Late one afternoon in the summer of 1978, my family and I were rushing back from Pensacola Beach to get my Dad’s younger brother home for a big date. Uncle Chuck was not only a good bit younger than my dad, he was also a heck of a lot calmer than anyone in my family. While we were screaming, sweating and swearing at every red light that stopped us, Uncle Chuck sat in the back seat with a peaceful smile on his face. Since Chuck was from California, I automatically suspected the Evil Weed was keeping him cool. But Chuck was always calm, almost Zen-like. So I finally put it down to a personality defect.
“How can you stay so calm at a time like this?” I asked in an exasperated voice.
His answer made the episode stick in my mind over the chaos of my last 28 years.
“What’s the use of worrying, Joey? It won’t get me there a second sooner.”
Left Coast freak.
Chuck was right, of course, but his lesson is almost impossible to teach Type A personalities who foolishly believe we can control every phase of our lives.
But Uncle Chuck’s lesson went through my mind the other day as I sat on Delta Flight 693 for nine straight hours. We were a long way from that hot Florida summer of ’78, but it was Valentine's Day, and like Chuck, there were a lot of guys on that plane who were going to be late for a hot date that night.
We began boarding at 7:30 AM. I grabbed a quick cup of coffee on the way to the airport and figured I’d have breakfast when I landed in Atlanta a few hours later. But soon after settling snugly into seat 41E, I began to realize this was going to be a trip to remember. With ice pellets belting against the 757’s windows, I found myself stuck in a middle seat between a man, a woman and a dog.
The Westminster Dog Show had just ended at Madison Square Garden the night before and apparently Delta Air Lines let it be known that Flight 693 would be the airplane of choice for canines waiting to escape Gotham. As I closed my eyes, the Dog Whisperer seated next to me began breathing sweet nothings into her little critter’s left ear until the pilot came on the intercom to tell dogs and humans alike that we would be sitting at the gate waiting for a break in the weather.
An hour later, the pilot came back on to tell us what lucky dogs we were to have a seat on his plane instead of being trapped inside LaGuardia like all those other poor suckers who would not be going anywhere today.
“We are the last flight out of LaGuardia.”
Our chests swelled with pride at the thought of being the chosen ones who would escape the island and get home to our loved ones in time for Valentine’s dinner and a movie.
It must have been in hour two when the pilot came back on to tell us that while we waited for the weather to break, Delta would let us watch a free movie. It was Robin Williams’ “Man of the Year”—a perfectly harmless political flick until it tried to morph into a John Grisham thriller that had Laura Linney drugged, kidnapped and run over in attempts to stop the heroine from telling President-elect Mork the truth about what was going on in his kingdom of Ork.
Two more hours passed. The movie ended and the grumbling began. The pilot kept preaching patience to an increasingly tired and hungry group of passengers who had now been on the plane over four hours. By this time the pilot gave us, in effect, the Hotel California option of being able to check out anytime we’d like. But we could never leave. We were told that while we could get our bags and get off the flight, we would not be able to catch another plane out of New York until Tuesday. So we were trapped. But how lucky we were! Man, think of all those poor people still stuck inside the terminal.
While we were playing the role of Don Henley at the Hotel California, our pilot played Freddie at In and Out Burger, telling us that some of the crew would be leaving the plane for a while to grab lunch for the flight attendants. They had not eaten since they got on the plane five hours ago, after all. Poor things. The pity we felt for Delta employees was eclipsed by the frustration of most passengers who had also gone without food since the night before.
How bout grabbing a burger for us, Maverick?
Little Fido’s scrawny body started looking more tasty by the minute. But instead of ripping him out of the Dog Whisperer’s hands, I shuffled back to the rear cabin of the plane and ripped open a bag of peanuts. Other men were huddling around with their blackberries and cell phones, while a pretty flight attendant was less than thrilled to be crowded out by her new friends. I heard her ask her partner, “Why the hell did that gate attendant let all these people on the plane?”
An hour later, I was still huddled in the back learning about Fire Island, Martha’s Vineyard and Tuscaloosa softball camps with my fellow survivors. On screens throughout the cramped cabin, Kristin Dunst’s “Marie Antoinette” flickered for a few hours. Then it was over.
Everyone, including the flight attendants, was getting agitated. We had already made a pass at de-icing and taking off. But after that 45-minute procedure that promised passage from snowy New York, we were told that the temperatures dropped eight degrees and the ice pellets were back. We would be stuck another hour.
Then came perhaps the worst news yet. Three movies into our odyssey, the only film left in Delta’s VCR catalog was Ryan O’ Neal’s smarmy “Love Story”—an appropriate movie since I am still waiting for Delta to tell me that they’re sorry. The news of this latest cruel twist sank our spirits like a lead balloon.
More groans filled the cabin. From the back someone yelled “The humanity!” Even the dogs snarled at the sight of Technicolor turtlenecks and Ali McGraw’s impish face. Like Lot, I averted my eyes but others were not so lucky. The mood darkened.
By hour eight, dog owners had enough. They began taking their pets to the bathrooms to rid themselves of last night’s Alpo. I was lucky enough to be in line to watch the splendid moment in aviation history as the Dog Whisperer put Fido in the bathroom, placed a mat on the floor, closed the door to give the wretched little beast his privacy, and then reopened it to see—ta da!--dog crap.
I think of this moment often when I read Delta’s statements suggesting we were free to come and go as we pleased while stuck on their plane. I suppose someone at corporate headquarters thinks a Type A guy like myself stayed on Flight 693 nine hours for the joy of skipping breakfast and lunch, being crouched in a middle seat sitting next to animals and humans, and watching little rat dogs drop turds on the same bathroom floor I would use next.
The Crown Room? Who needs the Crown Room when I can have all this for free? Maybe they thought our plane was filled with Buddhists and Uncle Chucks.
Everything’s Zen? I don’t think so.
Finally, we got the good news. The weather had broken, we were getting de-iced and we would soon be escaping Fort Apache: LaGuardia.
“The pattern is clear, Ghost Rider.”
Thirty minutes later, the pilot came back on the intercom. We all knew it had to be bad news when he began by telling us that this was the worst day in his 19 years at Delta. The weather had cleared but now our plane was grounded for mechanical reasons. We would be towed back to the gate and it would be stuck in New York for two more hours.
I thought of my uncle and smiled.
What’s the use of worrying? No use. I didn’t even let the sight of our bags being taken out of the cargo bay below bother me, as the passengers were told (after nine hours of hearing how lucky we were) to get their carry on bags and get the hell off the plane. I even smiled serenely as the Delta rep lied to my face and said told me we would be reboarding to take off in a few hours
As I ran over to grab my first meal of the day—a cheeseburger in paradise—the inevitable news hit. Our flight had been cancelled.
I finished my cheeseburger, drew in a deep breath and let out a laugh. What else could I do? As Uncle Chuck told me 28 years ago, worrying wasn’t going to get me home a second sooner.
How right he was.