Ad Astra, Per Airport

– by Michael!

Wearily but with resignation I shuffled to my bed. I set my alarm, took off my shoes, settled in, had a brief moment of mild panic that resulted in a double-check of my alarm, and finally settled back, dug in, and prepared to sleep.

And just as my mind stopped whirring and I began to drift, every light in the Pensacola Airport turned on full blast.

This? This was not my night.

If you’ve been reading regularly, you will know that Joanie and I were apart for much of this summer. I married a singer – it comes with the territory – but that doesn’t make it more fun. We were fairly certain that I wouldn’t even be able to travel to Tulsa, OK, to see any of her productions with Light Opera Oklahoma, when Nancy Gardner, LOOK office guru and Official Minister of Awesomeness, stepped in.

Nancy, as a former American Airlines employee, offered to put me on standby for flights to Tulsa. It’s not a guaranteed seat, but it costs roughly as much as a tank of gas. She told me that, since I was aiming to fly up the week *after* the 4th of July, it shouldn’t be a problem to get me onto a plane. So I thanked her profusely and we scheduled a series of flights from Mobile to DFW to Tulsa to see the last two shows in Tulsa.

But a couple of days in advance, the Mobile flight filled up. We looked at a couple of options, and Pensacola seemed the best fit – the Pensacola airport is less than an hour away, has more flights per day than Mobile, and is generally pretty nice. By which I mean free wifi throughout the building. So we rearranged things to get me onto the 5:40 flight to DFW (one! one flight rescheduled! Ah ah ah.)

Knowing that I would need to be there with plenty of time to spare, I left work shortly after 3pm that Friday and made a beeline for the airport. Once inside, I went to the AmAir desk to make sure that all of my paperwork was in order.

The young man behind the counter was very flustered, as he was completely alone, brand new, and trying to deal with multiple customers at a time. Not only that, but he also appeared to have really poor eyesight, because even though I was at the front of the line, he waved four different parties up to his desk before me.

Now, I know that there was probably a reason for this. But I believe that the line is the foundation of our civilization, a powerful tool in the arsenal of democracy. You wait your turn. I got here first, so I go first. This is the quintessence of fairness, and violating it should be punishable by prolonged exposure to Billy Ray Cyrus.

At any rate, once I finally got to the counter, he apologized – “I’m new, but they’re keeping me here because everybody else is dealing with the planes.”

My antennae? They went up. Along with all of my red flags.

“Yeah, we’ve had two serious mechanical malfunctions – on two separate flights. We’re sorting out all of the DFW traffic now.”

When he saw that I was flying on employee standby, or “NonRev” as they call it, his face fell. “Man, I hate to tell you this, but you probably won’t get out of here tonight.”

Compare this to the conversation I was envisioning as I approached the airport:

“Hi, I’m Michael Berg, and I would like to fly to Tulsa to see my wife.”

“Mr. Berg! We’ve been expecting you! Right this way, sir. Due to the fact that nobody in their right mind wants to go to Texas, ever, your flight to DFW is completely empty! Enjoy the extra leg-room!”

“Why thank you ever so kindly!”

“But wait! There’s more! We’ll be dropping you off at the gate for your connecting flight to Tulsa, which will also most likely be empty. Enjoy your first class upgrade! Now, go ahead to the gate, they’ll leave whenever you’re ready since you’re the only passenger.”

“This is wonderful. Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Berg. Now, let me notify the flight crew. Would you like your martini before or after takeoff?”

My version was SO much better. Unfortunately, reality seemed to disagree.

After I got through security – if you ask me, the terrorists won when we agreed to take off our shoes – I headed toward my gate. Or at least, I thought it was my gate – I couldn’t actually see anything given the immense throng of direly irritated potential passengers flocking around it.

I joined what could be called “the line” if one were in a particularly generous mood and waited.

By “waited” I mean “stood, almost perfectly still, for several hours.”

I arrived at my gate by 4:15 for my flight. The flight that was supposed to leave at 5:50.

I didn’t even get to the desk until after 7pm.

See, the plane that was supposed to leave at 4 had, apparently, exploded. Or something. Which in and of itself would probably have bumped me to a Saturday flight, since they had to fit all the paying customers from the 4pm onto some combination of the 5:50 and 7pm flights.

But then the 5:50 plane broke, as well.

Now, this mechanical failure was much less severe. It could be fixed in time for the flight to leave in an hour or two, unlike the failure on the 4pm which actually required that AmAir fly in mechanics from DFW (!!) on another airline (!!!) to take care of it.

I made my way to the gate and told the harried clerk that I was NonRev but really *really* needed to get on a plane to DFW. I figured that even if I didn’t get to Tulsa that night, I could take an early flight the next morning. But the moment the term “NonRev” came out of my mouth he started shaking his head. “Man, we’re putting people up in hotels to take flights tomorrow. You may not get out of here until tomorrow afternoon.”

My face must have looked at least somewhat like I felt, because he relented to a degree and said to stick around, they might be able to do something once the paid customers were taken care of. With that shred of hope tossed my way, I went and sat down as both functioning planes were sent off to DFW with their loads of grumbling customers. (Two! Two flights rescheduled! Ah Ah Ah!)

Once all the vouchers were handed out and those who had opted to stay in a Pensacola hotel rather than a Ft. Worth hotel had left, the desk clerks called to those of us who were still there – four other NonRev flyers and a family with a young child.

He began by apologizing – a good way to start – and said that, since we were all committed to getting to DFW that night, he was going to authorize us to fly on the “4pm” flight on its return to Texas. The mechanics had arrived, they were hard at work, and everything should be ready to go… by 10:30!

We gasped in wonder as he explained that this plane had to be in DFW in time to make an early morning flight *back* to Pensacola, so they had to fix it and fly it out ASAP anyway. We might as well be on it when it left.

I was elated. I wouldn’t see my wife that night, but the first flight to Tulsa from DFW would have me there by 9 – just in time for breakfast at Duffy’s, our favorite diner in Tulsa. (Joanie and I have eaten approximately five hundred pounds of their chicken fried steak in the two summers she’s been singing with LOOK. If I ever go to a doctor for a checkup, they’ll end up testing the level of the blood in my cholesterol to save themselves some time, largely due to Duffy’s. And it’s worth it.)

So, after updating all of the people whom I’d been pestering with my frantic text messages (I had even gone so far as to browbeat my younger brother, David, into texting me directions from Pensacola to Birmingham in the hope of catching a 6AM flight to DFW after driving up from Florida, which would have put me in the ‘Ham around 3 in the morning), I finally sat down, for the first time since leaving the comfort of my car, and sighed in relief.

I spoke with my fellow sufferers, all former or current AmAir employees. They were wonderful people, very friendly and patient with how obviously distressed I was. “This doesn’t happen often,” one commented, “but at least we’ll be in DFW tonight. It’s pretty great. They actually have a place for us to stay there.”

At my quizzical expression, she elaborated. “Oh, yes, AmAir has such a presence at that airport that they built a lounge/hostel type area for us standby fliers. It’s just outside one of the security airports, has cots with curtains around them, well-kept bathrooms with showers – it’ll be great. I haven’t stayed there in years, I’m looking forward to seeing it again!”

And, thinking this sounded pretty darned nice, I made that fatal error: I allowed myself to hope.

Hope, in situations like these, is an invitation to further disaster.

At just before ten, the desk clerk called us all to huddle around him, his wounded face already telling us everything we needed to know. The malfunction was worse than expected, and the mechanics wouldn’t sign off on the plane leaving that night. We were going to have to wait until the morning – he swore it would be ready to leave by 7, but they just couldn’t authorize it leaving until fully repaired.

Three. Three flights. Ah, Ah, [expletive deleted] Ah.

However, he would do whatever he could to find a hotel – all the ones for which they had vouchers were full at the moment, but he’d find something and make sure American paid for it. I thanked him profusely, feeling relief that I would at least have a bed to sleep in.

He blinked.

The silence grew very awkward.

“I’m sorry, sir, I was talking to them,” he said, gesturing to the young couple and their child. “They’re paying customers. We can’t issue vouchers for you. There are hotels nearby, or you can sleep in the lobby – the couches are actually pretty comfortable, the Navy guys sleep on them all the time.”

My face burning with embarrassment, I shouldered my bags and made for the lobby with my fellow travelers. And this is, of course, where our story began – I brushed my teeth, splashed my face, pulled Joanie’s teddy bear out of my bag, crafted a pillow out of polo shirts, and settled in to get what rest I could… only to be awakened momentarily by a searing flood of fluorescent lights throughout the airport.

This was the point at which I started to laugh.

I’m sure my fellow sufferers thought I was nuts, cackling and wheezing on my couch, but in reality I was just overwhelmed with the sheer silliness of the adventure. It had begun to take on Jude-the-Obscure-level absurdity. I acknowledge that you have to have bad things happen to likable characters in order to have any kind of compelling narrative, but some stories like Thomas Hardy’s miserable “classic” just get to the point where I, at least, start to laugh as the protagonist’s travails become too numerous to be credible. “Sure, why not?” think with subdued laughter as I read such stories. “He can still see, though. Can we get some blindness over here? And how about boils? Follow it up with some bankruptcy, or maybe have the government recognize him as a sovereign state for the sole purpose of being able to declare war on him. Come on, don’t wimp out on me now!” And the effect is ruined because the misery has just become comical.

[Author’s Note: Parts of this literary rant were borrowed from Stephen King, specifically his introduction to “Blaze.” One of his best novels – read it if you haven’t.]

That was me. Michael the Obscure.

So I laughed, and rolled over, and went to sleep. (Yes, I did sleep, I credit the presence of Freddy .)

It was almost as though this laughter, this renewed sense of perspective regarding the exasperating silliness of my suffering, was the cue for whatever mischievous force (I am not ruling out Loki, Puck, or gremlins) to relent and allow me to complete my journey in relative peace.

I woke up at 4am and got through security as soon as possible, made it to the gate, and, at long last…

I got on a plane.

We left at 8:30 or so, and the four of us who were all connecting to Tulsa sprinted from our gate in the B concourse to C22, making it with moments to spare. I’m reasonably certain that our boarding passes, which were printed off in Pensacola, were illicit – NonRev fliers don’t get “Boarding Passes” until everybody else has boarded – but the folks running the gate in Florida took pity on us and made sure we got on our plane.

Arriving at long last in Oklahoma (a mere 15 hours behind schedule), I saw Joanie, dancing with impatience just outside of security – and in that moment, I knew without a doubt that it was worth it.

Every moment.

Even the fire alarm that went off at two in the morning.

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