Thursday, May 19th, 2011

The longest journey ever made in the history of humankind was a trip I took from the small town in Wisconsin where my mother lived to the small town in England where I lived with my family. It wasn’t the longest trip if it were measured in ordinary miles or hours, as most normal trips would be, but I don’t take “normal” trips and have consequently never been able to measure trips that way. For longer than I care to remember, I’ve measured trips using a Bizzare-O-Tron, a clever device of my own invention that registers every coincidence, catastrophe and just plain weird occurrence and calculates a Weirdness Rating between one and eleven. The Bizarre-O-Tron doesn’t have a zero, because that would imply I could take a trip on which nothing untoward would occur, and that simply never happens, so I didn’t even bother with zero. And the meter doesn’t stop at ten because there will, someday, be trip that will bury the needle, and I want to be ready for it. This particular trip came so very close. It could have been weirder only if Steve Martin and John Candy were in every scene.

It started with the timing: Just before the Thanksgiving Day weekend I found out my grandfather had passed away, so I calling around to see what I would have to do to take a few days’ leave to attend the funeral. I was an enlisted man in the Air Force at the time, and under normal circumstances I would report to the orderly room to see the first sergeant, who would give the thumbs-up to the commander, who would sign my leave papers and I’d be on my way. The post I was stationed at, though, was a very small unit, just ten or twelve guys maintaining some equipment out in the boonies. I had to drive an hour and a half just to visit the orderly room to get the ball rolling. This being the Thanksgiving weekend, the orderly room was virtually deserted when I got there. I found one lone airman to help process my papers, and there was no commander, or anybody with any rank at all, to sign them.

“Leave these with me,” the airman said nonchalantly, gathering up the leave forms. “I’ll get the commander to sign them as soon as he comes back, and I’ll forward a copy to you.”

That right there bumped the Bizarre-O-Tron up a notch, which was a faulty reading, now that I think about it. Coiled, robotic arms should have come shooting out both sides and an alarmed voice shouting, “Warning! Warning” was supposed to make me back away and think long and hard about the trapdoor I was about to fall through, but I wasn’t hit by the full impact of this weirdness until later. I guess I was in too much of a hurry. Instead, I only asked, “How am I supposed to travel without leave papers?”

“Just show them your ID when you get back,” he said. “As long as you’re permanent party there’ll be no problem.”

He meant that, because I was stationed in the U.K. the customs agent would let me just waltz in and out of the country by showing him my military ID card, and for some reason I bought that, even though I’d never done it that way before. It seems like such an obvious red flag now, but as I said, I was in a hurry and there was still a lot I had to do.

The trip to the States was mostly benign, probably because of the Thanksgiving weekend rush. My Darling B drove me to Heathrow where I boarded a jumbo jet for a transatlanic flight that went by in a blur. Everybody from the ground up worked feverishly to get passengers through the gate, loaded on to the plane, unloaded and back out the gate. Time passed in the usual mind-numbing way.

The details of the trip back, though – those are burned into my memory forever. For starters, by the time I got through security and into the terminal it was way past supper time and my stomach was growling. With a few hours to go before my flight started boarding, I figured I’d grab a bite in one of the many restaurants in the terminal, but first I had to find an ATM so I could reload my wallet with a few twenties. The first machine I found was broken; probably still reeling from the assault of hundreds of holiday travelers. No problem, I was in O’Hare airport, the largest, sprawlingest airport in the midwest. I should be able to find another machine in no time, right? But no. No matter how many times I walked the length of the terminal, I could find only one other ATM, and it was out of cash. Two machines in a terminal big enough to be its own country. Who thought that was a good idea?

By scrounging through every pocket in my jacket and carry-on bag, I managed to put together just enough loose change to buy a sandwich at one of the few taverns still open. That was another peg up on the Bizzarre-O-Tron. On the one holiday that’s legendary for the huge number of travelers jetting from Atlantic to Pacific and back, in an airport terminal where most of those travelers will find themselves waiting for many, many hours for a connecting flight, there were no restaurants open for dinner, just a couple taverns serving hot sandwiches and other bar food. I guess all the waiters went home for Thanksgiving, too.

My flight went non-stop from Chicago to London Heathrow, a leg that typically lasts a numbingly long twelve hours, so I usually try to snag an aisle seat or, better yet, a place by the bulkhead where I can stretch my legs. No such luck on this trip, though. I got herded so far back into the tail of the plane that the seat they shoehorned me into didn’t have a floor under it. The inner wall of the fuselage curled in under my feet. Honestly. There was just enough room for me to plant my right foot flat on a sliver of level carpeting, but my left foot had to either ride on the curve of the wall, or I could cross it over my knee. Or, I guess, I could have asked the steward to lend me a steak knife from the galley, sawed my left leg off, and stuffed it into the overhead bin. Would’ve been about as comfortable as the other two options.

But the crazy geometry of the seating arrangement became even more awkward when Mister Passive-Aggressive plunked himself in the aisle seat next to me. If you’ve ever flown coach, or ridden a Greyhound bus, you’ve sat beside this guy. Before we even pulled back from the gate he staked his claim on what he thought was his personal space by digging an issue of the Wall Street Journal out of his bag and holding it wide open in front of him, elbows out. There was no doubt in my mind that he stopped at a newsstand in the terminal just before he boarded the plane just so he could buy the biggest newspaper in the pile for this very purpose.

Supper time was more of the same: Fork in one hand, knife in the other, elbows out. When he started sawing pieces off his beef cutlet his arms flapped like a Canadian goose trying to get enough lift for takeoff. And when he wasn’t eating or reading, he had his laptop out and was pounding on the keys with the ferocity of a blacksmith forging a weapon of war. The only notice he took of me from the beginning to the end of the flight was to mutter “Excuse me” each time his elbow jabbed me in the ribs to remind me he was still there.

To this day, that one leg of the trip ranks as the longest transatlantic flight of my life.

heading home #1 | 8:37 am CDT
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, story time, travel, work | Tags:
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