As we head back to Hawaii for the 2019 Honolulu Marathon and Waikiki Merrie Mile, I recall another such trip 30 years ago when travel was quite different and the distance to go much greater.
Oh, jeez! We just found out the plane sitting at Lindbergh Field’s terminal 2 gate 50 has a mechanical issue and we have to wait four hours for our next update! Not the flight itself, mind you, just an update. Once again I’m reminded that travel is fun for those who don’t do it! Anyway, here’s the way it worked back in 1989.
The Continental flight to Honolulu lifted out of Newark’s Liberty International at 8:45 a.m. I’d been up since five packing at the Hotel Wales on Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side. Not that the Wales fit the exclusive Carnegie Hill neighborhood. In fact, its main function appeared to be tryst-palace for the weasel-minded marrieds of the area. Redolent of bad blood and old lust, the bedding’s sheen frightened me into sleeping fully dressed on top rather than toasty, but tainted, beneath.
On the ride to the airport the next morning, sleep clung to the corners of my eyes like small shells left behind on the beach by the outgoing tide. A day of travel, eleven hours in all, had me centered on the task of reducing the apprehension such involvement in close quarters required, meaning, lay off the coffee and resist the pull to fully awaken.
After all the airport preliminaries, the silver bird banked gracefully to the northeast revealing the deep thicket of Manhattan skyscrapers below. From above, the towers transformed into the spiny defenses of a hunkered down animal in fear. Not that I harbored any fear of flying. In fact, I had always been something of a fatalist. Send-offs like, “Have a good flight” had always confused me.
“I don’t think me having a good flight is gonna make much of a difference,” I’d think to myself, even while saying out loud, “Thanks, I will.” I figured it was pretty much up to the captain to have the good flight since it always seemed like the fellas with the hash marks on their gabardines had a hold of the controls. Me, I was just going along for the ride.
Before long I drifted into the completion of last night’s abbreviated sleep, carried by the hum of the jet’s spinning turbines. Hours later I awoke – the captain was still having a “good flight” up front – as the latest James Bond movie, “Living Daylights” rolled its closing credits while window shades lifted throughout the cabin.
Outside beneath a broken cloud cover the Rocky Mountains jutted skyward, while rivers meandered through the snow looking like chocolate syrup squeezed into a glass of cold milk.
As we glided into San Francisco over the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge, we were told there would be a one-hour layover as the plane was refueled and cleaned for the final 5 1/2 hour flight to Honolulu. Being a seasoned frequent flier I knew it was best to wait until the plane was fully boarded before re-entering, as the air-conditioning systems in airplanes never worked very well on the ground. So sitting there in the back of the Continental flight to Honolulu partially boarded and not ready for takeoff would have been a rookie mistake.
Before off-loading, I left a “Seat Occupied” sign on my cushion, as well as my journal and magazines in the pocket below the tray table. But when I finally did re-board, lo and behold as I marched through the crowded compartment, there in full battle dress plopped comfortably in seat 34A – MY seat – was a nun. Well now.
Not one to rush to conclusions, especially where the clergy was concerned, I button-holed a flight attendant and asked that she check out the paperwork, confident that my seat would be duly returned, and that some unintentional miscalculation had befallen the black and white anachronism resting so comfortably in seat 34A.
Indeed, while I stood nonchalantly in the aisle scanning the cabin for unseen beauties, the attendant leaned over and exchanged a few words and…wait a second. She was on her way back to me with a look that said, “This ain’t your seat no more, bub”. On top of which there was no unintentional miscalculation anywhere in the vicinity. The flight attendant, more as a passer of information than as an advocate for procedural integrity, informed me that the nun’s boarding pass had her on the other side of the craft in a middle seat. But she just didn’t like that seat and decided no one was sitting in 34A when she re-boarded, so she just took it. Forget the “Seat Occupied” sign, forget the books and magazines in the seat-back pocket.
It would have been one thing, I thought, if there had been a Vatican II pronouncement in 1967 which made flying on the right side of aircraft above a certain altitude somehow heretical, or at least a temptation to sin. But, hell, I had been brought up by these types (granted pre-1967), and knew full well that the right was their side. I remembered, for instance, that the angels in heaven had rank and promotion. So this crowd wasn’t the left-leaning, all for one, one for all bunch that would spurn the ride side of a Boeing 747 out of some sort of religious conviction. The right hand of God, and all that.
Shocked as much as outraged, I still suffered from a childhood filled with nuns as authority figures, and an adolescence of half-way housing lifelong cloistered nuns in our home on their tentative journey back into society at large after leaving the order. Anyway, you see the dilemma that confronted me on that Continental flight to Honolulu, now fully boarded and awaiting takeoff, if I could just find a seat.
And even though I no longer believed those things which the nuns laid on me back in my formative years, why take a chance, right? Besides which, the nun in question came packed in full black and white battle dress here, not some short-haired sister who shops at J.C. Penney’s trying to pass for simply single.
So while I no longer believed in purgatory as some spirit-singeing way-station on the way to heaven, ten-to-one it would exist on this Continental flight to Honolulu, now fully boarded and awaiting takeoff, if I bumped the veiled traveler in 34A. Because then I would most decidedly, the captain’s accomplishments in the cockpit notwithstanding, not be having a good flight.
Okay, I figured, I’ll go check out her open seat on the other side of the plane and chalk up the whole thing to Karma. Best leave Miss Winged Victory alone if possible.
Upon looping around past the row of lavatories in back, a man with an odd expression on his face was in the process of opening, then immediately closing, all the doors to the lavs while mumbling something about “Have you seen Ben and Jerry?” I had learned through my years of travel to avoid exchanges with wandering souls with unrequited needs asking if I bore the fruits of their search. I brushed by quickly in silence.
Approaching 35L I could see (and hear) that the guy on the window seat had his Walkman cranked up to full throttle with Mega-Death – or some other suitable chainsaw recreation – spinning inside his rather roomy skull. Okay, I could understand how the nun would have considered this heavy metal hell-raiser some sort of God imposed message of ill will. Whereas, I could more easily handle the sub-human benignly. A small price to pay to avoid clergy confrontation.
The problem, however, was the lady marching up the aisle with seat-grabbing determination, waving a boarding pass and declaring 35L to be hers. She furthered this impression with an “I’m older than you, suffered terribly with the male of the species for 40 years until I finally could wrangle a trip to Hawaii out of the no-good son of a bitch, and you are not, repeat NOT, going to cause me one instant of difficulty. So clear out, asshole” look on her rather reddened face.
I now concluded that they were going to throw me off this damned Continental flight to Honolulu, at the time fully boarded and ready for takeoff. I needed a seat, and darned quick. The time for avoidance had passed. It had come time to put my foot down somewhere, and 34A, since I held its boarding pass, seemed like the evident place.
“I don’t care about the consequences,” I said, approaching the flight attendant in the rear as I circled around to the other side of the plane one more time, squeezing past the still foundering lav inspector. “I realize there may be some soul starching penalty attached, but my boarding pass says 34A and I’m taking it. Please do your duty.”
There was no getting around it, and the flight attendant knew I meant business. But I could also tell she did not relish the assignment of evacuating a fully-buffed nun. But, hey, I had given those people my formative years, and look at what they did with those. I wasn’t about to be so stupid as to give them anything else, much less seat 34A on this flight to Honolulu, fully boarded and ready for takeoff, almost. But the attendant must have been nun traumatized beyond even my level, and still searched for a nun-staying alternative.
As if the promise of redemption had suddenly come over her like an epiphany, she collected my things. Then she took me by the arm and dragged me forward toward her supervisor. This was the one who was announcing that “we can not pull back from the gate until everyone has seated themselves and strapped into their seat belts”. Neither of which I was at the time. Then again, she was also asking anyone who had mistakenly got on board to now please de-plane.
Mind you, this was still in the pre-TSA screening days when anyone could wander the terminal and onto a plane at will. But mistakenly get on board the plane? That happen a lot? How many people, you think, head out for a quart of milk at the corner store and end up on the Continental flight to Honolulu?
“Jeeze, honey, I musta blacked out or been abducted by aliens or something. Cause the next thing I knew I was in this plane and there was this nun in flowing robes, and this white guy was walking around in circles looking for a seat before I realized this wasn’t the 7-11. And I wasn’t even supposed to be at the airport much less this particular flight. Sorry, I’m late. By the way, they didn’t have any skim milk.”
The supervisor was harried – and who wouldn’t be trying to keep confused convenience store patrons from mistakenly boarding flights to Hawaii? At the pub section of the plane, which separated first class from coach, which was to be completely closed during takeoff and landing, I made my stand.
“Listen,” I began as earnestly as I could. “Just let me saddle up right here. I mean you and I both don’t want any part of you-know-who back there in 34A. I realize it isn’t regulation, but then again neither is she. Besides, I think a guy asking for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Rain Forest Crunch rummaging around in the back lavatories. So I might not be your number one displaced-and-anxious concern right now. And me lighting here solves at least one of your problems.”
Never underestimate the problems one superannuated nun and a befuddled shopper can cause. To hell with FAA regulations. Not that the pub section wouldn’t turn into a teeming cesspool of liquor-soaked heathens the minute wheels were up, but at the moment it was all mine as the Continental flight to Honolulu was not only fully boarded, in fact, overly so, and – Oh, my God – in fact taking off. I made a sign of the cross, just in case.