Friday, April 08, 2005

I Must Be Meant to Stay in Florida

Even though Celebration is my full-time home now, returning to the Midwest occasionally is a necessary evil. This week, I had to return for three days of training (Friday, Monday, and Tuesday), so my husband booked me on a Thursday evening flight. Since he was already scheduled to fly to Chicago on Saturday, I would be spending Friday solo. Not a problem, since it promised to be a jam-packed day, with nine hours of intensive training in the daytime and catch-up work for my travel agency at night.

But as Thursday drew closed and closer, my relucance to return to Chicago grew. A few weeks ago, I accompanied my husband on one of his fuve day jaunts, which he has to do regularly for work. But other than occasional special events, my work is 100 percent home based, so there is no business reason for me to leave Celebration. Sure, I like to see my family and friends, but I can yak with family members on the phone just about any time, and most of our Illinois friends are scattered at wide distances and/or work erractic schedules. It takes some pre-planning in order to organize get-togethers with them. Thus, unless we are scheduled to go out with someone or to see a play in downtown Chicago ("Lion King," "Wicked," and "Little Shop of Horrors" are all on the docket this speing and summer), I'd just as soon be in Celebration.

As the day approached, my husband had to listen to my constant grousing: "I don't want to go back. I don't! I don't!" I knew it was unavoidable, and I knew that the time would pass quickly because I'd be so busy. But who wants to fly to a place where spring is barely making a foothold when you can be among palm trees, sunshine, and humidity that is already giving a summer sampler? Who wants to go to a barren, dead-quiet condo instead of being in Duloc Manor, with galavanting cats and a squawking bird adding life (and fur and feathers to clean up)? Who wants to stare at barren gardens and empty flower pots that are almost a month away from being filled when you can be among the glorious colors of gardens that have been in full bloom for several weeks already? Who wants to be trapped in a dull suburb where the chairs in the town square are literally chained to the concrete when you can walk down to the lake and gently rock in chairs that are (gasp!) not secured in any way? Who wants to be stuck in a place whose claim to fame is the "World Music Center" when you can be next door to Disney World? Compare my old home to Celebration and the contest is not even close.

But still, I was looking forward to the training, which will be a big help with my current project. Thus, on Thursday afternoon, I sparsely packed my luggage bag (it's nearly empty going out but stuffed with items from the condo on the return trip) and dragged my carcass into Canyonero so my husband could chauffer me to the airport.

I had been worrying all day because there were reports of a major storm system heading to Orlando. The news broadcasts were full or dire warnings and footage of damage that the storm had already cause in other states. So far, the skies partly cloudy but not really threatening, and the rain had held off. But somehow I just knew that moments before my plane would try to pull away from the gate, all hell was likely to break lose.

Sure enough, as we made our way down 417, the rain drops started spitting down on the windshield. There weren't was just a little tease. It was God, with His ironic sense of humor, saying, "Yes, Barb, I know that you're on your way, and I don't want you to think that I've forgotten you."

My husband dropped me off, and I made my way to gate 126 to catch my flight, which was scheduled to leave at 5:20. Now that ATA is, for all practical purposes, a non-entity in Chicago, we have been flying Southwest. We print our boarding passes at 12:01 a.m. the morning of each flight in order to get an A pass and then camp out in the A line the moment we get to the gate. This time, since I was solo, I was a bit worried about what would happen if I needed to take a potty break. Leaving unattended luggage is not a good idea in our post-9/11 world, and if I took my bag with me, I would lose my place in line. I really didn't want to do that, since I had snagged the coveted #1 spot. But the flight was supposedly on time, and I had purposely limited my liquid intake for the day, so I figured that I could hold out until boarding.

Alas, as boarding time nearer and no plane showed up at the gate, a disturbing rumor passed through the line. Supposedly someone had asked an agent and had been told that we were facing an hour's weather-related delay. Even though the storm hadn't hit Orlando yet, it was wreaking havoc in other areas.

Since few people dareed to leave the line, we were dependent on updates from people traveling with companions who could hold their spot while they got the latest news. The clock ticked on...and on...and on...and still no aircraft. Worse yet, I was getting an urge to visit the facilities that it was nearly impossible to ignore. The one cup of coffee that I'd allowed myself in the morning had apparently decided to hide out somewhere in the far recesses of my stomach before sprinting to my bladder at the most inopportune time possible. Finally, I desperately assured the people around me that my luggage was not a security risk and literally sprinted to the restroom. When I returned after finding relief, my bag was thankfully still in its place and the crowd parted to let me resume my rightful place in line, where I'd been camping for something like two hours now.

Then the gate agent got on the microphone and announced that, although our originally scheduled plane was apparently lost somewhere out in the boondocks, they were going to put us on a different aircraft. Unfortunately, that also meant a different gate. Southwest line-ups are a fiercely competitive sport, and since I was at the far end of the A chute, I was at a decided disadvantage. Sure enough, I was at the end of the mad dash; now, instead of first, I found myself almost the last person in the queue at our new gate. Oh well, there are worse fates in life. At this point, I knew I'd be happy just to be on a plane, and if I could get an aisle seat, that would be nice but not totally necessary. I doubted that I would be anywhere near the front; I like to be there, since I only have a carry-on, which makes it nice to get off as quickly as possible.

We filed onto the new plane in a semi-orderly fashion. Surprisingly, I was able to get an aisle seat in row 5, where another solo traveler had already taken up residence by the window. I settled in, reading a novel, while the rest of the crowd filed on, breathing various sighs of relief that they were finally taking concrete steps towards getting to Chicago sometime in the near future.

It almost looked as though I would luck out and the middle seat would remain unoccupied. But one last straggler boarded and filled in row five just before the aircraft door was closed. Both he and the woman seemed quite pleasant. We made a bit of small-talk, sharing our various tales of where we were headed and why. For some reason, passengers on Southwest seem to do more "verbal bonding" than I've ever seen on ATA. At the beginning of the flight, people flock on as strangers. By the end, I've heard them saying goodbyes like they were old buddies.

I dozed off a bit just as the plane started backing out of the gate. I didn't noticed that the reassuring motion had reversed, and then stopped, until me seatmate lightly nudged me. "We're back at the gate!" he said. I dragged myelf back to consciousness....sure enough, we had returned.

Shortly thereafter, the captain informed us that there was some kind of mechanical problem, but that repairmen would be checking it out promptly. But God the Omnipresent Practical Joker had other ideas; the heavens suddenly opened and gushed forth a vicious monsoon, complete with thunder and lightening. At first, we were told that the rain shouldn't cause too much of a delay. Then, as the lightning intensified, the captain got on the PA once again to let us know that, due to the lightning, ground operations had been temporarily shut down; no mechanics would be coming out there until Mother Nature's wrath subsided.

The man in the middle seat was foreign, and although his conversational English was quite good, he was having trouble following the plethora of PA annoucements (goodness knows, I have trouble interpreting them half the time myself). Thus, the woman by the window and I were briefing him on the details of each new development. Then he (and most of the other passengers, myself included) would whip out a cell phone to call whoever might be waiting patiently in Chicago. For me, it was my sister-in-law, who was killing time at the Wal-Mart near Midway airport. My brother was scheduled to get off work shortly after my originally scheduled arrival, so she was planning to pick me up and then swing by to get him. I felt bad to keep calling her with no specific information, but the situation seemed to be changing by the minute.

We had a nasty little bout of hail, and then, finally the heavenly lightshow subsided, and the captain announced that the maintenance crew would tend to the problem. He said that it appeared to be an indicator light. But it must not have been the light that was broken; apparently it was indicating real trouble, because the next annoucement was that the plane was being taken out of service. After being so close, we were now back at square one.

Since everyone had already handed in their boarding passes, a gate agent passed out little plastic cards as we exited the plane. The system had disintigrated to the point that now, if you happened to be in the front of the plane, you were an A. Those in the middle got B, and the poor souls in the back of the aircraft were now Cs. I supposed it was as good a system as any, considering there was no way to know who originally had what letter. In theory, most of the As sit in the front anyway, except those who head to the exit rows. At any rate, I didn't hear anyone complaining; I think most people were just too exhausted.

I bought some Ben & Jerry's ice cream to give myself a little sugar buzz and headed back to the A line. Amazingly, now I was number two, after having gone originally from number one to nearly last. The shuffle was making me dizzy; I sincerely hoped that it would be my last line-up of the day. I was wondering if, perhaps, I was really meant to stay in Florida. But ironically, no matter how I felt, I really needed to get to Chicago for the training class. Still, some wicked part deep down inside me whispered, "Wouldn't it be nice if the flight was cancelled?" I squelched it, knowing that the majority of my fellow passengers most likely needed to get to the Windy City that day.

Eventually another plane showed up and disgorged a gaggle of passengers. They didn't look too frazzled, so apparently it must have been in sound mechnical condition (or at least sound enough not to do anything noticably scary, like fail to set down its landing gear). A buzz of excited anticipation ran through the crowd, swelling when the gate agent announced, "Boarding will begin shortly."

After 15 or 20 minutes, the magic moment finally arrived. First was the preboard, and I noticed that the line of people "needing extra assistance" had swelled and the four year olds were looking decidedly more mature (although to be fair, they might have been four when the original wait started). But even with the crowd, it went quickly, and soon enough I was heading on the plane with the herd of As. Whenever I board a Southwest plane, it's hard to resist the urge to moo.

At this point, I thought it might be nice to sleep, so I decided to see if I could get an exit row. That way, I could lean up against the window, but I'd still have enough space to get up without trampling the rest of the row when my nervous bladder decided to bug me. Happily, the exit rows were empty, so I settled down into a nice, snug window seat with plenty of maneuvering space. Shortly thereafer, a couple plopped down next to me; I assured them that I was a relatively tame seatmate, other than my tendency towards restroom visits (I think the root cause to that is my intense fear of flying).

This time, when we backed out of the gate, we actually continued towards the runways. But then we stopped...andsat...and sat. You could feel the nervous tension as everyone wondered, "Are we going to get socked with a whammy again." The pilot sooned reassured us that everything was fine; air traffic was just backed up because of the storm, so there were a lot of planes in front of us waiting to take off.

When we finally got airborne, the passengers broke into spontaneous applause. How good it felt to see the lights of Orlando growing fainter as we climbed into the night sky. Still, I felt a slight pang of disappointment. After all the ruckus, it almost seemed as though I was meant to stay in Florida. Here I had gone through so much trouble to go to a place where I didn't really want to be. But I kept reminding myself of the busy days that lay ahead of me. I knew that work would soon be crowding out the feelings of homesickness for Celebration, and the condo wouldn't feel so empty when my husband arrived on Saturday.

The flight was bumpy from beginning to end. Even the flight attendants were ordered to stay in their seats for most of it, although they did manage to complete the drink service in two or three tries. The turbulence wasn't so much severe as it was constant The pilot warned us that there was no smooth air at any altitude, and he never turned off the seat belt sign throughout the whole flight. Since I knew it was going to be bad, I had popped a Xanax. It must have done something to soothe my nerves because I never even had to try to sneak to the restroom (although I saw a few intrepid souls brave the bumps to do it).

I popped a DVD with the pilot episode of "The Greatest American Hero" into my laptop and made my way through most of it before I slipped into Dreamland. I was quite glad that I'd selected a window seat with a handy wall for leaning.

Eventually we made it to Chicago, where my sister-in-law and brother were waiting, even though the hour had grown quite late. At this point, getting out of Orlando International Airport had become a vendetta, and it felt good to know that, after all the hub-bub, our ragged little band of passengers had finally made it. I was surprised that no one succumbed to a case of air rage, but overall the people handled the bad situation with good natures. There wasn't much that Southwest could do, since it was mainly weather related. Sure, there was a mechanical problem, but we wouldn't have had to change planes if it hadn't been for the storm. It was nice to see that people can be understanding when that sort of thing happens.

Today, my husband informed me that there is a chance of thunderstorms in Chicago on Wednesday, the day I am scheduled to return to Florida. I can just see God snickering to St. Peter as He plans some new irony for that flight. Oh well, He can torment me all He wants as long as He finally lets me get home.

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