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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Into the Wild Blue Yonder


My travel tends to follow the trajectory of your average commercial airline flight.  The beginning is all takeoff and ascent because I’m usually excited about the destination.  Once I get there, I do whatever I came to do.  That part is smooth and uneventful most of the time, like being at cruising altitude.  Where things go wrong, in my experience, is the return trip. (Don't believe me? Check out this.)  It’s my personal descent, often ending in a very bumpy landing.   

Recently I had to make a trip to Boston.  The day of my departure couldn’t have started any better.  The weather was perfect, with no trace of superstorms.  Even the normally nasty morning rush hour showed a nice streak: I made it to National Airport in twenty minutes and with time to spare for my 10:30 flight.  

I walked through the terminal and saw an unusually large crowd gathered at one of the gates in the distance.  As I got closer, the group burst into applause, and I quickly understood why: A plane full of World War II veterans had arrived.  

They were unloading to great fanfare and I joined just as the saxophonist in an eight-piece band played the trademark opening riff of "In The Mood."  The scene moved me to tears, and also to a huge grin.  I was in the mood, all right.  I watched and listened for five or six more songs—these passengers moved at a pace that would’ve allowed the band to do a full set—boarded a plane, and headed north.

Once I had done everything I wanted and needed to in the Boston area, I phoned a cab company to arrange a ride.  The dispatcher said the cab would pick me up at 6:00 p.m. Plenty of time to make the 30 minute ride to Logan and catch my 8:00 flight.

When the cab hadn’t shown up by 6:15, I knew I’d dropped out of the clouds and begun the descent.  

Ten minutes later a white minivan pulled up. It had no sign so I stayed put. A couple seconds later the passenger door slid open and a voice that belonged to a woman I couldn’t see said, “Ya goin’ to the airport?”  My ears detected a southern accent when she said “airport.” 

She started to make small talk before I even closed the door and my accent hunch was confirmed.

“Ah offered to pick you up ‘cause ah gotta go see my boyfriend after this and the airport is kinda on the way.”  I was confused.  Neither she nor the vehicle looked very official.  Had the cab company handed me off to some sort of carpool?  

I didn’t have time to ask because she kept talking, loudly, while country music blared from the speakers.

“Ah just moved back up here from Alabama.” This explained the origin of her accent and the reason why she had the heat set to ‘blast furnace’ despite her heavy coat and the fifty degree temperatures outside. 

We didn’t get far before traffic halted our progress. It did not have the same effect on her soliloquy, unfortunately.

“Do ya like country music? Ah do.  In fact my country station in Alabama ran a telethon last year for sick kids. They had a contest for a meet an’ greet with Shania Twain and ah won it. Look at all these red lights.  Ah got a whole coffee in me, honey, so if we don’t start movin’ ah’m gonna have to pull over an’ pee.” 

I felt like I was watching “Honey Boo Boo Finds A Job.” 

It was 6:45 and we were nowhere near the airport.  I needed an out.  Based on the temperature inside the car, spontaneous combustion seemed like a viable option.  I didn’t know how long that might take so I decided to use a work defense instead.

“Will it bother you if I make a call?”

“Aw no, you go right ahead, honey,” she said, cranking up the radio. I found this very considerate.  It ensured that neither of us heard my conversation and also guaranteed that we didn’t miss it when Tricia Yearwood slaughtered “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart.” 

I kept my call brief.  The cabbie’s phone rang moments later, which I figured out only when she turned off the radio.  Some calls deserve that kind of reverence.  At 7:05 we encountered another wall of brake lights.  

She hung up and said, “Ah ain’t never seen it like this, traffic all goin’ into the city. Must be a car’s on fire.” 

A tiny part of me wanted to know why bumper-to-bumper traffic could only mean a car fire (and if so, why the Beltway wasn’t engulfed in flames eight hours a day).  I couldn’t bring myself to ask.

We’d been sitting in silence for eight or nine seconds when she pointed to the right. I looked over and saw a train stopped at a platform.  “The train stops right there,” she said. I didn’t have a response to that.  

At about 7:10, we approached the entrance to the Ted Williams Tunnel. 

“We’re goin' into a tunnel now,” she said.  “There’s water on top of it.”  Then it dawned on me: I hadn’t landed in a random carpool after all;  it was an airport shuttle for hypothermic blind people. It all made sense.

As I was preparing to strip down to my underwear, an airport-only lane appeared, and by 7:15 we had reached the terminal.  Though I didn’t have time for the IV drip I desperately needed, I did reach my gate in time for the final boarding call.  

The descent was short and steep this time, but at least I stuck the landing.   

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