Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Indian Summer

Recently I made one of my rare visits to Chicago to consort with family, visit my elderly horse, and dine with friends. Since it was October, I was looking forward to a dose of real fall weather. I could just imagine the crisp breeze rustling the red, orange and yellow leaves as the smell of bonfires tickled my nose. I'd feel the chill that heralds the coming winter and revel in the fact that I could enjoy a dose of autumn and then flee back to Florida before the cold and snow take over.

As I headed for the airport, I was hit by a dose of true Floridian weather: Heat, humidity, and thunderstorms. The bleak sky, laden with evil-looking clouds that spat out sheets of rain and crackling lightning bolts at regular intervals, warned me that my flight was almost certainly delayed. Ahhhh...it would feel good to get to Chicago and get some relief from the heavy air and oppresive heat. I love palm trees, but I was ready to see leaves in some color other than green. Of course, we do get the fall colors here, but those are made of paper and fall from the lamp posts in downtown Celebration!

Sure enough, my flight was listed as delayed. I made my way through security and took the tram to the Southwest gates. Once upon a time, the idea of braving the Southwest cattle call boarding process was anathema to me, but after ATA went bankrupt I quickly became a convert.

For those who have never experienced it, basically Southwest has no assigned seats. You get a boarding pass lettered A, B, or C, depending on your check-in time, and you board in order of your assigned letter. Generally, die-hards will start lining up in their lettered chute long before boarding time in order to maximize their seat selection options.

Previously, those who lined up early still found themselves at the mercy of that dreaded hoarde known as the Family Pre-Boarders. Southwest allowed families with children age 4 and under to board ahead of the As to help ensure that they'd get seats together. In theory, only one or two adults were supposed to board with the child. In practice, one tiny infant would be acompanied by an entourage to rival the Queen's. There'd be Heather and her two mommies, three daddies, four sets of grandparents, second cousin twice removed Lurch and his three polygamous brides, a wicked stepmother, trio of wicked stepsisters, and the fairy godmother. Multiply this gang by multiple kids, especially on Orlando flights, and sometimes literally half the plane would be pre-boarding.

Due due this rampant abuse, Southwest just implemented a wonderful new policy. Now, the family pre-boarders board between the A and B groups. If they want the primo choice of seats, they can log on 24 hours in advance and get an A pass like everyone else. If they're too darned lazy, they can get their butts to the back of the plane (since people who board early tend to sit close to the front).

This flight would be my first experience with the new policy, and I was quite anxious to see how it played out. Families have been lambasting the Southwest online; obviously, they don't realize that many other airlines have done away with family pre-boards entirely. Now they have to sit in the back...so what? Every part of the plane will get to its destination at the same time (hopefully), and since most families have checked luggage it's not like there is any benefit to rushing off the plane like a pack of rabid greyhounds. Actually, it's more like a pack of limping, three-legged greyhounds, since families tend to be the slowest on and off due to having to manage kids, luggage, and a variety of kid amusement implements.

In contrast, the most anal-retentitve As tend to be business people or commuters who don't check luggage, so it's to their advantage to be able to get off more quickly. Once they're deplaned, they can be on their way.

I don't check luggage when I visit Chicago, but I don't generally bother with the front seats because I prefer being in or near an exit row, which is row 11. Sometimes I'll plop down in an aisle seat towards the front, but the roomy exit is my preference. It's a coveted plum, so you have to be close to the front of the line to pluck it; thus, once I arrive at the gate, I always camp out in the A line immediately. Even before the change, I didn't have to worry about a pre-boarder glomming the exit because they're not allowed to sit there.

I was quite anxious to see how the new policy worked out, especially after reading so many complaints online (all written by people who hadn't even experienced the change firsthand yet). Would it speed up the turn-around process? Would children be wandering the plane, dazed and confused, as a result of being separated from their parents and families? Would anarchy reign in the flying metal germ tube? I could just imagine Mrs. Lovejoy running amok down the aisle screaming, "Won't somebody think of the children?!"

It would be a while till I found out, since the delays were so severe that the previous plane at our gate hadn't even left yet. Chicago As were hawking around the end of the boarding line, ready to start their own queue as soon as the current crop left. It was all too confusing for me, so I stood off to the side and waited until the other plane left. That put me 6th or 7th in the Chicago A line. I killed the time immersed in a novel and chatting with fellow "A campers."

Our plane arrived over half an hour late, and the wicked weather still hadn't let up. We trooped down the jetway, and I couldn't help but feel a bit smug to bypass the conga of extended families casting glares at those of us who had made the effort to get our boarding passes early rather than relying on our powers of reproduction to get us on board quickly.

The exit row was open, so I parked myself in the window seat. Shortly thereafter, a man took the aisle seat and strategically placed his briefcase onto the middle one to ward off others who might sit there. A bit cruel, but if it worked I would benefit from the extra space too so I couldn't condemn him too severely. Sure enough, no one else took the seat.

When the families boarded, there were plenty of seats together, albeit towards the middle and back of the aircraft. One parent lambasted the flight attendant, but the rest seemed to accept that their days of entitlement were over.

When we were all settled in, the captain got on the PA system with the good news and the bad news. Good: We were getting ready to taxi to the tarmac. Bad: We were #17 to take off, which meant we'd be little there for 90 minutes. I have a rather odd fear of flying, which is not focused on crashing but rather on being trapped in a fast-moving flying cigar tube without being able to escape. It's a form a claustrophobia that I developed after being stuck on a plane for hours, including endless circling because the weather precluded landing, having to make a fuel stop, and having an aborted landing before finally being able to roll down the tarmac and get the heck off the plane. I had a sinus infection, which made the assorted take-offs and landings a special misery. Ever since then, the idea of being stuck on a plane makes me crazy, even if it's just on the tarmac.

Fortunately, not too long after we rolled into place in the endless conga line, the captain broke some excellent news: We had been moved up to number six for departure. I have no idea why, but it sounded a heck of a lot better than wasting an hour and a half idling on the ground.

Sure enough, we were soon speeding down the runway and soaring about the palm trees, on our way to the good old midwest. We were still pretty late, but that's one of the joys of flying into or out of MCO with its seemingly ever-present storms. Hubby was waiting for me at Midway, as was a dose of heat! Fall? What the heck is fall? Instead, Chicago was in the grip of Indian summer. Obviously I didn't need the jacket I'd packed, and I had grievously erred in packing long-sleeved sweaters.

On the way home, we stopped at Pepe's Tacos for dinner. Whenever I return to my old stoping grounds, I go on a culinary tour of all my old favorites that I can't get in Florida. Ah, the joy of real, authentic, genuine Mexican food! My tastebuds were dancing with happiness as I tucked into my steak tacos, which were just as good as I remembered.

On Saturday, we were going to Bengston's Pumpkin Farm with my extended family. It's a tradition that has spanned for years and years, back since the time when Bengston's was actually a real pumpkin farm. In those early years, you took a tractor ride out to the pumpkin patch, where the big orange orbs were still attached to the ground by their stems. Now, the ground grows new houses instead of pumpkins; Bengston's has shrunk to a mere shadow of itself, and pumpkins are imported and scattered around a much smaller area.

There are lots of other attractions, too, from a petting zoo and pony rides to pig racing, a haunted barn, a fake cow to milk, and a corn maze. And for my brother, no trip would be complete without fresh corn on the cob and hot apple cider.

Problem is, this year “hot” was not exactly how anyone wanted their beverage to be. Instead, we all ordered our cider iced to ward off temperatures that were close to 90 degrees. It was as though I had never left Florida, save for a bit less humidity.

Still, we had all sorts of corny Halloween fun. Bengston's has basically morphed into an attraction that separates visitors from their money almost as efficiently as Disney World. But hey, it's fun to buy pumpkins and funnel cakes and to have a portrait taken to compare with previous years and see how much taller or grayer everyone has become.

On the way home, we stopped at JR's Hot Dogs for a large cup of Orange Bang. My husband claims it tastes like rancid Tang, but to me it's more like Tang mixed with an Orange Julius. I also had a Culver's custard sundae, since the chain doesn't exist in FL (although I keep hoping it will show up someday). That was more than enough indulgence, since we were going to Lawry's that night for prime rib. Even after my scarring experience last time, when they had instituted a new restroom attendance who lounged around reading magazines and who offered amenities such as Blow Pops (nothing says “high class restaurant” like candy-coated gum), I was willing to give it another try. They have truly the best prime rib on the planet, made even better by their whipped cream horseradish sauce.

Getting there was quite a challenge. We picked up my brother and sister-in-law and headed down the Dan Ryan. Traffic wasn't bad until we hit Lake Shore Drive, where it was at an absolute standstill due to a marathon scheduled for the next day, which had led to premature street closures. Somehow hubby managed to navigate a route that got us to the restaurant within five minutes of our reservation time. The restroom attendant was still there, and they had added one to the mens' room too (not a very logical move, since hubby says the restroom is the size of a broomcloset). But thankfully the food was still up to par; as a matter of fact, the meat was even more flavorful than usual. I don't know what kind of cow had given its life for our meal that day, but the taste of its slow-roasted flesh was utterly superb.

It was still miserably hot, and the unseasonable weather continued into Sunday when I went to visit my elderly horse, Cochise. Happily, he was still alive and interested in carrots. Unhappily, he had lost a ton of weight since my last visit. That's not a good thing going into the winter, when a horse needs to be in tip-top condition. The vet had recently pronounced him healthy and suggested a “senior feed,” so hopefully that will get some results. As much as it breaks my heart, I have to remember that he's 30, which is like a centurion in human years. If he's not fated to make it through the winter, I pray that he has a fast and painless exit. But hopefully the new feed will perk him up and get him through another year.

I hit Pepe's one more time for lunch, eager to toke up on prime Mexican cuisine since I won't get any more till my next visit. But I didn't want to eat too much, as we were going out with some old friends that evening. I had never heard of the place we visited, a Western-themed eatery called Ted's Montana Grill. Turns out that “Ted” is Ted Turner, and the menu is heavy on buffalo. It's also billed as “green,” with concessions to the environment such as paper straws and menus printed on recycled paper.

It's actually a chain and there are some locations in Florida, although none near Celebration. Even though meat is the main feature of the menu, I ended up opting for a plate of side orders because so many items intrigued me and I wanted to have a mini smorgasboard. I had had good meat the night before, so I could stand to have a vegetarian day with yummy options such as creamed spinach and squash casserole.

Since this was just a brief visit to Chicago, we were slated to fly out very, very early the next morning. Even as we headed back to Midway, the summer-like weather remained. As we headed towards security, we were greeted with an intimidating sight...people, people, and more people as far as the eye could see! I hadn't seen the lines backed up that far since the holidays. Originally, I had been hoping to get to the gate early enough to snare a good spot in the A line. Now, I was just hoping to get there in time to board our plane before it winged its way to Orlando without us.

Fortunately, the massive salmon stream edged its way forward with steady progress. I suspect that all the security checkpoints weren't open when we arrived but that they had finally been opened up. We got through in plenty of time to scope out the gate and grab the very first A spots. It wasn't long before other anal retentive travelers were lining up behind us for their shot at the prime seats.

The new pre-board policy was in place at Midway, too, but it didn't matter as much on such an early flight. Most families were still running in a frenzy around their homes, trying to remember every last bit of luggage before winging their way to the House of Mouse later on in the day. Since we were the first general boarders (after the disabled), there was no doubt that we would get the exit row. We took the window and aisle seats, since hubby likes to watch the view while I like to have easy access to the restroom. If someone sits in the middle, I'll generally offer them the aisle with the caveat that they have to potentially tolerate me climbing over them. However, this flight was so deserted that the seat remained open.

It felt so good to be back home in FL, although there was no weather contrast. Usually in October, I'd be reveling in the heat after a weekend of shivering in the autumn chill. Now, the only difference was a tad more humidity and a tropical landscape. Still, I knew that Chicago's reprieve was only temporary. Whereas I can count on a sunny, mild winter, there's no way my old hometown will avoid the ice and snow. I may have missed a taste of fall, but I can never get too much warmth and sunshine...even if it's of the Indian Summer variety.

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1 comment:

Crazylegs said...

I've been lurking here for awhile, so I think it's time to pop my head up and say 'thanks'. As a Canadian who (1) tries to make a yearly family pilgrimage to visit the Floridian Mouse and (2) harbours dreams of a Celebration-ified retirement, reading your blog is oddly like seeing what's going on 'back home'.

Warmest thanks from a chilly voyeur from the North!