LOS ANGELES - The stern new security procedures at airports are not the only cause of travel traumas. There still is good old Mother Nature to compound the challenges. And she can be fiercely punishing.
I was the keynote speaker at a session of the annual convention of the National Association of Elementary School Principals in San Antonio, Texas. It was a huge gathering of about 9,000 people and my address had been well received. I must confess, I felt a smug sense of self-satisfaction with a job well done as I was driven back to the San Antonio airport. It had been showering lightly for the past two days but the highway was now starting to slowly dry off. I arrived more than two hours before my flight was scheduled to depart for Los Angeles so that I could comfortably navigate the strict new security checks. But security turned out to be a piece of cake. I sailed through without a glitch. The only bit of slowdown was when a couple of security attendants recognized me and I stopped to sign a few autographs.
I checked in, got my boarding passes to Dallas/Fort Worth connecting on to Los Angeles, and settled in with a copy of the New York Times. At 3 p.m., half an hour before the scheduled departure time, I gathered near the gate with others to await the boarding announcement. Nothing happened. 3:15 came and went with no boarding. The scheduled departure time came and we were still crowded around the gate. At 3:40, the announcement came. There was a storm headed our way and all flights had been temporarily grounded. However, airline officials assured us, as soon as we were cleared, the plane would be immediately available for boarding, and we would take off -- so we were told not to leave the gate area. The tension that swept through the crowd was palpable. I looked out the glass wall and saw that the sky was cloudy but spotty patches of blue could be seen. I speculated that they wouldn't keep us grounded for too long. I assumed that this delay was just precautionary.
At 4 o'clock, the public address system announced that we were still grounded but that there would be half-hour updates so do not leave the gate area. By this time the churning clouds had crowded out any patch of visible blue sky. Eyes began flashing alarmed looks at each other. But I had flown through storms before. This grizzled traveler didn't think there was any need for undue agitation. But I thought I should at least inform my business manager in Los Angeles that my arrival home would now most probably be delayed.
When I reached my manager on my cell phone, I could hear the alarm in his voice. He told me that his computer airline schedule was telling him that the Dallas/Fort Worth airport was also shut down because of the approaching storm. It looked bad. My connecting flight to Los Angeles had also been grounded.
I looked out the glass wall. Those churning clouds had turned much darker now. I began to feel uneasy about getting on that plane and barreling into those ominous-looking clouds. I'd better find another routing to get back home, I thought. I looked toward the gate clerk's counter and saw a long line forming of people with panic in their eyes. As an experienced traveler, I told myself, I'm not about to be stampeded by the hysteria. I knew how to avoid that crowd. With feigned self-assurance, I grabbed my rolling luggage and began striding for the main terminal ticket counter. It seemed, however, a good number of other people also had the same idea. Exactly what I was trying to avoid. Everybody was coming down the corridor right behind me. I blew whatever cool I had been faking. I began trotting with my luggage bouncing along behind me to stay ahead of the others. When I got to the main ticket desk, a horde of people were already there, yelling and demanding that they absolutely had to get home NOW! It is at times like this that I will be eternally grateful for First Class tickets. There were only two people waiting in the red-carpeted line.
When my turn came, the attendant in front of me seemed almost as frenzied looking as some of the passengers. He had thinning frizzy brown hair and he peered intensely at my flight itinerary through heavy, ringed Coke bottle spectacles. But, he was good. "Try Albuquerque as my connection -- or El Paso," I suggested desperately. "Or Las Vegas." His fingers clicked away at the keyboard like a woodpecker's beak. When they were no good, I spat out, "Try Salt Lake City?" No good. "What about San Francisco?" None worked. They were already all booked up. "But I've got to be back by tomorrow. I have a very important meeting," I pleaded. I could almost see him thinking, "So does everyone else." But he soldiered on silently intent, his eyes fixed on his computer screen. Suddenly, his eyes popped wide and his glasses almost jumped up. "How about through Phoenix at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning?" he asked. "I'll take it," I replied. "But it's on another airline," he warned. "I'd fly you guys because I like you," I assured him, "but your birds ain't flying. A bird in hand is better than a bird on the ground," I quipped now smug again. How quickly my desperation had faded. "But it doesn't go to LAX," he added. "It lands at Long Beach Airport." "That's close enough. I want that flight," I insisted. I had a way home now - but at 6 a.m. in the morning! That meant that I now had to get a hotel room near the airport. I had a new challenge. I know from anguished past experiences how quickly airport hotels can fill to capacity at times like this.
I rushed to the airport hotel-listing wall with a bank of telephones. The first one I tried was already full. Anxiously, I called the next one. I lucked out with the second. I hurried out of the terminal to a now lightly raining airport landscape. The front of the storm was arriving. I dove into a taxi and rushed over. Thankfully, the hotel was only about five minutes from the airport. It looked like a glorified motel from the outside, but the atmosphere in the lobby was almost like the airport. Frantic people and a screaming baby surrounded the reception desk. The room I finally got was the last available at the hotel. I had to get up early to catch my 6 a.m. flight back so I asked for a 3:30 a.m. wake up call and went up to my room.
Once I laid down on the bed, hunger gripped my exhausted body. I was famished. But the hotel had no restaurant or room-service. Fortunately, I remembered that I'd saved the bag of peanuts and the bag of pretzels from my two flight legs on my way to San Antonio. Munching on pretzels, I turned on the television. "60 Minutes" was on. It's one of my favorite shows. I had written off catching the show because of the travel, but, thanks to this disaster, at least I wouldn't miss tonight's show. I was getting into the program when suddenly the screen was filled with the bold words, WEATHER WARNING.
An ominous voice intoned that a thunderstorm was headed toward Uvalde County with the possibility of tornadoes. Everyone was ordered to stay indoors in a safe part of the house. Then a map flashed on. Uvalde was just west of San Antonio and the storm was headed directly at us, east of Uvalde. "60 Minutes" then came back on but now, at the bottom of the screen, was a continuing scroll with weather updates. Trying to read the scroll and, at the same time, focus on the program, I tried getting back into the show. Suddenly, the WEATHER WARNING sign again broke in. The voice reported that hail the size of baseballs was now falling in Uvalde. The order to stay indoors was urgently repeated. It was getting bad, but I realized I had to get up at 3:30. I had better get some sleep. I muted the television so that I could read just the weather updates and turned out the lights. But I couldn't fall asleep. I kept tossing and turning. Suddenly, the entire room lit up electric white. I bolted up from bed. What was that? Then the room trembled with a horrendous crashing sound like the sky ripping apart. A beat later, a sheet of rain, almost like an ocean wave, slapped at the window. It was followed again by another slap with another flash of lightening. It was terrorizing. It was the same terror I felt as a child in the internment camp in Arkansas. Those Arkansas thunderstorms were the most frightening of my childhood experiences. The storm continued for most of the night. Just as it finally began to calm down and I started to doze, the phone rang. It was my automated 3:30 wake up call.
The hotel had promised that there would be a shuttle service to the airport at 15-minute intervals in the morning. The storm had passed but the street was glistening with rain. I waited under the canopy in front of the hotel entrance. A mini-bus, already filled with passengers and luggage, rolled up. There was just enough space for me to board. The driver announced, however, that there would be one more hotel stop where he had to pick up passengers before heading for the airport. There were about half a dozen sleepy looking people waiting there. Our bus could barely take only one or two more. The ones that forced themselves onboard were two out-of-shape women huffing and puffing with effort. The other waiting people would have to take the next bus. The cramped ride from there to the airport was the last ordeal. The check-in went unexpectedly smoothly. Although I was chosen for the special security check, where I had to take my shoes off, open my luggage, and be "wanded" all over, it seemed like nothing after the trauma I'd already endured. The take off was uneventful and landing in radiantly sunny Phoenix, Arizona, was a joy. But, the happiest was landing at Long Beach Airport. I was home! At last!
After a trip like that, I can't tell you how fervently I pray for the early invention of that Star Trek travel mode called "beaming."