Spending the holidays in the Detroit airport is an overrated experience, no matter how many faces of happy customers they have pasted in the corridors. Mark and I hadn’t seen his parents and siblings for three long years and we were looking forward to some great big hugs and long-awaited homemade pecan pie, only to be found in the confines of Dayton, Ohio. To make a long story short, we never made it there. The rest of the saga made a Chevy Chase Christmas look like a free honeymoon in Hawaii.
Now, Dad did warn us that they were having a little snow back there — courtesy of some lovely photo attachments sporting him toying with his neat little snow blower on the driveway. Since we get about two snowflakes every three years here in Southern Oregon, I thought the whole thing looked like a precious Rockwell painting. “Just a little snow,” as it turned out, stretched from their doorstep right up to New York City. Unaware of the rapidly deteriorating weather, we put a few magazines and a book in a carry-on and headed to the Medford airport.
When you’re an amputee with a number of joint replacements, the real excitement usually begins with the task of making it through security. I was wanded several times, swabbed for explosive residue, and patted down more often than a week-old melon in Safeway. Along the way, I was presented with a barrage of health questions that couldn’t be answered in a full issue of a JAMA, so I kept the chart down to a short list of metal parts to save time and keep the pity party short. Since I have a permanent bladder condition, I had to guzzle water and use the bathroom every 20 minutes, but no one arrested us for suspicious behavior, so all in all, things were going pretty well.
We’d gotten up at 3 a.m. in Medford and made it from Portland to Detroit to hook up with a 10:55 p.m. flight to Dayton. Getting to the last gate felt like we’d walked to Hong Kong and back, but I was determined not to be a wimp and use a wheelchair. Call me brain dead or in serious denial, but I sent my crutches along with our baggage. My husband only owns two arms and I knew I’d use them up one way or another. It was a lame attempt at marital courtesy.
We breathed a huge sigh of relief — as right on that little slot for plane departures at the gate — it said our flight was leaving exactly on time. With a foot of snow outside, it seemed like a miracle. The funny thing was that we hadn’t seen one person crack a smile on our two-mile hike and there wasn’t a gate attendant anywhere in sight. We soon discovered that we were locked in and minus a flight crew.
All the delis had closed and the only water to be found was in a dribbling fountain a half a mile down the road by the restrooms. After three hours of running back and forth to drink and pee, I could have walked that route blindfolded if there hadn’t been so many people sleeping against the walls with their lucky feet sticking out. Passengers were sleeping in stray wheelchairs since there was no seating at this end of the terminal. We didn’t dare leave, because the computer screens all said we were departing on time! I shifted from foot to foot like a drunk in Time Square begging for beer money or a hot meal. We tried resting on the floor, but getting up involved the invention of new yoga moves, and no one was much in the mood to hunt down a forklift to get me in an upright position.
One poor father, in a desperate attempt to keep his toddler from having another meltdown, ran him back and forth on the moving sidewalks so many times we got dizzy watching. Salutations slipped from “Merry Christmas” to “Where in the hell are the damned toilets?” Over the loudspeakers, airport personnel canceled flight after flight after flight. But our plane was still sitting there and they told us to get in a single file and stand against the rail, insisting that we would be boarding soon. What this really meant was, “Your flight will be canceled shortly and we’d like you to stand still while we deal with WWIII in the main terminal.”
The bad news came like rifle fire and the other passengers on our plane fled toward re-ticketing desks at the speed of a fast-forwarded Schwartzenegger film. We stood in waiting lines for three more hours, my leg was starting to lose suction from dehydration, and my computerized knee was running out of battery juice. My best friend had given me a refrigerator magnet for Christmas that read: “Reflect upon the beauty of each little moment.” It was tempting not to wake her up in the middle of the night and tell her that the adage was great in theory, but currently a tad difficult to live by.
At 3:00 a.m., the last of the sane airport personnel announced the following to a crowd of decisively hostile travelers: “There are no hotel rooms left in Detroit, no rental cars to get you out of the area, and you will not, I repeat, will not see your luggage until you reach your final destination” (translated, as we’d later learn, as “sometime early next spring”).
Mother nature on a roll and ticked off airport employees working overtime make for a pretty ugly collaboration; the whole concourse was beginning to smell like a nursing home after the staff goes on strike for two weeks. Mark grabbed one security guard by the arm and asked her where I could plug in my leg to recharge the battery. She kindly pointed us to a row of chairs all taken by three thugs, each twice my husband’s size. I was tired enough to fall asleep standing up, but I was also smart enough to realize it isn’t all that wise to leave your leg standing in a corner by itself when you need a quick getaway from a primed set of muggers.
Our last desperate limp landed us in the Customer Care line. They didn’t have “We don’t really give a crap” posted on their foreheads under their Santa hats, but one look in their eyes and I knew there are some messages that just don’t need words. Right ahead of us was a lady who told them she had to have her luggage that night because her heart medicine was in it. She pleaded and pleaded, all to no avail. Mark kept telling me to go sit down, that he would handle the problem himself.
You have to understand that my husband is a veritable saint when it comes to dealing with disability issues and he is so thoughtful he makes every other man on the globe feel guilty as hell, but he’s also so laid back that he’d report an earthquake in Japan as a “slight fissure in the earth affecting a number of weary residents.” I imagine if he lost all four limbs, he’d tell his mom and dad something along the lines of: “I’m just not quite moving as well as I used to.” There is a time for self-effacement and there is a time for the naked truth. I thought about taking some painkillers to alleviate the agony, but I knew I needed my brains intact for a battle of the wits.
With my elbows firmly planted on the counter, I leaned into the breathing space of Ms. What’s-her-name in her little reindeer hat and said: “Look, I’ve had five joint replacements and my leg whacked off. I’ll spare you the rest of the medical history, but my crutches are locked up somewhere in an ocean of unattended luggage or sitting in a ten-foot snowdrift. My computerized leg is going to run out of juice in an hour or two and I need a mattress more than Martha Stewart needs to go back to selling comforters for Target. We’ve got two choices: a hotel bed or the emergency room.” After they booked us tickets back to Medford on Christmas Day, we ended up getting a paid-for suite at a nearby Hilton, replete with a few coupons for food. As the hotel shuttle shuffled through the snow and ice, Mark congratulated me on an Oscar performance rivaled only by Diane Keaton smack in the middle of menopause.
After some much needed food and rest and a $500 search for clean underwear, Mark and I headed back to the airport, which by now had become our second home. This round through security made the first one seem like a gentle pat on the behind. By this time, most of the airport staff was just short of the last thread on the rope. One officer sat me down and walked away for a minute. The next thing we knew, a supervisor was yelling at the top of her lungs: “Never, ever leave a would-be terrorist alone for one damned second!” Being a celebrity is a tad overrated. They stood me up again. Here I was spread-eagled, eagerly waiting for the wand, my frizzy, curly hair is a haystack kicked by ten mad cows, and 600 people are staring at me like I’m the opening act of The Jay Leno Show. When the poor lady made it to my underwire bra, which of course set off the buzzers, I finally stood my ground: “For God’s sake,” I said, “at this point in my life, I need something to hold me up.”
Sad as it was, there was no way to get to Dayton for the holidays. The interstate was closed and our only hugs came through the receiver of that godsend of a cell phone. By the time we got home, our dog Gretel, who had been sleeping in a kennel, had developed some serious abandonment issues and decided that the living room rug was now the grass out back. “What the hell,” I thought, “I wanted new carpet anyway.” “Count your blessings” did, however, come to mind: at least we weren’t TSA employees standing in the airflow of people removing their shoes after wearing the same pair of socks for three solid days. If I had to be stuck in Detroit for Christmas, at least I was there with Mark, who kept his chin up by congratulating himself on the fact that he’d gotten his wife to sleep naked for the first time in seven years of marriage.
Janet Buck is a seven-time Pushcart Nominee & the author of four full-length collections of poetry. Buck’s most recent work is featured in The Birmingham Arts Journal, Antiphon, Offcourse, PoetryBay, Poetrysuperhighway, Abramelin, The Writing Disorder, Misfit Magazine, Lavender Wolves, Avatar Review, River Babble, The Danforth Review & other journals worldwide. Her latest print collection of verse, Dirty Laundry: A Memoir in Poems, is currently available at all fine bookstores. Buck’s debut novel, Samantha Stone: A Novel of Mystery, Memoir & Romance, was released courtesy of Vine Leaves Press in September, 2016. Janet lives and writes in Southern Oregon, just hours away from Crater Lake, one of the seven wonders of the world. For links, announcements, and interviews with Janet, visit her new website: www.janetibuck.com