Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Airport Saga

There have been a few times in my life when I have been stretched to my limit, in one way or another. For most of this semester I've wondered what would happen if I hit the absolute limit of stress I could take. I had a chance to find out somewhere between sunset on December 18th and noon on December 19th.

I had an amazing visit with Ferns. We spent the day of December 18th finishing up a last few things – taking group pictures, playing piano and violin. Mr. Fern showed me his t-shirt printing press. We went out to eat mid-afternoon. It was time to leave for the airport at about 5:00.

We were very quiet on the way there. I was tired, and I could hardly believe I'd hit the end of my trip; I was starting to try to adjust my mindset to what I'd face when I got home. The sun was setting on the drive there, and it was gone by the time we reached the airport.

I climbed out of the van and gathered up my luggage. I said goodbye to the Ferns, hardly knowing how to do so – goodbyes are awkward things. Then I went to check in my checked bag. After that it was time to navigate the Atlanta airport. Honestly, I was terrified of finding my way.

I had checked in online, so I just had to go straight to security. I waited in line, and then hurriedly sent my stuff through. I got through the metal detector and began gathering up my stuff.

An alarm went off at that moment. Security guards yelled at everyone to get against the ropes, and suddenly there was a flurry of uniforms as guards rushed around. I stood there against the rope in my socks, almost afraid to breathe.

“Secure over here!” a guard near me called.

I heard the cry echoed around me. A security official moved forward and said something I didn't catch, and then the lines started moving again.

Well, this couldn't have gone off without a hitch, I told myself. Now I've got all the trouble for this flight out of the way.

I braved the tram system, terrified I'd end up getting off at the wrong place. I found my terminal safely however, and then sought out the right gate. I settled down on the floor in a corner, my back against the cool, dark glass of a window. I had about an hour before 8:09, when my flight was scheduled to take off. I don't really remember what I did; I believe I read more of Mere Christianity. But then several anxious airport employees started rushing to talk to the lady at our gate. I watched somewhat nervously. Soon an announcement was made: our plane had electrical problems. A part had shorted out when the plane connected to the gate. They had to get a new part from another part of the airport. The flight would be delayed.

I didn't mind. I don't get bored easily, and I like having time to myself. I had my laptop in my carry-on, so I pulled it out and wrote in my computer journal a little. As time wore on, I got worried. My mother would be waiting for me in Shreveport, and I didn't know if she would know what was going on. I went to the attendant at the desk of my gate and asked where the nearest payphone was. She told me, and even gave me a complimentary calling card. I went over to the payphone, and started trying to call one of only two phone numbers I have ever memorized: my mother's cell phone. I tried... and tried... and tried... and tried. No answer. Eventually I gave up and went back to sit down.

It had been about an hour and a half since my flight was supposed to leave. A soldier on his way back from Korea was sitting in the chair beside me. A young mother with a two-year-old son was sitting across from me. The little boy had a small stuffed panda, and the soldier and I played catch with him. It made me smile.

I tried to call my mother again. Once again, no response. I was getting frustrated by now, not to mention tired. I went to a nearby coffee shop and bought a small iced peppermint mocha. Then I wrote the lyrics to Storm by Lifehouse in twisting patterns around my left arm. I was asked multiple times later that night if it was a tattoo.

Finally we got the word that we could board. It was about 11:30 at night. By now I was very worried, because I was afraid that my mother would be frantic with worry. We all hurried onto the plane, and I found my seat and settled down with my soft red hoodie in my lap. We took off, and started climbing slowly. I began to wonder why this plane was ascending so much slower than the last one I had flown on. I just wanted to sleep now though; I was so tired.

Within about ten minutes however, the captain's voice crackled over the intercom. “Well folks, I thank you for your patience tonight. I know the flight was delayed for a long time, and I realize that you all are trying to get to Shreveport...”

This can't be going anywhere good.

It wasn't. He told us that the electrical problem was not in fact completely fixed; the plane had not registered that the new part was installed. As a result, the plane had automatically activated emergency systems, which were primarily comprised of a large fan serving as a generator that had popped out on front of the plane. This is why we'd been accelerating so slowly. We couldn't maneuver. So we were going back to Atlanta.

At this point in time I felt something inside twist very, very tight, and then snap. I was going back to Atlanta. What if I was stuck there overnight? Where could I go? I didn't have the Ferns' number. I didn't have any phone. I didn't even know if my mother knew where I was or what was going on. I had very little money, and at that moment felt completely small and alone. I rested my head on the seat in front of me and sobbed.

I cried and prayed all the way back to the Atlanta runway. We finally landed. The captain told us another plane was waiting at another gate to bring us to Shreveport. We all got off the plane. It was about midnight by now.

We went to wait at the other gate, where the captain had instructed us to go. It was at this point that I finally managed to contact my mother via payphone. I told her I was going to try to get out that night.

It wasn't long before they told us that they would not in fact be able to get us out that night, because the entire airport was shutting down. They had just two desks open, and we all huddled in lines, waiting to get replacement tickets worked out.

I was standing by a girl who looked somewhere near to my age. I started talking to her, and soon she drew a guy about our age into the conversation. All three of us were college students, from schools in the East Texas or Louisiana area. The guy, Zach, was on his way back from a mission trip to Prague. Cali had been on a trip with her family. It was oddly comforting to actually talk to them for a few minutes; it felt like school. Normally this would not necessarily be comforting, but at least at this point it felt familiar.

Cali and her parents worked out a deal with Zach (who they had never met before that night) that they would rent a car together and spend all night driving back to Louisianna. I said goodbye to them, and then moved up to the desk.

The told me they could put me on standby for a flight at 8:30 a.m. They gave me a confirmed ticket for 8:09 p.m. They shoved me a little stack of papers, which they informed me were meal vouchers that I could use in the airport, and a hotel voucher. I gathered them up, and asked for more complimentary phone cards. The fact that I was even willing to ask shows how desperate I was. The two desk workers dug through their bags and handed me the few they had. Each card had just 5 minutes on it.

I hurried over to the payphone. I attempted to connect to the internet, but I had to pay for that. I tried calling my mother, and finally got her to answer after multiple tries. She told me that she was on her way home from the Shreveport airport after getting the word through another lady waiting for the same flight that my flight was canceled. I asked her what in the world I could do. She said I could do one of two things: first, find my way to a hotel and use my voucher. I had no idea where to find a taxi, how much it would cost, or even how to use my hotel voucher, so I said I really didn't want to do that. She suggested I try calling home, getting the number of an aunt who lives in that area, and asking her to help me. I had to hang up then, as I was running out of time.

I was fighting back tears again now. I called home. I heard my older brother's familiar voice on the phone.


Hey. I need Aunt A's phone number in the next 60 seconds.” I stumbled over the words, I was trying so hard to suppress a sob. I had to repeat myself, by which point more valuable seconds had ticked away.

My phone card ran out before he could get me the number. I started on a new one. My cousin, who was staying at home, gave my older sister the number so she could dictate it to me. I scribbled it down in the notebook I always carry with me, and then hung up.

I tried to call my aunt. I tried over and over. She wouldn't pick up. I had barely enough time for a single call on the phone card. I had no one else I could contact, no where else to go, no one to help me.

I banged my forehead against the metal case of the payphone until my vision blurred. Then I stood up and gathered my things. It was 1:00 a.m., according to my watch.

I started walking down the terminal. All the elevators were off. All of the escalators were off. I continued walking, crying half from exhaustion, half from a feeling of complete helplessness. I forced myself to keep going, Slooking for some employees.

Finally I found the cleaning crew. I asked them if there was any way open to get out of the terminal. They pointed to me one small escalator in a corner. It was a start, and I took it.

All the trams were closed down at this hour of the night. I saw maybe a total of ten other people in the hallways now. But I walked. I was going to get to the baggage claim area and take it from there. I knew from when I had flown in that the baggage claim was more than half a mile away. I walked as fast as I could, as fast as I do when I'm almost late for a class. My shoulder was aching from the weight of my laptop bag, but I didn't stop for long enough to switch shoulders.

I reached the baggage claim, and found my way outside. I wandered down the abandoned sidewalk for a little while before meeting up with Zach, Cali, and Cali's family. They were waiting for a rental car to arrive. I asked them if they knew how I would get transportation. They directed me to someone back inside I could ask, and then wished me good luck. I'll probably never see any of them again, but it was so good to have some people actually willing to help in what small way they could.

An airport employee directed me to a taxi. I told the driver where I needed to go, and she looked at the voucher. It wasn't a long drive. The air was heavy with a white fog, which I could only really see when we drove under the ghostly glow of streetlights. Finally we reached the hotel. I paid the driver, and got out with my things. I had $6.08 left to my name.

I gave the hotel voucher to a very tired looking employee at the desk, and had to fill out some paper work. I was given my room key. My room was on the second floor.

Once I was in my room, I dumped my purse and my carry-on on one bed. I turned down the thermostat, as the airport had been very hot and stuffy. I had no clean clothes; only what I had in my carry-on, which was mostly computer stuff and books. I crawled into bed at about 2:00 a.m.

My mind would not shut off. I felt like I had to be doing something to get myself out of this terrible mess. I begged God to help me to lay it to rest. I lay in the dark, softly singing worship songs and praying.

I was about to doze off when the phone rang. I sat up, debating for a split second whether I should answer it or not. The risk that it could be someone calling to help me and I'd miss it was too great to take. I picked it up.

It was my aunt. She was making some calls for me. She asked for some ticket information, and I dumped the vouchers and boarding passes out on the bed beside my carry-on. To this day I'm not sure how she got my hotel room number, but she promised to make more calls, and to call and give my mother her number. She hung up.

I had my laptop charging on a table. Now I opened it and put on some of my favorite calming music: For the Moments I Feel Faint, Pieces, You Are My Hope, Angels Fall Down, Come My Way, How Deep the Father's Love For Us, and Whispers in the Dark (Acoustic) are the ones I remember.

I dozed with the light on between phone calls for the next two hours, getting maybe a maximum of 45 minutes of light sleep in. Basically, my mother told me to contact her when I could tomorrow and let her know what was happening. She gave me her credit card information. She told me she had e-mailed the Ferns and asked for their number, but of course they were in bed.

My aunt basically told me that I needed to be on a shuttle to the airport at 6:30 the next morning in order to make the gate and wait on standby for the 8:30 flight. She said if I absolutely could not get on any flights, I could call her and she'd try to come get me.

I had nothing more I could do. I turned off the lamp and curled up in bed. There was no working alarm clock in my room, but I can normally rely at least somewhat on my mental clock. It was 4:00 a.m.

I woke up and grabbed my watch. It was 6:10. A few minutes later than I wanted, but the best I could expect in this case. I got up and gathered all my stuff together again. Even though I was in a hurry, I automatically performed the last check my father has always told us to do when leaving a hotel room – I searched around to be sure I hadn't left anything. Then I hurried downstairs and turned my room key in at the desk.

It was still dark outside, and the air was heavy and humid. I waited with several other people who were trying to get to the airport. The shuttle arrived at 6:35, and we all managed to get on, though it was very crowded. I was grateful that my carry-on was still somewhere in the airport.

The drive to the airport went by fairly fast. I got off the shuttle and went in to security, after making sure I wouldn't have to check in (which thankfully I didn't have to). I got through security without any problems, and went up to the terminal where my standby boarding pass listed the flight as leaving from. I went to that gate, and found that the gate for the 8:30 flight to Shreveport had been changed. A kind young soldier saw me looking a little lost, so he asked if he could help me. I told him I needed to find a gate, and he gave me directions to the nearest set of screens displaying all the flights and their gates. I moved out into the terminal. Dare You to Move by Switchfoot came on the radio playing throughout the terminal, and it made me smile. That's been one of my “theme songs” for this semester, and it was so encouraging to hear it then.

I found the new gate without too much trouble, and sat down to wait. The sun was up by now, though it was overcast outside and only a thin gray light filtered in the big windows. I watched planes taking off, disappearing into the thick cloud cover. I envied them.

The guy beside me started talking to me. He had also been on my flight the night before. Mr. Lee told me that he had been flying at least once a month for the past two years, and this was the first time he'd had any kind of trouble. That was vaguely comforting, as it meant not all my flights would be like this. He was generally encouraging, mostly just because he was so cheerful.

I watched everyone board the 8:30 flight. No extra room. All of us who were waiting on standby were told that another flight was scheduled to leave at 11:20. I moved out into the terminal to try to find this new flight. I was getting better at finding gates, so it only took me a few minutes. I knew I needed to call my mother. I pulled out my stack of complimentary phone cards. I made a guess as to one that might have a few more minutes left. I was lucky. It had 3 minutes left on it.

I explained to my mother what was going on, and that I was going to try to get on the 11:20 flight. I was so tired I was just hoping I sounded coherent. She asked me if I had anything to eat. I realized then that aside from a small bag of chips, the last thing I'd eaten had been at 3:30 the afternoon before. So I promised I'd use one of my vouchers to get something to eat.

Of course, I didn't want to leave my gate area in case an announcement was made that I needed to hear, and I definitely wasn't leaving the terminal, so I was stuck with whatever restaurants were there by me. The only one was a Burger King. All fast food breakfasts make me feel sick, but I had no choice. I ordered a breakfast sandwich and also, in a moment of abandon, a piece of chocolate cream pie.

I sat at the gate, eating my breakfast and watching the standby screen. My stomach very soon started telling me I would regret eating this. I forced myself to finish, because I know it would be better in the long run. After a few minutes I decided to eat the piece of chocolate pie. It actually settled my stomach considerably. It was messy, and I have no idea what the other people waiting at the gate thought, but it made me feel better in more than one way.

I still had two hours to wait, so I moved and curled up on the seats by the window. I wanted to sleep, though I doubted I would. I managed to rest for a while, but not sleep. I pulled out Mere Christianity and continued reading.

11:20 approached, and the gate attendant announced that this flight would be delayed. I wasn't quite as worried as I might have been, considering it was doubtful I'd even get on this flight, but I was impatient to find out what I'd have to do next.

The flight was delayed for half an hour. I stood waiting, watching everyone board. A few of the people higher up on the standby list got on this one. I prayed, as I so often had through the night and the morning, and I waited.

There was no room for me on that plane. I started formulating a plan of action. I could beg someone to use their cellphone and hope I could actually get in contact with my aunt and convince her to come get me. Or, I could just wait in the airport for another 8 hours until my confirmed flight left at 8:09. I realized I was crying again. I stared somewhat despondently at the screen, trying to find the courage to take one path or another.

I glance down for a minute. I saw Mr. Fern walking down the terminal towards me. My tired brain couldn't process it. Someone was actually here, someone familiar. It was going to be alright.

I must have talked Mr. Fern's ear off as we took the tram to where Elder Fern, Younger Fern, and their sister were waiting. Normally stress makes me really quiet, but I think I was just so glad to actually see someone familiar that I was babbling anything that came into my mind. We met up with the Ferns, and went out to the car. I felt his hazy glow inside that was not just happiness, but a feeling of complete safety. Younger Fern had mountain dew for me in her knitting bag. They had tissues for me (which I desperately needed), and trail mix, and hand sanitizer. They drove me back to their house, buying me lunch on the way.

That afternoon washed away the stress of the night and morning before. I showered, finally got some more cold medicine, watched some videos on my laptop with the Ferns, and just talked. I felt so fortunate to have an extra afternoon with them, even if the reason was not necessarily my first choice.

That evening Mr. Fern took me back to the airport. I said goodbye again. I went through security very quickly (there's something to be said for practice), found my gate quickly (despite the fact they'd changed it and not told me), and got to board the flight on time (which I could hardly believe). I got home and was met at the airport by my parents, Telpe, and Mar.

The experience was very stressful, and I can't pretend I was calm while it was happening, or even that I handled it well. But for me that really wasn't the memory that I took away from it. What I carried away from it was the fact that the Ferns came for me. I had to wander around lost for a while, but I was not forgotten; not abandoned. They were willing to do everything they could to help me. That's something I'll never forget. I may have been the main character in that story, but they were the heroes. God was making a point to me, which I'm not sure I really know completely how to talk about yet, so I'll leave it at that.

So that's the airport story. Props to anyone who read the whole thing.

God bless!

- Elraen


Linda B said...

My poor baby! I was frantic not knowing what was going on and trying so hard to help you! You didn't tell me about all the tears . . .

Any said...

Wow. I don't even know what to say. -hugs you so tight-

I'm sitting here starting to cry just from reading that. Started once I got to the part where the Ferns came for you. :) All of that, and you, and the people who helped you, and the Ferns...

I can't even think of anything to say but that you are amazing for getting through that, and the Ferns...are wonderful.

Must stop rambling and get to sleep now, but I am so glad that you're alright and that everything worked out by the end.

-hugs you again-

WM said...

I'm sorry you had to go through all that! *hugs*

Joy said...

AF... that was quite an adventure, though you must forgive me for being entertained at your misfortune. I did ache for you in all that confusion... I can't even begin to imagine the stress.

I have flown over 8 times in my life - three of those being international flights - and *never* have I had such a nightmare... although, admittedly, being interrogated in Israel by a guard carrying uzi was pretty nerve wracking.

*hugs* Thank you so much for sharing this saga with us... and it is absolutely amazing that the Ferns where there for I found myself cheering for them at the end of the story, even though I don't know them.