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Air Travel (from archives)

30 November 2022, home

Seven weeks and counting until I wing my way to the frozen north to experience my personal Iditarod. All reservations are in place, and I'm organizing at home while the time passes. As I migrate my files to a new computer, I'm finding a few things worth sharing.

During my decade-plus in Toastmaster, I participated in many humorous speech contests. With flying on my mind, I found my account of a trip in 2008. I attest that the events I recount all happened, give or take a little embellishment...

The story:

Ahhh, air travel... it's just not the same any more is, it? Anymore it seems like an endless succession of long lines, cavity checks, and getting nickel-and-dimed to death. Bag of peanuts? That'll be $3. Pillow and blanket? $5. I hear they're trying to figure out how to charge you for in-flight oxygen...

It's depressing to realize that it wasn't always that way. I can remember walking off the plane in Denver to find my family waiting at the gate, playing kazoos to welcome me home. I can remember arriving for my flight only 15 minutes before departure, and doing the 1,000-meter dash through the concourse to catch my plane. I can remember when you could take simple, everyday necessities with you on the plane... such innocuous things as key chains with tiny screwdrivers, Swiss army knives, chainsaws, machetes, and nunchuks.

Now I concede that my memory of those olden days is gilded. Even back then, air travel had hassles. I can remember having to provide updated, notarized copies of my will when I flew the day after Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. Even back then, and definitely now, the only way to fly is to keep a lighthearted attitude toward it.

I tried to keep that in mind a couple weeks ago, when I flew to Washington state for a job interview. The job was in Pullman, and you may not realize – I certainly didn't – that Pullman is home to the National (not state, not regional, but NATIONAL) Lentil Festival. It's also a North American Garbanzo Capital. Quite a prestigious place to consider working, let me tell you!

My flight to Spokane would leave around noon, giving me time to tackle a honey-do list beforehand. Of course, those tasks ran long, and by the time I grabbed my bags, headed out, rushed back in to get rid of my keychain with the tiny screwdriver, then drove to DIA, parked in the lot, caught the shuttle bus, and reached the terminal, I had missed my two hour window! I only had 1:40 left to catch the plane! The check-in line twisted out of the maze, around the corner, and down the hall! How would I ever make it!?!

Before I went into full cardiac arrest, I spied a United agent walking by, so I flagged him down. “Is it true that I can take both a garment bag and a laptop on board with me?” He nodded. “So I don't have to stand in this line?”

“No,” he replied. “You can go over there” - he pointed to the wall - “and check in on our Vulture terminals.”

“Vulture terminals?”

“That's an inside joke. It's for people who only have carrion.”

I breathed a sigh of relief as I went to the Vulture terminal and typed in my reservation number. The screen jumped to life. Welcome, Mr. Hanket! Your flight is all reserved and waiting for you. Would you care to choose your seat now?

I clicked on 'Choose Seat', and got a new screen. Mr. Hanket, do we have a deal for you. Special today! You can purchase a seat with extra leg room for only $39.95! But hurry, seats are limited.

I considered this for several milliseconds. Let's see, economy plus would give me what – 2 extra inches? That would come out to $10 an inch an hour. I don't think so! I quickly clicked 'decline'.

I could almost feel the chill when the next screen popped up. Oh! Traveling frugally today, are we, Mr. Hanket? In that case, we will just assign YOUR seat at the GATE.

Well, fine. I now had extra time to fritter away, having escaped the check-in line. Though loaded down with the two bags, I figured I could still walk a couple of quick laps around the main concourse, trying to work off some of the stress building up. I was about 2/3 the way through my first lap when I heard a voice behind me. “I sure hope you [pant, pant] know where you're going, because [pant, pant] I'm following you.”

I turned to see a little lady in her mid-60s, running to keep up with me, pulling her wheeled baggage. “Where are you heading, ma'am?”

“I'm trying to catch a flight!”

“Which concourse is it on?”

“I don't know. One of the departure gates.”

“Good. Do you see that escalator there? Go down it, go through security, and have them help you.”

I did get a couple of laps in, and saw the artwork on the walkway to the A concourse. Then I stopped, as planned, at the station to pick up one of the federally mandated plastic bags for my liquids. You see, I don't think my wife trusts me to be able dress myself without her supervision. When I was packing the night before – okay, when SHE was packing my bags the night before – I tried to throw my cosmetics into a plastic bag. “No no no!” she stopped me. “Plastic bags give the wrong impression. Here, use this fabric bag for your toiletries. It looks much more professional!”

Hey – for all I know, she'd arranged for the hiring manager to come to my motel room to watch me shave. Still, correct me if I'm wrong, men (especially you married men) – aren't there some battles that just aren't worth fighting? Thus, I planned in enough time to pick up a plastic bag in which to put my liquids, lotions, and gels. I then proceeded to the security gate, where there was a whole crew of TSA workers ready and waiting to service me.

I've heard that TSA is an acronym for Truly Surly Agents. They all stood around, lips curled down in a frown. “Take off your shoes! Remove the laptop from the bag! Bend over!” I meekly complied with their requests, emptying my pockets of everything but my manhood and placing the items in the plastic bins. I then stepped through the metal detector – and didn't set it off! (That is a rarity with me – I think they normally set it off to get triggered by metal fillings.) Now all I had to do was pick up my belongings from the conveyor belt... which had stopped.

I looked to the operator of the x-ray machine in time to see his frown turn to a smile. As I watched, he grabbed my plastic bag, fished around, and extracted my toothpaste. Understand, I had only two or three days worth of brushes left in it. I even had one of the OCD plastic thingies on it, that allows you to roll it up to squeeze out every last bit of paste. As he began unrolling it, he noticed me watching it. “Is this yours?” I nodded. “I can see you only have about half an ounce left in it,” he said as he extracted it from the OCD thingie, “but the rule is CONTAINERS of 3.4 ounces or less, and the tube was originally a 6-ounce tube! I win! I get to keep it!”

With that he jumped up and danced a little jig, high-fiving the agents around him. The whole crew gave him an ovation, telling him, “All right Rusty, you joined the club!” I have to tell you, it did my heart good to bring that much joy into someone's life.

I now had just enough time to catch the tram to concourse B and grab a sandwich to eat on the plane before heading to my gate. When I arrived, they'd just started boarding, and I could see my boarding pass printed out, waiting for me. Assignment: seat 11B.

That's row 11, as in exit row. The row where you have to be in prime physical shape, so you can throw fellow passengers out of the emergency exit if need be. The row where the seats in front of you are so far away, they're in another zip code. The row where your tray table comes from the armrest, because you can't reach the next seat.

Boy, they sure taught me the repercussions of not paying for extra leg room!

The aisle seat was already taken, but I managed to stroll down the promenade of row 11 without disturbing him from the document he was focused on reading. After I got comfortable, buckled myself in, and opened my lunch, I noticed my seatmate had still not acknowledged me. For all he knew, I could have been a six-headed space alien, so intent was he on reading the document he'd printed from a computer. Curious as to what so captivated him, I idly glanced over and read the title printed on the upper right hand corner: “Deterring those who are already dead.


What, did I get seated next to George Romero, doing research on his next zombie movie? What was he reading? I didn't want to appear obnoxious, or obvious, so I kept casually glancing over to get more info. Several words jumped off the page: Afghani. Jihad. Martyr.

Now I'm not one to jump to conclusions. Truthfully, I still did not know what the context really was. I thus tried to ignore it and concentrate on my chicken sandwich – which began tasting strangely like hummus and grape leaves. After a few minutes he finished reading Deterring, put it away, and pulled another computer document from his folder. A quick glance at the title page revealed some sort of Military Treatise. Below that were many paragraphs, each with a number. Sort of like a statement of guiding principals... or steps to make a nuclear bomb from airline peanuts... or Letterman's Top Ten list. As the plane taxied for takeoff, I tried to ignore it, reasoning, I didn't really want to know any more...

Yes, I did. Curiosity got the better of me, and I glanced over again as he reached the fourth page. My eyes fell on item 14. “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. It is better that the Arab do things tolerably than you do things perfectly. This is the Arab's war; you are there to help him win it, not to win it for him.”

Yikes! What do I do know? Maybe tap him on the shoulder, ask if I can expect to be helping people out the exit later on this flight?

Well, almost before I knew it, two hours had passed and we were landing in Spokane. It's amazing how fast time flies when you're paralyzed with fear. When the 'fasten seatbelts' light went out, I had the stewardess hit her stopwatch. As she reported later, I set the Olympic record for 50 meter hurdles getting off the plane. As I reached the Hertz desk, still well ahead of my fellow passengers, the agent verified my reservation, then said, “I'm sorry. The only keys we have at the desk right now are for a min-van. Is that alright?”

I've never considered myself a min-van type of guy, but if that's what it took... At that moment another agent came around the corner, dangling several keys from her hand. I made a beeline for the Mazda 6 keys and was out the door before they could object. Later, on the drive south, I reflected that my return flight would never be as exciting as this one. Still, if it was, I'd try to keep it in perspective, keep it light. Because, as the old Western Airlines commercials used to say, “It's the o-o-o-only way to fly!”


As I said, this adventure really happened. Regarding my seatmate with the documents - I felt better once we landed, and he donned his official 'Customs and Border Protection' baseball cap. However, it was only months later that I discovered the treatise he read - about the Arab's war - was actually written 100 years earlier by Lawrence of Arabia.

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