I promised my friend Mary that if I ever wrote anything entitled Memoirs of a Geezer, I would include this story. As with any good story, there are always lessons to be learned. So, this one’s for you, Mary. The lessons are for anyone else who wants them. This will be longer than most of my entries, so please bear with me.
Let me go on record that I hate Atlanta-Hartsfield airport. We’ve spent some time together prior to this trip and parted on, if not friendly terms, at least tolerable ones. But I’ve decided I would rather suffer almost any indignity than be routed through the Atlanta airport (did I mention I hated the place?). If you’ve never been there, the airport consists of several long concourses and a separate terminal building connected by a tram which runs back and forth between them. This is the game: your arrival gate is at least one or more concourses from your departure gate, and you have a limited time to get from one to the other. GO!
After the past two years, my wife and I decided we needed a vacation. Since last year was our 45th anniversary, we decided to make it a memorable one. I wanted to do something with my brother and his wife, since we share the same wedding date, 40 years apart. At their suggestion (and timeshare), we decided on a week at a resort on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. When my oldest son heard this, he arranged for us to visit the week after at his in-laws’ house (who are also good friends of ours) on Anna Maria Island in Florida, along with he, his wife, and our other son and daughter. It was a trip we eagerly anticipated.
It started well enough. We breezed through security at Grand Rapids, and then immediately things started deteriorating. Our flight to Atlanta was delayed an hour and a half (the reason was never made clear; I think the plane was broken), which meant we missed our flight from Atlanta to Hilton Head, the only one of the day. The folks at the gate sent us off to Atlanta and basically told us, “Good luck”.
There are two little pieces of information that you should know at this point. The first was we were flying on Halloween. The other, more important, was the World Series was being played in Atlanta at the time. I’m not sure how much either of those impacted our situation, but I suspect the second was more important than the first.
We arrived in Atlanta, found the help desk, and managed to get scheduled on a flight to Savannah, Georgia, close enough for my brother to come pick us up. We had a two-and-a-half-hour layover until departure, which we spent vainly chasing down a departure gate that was moved five times and eventually ended up in the other terminal building. After riding the tram back and forth several times, we finally made it to the gate, got on the plane and eventually got to Hilton Head.
I am a bit of a history buff, and now I think I know a little of what the Bataan Death March might have felt like. My wife was coming off cancer surgery, radiation, chemo, and a pacemaker placement, and couldn’t walk the distance to get from one place to the other in Atlanta, so arrangements were made to provide her with a wheelchair. Somewhere along the way we lost our transporter, which meant I had to push the chair for what felt like miles while pulling a rolling suitcase and toting a backpack and CPAP machine. I don’t know what impression we made on the other passengers whizzing by us in the concourse; I don’t know if they even noticed us. All I can say is we made good use of the hot tub at the resort when we arrived.
Traveling from Hilton Head to Florida at the end of the first week, we once again were connected through Atlanta-Hartsfield. We did our best to keep a sense of rising dread under control. As it turned out, it was unnecessary. We were met at the door of the plane by a wheelchair and a gentleman named Monte who whisked us to our departure gate and almost to the door of the plane in about fifteen minutes. Wherever you are my friend, I know God’s smiling down on you.
Our trip home was routed through LaGuardia in New York (at least it wasn’t Atlanta). After seeing a gorgeous sunset over Manhattan (I didn’t know NYC could look that good), sharing the most expensive (but sorriest) hamburger we’ve ever eaten, and witnessing a scene of escalating agitation by a passenger that was supposed to have been on another flight, we walked down the jetway to the tarmac and several more yards to what had to be the smallest commercial airplane in use, CLIMBED up into it, wedged ourselves into our seats, and somehow managed to get our seatbelts fastened for the trip to Grand Rapids (had the plane crashed, they would have found us still bolted upright in our seats, because we weren’t going anywhere). After landing, a comedy of errors with the shuttle back to our motel, and a night spent on a mattress shaped a little like a capital U, we finally made it home the next day. The trip was fantastic; the travel was something altogether different.
Now the immediate lessons are pretty obvious, like, “memo to self” obvious. If at all possible, book a nonstop flight. Don’t book a flight on anything smaller than a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A310 (it’s important to know your aircraft, believe me). And ALWAYS check your luggage. I figured out that last one halfway through the trip, and it made all the difference in the world. The other two were for future reference, in case it’s another ten years or so before we take another trip of this magnitude.
The more important lessons I learned from this trip have taken longer to realize, because the deeper and more important life lessons always do. Maybe it’s so we recognize their value. So, in no particular order, here they are:
No matter how well you plan, something is going to go wrong. You may think you’ve planned for every possible contingency, but I promise there’s one lurking out there just waiting to toss a wrench into the gears. If you’re not flexible enough to work around it, it will destroy you. Always have a plan B, or at least be able to ride out the storm.
When you don’t know where you’re going, sometimes you need to sit and wait. My wife is an incredibly wise woman. I take it for granted and don’t give her credit often enough. During the “gate chase” for our flight to Savannah, she calmly suggested we just sit down and rest until the powers that be decided where to park the plane. Having come to patience late in life but not completely mastering it, my approach was, “No, let’s get to the gate and then rest”, which under normal circumstances might have worked, except we were trying to hit a moving target. That’s how it is sometimes: you have a goal, but life keeps moving the goalposts. Sometimes you just have to sit and wait until the target stops moving.
No matter how hopeless your situation looks, there’s always someone who can help you. I have to give kudos to the wonderful employees of Delta Airlines. We flew into Atlanta not knowing what we were going to do: could we get a flight out, or would we have to try to find a hotel in the middle of a World Series? Thank you to the wonderful ladies who managed to get us to our destination, and thank you to all the folks whose names I don’t know for helping along the way. And Monte, brother, I’ll have your back anytime. What’s true for air travel is true for life. No matter how bleak your circumstances might be right now, there are folks out there praying for you and just waiting to give you a hand. Trust me, I know.
Hard times always make the good times better. We would have enjoyed this trip if we had flown first class nonstop on all of our connections. But I promise we appreciated our time at Hilton Head a whole lot more because of what it took to get there. And I was never so glad to sleep in my own bed after feeling like the filling of a taco the night before. You’re going to go through some stuff in your life while trying to get to where you want to be-we all do. When you get there, just remember what it took and savor the arrival.
You’re going to experience trouble before you finally get home. Looking back at our travel “adventures”, it would be easy to decide it wasn’t worth it and we’ll never do THAT again. But in spite of the craziness, delays, and hardships, we did finally make it home. I got more exercise trudging through the Atlanta airport in two and a half hours than in the two months since. That experience made me a little stronger, and a little wiser.
Most of us say we want to go to heaven when we die, but we don’t want to do what it takes to get there. When he was on earth, Jesus told those who would be his followers their life here on earth was going to be filled with troubles. In fact, a good number of the troubles would result from the fact they WERE his followers. The world would hate them because their mere existence was a judgment against those in the world. But He also gave them some promises and hope. He said, “Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world”. He said he would be with them, even when things got rough. And in the end, he would come back and take them home to Heaven. We still have that promise if we submit ourselves to him and stay faithful until the end. No matter how tough life treats us, if we belong to Christ, we will make it home.