Every year I go visit my parents in Florida for the Christmas holidays. I always try and leave town a little earlier to avoid the onslaught of the masses who are fleeing to to be with their family and friends. There’s something about people that makes me want to avoid them. So, I do my best to get a stress-free, no-headaches flight out of town. It’s exciting when I’m leaving to get on the plane, knowing within seven or eight hours I’ll be with my loved ones enjoying a nice long relaxing vacation.
After being dropped off I made my way to the ticket counter and much to my amazement there was only one person in line. I took this as a sign that it was going to be a nice, smooth traveling day. I didn’t like when they charged me forty bucks as a bag fee, mainly because my suitcase wasn’t even worth twenty bucks. Besides, wasn’t I already raped once for what I paid for my ticket? Being in a wheelchair the warm, kind ticket agent asked if I needed help getting down to my gate. It sounded nice but I had made a promise to myself that whenever possible I would fight laziness. Laziness can be a strong, agile foe whom I often lost many battles too. Besides, I had plenty of time to get to my gate, I was feeling good and a nice leisurely stroll through the airport would be invigorating. Plus, I enjoy looking in all the shops and seeing the nine-dollar bottle of water and the six-dollar candy bars.
I arrived at the security check point where the line was long. Being in a wheelchair the warm, kind TSA agent moved me to the front of the line. (If you don’t like to wait in these long check-point lines I would urge you to do what you can to put yourself in a wheelchair since they always have you bypass the que. Jump off a roof, wrestle a bear, surf on the hood of your car, are just a few surefire suggestions.) Now, at every airport checkpoint, my wheelchair cannot go through the detectors, so they usually have some big, strong, hairy TSA agent pat me down, and sometimes she’s pretty rough. Whenever they grope the groin area I say, “Don’t worry, that’s not a gun but thank you very much.” It’s strange but I found myself liking it. I got back in line six or seven times and almost missed my damn flight.
After collecting my petty items like cell phone, watch and wallet, I began putting on my shoes which is never an easy feat for a quadriplegic to get on his feet. I made my way down towards the gate and, so far so good, everything was right on schedule. I checked in, making sure I had an aisle seat. When it was time to board I’m usually first on the plane, which incidentally may be another reason you might want to do something crazy to put yourself in a wheelchair, i.e. skydive without a chute, wrestle a gator, get in a UFC octagon, are a few more suggestions.) Unable to walk and being in a wheelchair, the two warm, kind airport assistants put me in a tiny, dinky, skinny chair meant to fit down the aisles. I tell them how to lift me and set me in the dinky aisle chair. They do a good job at that then pull me down the aisle to the plane seat. This is the reason I need an aisle seat. To put me in a window seat would be mission impossible. Another perfect shot and I’m nice and snug in the plane seat. These guys knew what they were doing. I’m feeling great. Everything has gone swimmingly so far. The only thing I need to do is get through the awkward moment when the people sitting next to me are told I can’t move so you’ll have to climb over me.
A twenty-something year old guy with an athletic physique looked at his ticket then said to me, “I’m in the window seat, mate.” I gave him my canned explanation that I was in a wheelchair and he would have to climb over me. The Australian dude didn’t bat in an eye and said, “No worries.” Then he put his hand on the seat in front of me and like a spry kangaroo leaped over my legs and settled in his seat. That was nice an easy, which is the way I like things. It seemed most of the people had boarded and I began to think, could it be? Could I be so fortuitous as to have a flight with the seat next to me open giving me that free flowing, unabating elbow room I adore. Well, why not? So far things have run smoothly for me. And, I think God loves me. I’ve been pretty good. Really, the only thing I had left was a transfer off the plane in Dallas then a transfer onto the next plane. What could possibly go wrong?
It looked like they were just getting ready to shut the door then one last passenger straggled on. Sometimes in life you can pinpoint exact moments when luck changes. It felt like a gentle “whoosh” that pulled any fresh good air that surrounded me out of the plane. The large flabby man made his way down the aisle. Oddly, his eyes seemed locked on me as if he knew exactly where he was going. He appeared to be going in slow motion with every step trudging towards me. My mind had somehow blocked out all the surrounding noise and I could only hear his exacerbated breathing as he trudged towards me. My mind scrambled. Oh no, should I play dead I thought. Soon a large shadow covered me as the heavy-set man stood before me. “That’s my seat” he said motioning to the seat next to me, as if I didn’t know. I launched into my spiel, “This is crazy and you’re not going to believe this, sometimes I don’t even believe it myself, but, anyway, to make a long story short, I’m in a wheelchair and the way things look is, well, you’re going to somehow have to climb over me to get to that seat.” Some people when they hear bad news their mouth drops open or their eye might twitch but this large lug did something I’d never seen before, his cheeks slightly flapped and the mound of mush under his neck rolled. After talking to the flight attendant, there was nothing she could do. He was stuck with climbing Mount Everest as I’m sure that was how it appeared to him. The Australian chimed in to give some encouragement. “You can do it, mate. Just pretend you’re a koala climbing its way up the ole eucalyptus tree for a yummy leaf.” With a frustrated grunt, the oaf made his move and began his ascent. Grabbing the back of the seat with his back towards me, he lifted his short stubby leg over my two unworkable limbs. As he sluggishly slid across me, I couldn’t help but notice his big ass was inches from my face. I held my breath and did my best to go to my safe place in my mind, fearing that these cheeks might soon flap. It was grueling work for my chubby friend, but he was rewarded with a nice beautiful, cramped middle seat. As for me, all elbow room was now lost. My only hope and prayer was that he would now just leave me alone and not talk to me. Within seconds, he turned to me and said, “So where you from?” I wondered if it was too late to play dead.
The pilot came over the speaker and said, “Once everyone was seated, we could push off from the gate.” That would be his first lie. Twenty minutes later of just sitting there he came back over the speaker, “Ah folks, right now we’re just waiting on a maintenance crew to come over and oil one of the engines. It shouldn’t be too much longer.” His second lie. About forty-five minutes later, the pilot came back on with more bad news. “We’ve just found out we’re missing an important security apparatus that we’re hoping the maintenance crew has, otherwise, we’ll have to wait for someone to drive it over from LAX, sorry for any inconvenience.” Really, I thought, you mean to tell there’s not a frickin fire extinguisher laying in the airport somewhere. His third lie. “Sorry for any inconvenience would be the fourth lie. And, what the hell else was this plane missing… the landing gear, maybe a wing. The pilot then told the passengers they were free to deplane but bring their boarding passes with them. It didn’t do me any good, I wasn’t going anywhere, and I doubt Fatty Arbuckle next to me was staying put.
The pilot came back on a half-hour later claiming people had forgotten to take their boarding passes so now everyone had to get off the plane. His fifth lie. By now, his pants had to be on fire. This time they sent two dimwitted airport assistants to get me off the plane. I believe their names were “Ding” and “Dong.” Outside on the jetway, the Laurel and Hardy pair, attempted to move me from the aisle chair, a rickety airport wheelchair that I was afraid would roll like a grocery cart and always pull right. When they lifted me to set me into the crappy chair their brains didn’t register that there were long bars protruding upwards from the back of the jalopy making it very difficult for my mindless handlers to get me in the chair. The daft duo appeared to be stuck in limbo, unsure what to do. One pulled on my legs as the other tugged from under my arms. Soon they were playing me like an accordion, but I had no idea what song they were going for. I just felt mostly out of tune. It wasn’t completely their fault; it was those long rising bars that served no purpose making it difficult for them. In no time, an on-looking flight attendant joined in then another, each grabbing what they could. In a bar I would’ve welcomed in. Then the pilot came over to help. It was hard to tell but I think he grabbed a handful of my hair. “I think we got it now,” he said. That was the sixth lie. Finally, they got me in the chair and the pilot remarked, “That wasn’t so bad.” Damn, this guy doesn’t quit. I looked around to make sure there weren’t any loose arms or legs lying around because they would surely need them for the next transfer on to the next plane. I was just hoping they would pull up my pants that had slid down.
They positioned me up near the ticket counter. Unfortunately, the chair I was sitting in was only meant to be pushed by someone and not by its user. I was stuck where I was but reassured that they would have the plane problems fixed and we would be boarding shortly. An hour later I requested my own wheelchair. They were very accommodating. Another hour later they brought it up to me. At last, I could go to the bathroom on my own, right after I went to the bar for a few wallet-draining vodka and sodas that were well-needed.
Finally, seven hours later they boarded us back on a plane. Yes, the same chubby man was sitting next to me. Now I only had to sit scrunched up in my seat, unable to lift my arms for a short three hours.
We landed in Dallas and, of course, I missed my connecting flight leaving me no choice but to spend the night there. I was able to track down the American Airlines representative who gave me free vouchers, one for a hotel one for a taxicab and then one for a nice meal but only in the airport. At least they chose an expensive place. Another Rep took me down to the baggage claim area and, of course, I had no bags, except the ones under my eyes. The other ones that I paid an arm and a wheel for, who knows where they were, probably sitting in Florida by the by the pool. They took me out to the curbside where the taxi service was manned by two men who were, I’m guessing here, from Kenya or Zimbabwe, judging by their incomprehensible accents. The hotel was only 6 miles away so I naturally assumed this should not be a problem, it’s just a hop skip and a jump. Oh, how foolish I was. My two African friends soon let me know that there were no disabled cabs at this hour that could bring me to my hotel. I was not dumb enough to believe them, but being so tired and worn out, I didn’t have the strength to get into a regular cab so I went back inside to hatch a new plan or, at the very least, get warm. By now a new American Rep had come down to help and she was a very nice woman. I was hoping her female charm would persuade the dispatching clowns to make an effort here – at least pretend to make a phone call. After chatting with the taxicab gatekeepers, she then came in and told me they had called for a disabled taxicab to come and that it would be about 40 minutes.
By now it was almost midnight and about 40 degrees outside, so we waited inside for the disabled van which my instincts told me was never called and was never coming. About half-hour later another American airlines Rep came down he was the one who gave me the fistful of vouchers. He went out and talked to the taxicab dispatchers and they assured him that no disabled van was on its way. I rest my case. I wanted them to go back home and be eaten by a lion.
I asked rep if there was a hotel in the airport and he said “yes” then I said “Hey, call me a maverick but why don’t we book me in that hotel?” He said they didn’t have a contract with them, but he would break the rules and see if there were any available rooms. I waited patiently, like I had a choice, for twenty minutes. Soon, all was a go. Naturally I assumed that we would just be getting on an elevator cruising down the airport and then voila I’d be entering the doors of a hotel. But, as usual, I was wrong. We would need a van to get to the hotel that was at the airport that I was sitting in.
It was sometime after midnight by now. I was always afraid to look at my watch for fear of crying. I coined a new phrase. Wow, time flies when you’re not having fun. About half-hour later van pulled up and I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a disabled van I almost began sobbing because it was a handicap van. They strapped me down so I wouldn’t roll back-and-forth and have another reason to sue them. I was accompanied by the American Rep who would ensure that I reached my destination, which I assumed would not take too long and was not far away. Again, I was sorely wrong. This van drove for miles and miles over rolling hills, up mountains, through deserts and dark forest. Who knows, maybe there was a jungle in there too. Worst of all, I could feel every turn and every bump as it jerked me out of a cat nap where I was dreaming of getting to that hotel bed. Was that too much to ask? We must have drove for 30 grueling minutes and I kept thinking this frickin airport is as big as Oklahoma and by now I could’ve wheel to the other hotel that was 6 miles away. We finally arrived at the drop-off spot. Thank God, I was so relieved that we had finally reached our destination.
Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Once we got out of the van, they broke the news to me that we now had to wait for the hotel van to come pick us up and bring us to the frickin hotel which was where I thought we were. Maybe I was just delirious by now. I had no idea what to believe anymore. My feeble mind had been filled with lies all day.
We stood out in the cold for about twenty minutes awaiting the hotel van. I thought why I didn’t just drive from California to Florida, they have lots of hotels and motels along the way – ones that always leave the lights on for you. Eventually the van arrived just in time before I turned into a frozen sausage. The only problem was, you won’t believe this, was that it was not a disabled van. The American rep specifically asked the dude to bring that. “I thought you said you had a disabled van,” she said upon his arrival. He replied, “Yeah we do. Did you want me to bring that?” And with that he was off again back to the hotel where it would be another twenty minutes. By then, I had turned into a frozen sausage. He arrived with a disabled van. I guess he had no choice. Soon we were off to the hotel and I was not even going guess how far away that would be.
At some point we arrived at the hotel. I couldn’t trust my red weary eyes. I rubbed them believing the hotel was just mirage, a concoction I had invented in my head as a defense mechanism for slashing my wrists. It was nearly 2:00 o’clock in the morning. They had booked me on a 7 am flight and told me I needed to be back at the airport at 5 am. That would give me two quality hours of sleep. Right now, I’d take it. I’d take a haystack in a Siberian barn. I opened the door of my hotel room and it looked magnificent but, then again, a room with just a bear rug to sleep on would’ve tickled me.
As I looked at the two beds so beautifully made, my heart sank. I fought off the tears with bursts of hysterical delusion insanity laughter. The beds were a foot higher than my wheelchair. There was no way in hell this drained quadriplegic was transferring himself into these towering beds, at least, not without a ladder or elevator. Thank God I didn’t have my luggage cause inside of it was my medicine bag… that contained my razors. With no viable option, I stayed up for two quality hours and watched a man selling coins on tv and one rerun of Gilligan’s Island which I could relate to their dilemma.
My wake-up called came in around 4:30-ish am. As you can guess, I didn’t need it. I arrived back at the airport around 5:00 am which there probably wasn’t a need to be that early but that’s when they had booked the van to take me. I killed time by meandering around the airport in a daze looking at high priced items and buying some facial cream for the wrinkles I had put on in the last 24 hours. It was finally time to leave for Florida. How I wished I could sleep on airplanes, but I never could, and I doubt I would this time. They transferred my numb limp body into the aisle chair and then onto the plane, this time, only by the grace of God, no one was sitting next to me which seemed about right cause it was a shorter flight.
I arrived in Florida on time and much to my amazement my parents were there to pick me up they dare not ask me how my flight was. I really thought that once I got in their car for some reason it wouldn’t start. Thank goodness, I was wrong again. After 45 minute ride we got to their place and I could finally relax but much to my amazement I didn’t feel tired anymore so I stayed up watching football the rest of the day and finally went to bed a little later that night. I had been up for approximately 42 hours but when I did go to sleep, needless to say, I slept like a baby. Before falling asleep I reflected on what had really gone wrong. It all came back to the fat man who got on the plane and changed my luck. Damn the friendly skies to hell.
by Jeff Charlebois