Air Travel as Purgatory

airplane1Oh. My. God.

Back in September 2008 I decided to fly out to Portland, Oregon to visit with my younger son Ben. He actually lives across the Columbia River in a small city called Washougal, Washington. It was perfect. The fall semester would be over, the grades would be in, and everything would be fine.

September. It’s a long, long way from May to December, and the days grow short when you reach September.

I arranged it. Continental flight to Portland PDX Airport at 7:00 AM on December 21. Then the other day the reports started: the Portland metro area was getting or was about to get the worst snow it had seen in over 40 years. And because nobody in the area has Clue One about how to handle snow, the psychological paralysis began to set in. Warnings, premonitions, a sort of apocalyptic mood. Everything but Robert Duvall leading a helicopter squad while playing “Ride of the Valkyries.”

Can you cancel that flight? Can you change it? Can you have your sorry ass committed to the wackhouse?

The odds were growing stronger that I wasn’t going to get out of Newark. But I did my best Indiana Jones imitation. “Never tell me the odds!” [Gimme back my damn bullwhip!]

Stupid bastard I felt like.

Then I got into this zone of fatalism. I would do what I had to. So I woke up at 2:00 AM on Sunday morning and left the house by 3:30 to meet an airport limo that would ferry me to Newark Airport. Ferry: think Charon. Everything felt vaguely deranged and off-center. But I refused to think I could not get there.

At 3:15 AM, before leaving home, I checked the Continental Airlines website and saw that the flight was still listed as on time. Uh-huh. Still gotta go.


Got to the airport, withstood the Dangerous Terrorist screening at the security checkpoint, and went to the boarding gate. It was about 5:30 AM.

“The flight’s probably canceled,” said some functionary. “You’ve gotta check with Customer Service.” I was getting a bad feeling again…

It took me half an hour on line to get the word. The luggage was getting heavy. I had a large orange backpack with books and a laptop, and a nylon bag with my clothing. It was becoming ridiculously weighty. And then the Customer Service guy said “The flight is canceled. All I can do is put you on Standby for the 7:22 flight to Portland. No guarantees. I can’t get you through Houston or anyplace else. No other airline has openings.”

So I took it. And proceeded to sit, stand, wander, eat, and expel intestinal gas throughout Newark Airport from 6:00 AM until…well, it was a bit later than 7:22 PM. I had books galore in the backpack but who could even think about reading when you felt like you were in a high-tech version of the Bataan Death March?

Right. After you adjust to being out of the cold, you relearn (or your internal thermostat relearns) that airports are overheated. They are noisy. Walking from one gate to the other takes far too long, even with moving sidewalks. Sitting in those chairs makes it difficult not to think your ass is falling off. My laptop decides for no apparent reason to eat its wi-fi software. I could not often find a place to plug it in.

The day seemed endless. But I was getting on that damned plane or I was getting a refund. The airline had to knock me off Standby so I could ask for my money back. By the time the hour came, I would gladly have renounced my trip just to go home and sleep in my own bed. I overheard the agent at the podium mention that most Standby passengers got middle seats. That did it. I’d been in middle seats before, in 1983, traveling from San Francisco to Atlanta; and another cross-country flight in the dark was more than I could handle. So I would force their hands.

“Excuse me,” I said to the agent, “did I understand that you said most of the Standby passengers had to sit in middle seats?”

“Usually that’s what happens,” he said.

“Well…I don’t think this is going to work. See, I tend to get panic attacks, I’m claustrophobic, and put those together in a center seat and I start to vomit. I don’t think your airline and other passengers will want that.”

The guy stayed totally cool. “I’ll do my best to accommodate you, sir.”

(Did I say I hate when people call me “sir”? When young women call me “sir” I want to tell them I keep picturing what they look like with their clothes off.)

Anyway, Mr. Sir called me to the podium 15 minutes later. The 7:22 was already rescheduled for 8:00 PM. “I got you a seat.” It was near the back. It was a regular passenger seat. It was on the aisle.

I was too tired to be elated. I was too tired to want to go home. I just wanted to sit down. It’s called Going Along For The Ride, and it has multiple meanings.

That feeling lasted until I actually did manage to sit down , in seat 38C on a 757 bound for Portland. I’d called my son first.

“I can’t believe they’re taking off into this!” he exclaimed. “There’s snow and freezing rain all over the area. All the other airlines have canceled their flights in to Portland!”

We took off anyway. Only it took a tad longer than planned.

Eight became 8:30 became 9:00. Then some tractor was summoned to pull us back from the gate. The plane was jammed and alternated between hot as hell and drafty.

We began a leisurely tour of the taxiways at 9:15. In my head I was hearing the theme music from Gilligan’s Island, the line about the “three hours’ tour.” At 9:45 the captain announced: “Flight attendants, be seated and prepare for takeoff.”

Fifteen minutes later, at 10 PM, we began our take-off roll. In a 757 on rough runways and sitting right behind the engines, this is the really terrifying part of the ride. Then we pulled up, the wheels thudded into place in the wheel-wells, and the plane gained altitude through tremendous near-ground fog and turbulence.

Then came the ride itself. Five and a half hours of screaming rug-rats, vomitacious food, but a very lovely young woman falling asleep with her head on my shoulder. How bad was it? Well, let’s say this was not the stuff of the Mile-High Club. By the end of the flight, the weight of her head on my shoulder was a pain in the ass.

There was a good-for-the-kiddies seasonal movie: Fred Claus. Oh God, take me now…. There were Mary Tyler Moore and MASH reruns.

Does this plane come with parachutes? I can do Montana or Idaho.

Finally, at about midnight PST, we began the stomach-lurching descent into Portland. At 12:30 we landed. Everyone exhaled at once when the wheels made solid contact with the runway.

Off the plane, I called my son who was stuck in traffic, and then bounced back to his house across the river in Washington.

By the time I got to bed it was 3:09 AM, December 22, 2008. I had been awake for roughly 27 hours. My hands were sore from that nylon bag, my back was aching from the backpack, I was damn near incoherent.

I was, by the way, very grateful to be alive, with my kid and his S.O., and to get any sleep. Which was deep, sound, and concluded by leg cramps. Oh well.

I’m supposed to fly back Saturday night. I can barely wait for that one….

That concludes my book report. Thank you class, I’ll go back to my seat now.


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