I don’t like Florida. I prefer our Cascade mountains here in Oregon, the crisp and clean mountain air, the rivers and streams and high forests, the volcanic slabs of cliffs and the ancient valleys. Florida in October is warm, dank and bright. The air is redolent with the funk of subtropical swamp decay and ocean air salted with beached seaweed and man-o-war jellyfish rotting on the waterline. It’s air you can weigh, and it weighs back.
We were going to Florida anyway. My wife grew up there, arriving from Rochester, New York with her family in 1957 as the result of a belief that the successful culmination of northern ambition produced a residence in Florida. She later escaped, but her parents rooted in the sand and have been there ever since. Her Dad passed away on the last day of 2014, and now her Mom, 97 years old, lives with my wife’s sister in North Palm Beach. We are going to see Mom. And so Florida.
I like Mom. As for Florida… well, maps of the shoreline of the USA in 2100 AD don’t bother me at all. It is sinking toward Atlantis, and when it does it will be an improvement. The air will only be a bit more humid, and will not smell as weird.
6:00 AM Thursday morning
We wake up and get ready to go. Our plane doesn’t leave Portland, Oregon until early afternoon, so we have plenty of time. We leave the house here in the mountains around 10 am and an hour’s drive delivers us to the parking lot near PDX where our car will be for the next five days. Five days is not much time to spend in Florida by the lights of many people, but after serious deliberation and thought – and without too much input from me, I might add – my wife has decided this is her Florida limit.
Five days. We will go, we will spend quality time with Mom, we will allocate a small portion of our time there for ourselves. We will walk on the beach, we will eat at the restaurant on Lantana Beach, we will watch a sunrise together and then have breakfast – café con leche and Caribbean-style home fried potatoes, among other delicious menu items – at the Puerto Rican café we discovered on our last trip. It will all be good.
In Portland, after a bit of a scramble – I leave my wallet in the car console and realize it just as the airport shuttle is leaving the lot and have to “run” on my bad knees like a hip-shot duck to retrieve it – we arrive at the terminal, check in our bag and pick up our boarding passes. We are TSA pre-checked, so we get to go around the line of about 150 people slowly snaking their way to the x-ray, shoe removal, pocket-stripping station and are glad to have only about ten people in front of us. Then the foreshadowing shows up.
Lenore sets off the metal detector and has to be diverted to an x-ray machine and then a frisk. It’s not so bad, the frisk is not offensive and the alarm proves to be just a machine anomaly that agitates the hive guardians for a moment and requires investigation. Soon we’re through the security gate, have a pre-packed lunch we’ve brought along in a common eating area, and board our plane.
1:00 PM, Portland, Oregon
“Meet the Griffiths, a nice couple who think they are embarking on an uneventful trip to Florida to spend time with family and each other. Little do they know that as they cross the threshold of the awaiting 738 jetliner and enter the cabin beyond, they pass through that invisible curtain which veils the undiscovered country beyond in… the Twilight Zone.”
Our flight to Dallas-Fort Worth will be 3 hours and 6 minutes long. At least it will be until a train of thunderheads pulled by the engine of earth’s ever-more-unpredictable atmosphere rolls over Dallas and shuts down the airport there. We circle for an hour and when news of the shutdown comes and fuel runs low, we are diverted to the tarmac of Austin, Texas. The pilot informs us to not worry about making our scheduled connections because they are “all out the window,” presumably twisting in shreds in the weather beyond our plastic port-holes.
In Austin we are stacked and racked, parked in a line with other planes diverted from Dallas. There are a lot of them. The folks who were going actually going to Austin cash in their lottery-winning tickets and eventually deplane, along with other passengers who have used their electronic networking devices to secure rental cars for trips to Houston and other nearby areas. It is 9:30 pm now, and a few also elect to leave the plane simply because they want to get the hell out of it. I am thinking about doing this myself when the pilot announces there are no lodging rooms left in Austin. This may be, as they say in Texas, bull – but I’m not inclined to investigate whether or not it is. Word is that DFW may reopen and we can still get there, which is what the airline and air crew and even the airplane seems to desperately want to do.
The shuttle for the deplaning passengers arrives about 10:30 pm, and with it complimentary snacks and bottled water extended by way of apology to the rest of us for the delay. We now have bottled water in paper-thin plastic bottles which erupt when we screw the nearly unremoveable top off and the death grip we have on the bottle blows a geyser into the overhead 8 inches above us. We also have peanut M&M’s and Cheetos. The flight attendant, obviously in disagreement with her employer’s idea of penitence and largesse, and disgusted and embarrassed by it, lets us know she is in sympathy with us and advises us that if we eat these things we will most likely blow up. We agree, and pass them along to others who are ready to do so and end it all right now. We defer in favor of extended misery, and we get it. But there is one bright light shining in the darkness of Austin.
Our cellmate is a kind and sociable person – the only one we will encounter on the whole trip – as well as a frequent-flyer. She is favored by the airline and receives updates on her cell phone, which while not as current as our pilot’s updates do serve to remind her and us that the airline is aware that they have delivered us into limbo and are working hard to deliver us back out. I am hoping this is not the sort of hard work that George W. Bush, a Texan from thereabouts, was talking about when he said, “We are working hard to bring the solution to an end.”
Our new friend advises us to call our hotel to let them know we will be arriving late. This turns out to be good information because when we do – using her cell because we are traveling deviceless and are the networked equivalent of fuzzy ducklings – we learn that had we not called we would have been marked down as no-shows and our reservation cancelled completely. During this conversation I hear our pilot announce that plans are now in the works to unscobble the situation but that it will take time. My bones and muscles and connective tissues are telling me that they may not have that time, and so I start to seriously think about deplaning ourselves and taking our chances in Austin in hopes that somewhere there is a room we can acquire and collapse in.
Our seat mate dials up the airline for us and I try to get some information about lodging vouchers. The first representative I reach has a nearly unintelligible accent, but with some careful listening and intense focus I am able to determine that she is unable to absorb information from the outside world if it contradicts her database and training script. It soon becomes evident that she is unable to retain the information that a flight scheduled for DFW is in Austin. I repeat the simple fact three times, and finally ask for her supervisor. She seems very relieved that I have done so, even though I have been very nice and patient with her.
The supervisor has listening skills, can process real-time information, and apparently enjoys a certain amount of authority to make things happen. While we are talking about lodging vouchers in Austin the pilot announces that DFW will have a window between thunderheads from midnight until 2 am, and we will be leaving shortly. This is a huge stroke of luck, believe it or not. My conversation with the airline rep immediately switches over to making a new connection, and she is able to scrounge two seats on a flight to Charlotte out of DFW at 5:15 am, and a connecting flight which will put us into Florida around noon the next day. This does not sound too good until we do finally get to DFW and pick up our new boarding passes at the arrival gate. The couple in front of us are stunned speechless by the new connection handed to them, which does not leave Dallas for 14 hours. They stumble away defeated, seeking nothing in particular, dead passengers walking.
Tickets in hand now, we look for food, cots, ground space, a bathroom. It’s all a slow-motion grind. In the terminal we arrive at cots are everywhere, occupied. People have crashed on the floor and are pillowed with carry on bags, covered in jackets and sweaters, sleeping with their hands over their ears. In every gate as far as the ear can hear CNN is blaring fritzing chunks of noise from five big screens per gate at about 90 decibels.
Only one food place is open in Dallas at 2:30 am, and here where we are the line is about fifty people deep. We decide to go on to our departure gate. It’s in a different terminal, reached by a pitiless monorail roller coaster slamming viciously through unexplainable speed bumps. The food place apparently has a franchised outlet in each terminal, and here there is no line. We mumble our orders, but manage to have a couple of burritos assembled before our eyes, pay, and stumble into a corner booth. The corner is better for leaning against because it’s harder to fall sideways, and my wife gets situated there. I have the wall and keep sliding down it on my way to under the table until I think to put my feet on the chair opposite me. I slide down a ways and then stop, upper torso piled into my gut. My chin is about 6 inches above my plate, and I feel like I am three years old again, eating in a high chair. When we are done everything goes into my carry-on pack, provisions for the dark unknown ahead.
We stumble onward. In a gate not far away we find an unoccupied cot and claim it. There are only three people here, two seniors out front dozing in chairs, and in the far country behind them a person wandering around who has the thousand-yard stare of a homeless person, which he is. Just like us. We smile painfully, sympathetically, but he moves past us deeper into his own fog. Behind an abandoned gate counter I find a pile of looted cardboard boxes and in the last, buried under the pile, there are two plastic-wrapped pillows. They are three quarters of an inch thick and made from the same material that goes into the manufacture of furnace filters and gauze bandages. I return, the triumphant hunter-gatherer, to the cot, and urge my wife to try it out. She does. She gets back up almost immediately, so I try it out. I discover that it would be more comfortable if it was simply a piece of plywood 18” wide and five and a half feet long with a perimeter of 2×2’s nailed to its top edges. We doze in fitful delirium in the airport chairs for the remainder of our time there.
Finally it is time to go to our boarding gate, and on the way a Starbucks is opening up. I stand in line and score a tall Americano and a shoe-leather cinnamon twist. I drink the coffee and slam-dunk the pastry into a garbage can on our way to the gate.
It all goes fuzzy after that, although I do remember thinking that while we were entombed in Dallas, it could be worse. We could be our luggage, entombed in the bowels beneath us, separated from home and family and on the way to God knows where.
Charlotte, a layover, another plane ride, and a sympathetic, philosophical Haitian-born cab driver delivered us to our destination. We hadn’t slept for 30 hours. We crashed at the hotel and slept for a couple of hours that should have been about ten hours more, but our circadian rhythms were lagged stupid. I called the airline seeking our luggage, and learned it would arrive late that afternoon, so we connected with a car and went to get it. We all wagged our tails at the happy reunion, even the suitcase. It was heart warming.
Then came my dear wife’s shattered toe, the Good Samaritan Emergency Room in West Palm Beach, her three days spent in our hotel’s complimentary wheel chair, and her airport wheel chair rides all the way back to Oregon. Really. I’m not lying. I’m just tired of writing now. It’s a story that’s bigger than I am. We’re glad to be home.
I don’t like Florida.