of them together make an unholy alliance. My first year of teaching, I booked a flight for home on Christmas Eve, my first day off school. Due to bad weather and flight delays, I spent that year’s Christmas Eve in O’Hare, sleeping in a stiff and uneasy huddle on a cold and uncomfortable airport chair. I put my head on my backpack and my hand on my suitcase, in the unwarranted belief that this would prevent them from being stolen. I guess it worked, because every time I woke up, they were still there.
I took an early flight out to Minneapolis the next day, and Mom and Dad picked me up, driving over long icy highways to get there. No further incidents except the small matter of the delayed luggage, which had been sent in an entirely different direction than I had and came limping in several days later. On the return trip that same year, there was another snowstorm and another overnight stay in the airport. I made it out of the hated O’Hare at sunrise, the sky fading into pink through the little round window while I tried to do a Sudoku puzzle and realized that at this point my brain was incapable of reason.
The following year, a sister and I flew from two different states into the Mosinee airport, two hours from home. Mom and a couple of my other sisters picked us up Christmas Eve during another blinding snowstorm. With the slippery roads, they couldn’t make it up the big hill in Marathon City and had to take the side streets. We were just glad they made it.
The third year of teaching, my youngest sister came for a visit and flew home with me on Christmas Eve. Our layover was in O’Hare, and our flight was, of course, delayed. While we waited for developments, we chatted with a friendly couple who were also flying into Mosinee, for a Christmas visit to the woman’s parents. They had a wholesome appearance, the woman pretty and clean, the man with the fresh-faced, trim-bearded look of an outdoorsman.
The storm worsened. Our flight was cancelled, along with dozens of others, and we stood in a line of people that must have stretched a quarter mile from the service desk. The people were frantic or stone-faced, crying or cussing out airport personnel, every one of them trapped in this angry snarl-up that was O’Hare on Christmas Eve in a snowstorm. I wondered, desperately, if there was even a possibility of getting home for Christmas.
Don and Christy, the friendly young couple, found us there. “We have a rental car reserved,” Don told us, “and we’re going to drive to Mosinee. Christy’s flown through here in the winter before and had this same thing happen. She reserved the car just in case. You could come with us if you want.”
It was an answer to the prayers of my mother and my aunt Grace, lifting us up from the farmhouse at home.
We trailed after Don and Christy into Hertz and waited with our luggage while they negotiated with the lady behind the counter. There seemed to be a problem. They talked a long time, and then Christy started crying. Don came over and explained. The cost was more than they had anticipated, and neither of them had enough money on their credit cards to pay.
I didn’t say anything, digesting this information. I had only recently realized they were in their twenties, and unmarried. Somehow I had pegged them as in their early thirties, and stable.
“Maybe you could put it on your credit card?” he suggested.
I thought of how smooth he was, and how friendly, and wondered if this was all a set-up. But there was Christy, crying beside the counter, her face a picture of the same desperation and frantic longing for home that I felt. She was real.
“Ok,” I said.
I walked up to the counter with my credit card. The lady behind it seemed ill at ease about the whole transaction. “Now you’re the designated driver,” she told me emphatically. “So you need to do the driving. Otherwise, if you’re in an accident, the insurance won’t cover.”
I nodded. And even when Don offered to drive later, I stuck behind the steering wheel. Don and Christy sat in the back seat, my sister beside me in the front, our roles of helper and helpee suddenly reversed. In good weather conditions, the trip from Chicago to Mosinee would have taken about six hours. With snow falling fast and visibility limited, the trip still took about six hours, which shows about the speed of my driving. I had the dark intent of a gold medalist or a suicide bomber, my eyes and my body stretched toward home. The roads were not slippery, I told myself, even though visibility was bad. As an experienced snow driver, I could tell the state of the roads by the feel of the tires on the pavement. I think Don and Christy had less confidence in my driving expertise, because they seemed a bit jumpy and mentioned once, hesitantly, the horrible state of the winter roads.
My dad and Christy’s dad met us at the airport. Christy’s dad brought the money to pay half the cost of the rental car, and my sister and I made it home for a late supper on Christmas Eve. My aunt Grace, weak from radiation treatments but strong in faith, listened to our story with wonder, full of expressions such as “I never,” and “Well, I guess.”
This was not the last of my unlucky flight stories. The following summer, I took a trip to Alberta. On the return trip, during a late-evening layover, I decided to take a little nap. Dead tired, with my brain in the lower stages of function, I set my cell alarm for 9:50, the time of take-off. I woke up at 9:45 to find the seats around me alarmingly empty. I rushed up to the counter with my boarding pass, but, “I’m sorry,” the lady said, “it’s past the time when you can board. I called your name over the loudspeaker again and again.”
Moved to pity when she saw I was ready to cry, she jumped into action and booked me a ticket for early the next morning. So I spent yet another night in an airport. This time I was I was so far past shame I actually took down my hair and put on my pajamas, something I would never before have considered doing in a public place. But the airport was deserted, and the emboldening thought of “Nobody knows me, anyway,” made me reckless. A cleaning lady saw me stretched across a row of chairs and kindly brought me a couple of packaged blankets. The next morning when people started pouring in, I trailed into the bathroom to change out of my pajamas, feeling sheepish and immodest.
The summer after that, I flew out to Oregon, and during another late night, waited at the carousel for my luggage. I watched the carousel circle again and again, watched duffels and suitcases being snatched up, bent to examine a maroon duffel. “That’s mine,” a man said quickly, and grabbed it away. I waited, watching the black rubber flaps on the end of the carousel to see new luggage admitted. Finally, I was the only one left. The people had gone. The carousel halted.
An airport attendant approached me. “Are you Lucinda Miller?”
“There’s been an incident with your luggage…could you come with me?” She took me to the back, next to a desk. “We’re so sorry,” she said. “Your luggage fell off the baggage cart and was run over. They’re bringing it in.” A man entered, carrying a plastic bag with a shredded maroon duffel stuffed inside.
I took the bag, opened it, smelled burned plastic and rubber, saw shredded dresses and jackets and papers. “We’re so sorry,” the lady said again. “This has never happened before. I’m putting this down on record, and you write up a report of all the damages and send it in. You will be reimbursed.”
I did as she told me, and after a few days of grief getting the report through the right people to the right places, I threw up my hands and left it. If the reimbursement came, it came. If not, I would forget about it.
The check arrived, made out to a “Linda Miller.” I was not surprised they got my name wrong. With airports, inconvenience is what I have come to expect.
Thankfully, my luck with airports doesn’t extend to banks. They cashed it anyway.