Where do pieces of luggage go when they run away? What does one do when it happens? Should I contact the milk industry to have a picture put on the cartons? Should I tack flyers to the telephone poles? Would John Walsh be interested in producing an exposé on my baggage?
I worked ½ a day on April 10th, then met the Sabra in front of the building formerly known as the Department of Transportation at L’Enfant Plaza. We took the 5A to Washington Dulles International Airport. Once we were at the airport, we checked in at the British Airways desk, deposited our luggage, and headed to security. Once past security, we hopped onto those fun busses they have out there at Dulles—they are actually called Mobile Lounges if you really want to know—and went to the gate to settle in while we waited for the plane. We sat and talked for a bit, availed ourselves of the services (if you know what I mean), and watched the young women who were returning to London after touring New York City and Washington, DC with their school. Once we boarded, we discovered that one young lady was sitting in the window seat next to us. Apparently, she was afraid not of the flying, but of take-off. Several of her school friends came by to see how she was doing, and she said that she would be fine. I offered her the Sabra’s hand to hold during ascent, but she assured us that her stuffed animal would be fine. A few minutes before we taxied onto the tarmac, one of her friends came round and told her that there was an empty seat near her if she wanted to sit there. After the Sabra and I assured her that it wouldn’t be a bother to us if she got up and came back, she did in fact get up, and after we could move about the cabin, she did in fact return to her seat by the window. She put her headphones on and slept almost the entire way.
After dinner and a glass of red wine, I wrapped myself up in an overly staticy blanket and turned on the in-flight entertainment. I watched The Golden Compass. I have to be honest, I was somewhat disappointed. I don’t really remember the book so well, so I’m not sure it followed the script, and to be fair, it was sort hard to hear and the screen was quite small. After the movie, I went to sleep. I woke up about an hour and a half before we landed at Heathrow Airport. During the interim, I watched an episode of Futurama.
Heathrow was quiet when we arrived, and we thought about sitting down and having a proper English breakfast, but alas, we didn’t have enough time for that, and yet we had too much time to do nothing. After finding our gate and going to the bathroom, we walked around Terminal 4 and bought some candy…for little other reason than to use up some quid I had from the last trip to Old Blighty.
The Sabra’s friend who works at British Airways helped us get on the same flights so we could travel together. Unfortunately, the second leg of our journey didn’t work out quite as well as we had hoped. Our tickets said that we were sitting in different rows, so, when the folks arrived to work the gate, I went up and asked if they could help us out so we could sit together. The woman informed me that it would not be possible because a) it was a full flight, and b) I was sitting in a higher class of seats than her. So, poor me had to sit in a nice wide, comfy chair with a foot rest abreast a young, attractive Brit, while the poor Sabra had to sit in the last row of the plane with large, snoring guys around her. I actually felt bad that I didn’t offer her to sit in the better seats. Oh, well.
So, once we were airborne and the cabin crew could deliver food, they did. I ate something hot and tasty, and watched another movie. This time it was Enchanted. It was a cute movie, and I thought it was a clever twist on the same ole same ole. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure how it ended as I fell asleep almost ¾ of the way through. This is not a critique of the movie, however. I was just very tired from flying for so long.
We finally arrived in the Holy Land. After 16 years of being away, I was finally back. You must understand that I first went to Israel during the winter of 1988–1989. I spent 8 days in country that winter and fell in love. I went back on the same trip a year later. The year after that, I spent 3 weeks, primarily in Jerusalem at Ohr Somayach on their JLE program. Not even a year later, (JLE was in the winter, and I returned in June), I was back at Ohr Somayach, where I stayed for my sophomore year of college. After that, I returned once more the winter of 1992–1993 to visit, and have not been back since. To say that I was overcome with emotion would be stretching it a bit too far, but I was a little saddened that flying on British Airways is a very different experience than when I used to fly on Tower Air, or Chassidish Air as we used to refer to it. Flying with a plane full of orthodox Jews gives a whole new meaning to the expression “a wing and a prayer.” (On one of my flights, someone was transporting a Torah, and it happened to be a Monday or Thursday that we were flying. As such, during the morning services, they opened the Torah and read from it. It is one of my fondest religious memories.) Landing in Israel aboard a Tower Air flight was surreal. As soon as the back wheels made that screeching sound of hitting the ground, people would start applauding and break out into a round of Hevenu Shalom Aleichem. That enthusiasm seems to have died with Tower. I must confess that I did hum to myself. Looking out the window, all I could see was tarmac and the other requisite airport accoutrement, but I know I was back. I knew I was with my people. I knew that I was once again about to set foot on hallowed ground.
After disembarking, we had to separate to go through customs. For the first time since I met the Sabra, I was now the foreigner. We met up again on the other side of customs and headed to get our luggage. As we were walking, we saw a young woman standing and appearing to be waiting for something. As we approached, the Sabra realized that it was her friend who works at Ben Gurion International Airport. I was introduced, and they chatted as I labored to handle our two overflowing bags (Israelis always bring tons of American shit back with them because stuff is so much cheaper here). After I got the bags, we said goodbye to her friend and headed out the door. My heart was beating hard and fast. The moment had come.
As the electric doors that separated international arrivals from their loved ones and hired drivers swooshed open, I spotted her mother immediately. She was jumping up and down with excitement. It had been many months since she had seen her daughter and her first time meeting me face-to-face. She also knew that her son and daughter-in-law would be arriving later in the day (actually the next day—at 3 am—to be exact), and for the first time in about 6 years, she would have all of her children again under one roof. She pounced on us like a cat onto cheese and gave us warm, welcoming bear hugs. It was a great way to meet the family for the first time. We walked over to the rest of the family, and I said hello and shook hands with her younger brother and father.
After pleasantries were done, we headed out into the parking lot to go home. The first things that I saw were palm trees and blue skies. I could smell flowers in bloom and cigarette smoke. I heard birds chirping and people cursing. I felt comfortable, safe; I had returned home. I was brought back to reality: honking car horns and people who were in a hurry shoving me out of the way. Yes, indeed. I was back in Israel.
We got out of the airport and onto the main road. We were heading south to Gedera, where the Sabra is from and her parents still live. I sat in the front with her father, and he pointed out interesting sites along the way: kibbutzim, towns, and other places of interest. When we got to Rehovot, we drove past a Moshav where an old friend of mine used to live (and I spent a weekend). Instead of heading straight home, we swung by the army base where the Sabra did her paratrooper training. I found it more interesting than I think she thought I did. We finally reached Chez Sabra, and we took our bags to our room and unpacked some of the gifts we had brought.
It was late in the day, but the Sabra and I walked a bit around Gedera. I got to see the oldest building in town, the street with some restaurants and new stores, and one of the main parks, Gan Bilu. We also went past the school that she attended as a child. The school and the street on which her parents’ house sits are named after a famous Zionist leader, Rabbi Yehiel Michael Pines. This is not particularly interesting until you understand that while his name is spelled Pines, it is pronounced with a long i, and a short e. As such, when saying it aloud, one does not pronounce it like the tree, but rather like the male genitalia. As an immature American, I giggle every time I ask the Sabra where she lives in Gedera.
After our walk around town, we returned to the house where her mother was putting finishing touches on dinner: Israeli salad, avocado salad, and bulbonic (a potato kugel that is very tasty and not unlike something my ain dear mammy used ta make). Since her dad needed to be up ridiculously early to pick her brother and sister-in-law up from the airport, we went to bed relatively early.
On Saturday, we got up and walked around some more. This time, we walked the other direction and strolled through Moshav Kidron. There are some new, hip looking houses there. We saw a house for sale when we crossed back into Gedera, and took down the number to call the realtor on Sunday (alas, it was already under contract). We got back in time to help clear the table and get ready for lunch. We had barbeque. It was insane. There was so much food, and I wasn’t shy about eating, that’s for sure. It was all so good, too.
After lunch, the Sabra, her 2 brothers, her sister-in-law, and I headed over to Ashdod to go down to the beach. It was a beautiful evening with a warm Mediterranean breeze blowing off the water. It was also packed. There were a ton of people at the picnic area grilling on small, portable grills, and equally as many people strolling along the promenade. Everyone seemed so calm and at peace. I took a bunch of pictures, but it was cloudy, so this shot was the best I could come up with (although I do like this one as well). After the beach, we went home, chatted a bunch, then went to bed.
Sunday was a big day—it was the Sabra’s grooming day. It started with walking to the post office to get money changed, then to the manicurist so the Sabra could get her nails done. That was weird. I sat in the waiting room (which was really the dining room of an apartment that had been converted into a manicurist’s studio. She tried to talk to me several times, but as I don’t speak the language, it was kind of hard to understand her—not to mention that everything is made of concrete in Israel, so sound echoes a lot in empty apartment dining rooms that have been converted in to waiting rooms for manicurists’ studios. After her nails were done (French manicure), we returned home and headed out to Rehovot so the Sabra could get her hair done. I chose to hang with her brother and sister-in-law. We ended up at the mall, which wasn’t exactly what I was looking to do, but it was fine. I did find strawberry Bamba. I didn’t think Bamba could get any more disgusting…I was wrong. We returned home and picked up the Sabra’s parents and headed to Ashdod. Since it was her mom’s birthday, we went to lunch there in an Argentinean restaurant. I got pargit (young chicken) kabobs. After lunch, we headed home for a bit, and then went back out to pick up the Sabra’s younger brother from Beit Noam in Kiryat Ono. Then we had to get ready for the party.
As I mentioned, Sunday was the Sabra’s mother’s birthday, so we headed out to the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, where they had rented the café. The catered food was amazing. It was all vegetarian (so the Sabra was pretty happy). Everyone seemed so excited to be there to help the Sabra’s mother celebrate her birthday. It was a little overwhelming for me as I got to meet the extended family for the first time. Fortunately, the Sabra’s cousins were there with their new baby, so they were more the center of attention than I was. I sat next to a couple who were quite fluent in English (in fact she was from the UK, and he had studied there), so that was nice. After a long day of eating, we ended the night with a nosh and then it was off to bed.
After coming downstairs from showering on Monday morning, I discovered that there was a bit of a to-do in the house. Apparently, one of the presents hadn’t made it home. Now, I was responsible for transporting the gifts from the café to the car, and from the car to the house, so I felt a little guilty as I was afraid that I was responsible for losing it. So, the Sabra, her friend, her brother, her sister-in-law, and I went back to Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot and checked with the folks in the café. To my relief, it was there behind the counter, waiting for us to pick up. Since we were at the Weizmann Institute anyway, we decided to head over to Beit Weizmann where Chaim Weizmann, the first President of Israel, lived. After going through the house and seeing his grave, we headed back to the mall, and I had a very authentic, Middle Eastern lunch: KFC. We went to a local schwarma place for dinner and got some lafa and brought it home to eat. It was D-LISH!
Tuesday finally came, and I was so excited because Tuesday was to be Jo Cose’s day. The Sabra’s friend (the same one who met us at the airport) came by and picked us up. And we were off, racing up the highway on our way to Tel Aviv. We started our adventures in Yaffo because I wanted to go through the Shuk Ha-Pishpishim. We tried on some fezzes, I bought a mezuzah for my nephew, and the Sabra tried on some pants that she didn’t buy in the end. I was looking for some Christian-type stuff from a friend at work, and the guy was doing his best to see it to me. He told me that he was a Cohen and wanted to get of all the non-Jewish stuff he had because he wasn’t comfortable with it. I chuckled, and the Sabra got mad at me. I doubt he was really a Cohen, and who knows if he was even religious (even if he was wearing a yarmulke). Again, I only got 2 good pictures at the Shuk, this one and this one. We walked around the port some more and ate lunch at Dr. Shakshuka. I’m not a big fan of shakshuka, but 1) the Sabra loves it, 2) Dr. Shakshuka is one of those world famous restaurants, and 3) it’s a Tripolitan restaurant, and I’ve never had Libyan food before. Like many places, they had an open kitchen, and they had 4 burners set up so that the cook overlooked the customers (clearly designed for us to watch the cook make the shakshuka. The guy who was cooking was definitely hamming it up. He’d crack the egg, then fling it into the pans from across the burners. Naturally, I pulled out my camera and started snapping away. Sadly, none came out. After the cook had made the order he was making, he came out into the dining area. I stopped him to show him the pics I had of him, and he dragged me up into the kitchen. They took my camera, placed 3 pans on the burners, then showed me how he flung the eggs. I did my best to copy him, and succeeded on my first attempt. A group of German tourists who were watching started applauding. Then I tried again with the next pan, and f’ed it up bad. I got nervous, so I cracked the egg too hard, and the shell shattered in my hand. Clearly the cook was afraid that I’d get shells in the shakshuka because he pushed me out of the way and cracked a new egg into it. Either way, I can say that I made shakshuka at Dr. Shakshuka. We also got to see Dana International, who definitely has an interesting story. We didn’t talk to her, but I got a picture of her back. After lunch we went back to the car because the Sabra’s friend had to get to work.
The Sabra and I started walking toward Dizengoff Square, but got sidetracked when we got to the Nahalat Binyamin Market. We walked up and down the sidewalk looking at all the crafts. I bought my nephews some hand-painted Hebrew letters that spelled out their names. We bumped into the Sabra’s brother, sister-in-law, and her brother’s friend. We chatted with them for a few minutes, then we moved on.
We got a cab and headed to Ramat Gan to meet up with an old friend of mine from my yeshiva days. It was really nice to see someone that I hadn’t seen in 16 years, but it was also a little awkward. I wanted to reminisce, I wanted to have a good laugh about the old days. Unfortunately, he didn’t have quite as fond of memories as I did, so it didn’t work out so well for me. No matter, it was still a lot of fun to hang out and talk and see someone that I hadn’t seen in 16 years.
After chatting for a bit and having some cake and drink, we piled into my friend’s car and he drove us back into Tel Aviv and picked up a cab to head over to the Sabra’s friend’s apartment. From there, we drove to Herzliya for dinner. We met 3 of the Sabra’s friends from college. They all lived together in the dorms, and they have remained friends ever since. We went to a place called Bleecker, which is right in the marina, so all the sailboats were lined up. It was a beautiful night, and the sliding walls were all open, and people were sitting outside, but we were still a little chilly, so we sat inside. I had schnitzel. It was mediocre.
Of course we missed the last bus back to Gedera and of course it was my fault for not keeping track of the time. So, we went back to the apartment and waited for the Sabra’s father to drive up and pick us up. As I mentioned, it was a beautiful night, and there was no traffic, so it was a good night for driving.
On Wednesday, we headed back to Ashdod. The Sabra’s father had a meeting there, and the Sabra had a doctor’s appointment. I tagged along. We got dropped off at the mall, right by the guy who thought that urinating on the side of the building in front of God and Country was an appropriate place to whip out his manhood and relieve the pressure on his bladder. We walked through the mall and into the business section, went up the elevator and into the office. I sat in the waiting room where the young (attractive) woman behind the desk asked for my help. She needed me to carry the heavy bottle of water from the storage room around to the water machine and put the bottle in place. Now, this young (attractive) woman was clearly not long out of the Army, so why is she asking an old man like me to do such laborious labor?
After the doctor, we headed back through the mall looking for food. We ended up at a place called Roast Beef Bar. It was like a Subway, but so much better. We sat outside and ate. Meanwhile someone who the Sabra went to school with came walking by with her kid. They exchanged pleasantries, and then the woman and kid went on their way. When we finished, we called the Sabra’s father to come and get us, and we while we waited, we went and bought watermelon seeds (mmm mmm mmm, I loves me some watermelon seeds!).
That night, I got to experience what it was like to be Joe Israeli. We went to the supermarket at Bilu Center in Rehovot. The grocery store was weird! They had normal stuff you’d expect to see at a grocery store, like, say, groceries, but they also had electronics and refrigerators and washing machines. It was quite odd. I bought some yogurt for breakfast and some strawberry Bamba because after seeing it the other day, I had to try it. The Sabra bought some Bamba for my nephew who loves the crap, and I bought some chocolate for the office.
Thursday was by far the highlight of the trip! We took the bus to Jerusalem. When we got to the central bus station in the Holy City, we called another friend of mine, the Gib, that I hadn’t seen either for 16 years. The Sabra and I walked to Machane Yehuda where we met him. We walked through the market, then down to Zion Square in downtown Jerusalem. We walked past the Underground (which, by now has closed its doors for the last time), and had some lunch in a pay-by-the-pound vegetarian place (the Sabra was happy about that). After that, we walked down Ben Yehuda Street past Meah Shearim on our way to Yeshiva. It was absolutely crazy to be there after 16 years. We had to leave the Sabra outside (the have gates now and only one entrance) since she’s a girl and all. We saw the guy who was (and still is apparently) in charge of the dorms. He remembered me pretty quickly, but not the Gib…at first anyway. Once he got it, it all came flooding back (in fact, we think he sniffed the Gib to see if he smelled of herb). He gave us a tour of the place…it’s changed so much since we were there. There were a few bochers around (it was erev Pesach, so it was pretty dead), and they seemed a little frightened. We saw the old cook who also remembered me, but not the Gib (who was somewhat offended, I think). We had a great time talking about the old days and what we did where and with whom. It was exactly what I was looking for. Finally, the tour was over, and it was time to leave. We headed back out, and the Gib took pics of me and the Sabra touching each other in front of the Yeshiva (scandalous!).
From the Yeshiva, we headed down Highway 1 to the Old City. Before we got there, we stopped in the travel agency where another Gibraltarian I went to school with works and hung out with him for a bit before pressing on. We walked through the Armenian Quarter then on into the Arab Quarter before finally passing into the Jewish Quarter. We walked through the shuk and haggled with some of the vendors. I bought my nephews little green shirts with the IDF logo on them. I also bought postcards for them, and I bought a box of holy water, holy dirt, holy incense, and holy spice for a friend at work. The Gib and I went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Deir es-Sultan, an Ethiopian church I never even knew was there. It was pretty cool. Finally, we made our way to the Western Wall. For such a drab, old wall, it really is one of the most beautiful sites in the world. I don’t consider myself to be particularly religious or spiritual, but there is something about seeing that wall and knowing that my peeps prayed behind it 2,000 years ago is pretty amazing! I put the prayers that folks from the office gave me into the cracks, and gave a little charity and got a red string to tie around my wrist to protect me from the evil eye.
Finally, we headed out of the Old City and walked to a café to get something to drink. I got tea with fresh mint leaves in it…yummy. The Gib and I continued to entertain the Sabra with our stories from our yeshiva days. I’m sure that we entertained a few folks sitting around us as well. Sadly, the Gib had a party to go to and we had to part ways. We promised that we would see each other again before another 16 years were up! The Sabra and I walked back to the bus station and went home. It was bittersweet to get into bed that night. On the one hand I was so friggin’ tired from all that walking that I was so happy to finely hit the pillow, but I was sad because I didn’t want to leave Jerusalem.
I woke up Friday and decided that I wanted to go back to Jerusalem. An old friend of mine (if you are guessing I hadn’t seen him in 16 years, you are wrong—it had only been 15 years) had called me when we were in Jerusalem on Thursday, but we didn’t have time to hook up and I really wanted to see him. So, the Sabra’s father dutifully took me to the bus stop, and it turned out that we missed the bus at that stop, so we jumped in the car and started to drive to the next stop. From out of nowhere, the bus pulls up behind us at a red light, so now we are racing to get to the stop before the bus does. Fortunately, we made it, and I was again on my way to Jerusalem, this time all by myself. When I got to the bus station I called the Costa Rican, and we arranged to meet for lunch. I had a few hours to kill, so I walked back to Machane Yehuda and took some pictures (see here and here and here). I took the bus down to Meah Shearim and impressed myself because I was able to talk to the bus driver all in Hebrew. In Meah Shearim, I headed over to see if the Olive Wood Factory was open. Sadly, since it was erev Shabbos and erev Pesach, most of Meah Shearim was closed (what wasn’t was all hustle-bustle buying last minute stuff for the holiday and burning chumitz. I didn’t remember so many bonfires to burn your bread [see here and here and here and here]). I decided that I would see if my memory was still as good as I thought. I turned out that it was. I was able to find the back route that we would take to get from the bars back to Yeshiva. Needless to say, I did indeed find my way. I was so impressed with myself.
About the time I found myself back at the Yeshiva, the Costa Rican called me to see where I was. I told him, and we decided on a place to meet. He picked me up, and we headed back into town to grab some lunch. We stopped at a liquor store to buy some wine (which I also did for the Seder), then we went to some hole-in-the-way place where we got hummus and falafel. We talked and talked and talked and got caught up on the past 15 years. Then he drove me back to the bus station, and I headed back to Gedera. I asked the driver to let me know when we reached my stop, but it was still one of the scariest bus rides of my life. When I was going to school there, I would travel from one city to the next, but it was generally from one central bus station to the next. This trip was to a random bus stop I the middle of the street in a random town. But, I did good, and got to where I was supposed to be when I was supposed to.
Saturday was busy with all the last minute stuff for Pesach, which finally came. The Sabra’s extended family came and soon we were gathered around the table, ready to start. Her mother went out and bought 2 Haggadahs that had English and Hebrew: one for me, and one for the Sabra’s sister-in-law. We went around the table reading, and when it came to the two of us, we read in English while everyone else read in Hebrew. Yea, it was kind of awkward, but it was OK. Dinner was, of course, delicious, and everyone had a great time.
Sunday was spent hanging out and packing.
Sadly, Monday came, and it was time to go home. Of course, Monday had barely come. The Sabra’s brother and sister-in-law’s flight was crazy early in the morning, so instead of making her father drive to the airport twice, we got up early and went with them. We left the house around 4:30 in the morning. It made for one long day. The flights were pretty uneventful. I watched National Treasure: Book of Secrets, which was OK. It was, like most of Nicolas Cage’s movies, exactly what you’d expect. Not too great story, not too great acting, but thoroughly enjoyable. After that, I watched Juno, which I wasn’t expecting to like, but Ellen Page is a hottie, and a good actor. I also fell in love with the soundtrack.
We finally made it home to BWI. My one brother-in-law was supposed to pick us up from the airport, but it turned out that my other brother-in-law was in the neighborhood, so he got us instead. When we got to the curb to meet him, we were 2 suitcases lighter than when left Ben Gurion International Airport. We filled out the paperwork for them to deliver our bags. We headed back to my parents house to see my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew who live in Oregon. They were on this coast for Pesach. Finally, after God knows how many hours, we finally went home and went to bed.
Tuesday came and the Sabra’s luggage showed up. Mine didn’t. But, after 2 weeks of calling British Airways every day to find the status of my luggage and over $200 in replacements, I did finally get my bag back. It was wet and my clothes smelled of mildew. One of my gifts was ruined. All I got from British Airways was “Thank you for flying with British Airways.” Not even an “I’m sorry.” These idiots admitted that until my bag got back on a plane, they had no idea where (literally) in the world it was. They thought it was in London, but it could have just as likely still been in Tel Aviv or even in Timbuktu. Now, I have to play the waiting again. I submitted my receipts for reimbursement, but it can take 6-8 weeks for them to process my request (and that’s before they decide if they are in fact going to grant me the privilege of reimbursing me). I was just told today that I can’t call that department, I can only fax or write them a letter…like they’re really going to respond.
BUT, even though I didn’t have my luggage for 2 weeks, and even though it was a short trip, and even though I didn’t get to do as much traveling and touring as I would have liked, I had a great time, and I’m so glad I went. I just hope that it won’t take me 16 more years to get back.
”Good morning, y’all, and thanks for flying with us this morning. Listen up, OK? Cuz I got some important information to tell ya, and if you don’t pass the short quiz I’m gonna pass out afterwards, I’m gonna have ta go through it all again, and as sexy as my voice is, I know y’all don’t want that.”
With that, the thin, middle-aged woman with long, permed hair the color of auburn that can only come from a box, commences into the canned speech that anyone who has flown more than once in their life can say by heart. She ends her safety speech with the requisite reminder that it is illegal to smoke or tamper with the smoke detectors. ”Of course, if you really do need to smoke, just push your call button, and I’ll be happy to open the door and let ya smoke out on the wing. It’s a bit breezy out there, so hold onto your hat.” She laughs at her own joke even though it’s not funny; I cringe and sink my nails into my armrest; meanwhile, the little old lady covered in liver spots across the aisle from me laughs along with our flight attendant, as do many more people than I would expect.
I’m sitting at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport on my way back from a business trip to Houston. Because I work for the government, I am bound by the travel rules and must fly on the designated contract carrier. I don’t get to travel too often, but frequently enough so that I have had an opportunity to sample the various airlines that fly the friendly skies. This particular trip, it may surprise you, is not on the airline you probably expect it to be given the witticism of the flight attendant who has tried her hardest to hide the fact that she is pushing 50 and lays claim to a beautiful double-wide somewhere in a tornado-prone area of the American south. Yet, it is clear that the flying paradigm is once again changing, and I can feel that shift as it happens.
Although many people say that air travel as we know it forever changed on September 11, 2001, the simple truth of the matter is that like all things, air travel is not immune to change and like any good business, it should adapt to suit the needs of its customers and to evolve as new technology and public interest dictates. Think about it. There once was a time when the stratosphere was the unique realm of the rich, powerful, and adventurous. Not too long after, it became affordable and accessible to the masses. At that time, delicious food was served on fine china with metal forks and knives. Drinks were consumed from crystal goblets. Not too long after, we were given barely edible, microwaved food in disposable containers. (Midwest Express brought back some of the romanticism of an earlier era by reintroducing real plates and glasses.) In the 1980s, the great and mighty, His Royal Highness, Savior of the American Way and Protector of All, President Ronald Wilson Reagan, deregulated the airlines and fired countless air traffic controllers. (How few of us recognized the irony when G.W. insisted that Washington National Airport be renamed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport?) Then came Osama Bin Laden and his minion of morons. I remember a time when I could actually meet my loved ones at the gate as they disembarked. I remember a time when I could pack a carry-on and nothing else, secure in the knowledge that I would be able to shampoo my hair with shampoo from the bottle I brought with me. I remember a time when I didn’t wonder how people could take a plane down with bottled breast milk. I also fondly remember—in yet another ironic twist—the halcyon days when I didn’t have to pay $5 to eat on a plane. Oh, to have one of those disgusting, microwaved meals they used to give us.
The fact that we are no longer served meals aboard a flight has nothing to do with national security or terrorism. 9/11 caused a chain reaction that was, in reality, already waiting to happen. The dominos had been lined up and ready for someone to flick the first one since deregulation. With everyone afraid to travel in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack on American soil, the airlines were forced into bankruptcy, and they did whatever they could to cut corners in an effort to stay aloft. The first to go, of course, was the succulent cuisine. Years later, after the companies settled down and things returned to a tenuous normality, CEOs and their bean counters realized that the only thing removing dinner did was boost revenue; while we poor folk in steerage may have griped, we continued to buy our tickets, and even paid ridiculous amounts for Pringles and granola bars. In all fairness to the airlines, it was smart business not to bring food back if it didn’t cause a loss in ticket sales. (I offer a suggestion to the major airlines: At the time of ticket sale, offer us a meal for $5, $10, even $20. If I’m already purchasing a $400 ticket, I’ll be much more content to add on another $20 at that moment than later, while I’m in the air.)
And that’s what it’s really all about: good business. As demands for certain services wax and wane, industry should adapt, as long as it doesn’t adversely affect the bottom line. Indeed, if it was to increase overall revenue, and a competitor appears to be profiting from it, why not absorb that business model into yours?
And that’s why we see this love-fest occurring on planes. It was bad enough when Southwest Airlines started taking liberties and talking to us like we were old chums, but now it seems that everyone is doing it. I have nothing personally against Southwest as a company. In fact, I’ve flown with them multiple times, and each time, I arrived safely at my destination. Only a few times were we ever significantly delayed. Yet, every time the flight attendants would get on the mic, I’d want to gouge out my eyes or poke a hole in my eardrum. (I sat next to a SWA pilot once, and he said that the first thing most SWA pilots did when they got into the cockpit was turn off the switch that allowed them to hear what was broadcast in the cabin. I felt vindicated.) I make no pretense that I’m not an elitist, nor do I pretend that I like people, so it probably comes as no surprise that I find this chit-chattiness particularly abhorrent.
I pay a lot of money to fly, and the last thing I want to be reminded of is that I’m trapped in a tin can at 36,000 feet. There’s no other way to describe it, but when that flight attendant gets on the mic and starts in with her “y’all”s or his “hey gang”s, they stress the fact that I am in fact little more than a captive audience. I am paying for their service, not their friendship. I don’t want to be chummy with them. I don’t want to be friends with them. In fact, I almost always bring a book and at least one crossword. Sadly, for the first ½ hour that I’m in the plane, I can’t read or work on the puzzle because the flight attendants are so busy gapping away on the mic (of course, they would say it’s “entertainment.” I say it’s odious drivel). I do bring my iPod, so I can plug in and disappear into a good sonata, quartet, or concerto, but again, I am deprived of this escape route because I am not allowed to listen to my iPod until we have reached a certain level (and the flight attendant is more than happy to, once again, get on the damn mic to let me know that approved electronic devices may now be used).
People don’t like formality these days. We live in a time when people wear ripped jeans and tee shirts to school, church, and even court. We no longer wear morning coats to breakfast or dinner jackets to supper. Within a generation or two, the esoteric knowledge of the ancient ways of crafting the For-in-Hand and Half- and Full-Windsor will be lost forever. Even in restaurants, we see this trend from formal to fraternal. How often do you look up from the menu only to see your server sitting across the table from you? In school, more and more students call their professors by their first names instead of Dr. So-and-So. Even the grocery store clerk wants to know how your day was, and too many of us will tell them, like they really care. Another clear indicator of this trend toward informality is on our buses, trains, and metros. How many of us have sat next to someone who is on their cell phone talking about topics that should be discussed only in the privacy of their homes: I’m talking about the lady who is discussing her Pap smear or the old man informing the world of the results of his colonoscopy.
I don’t think it’s too much to ask to be waited on, to be pampered, to be serviced. There are precious few places left in this country where we can truly be treated like we are someone important, and we, the customers, should be demanding a return to this sort of treatment. If I’m going to pay a ton of money for an airline ticket, a hotel room, or an expensive dinner, I feel that being served and treated like I’m a valued customer is part of the price of the ticket, room, or plate. I’m not asking that they should grovel and wash my feet, but a few more “yes, sir”s and “thank you, ma’am”s would increase the tip far more than “hey buddy”s and “fer sher”s could ever hope to.
I guess that I really shouldn't be surprised, then, that the men and women working in the airline industry see the trend toward informality and instead of walking upon the well trod path, they are blazing the trail, hacking away at pretence and stuffiness with their machetes of howdys and hiyas. It definitely seems to be working for Southwest Airlines, so why shouldn’t other airlines be incorporating this new, hip, fun business model into theirs?
Today I am awakened by the clang, clang, clang of church bells (a setting on my clock-radio), but I was already on the way to rousing. I am very excited. I have never been on official travel before. I have never seen Orlando before. I have never flown in a non-commercial jet before. I have never seen Kennedy Space Center before. I have never seen a launch before. I am not very excited, I am over excited, and so I have woken up earlier than I need. It is 7 am, and I do not need to be at the airport until 2:45 pm. But I have lots to do.
It is 10:00 am and I’m showered, shaved, packed, and have eaten breakfast. I’m bored now, but it’s too early to go to the airport. So, I watch TV, talk on the phone, and finally make lunch. At 1:00, I leave for the airport, and of course, there are delays on the Red Line. I should have left earlier, but I make it to the airport, and the correct hanger, with about 10 minutes to spare.
We board the Cessna, an 8 passenger private plane that looks like a miniature Air Force One. It has the blue stripe along the fuselage and in big, bold letter is written “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” We are in the air and the land is falling away before you even realize it. It is amazing how fast these little planes go.
As we approach Kennedy Space Center, I can see out the cockpit window, and the runway looms ahead. I am told that it is the one that the Space Shuttle uses when it lands at Cape Canaveral. Even before I began working at NASA, I was a rabid, zealous, one might even say passionate, fan of the space program, and there is something awe-inspiring about landing where the Space Shuttle lands. We taxi off the runway and stop right next to the MDD, the Shuttle Mate-Demate Device, a machine that lifts the Shuttle off the 747 when it is ferried back to KSC. That, too, is amazing to see.
After getting to the hotel, checking in, and dumping our luggage, we are off to Grills Seafood Deck & Tiki Bar—-a local restaurant-—for what we are told is one of the best places to eat in Cape Canaveral...if this is true, I can’t imagine what the rest of the restaurants in the Cape are like. I had blackened mahi-mahi. Most of the group had drinks before dinner, and about 3 bottles of wine were consumed throughout dinner. It will be a long night, so I choose water. A couple was our hosts for dinner, and they drove us in their cars to the restaurant. A word to the wise: if you have big, smelly dogs who shed all over your car, vacuum and fumigate before inviting guests to sit in it. I had to breathe through my mouth, and I still have dog hair on my black shirt.
After dinner, we return to the hotel to freshen up, and then it’s back to KSC to see where the MESSENGER mission will be observed, meet the director and his deputy, and listen to a lecture by the PI for the MESSENGER. All of this was very interesting, and the lecture was fascinating. I have forgotten how exhilarating it is to hear someone speak so passionately about their love (this is somewhat common in academia, but extremely rare in government. Think about it, how many people are impassioned by pushing paper and thinking up acronyms?). There is a nice spread of food laid out in the lobby, and I have some meatballs, a chicken wing, several stalks of celery, and copious, myriad, one might even say lots, of white chocolate macadamia nut cookies.
Finally, around 1 am, we head out to the observation field. We are about 1 and half miles from the launch site, and next to the media with their cameras and cool vans. It’s not a very nice night with Alex off the coast of the Carolinas, and while we can see the Delta rocket lit up on the launch pad, the sky is overcast and foreboding. Needless to say, at T –4 minutes (and 2 minutes remaining in the built-in 10 minute hold) the launch is scrubbed due to anvil clouds (I am no meteorologist, but it seems dreadful, and I have images of Thor banging his hammer on these clouds). We are all upset and shuffle dejectedly onto the bus to return (again) to the hotel. I hit the pillow just before 3 am.
I am up at 8:30 and head upstairs to breakfast. Then it’s off to the lobby to wait for the rest of the group. I see the Leader in the lobby, and he tells me that we have permission from the office to stay tonight and try to see the launch again. As the folks come down to the lobby he tells them this and, to my surprise, there isn’t as much excitement as I had anticipated. The other guy from the office tries to contact the pilots to see if they can stay (for if they can’t, there’s no need to even discuss the possibility). In the meantime, we head back to KSC for our tour of the facility.
We drive all over the Center. We get up close and personal with Atlantis, and are able to watch technicians work on her as they double-check all of the black tiles that cover the belly of the Shuttle. We go to the huge 540 ft. building where they mount the Shuttle to the External Tanks. We see the original Launch Control for the Apollo missions (this is also where they filmed the Mission Control scenes from Apollo 13). We get right on the launch pad where they launch the Space Shuttle. Then we have lunch, and make our way back to the plane.
We all get on board, stow our bags, and strap ourselves in. The pilots taxi us out to the runway, and as they begin final preparations for take-off, they get a call from the tower that the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is closed and there is about an hour and a half delay. We aren’t leaving now until about 6:30 pm.
I take advantage of this time to get a lecture from one of the pilots on all the controls of the cockpit. I am as ecstatic as a kid in a candy store. I don’t get any of it, but it’s so cool. Because I’m in the cockpit, I’m not privy to the conversation happening in the cabin, but apparently the folks have changed their mind, and figure if we are going to be delayed so much, we might as well push on through and try to watch the launch again.
The pilots return to their hotel to get some more rest, and we return to ours to squat. We do not get rooms, and after relaxing in the lobby for about an hour, we head off to a movie. We see The Village. It’s not bad. Then we are off to the Outback. Finally, at about 12:30 am, the bus returns again to pick us up and we head out to the site where we were last night to watch the launch again.
Tonight it’s a clear sky. We can see stars. We can see the craters on the moon through binoculars. We sit and talk to the pilots. We sit and talk to KSC employees. We sit and talk to some media folk. Finally, the moment has come for Mission Control to make a decision. We hear over the speakers, “Green across the board, MESSENGER launch is a go.” We head up the hill and watch as the lights around us are shut off. The voice on the speakers says, “T minus 5, 4, 3, 2.”
Night becomes day as the boosters (6 of the 9) spark into life. The light from a mile and a half is effulgent, lustrous, one might even say bright. It burns the retina. The air is still, and the plume hangs in the sky like a white, puffy worm. As the rocket ascends higher and higher, we hear, softly at first, and then louder and louder, the sound traveling across the expanse. As the sound waves hit us, I can feel the fabric in my shirt and pants ripple with the force. Before you can even blink (or the burn on the retina fades), the rocket is almost out of sight. The fire fades as the fuel is spent. Just as the flame disappears, the other 3 boosters ignite and we can just see the original 6 disconnect from the rocket. Then all is night again, and the sky is lit by the moon’s shine alone. The plume still hangs in air, defying both gravity and wind.
After a moment, we board our bus for the last time. We all nap during the 20 minute ride back to the runway, and finally we are aboard the plane again. The wheels go up about 3:10 am. Almost everyone sleeps. I, however, stand just behind the pilots, and enjoy the view out the cockpit window. I see a lightning storm below us off our starboard side. We see a bright light in the sky that I insist is a UFO; the Leader informs us it is more likely the International Space Station, which can be visible from the ground (but we are 40,000 ft up, so it is more visible). Finally, we see the Woodrow Wilson Bridge that connects Maryland to Virginia. The wheels are already down, and we are about to touch down. Alas, the pilot tells me I need to go sit down now. But what an exciting opportunity (one few but pilots get to witness). We arrive just about 5 in the morning, and by the time I say good-bye, get the bus to the Metro, get to Gallary-Place/Chinatown (only to discover that the Red Line, which has been running for 15 minutes, has a 15 minute delay), get to my stop, walk home, get undressed and crawl into bed, it’s 6:30 am.
I set the alarm for 11:30 am and try not to think about having to go to the office later this afternoon as my head falls to my fluffy, comfortable, waiting pillow.