A Hero’s Return: as a package on West Jet

I am become a name:
For always roaming with a hungry heart

Tennyson’s Ulysses

What did Tennyson know about old age anyway? He was only 25 when he imagined the aging Ulysses, restless on Ithaca, after his return from the Trojan War and the odyssey of his 20-year voyage home.

Personally, I find I am become a package.

It began well, my return from Los Angeles on December 30th, 2019. I had stayed the night in a comfortable room at the Hyatt Regency next door to LAX. I had had a hot shower to loosen up my 83 1/2-year-old body and treated myself to an outrageously expensive and extremely delicious breakfast buffet.

Which was fortunate, as it turned out. In the next 12 hours, I managed to consume 5 pieces of indifferent cheese, 3 corn and 8 tiny non-gluten crackers. And a Kind bar, which I was finally able to dig out of my carry-on at mid point in my journey.

Lash me to the mast. Sail me between Scylla and Charybdis. Let those sirens lure me onto rocks. Take me to Lotus Land and ruin my moral fibre. But never, never again let me book an Air Miles flight with Delta, which is operated by West Jet. Especially not as a package!

For I am become a package. For always roaming with a hungry heart.

We were all packages once, carried about by our parents or other responsible adults – our 11-year-old sisters, for example.  (I saw a few of these little angel packages during my odyssey, one of them about 5-days-old.) Then 80-years later, when the endless miles of airport walkways threaten to finish us off, we reluctantly opt for wheelchair assistance.

But first there was a shuttle bus. The driver winged by terminal 2 and the West Jet sign, despite my protests and deposited me and my heavy suitcase at terminal 3. “International flights,” he said, as he palmed my tip.

If only.

Turned out I had to check my bag at the West Jet counter in …. terminal 2. “It’s only a 5-minute walk,” said the kindly Delta agent who walked this old girl back out. I stared down the curving sidewalk. “Do you think I’ll make it?” I asked. “Oh, yes, you have plenty of time,” and she was gone. No, no, that’s not what I meant.

Okay. Chin up. I placed both hands on my $6 U.S. luggage cart and began. Stop whining, I told myself. No point. Buck up. You can walk. It’s standing in line and marathons you can’t do. I walked and pushed and walked and pushed. Was terminal 2 actually receding? Okay, stop now. Get your heart rate down. Have a drink of water. Ignore all the people walking the other way. Why are all these people walking the other way?

Reader, I made it. I stood in a short line. I ignored, “Please put your bag on the scale” as usual, until someone did it for me. I checked my heavy bag. I sojourned to the seats with wheelchair logos. Eventually, I was loaded into an actual wheelchair and a young woman wheeled me out the door onto the sidewalk and turned me back to … terminal 3. She had made this same trip 10 times already. It was 10 a.m. Inside Bradley Terminal, she pushed me an equal distance until she arrived still complaining at the security check.

Just a tip: here in Canada, you don’t have to remove your iPad as well as your laptop, but in LA you do. If you don’t, they send your tray back to the beginning as you stand there in your sock feet.

There were twice as many people as chairs near gates 30 to 35, but they were civil and had left the chair with the wheelchair logo for late arriving gimps like me. They even left it empty while I bought a bottle of water.

I could have bought a sandwich but I was clueless. Short-haul flights like the one to Vancouver sell only snacks. My flight left at lunch-time.

I knew what to expect of the 737-600. I had flown down on a 737. Thin seats with minimal contour comfort, 2 extremely tiny washrooms, 1 of which we cheap-seat types were encouraged not to use. Didn’t 737’s used to be luxurious? West Jet’s seemed like tin cans, so poorly insulated that the sound of braking made death seem imminent.

All right. Easy-peasy. Three hours straight up the coast. Then 2-hours before the next flight from Vancouver to Toronto.

But…

There was a headwind. We arrived 40-minutes late. I got wheeled up the ramp.

“I’ll be right back,” said the young man pushing my chair, and he vanished back down the ramp.

There had been a genuinely non-walking woman on the flight. Boarding, it had taken three people to move her from her wheelchair to a smaller airplane-going model and a long time. I waited all alone in a curving corridor, gazing at the glass heights of the terminal. And I waited. Boarding for the Toronto flight was due to start at 4:20. 4:20 came and went.

Suddenly the young man was back and we were off. I had to clear customs. At an electronic kiosk. No problem. I had nothing to declare and I was pretty fast at touch screen. We were off again.

The rest of the 3-mile (I swear it must have been) trip is a blur. It involved elevators, golf carts, more wheelchairs, 3 other West Jet wheelchair wranglers, clearing security, having my tiny remaining water wrestled from my hands – I could barely speak my mouth was so dry. It involved, I kid you not, leaping up and running a good long city block, attendant by my side dragging my carry-on and seeking assurance that I wasn’t about to collapse. We passed West Jet outriders who kept calling ahead to alert the flight I was on my way and we arrived at another golf cart. (Why, why, couldn’t it have met me back there where I started my sprint?)

“Don’t worry, Joyce,” said my kindly attendant. (I was crying of course.) “By law, they can’t close the door until 10 minutes before take-off.”

Yes, but pretty sure we’ve passed that deadline.

We made it, 3 minutes to go. Kindly attendant walked me to my seat. Gave me a hug. Spoke kindly. Got the flight attendant, Heather, to bring me water. Heather hugged me. And I have to say, passengers from three rows away would have done so as well if they weren’t already strapped in.

Another passenger, a woman, cool as a cucumber, arrived after me. We took off at 5. I, the uncool package, read on my iPad. Food service had been postponed due to turbulence until we crossed the Rockies. Thank God I remembered the protein bar.

Four and a half hours later, we landed in Toronto. Last flight of the day. And wheelchair people wait to disembark last.

Mo – short for Mohammed – wheeled me through deserted YYZ terminal. He had just graduated from an International Business course and was working his way up to an executive position. Learning the West Jet business from the ground up. He called me Joyce and chatted cheerfully as he wheeled me another three miles. West Jet’s responsibility for the package that was me ended at baggage claim, but he claimed my bag and walked me to the taxi stand, ready to catch me should I falter.

Lucky old Ulysses said, “There lies the port/The vessel puffs her sails”. His crew was ready to sail again out beyond the sunset’ perhaps to touch the Happy Isles and to see the great Achilles. To strive, to seek, to find and not to fail.

Right on! And let’s face it, my crew did their best. And for a package, so did I.

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Bangor: Thanksgiving 2014

Bangor International Airport without snow

Bangor International Airport without snow

“We won’t get home for Thanksgiving,” said the woman beside him.

“It’s not Thanksgiving,” said Rob.

“You’re Canadian,” she guessed. “It’s Thanksgiving here.” They were sitting in an unheated room in a hangar at the Bangor airport. Their empty plane sat in the runway, its chute deployed. She had studied the group and sized my truck driving brother as the likeliest.

“Let’s rent a car,” she said. “We can drive me to Ithaca and you can go on to Toronto.”

He paused. “It’s getting dark. It’s snowing. I don’t know you and besides, I’ve seen that movie.” Which of course reduced him to laughter.

He withdrew to a quiet corner and called me on his Belgian mobile phone. “First, they said we were running out of fuel,” he told me, “but as we landed the whole plane started shaking. “I knew I was going to die. I thought I should hold the hand of the woman across the aisle, but she was too ugly. Then I thought, I’m here at the bulk head next to business class. I’m likely the only who will survive. Shoot, I thought.” They hit the ground. “Now,” he said to himself. Then they hit again and with a terrible whining, grinding and howling came to a stop.

The chute deployed.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please keep your seats.” People were struggling desperately to get up and out. They had been told the plane was out of fuel. “There is a problem with the door,” the captain admitted.

Mayhem erupted.”I could have died,” was the universal cry. “I almost died.”

Me too, thought Rob. You’re not the only one here. You didn’t die. We didn’t fall out over the Atlantic. We are on a lucky flight!

Turned out once the door was opened that there was a problem getting the steps up to meet it, but that had been resolved and now Rob sat on a cold cement floor, his winter coat and boots safe in his checked luggage, catching laryngitis and talking to me.

Four hours later,  little had changed, except he had gone out for a smoke and set off all manner of alarms on his way back from the hardware in his joints. He was patted down, wand-ed and dog-sniffed, a hair raising experience given what he had smoked the night before. The promised plane from Philly had not arrived, would arrive despite the snow in half an hour, would not arrive if it snowed six more inches. But snow plows ground up and down the single runway, keeping it open. Finally, snow in Philly would prevent the plane’s departure from that city.

By now, he had called me four times and I was at Georgia’s place which is nearer the airport. “They’re sending us to a hotel,” he said.

“Yes, I can see it right next to the airport,” I said. I could also see the U.S. Airways flight status on another screen. The path led from Brussels to Philly, but the little plane was stuck in Bangor, Maine. “Don’t forget your meds,” I said.

“Oh, thank you, thank you,”he said.

“You put your meds in your checked luggage?” Oh he was rattled.”It’s okay, Rob. You’re safe now. You’re going to stay in a cozy snow-bound hotel.” Family history tends to send us off the deep end in urgent situations.

He made out all right of course. He spent the evening in the bar ordering rounds of drinks for everyone there and talking.

Two younger women told him of the way, troops are welcomed back at the airport. They are never greeted by “Welcome home” or “Welcome to the United States” that way lies emotional breakdown and mass chaos. They are greeted simply, “”Welcome to Bangor.”

At closing, his credit card wouldn’t swipe. No chip readers there. So the wealthy Belgian couple paid his bill and refused compensation next day, “Are you trying to insult me?”

I woke up in the guest bedroom to hear my phone ringing. The plane from Philly would arrive in Bangor, momentarily, read an hour and a half. His flight back north would be at 4:30 on Air Canada and he would arrive in YYZ at 6:06.”Wherever that is,” he said.

Then there was silence for 4 hours. I understood that. No worries. At 3:45, just as I was about to call him, he called me. The flight was delayed until 5:30 and he was going back to Brussels.

“Have you eaten lately?” I demanded.

Well no.

“Go. Eat. Have a drink. Relax. You’re almost here.”

“Okay,” he said. I was his big sister after all.

At 7:30 Georgia and I were on the road to YYZ, Pearson International Airport, trying to catch the right lane in the dark and snow. She insisted on driving her new car.

“Am I going to have to put you in the back seat?” she demanded.

I could have driven, but I was too tense to be driven.

“The car is dark blue,” I tell him on my cell phone.

“I don’t care what colour it is, just so long as it picks me up. I’m waiting at P,” he says.

There is no P of course, so I duck out of the car at C and run him down. He’s still clad in just a cotton sweater. We run for the car, half hugging. Georgia springs out to load the big bag, even though we are blocking a thru lane.

Our celebration dinner is smoked salmon pasta, thrice-cooked of necessity by niece/daughter. There are 5 of us, together at last.

“You are here,” I say in wonder, “And my daughter is still alive.”

(This apparent non-sequitor is explained in previous posts.)

The Septuagenarian Hobbit Returns: New Year’s

(This is one of a series of posts in which I have explored my hobbit-like reluctance to travel.)

The arrival of 2014 was confusing for me. My body-clock registered it at Brussels time and took me to bed shortly afterwards, but not before I received a text from my brother Rob, who had probably just set off fireworks in Bois Fort: Where are you? I have looked all over the house.

I can’t imagine how confused my fellow travellers must be. I joined their flight at the Brussels airport, half way through their journey from Delhi – mothers, fathers, grandmothers, children, babies and one grandfather. Shortly after take-off at 10:15 a.m., the lights were turned down and  most of them went to sleep. I joined them.

Even as I was swept south on Highway 427 from YYZ, otherwise known as Pearson International Airport, I felt as if some essential part of me had still not landed.

It is after 3 a.m. eastern standard time. My neighbours have just come in from partying and gone to bed. I went to bed at 6 p.m., so here I am.

I postponed the return to my home by stopping to eat. I was ready for dinner. Blake, who had picked me up, wanted brunch. Easy to get dinner at noon, but brunch on a weekday, New Year’s Eve or not, took some convincing.

Finally, I got home. The lights were on. I had carefully set the timer to put them on at sunset, but the ice storm cut the power, so the timer clock thought it was dark already. Warily, I approached the refrigerator. Four days without electricity! Nothing. No dreadful smell. My landlord had come in, I knew, and all the frozen meat was gone, but all the glass containers of stock, soup and stew were still there. For a brief moment, I thought there was a reason, but of course, there wasn’t. Refrozen they sat patiently waiting to give me ptomaine. For the third time in a year, I had lost everything in the freezer. (But global warming is a myth and all this crazy weather is just part of a natural cycle!!!!!!!)

The news showed me poor people in long lines waiting -many in vain – for food vouchers. They had lost their Christmas food and very likely had spent the holiday freezing in the dark.

I had gone with Rob to the fish market in Brussels to pick up a huge iced platter of oysters, sea snails and shrimp, destined to join turkey as our Christmas Eve feast. (The snails were particularly delicious.) I had been warm and cozy throughout. Evidently, there are advantages to travel.

(I will post one more blog in this series, in which I will explore the surprising fact that my Brussels family, whose language I can barely follow, has so much in common with my Canadian family and my Southern Californian family.)

Happy New Year.