Bicycling in Kilkenny

Bicycling in Kilkenny

Flying for Free: Part VII

One of the philosophies of the space-a traveler is to make the most of every time and place they are in. There is no need to waste the mone...

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Temple Bar: Part II (The Parliament Hotel)

Read Part 1 here.

The next item on our agenda would have to be something in the way of food. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really lunchtime and it wasn’t really dinnertime, but I figured surely one of these tourist friendly establishments would be willing to accommodate our ill-timed, American sized hunger.  

Upon passing yet another Starbucks, I asserted the fact that I did not desire any sort of fast food. I wanted a sit down place where people would come to the table and offer water and napkins and other civilized things of the sort.

We walked just a few more steps to see a board outside the Parliament Hotel. “Food served all day,” it said welcomingly. Looking at my watch-free wrist, I said, “Yep, we are definitely in the parameters of all day. Wanna eat here?”

“Sure,” John said in his usual agreeable manner.

As is with many Irish eating places associated with hotels, this place had two very distinct sides. The restaurant side’s tables sported carefully placed linen tablecloths covered with sparkling glassware while the pub side exuded the typical Irish pub charm with its freshly polished bar, wood worked walls adorned with images of local pride, and carefully chosen knickknacks occupying skillfully crafted built in shelves and fireplace mantles.  
We had our choice of seats since everyone else was either outside enjoying the sun or having vente mocha lattes at Starbucks. We chose a table towards the back of the room where the bartender met us with two menus.

“Two pints, please,” John said with confidence. We were really starting to feel less like tourists and more like locals. We looked down at our single-page menus, and I began to feel disappointment. It was pub food, but it looked more like regular American fare to us: burgers, chips, and sandwiches. I wanted to eat something else like perhaps what they would be offering just a couple hours later to the patrons who would be using the linen napkins next door, but I was sure my hunger couldn’t possibly wait that long.

I suggested we order something small, perhaps share something to hold us over until we could eat a civilized dinner. John went along with that idea, and we settled on the club sandwich. Fearing that the management might frown upon sharing, we humbly asked if it might be okay for us to split a sandwich. The bartender responded with exorbitant agreement, as if people ask to do it at least two or three times a day.

It wasn’t long before our sandwich arrived, but instead of the ubiquitous extra plate often given begrudgingly and sometimes with an added charge in many American restaurants, we were actually presented with two very distinct and well dressed plates, complete with what appeared to be two full helpings of chips. The chef’s willingness to accommodate our request was more than enough to make up for what had appeared to be modest at best menu offerings, so we were even more pleased when we tasted the decadent sandwich that was so amazingly delicious, it deserved a name much higher than to simply be called a sandwich. But if it must be called a sandwich, I would have to say without doubt that it was the very best sandwich I have ever had in my entire life.

This club sandwich was not like any American club sandwich. Sure, it had the usual turkey, ham, lettuce and tomato on it, but it also had a glorious smattering of what the Irish refer to as ‘egg mayonnaise.’ With each bite more delicious than the one before, I just had to know how the egg mayonnaise was made. I was sure that it was THE ingredient that made that sandwich great, so I asked our friendly bartender if the chef might be willing to share his secret recipe with us even though I knew that probably would not be possible since it seems most chefs prefer to keep these sorts of things to themselves.

As we ate our way to nearly naked plates, we realized that perhaps we should have been splitting meals all along. We were both getting rather full, and we quickly abandoned the idea of eating dinner later. We decided to order a dessert instead! But before we could order dessert, John wanted to use the facilities and look around at all the eclectic decor. I used the time to ask the bartender about the area a bit. “You see we are middle-aged,” I said, pointing out the obvious, “What would you say are the best bars for us to listen to music?”

I asked him that question because at night, Temple Bar is teeming with young people all smashed into loud bars overflowing with people. We are just too old for that sort of thing because after we hit 40, our enjoyment for music became based more on its quality rather than its high volume.

Right as he was offering a couple good suggestions about where to go to hear good, middle-aged type music, a very strapping young Greek man appeared from the kitchen and approached the bartender. “I am Stavros,” he said proudly while slapping his very masculine hand on his even more masculine chest.

I was feeling the effects of the second pint I was drinking and was glad John wasn’t at the table to see my jaw fall to the table. “Well hello, Stavros,” I said as if my age had suddenly divided in half to meet his millennial status, “How'r you doin'?”

His polite and respectful answer reminded me that I was old enough to be his mother, so I quickly diverted my attention to the coldness of the beer in front of me until the two restaurant personnel were joined by yet another of their colleagues. The chance to speak to her about the sights and sounds of downtown Dublin made my 'flirtation fail' quickly fade into the annals of ancient history.

One more person joined the group before John returned from his lengthy pit stop. It was the chef himself, and he had come out to our table just to tell us about the egg mayonnaise. I was becoming more and more impressed with this wonderful pub at The Parliament Hotel. “The egg mayonnaise is simple,” he said as if the origin of its unique flavor was really no secret. “The trick is in cooking the eggs for the exact amount of time. You don’t want to overcook them.” He told me never to boil them for longer than 10 minutes before adding some mayonnaise and chopped shallots to the chilled and shelled perfectly cooked eggs.

I had never once even thought of putting shallots in my egg salad, but after he had said it, it began to make perfect sense. I made a silent vow to myself that the next time I make egg salad, I would replace the mustard with some carefully chosen and chopped shallots.

Just as the kitchen staff disbanded and found their way to their stations, John arrived back at our table. “Did you order dessert?” he asked, completely unaware of all that had just transpired at our table. I told him I had not yet had the opportunity and suggested we go ahead and place the order.

A few moments after we had asked if we could split a piece of apple pie, the bartender informed us that we were in luck because the chef had a bunch of extra apple pie leftover from a catered event the day before, so he was going to let us have two full pieces for the price of one. We felt like we had really won the jackpot, and we were even more pleased after we had received our plates.

We learned that apple pie in Ireland is more like what we Americans refer to as apple crisp, and apple crisp warmed with a little dollop of ice cream is a delectable dish that is most worthy of following the absolute best made sandwich in Dublin and even the entire world.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Flying for Free: Part VI

Regardless of our utter exhaustion and desperate need for a shower and a bed, our hunger for food would have to be satiated first. Our hotel room would not be ready for quite some time, and there was no way any of us would be able to sit in the hot car for more than just a few minutes.

As we drove down the one and only main business road in Dover, I saw a Friendly’s and decided to pull in there. I chose that place for a few reasons. First, I used to love that place as a kid. There was one in the old Newmarket North Mall in Virginia where I grew up, and I remembered they always had the coolest ice cream sundaes. But it isn’t just nostalgic to me and my own childhood. It also holds memories for my own children. Seven years ago, we celebrated Tabitha’s twelfth birthday at a Friendly’s in Maine where we had been stuck while trying to get to New York from our home in Spain. A huge blizzard had hit the entire northeastern seaboard that year that resulted in major air travel delays and cancellations for several days.

The biggest reason I chose Friendly’s was because I knew we’d be able to hang out there longer than at a fast food place, and having a reason to stay for dessert  could make it even longer. I was starting to understand a little of what a homeless person must have to consider when planning their day. They probably know which places and areas of town they can loiter in, and they probably also know exactly how long they can be there before they are forced to move on.

Probably looking a little homeless ourselves, we sat in the booth too tired to care what others might have been thinking.  John’s head rested in his hand above his half eaten plate as his eyes lingered in  blinks as he slowly lifted each french fry to his mouth while Darren’s forehead found the only bare spot on the table. I kept encouraging them to wake up for fear of getting kicked out.  “You have to keep your head up, Darren,” I said in my peppiest voice I could muster, “You don’t want them to think you are drunk.” Unfortunately, that was the only joke I had in me, so the next several times his head fell to the table, all I could do was tell him to sit back up.

I felt bad for my family and their misery. I imagined that it might have been better had we chosen to see a movie instead, but we weren’t willing to fork over $50 just so we could have chairs to sleep in. After we got the check for our meals and ice creams, I realized the movie might not have been such a bad idea. I also wondered why we hadn’t just stayed at the USO. We could have all nested in the movie room and not had to pay a dime.

That’s the thing about hindsight and space-a travel. There is just no way of knowing what is going to happen, so after all is said and done, the could haves and should haves tend to flood the mind.

It was finally 2pm when we piled into the car outside Friendly’s. “I know they said 3,” I said more to myself than anyone else, “but maybe they’ll let us in now. It’s only an hour early.” I drove a few blocks down the road and hoped for the best. I took the boys in with me that time.

There was a couple ahead of us at the desk hoping to get in  a little early as well. The kind desk clerk was on the phone asking about a different list or something. She hung up the phone and said something I imagine she must say at least three or four times a day. “You all are at the wrong hotel. You have reservations over at the Comfort Inn, not this one. We are Comfort Inn and Suites.” I was surprised at their reaction and how well they took the news that they would have to get back in their car and travel somewhere else, but I think the kind desk clerk just had a way with people that made them happy and calm no matter what bad news she might have to share. She patiently gave them directions and sent them on their way.

“I know I am early,” I said as I approached the desk, “but I was just hoping, well, we were just hoping that our room might be ready now.”

The very nice lady did some tapping on her computer and with a genuinely apologetic smile, she looked up at me and said, “I’m sorry, but it’s just not ready yet.”

I told her I understood and asked if we could use the pool while we wait. She said that wouldn’t be possible without a room key. Since we were there, I thought I’d ask about the possibility of a late check out. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, “You’ll have to ask Miss Peaches about that in the morning. There’s just no way of knowing how many people are gonna book rooms for tomorrow.”

I had no idea who Miss Peaches was, but I figured if she was as nice as this desk clerk here, she’d probably do all she could to help us get that late check out if we wanted it. I thanked her for her time and followed the boys back out to the car.

John was sleeping in the passenger seat when we got back in the car. “It’s not ready yet,” I said while simultaneously planning our next move. “Wanna go to Target?” Neither of us had any desire to do any shopping. I imagined us all wandering up and down the aisles like zombies looking for nothing but probably buying  everything we didn’t need.

“I don’t know,” John said, “I really just want to go to sleep.” I stared through the windshield hoping an idea might come to me.

Then, the phone rang. “It’s a Dover number,” I said, hoping for good news. “Hello?” I said into the phone.

“Have you all gotten very far from the hotel?” the voice on the other end said.

“Oh, no ma’am,” I said with hope-induced energy, “We are still here in the parking lot.”

She told me our room was ready for us, so we all piled out of the car, grabbed our luggage, and headed inside while dreaming of warm showers and cozy blankets and pillows. Our wait was finally over, and we’d finally be able to get the much needed rest we had been hoping for.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Flying for Free: Part V

The time started to go by fairly quickly once the USO opened. Mikey and Darren wanted to show me all that it had to offer because they were too young to remember our first visit there back in 2011. That was the other time we had gotten stuck at Dover, but that was going the opposite direction. John’s dad had been diagnosed with colon cancer, and we were trying to get back from Spain over to Oregon to see him. That time was different because we had the whole family with us, and we were happy just to be around anything American, so to be stuck in Dover was something like being stuck in a little part of heaven. We even have pictures of us posing with the Old Navy mannequins at the local mall.

The USO has changed, so it was nice to get the new tour from the boys. While the pool table and snack tables were still in the same places, the computers had been moved from the back room to make space for a gaming room complete with nearly every game console an average teenager can think of, and the resting room had been transformed into a movie room with about 20 comfy recliners and cup holders. That room made me want to hang out at the USO just for fun even when I’m not traveling! Unfortunately, however, I  would not have time to recline in front of a movie on that awesome big screen. Ten o’clock was approaching quickly, and I needed to get to the car rental place, so we could get out of the terminal and into a shower and bed as soon as humanly possible.

I reluctantly walked away from the comfort of those faux leather chairs and back into the sterile brightness of the main terminal filled with hard, uncomfortable seats. I looked at John, and before I could even get the words out of my mouth, our fun and enthusiastic traveling companion appeared saying, “I am just letting y’all know that I am on my way to the gate so Enterprise can come and get me. I ain’t about to stay here any longer than I have to, and I want to get a car just as soon as they open!”

“Oh yes,” I responded with equal excitement, “I am about ready to go myself. Just give me a quick minute, and we can share a ride.”  I said my goodbyes to John and promised a ride to a restful room very soon.

The sun was already starting to blare its brilliance down upon the base as we walked out into the brightness glaring off the black topped parking lot surrounded by carefully manicured green lawns and the brownness of the surrounding buildings. As we walked, I felt the need to explain why I was walking with him rather than my husband. “John has pretty bad sleep apnea,” I said almost apologetically, “He just can’t sleep well without his machine.”

H.T. explained that he understood completely and admitted that he struggles with a few oxygen depriving episodes each night as well. As we approached the gate, we theorized about the prevalence of the disorder among so many service members. “I think it’s those darned burn pits,” I strongly proclaimed, “I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from guys who can’t breathe at night because they endured those things.” I didn’t seem to be getting much buy in from my walking companion, but I couldn’t help but get angry over the idea of those burn pits and the damage they had caused.

The burn pits were created by American based waste disposal companies back in the early stages of our war on terror. These companies were paid by our American government to get rid of the garbage our part of the war produced in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait, and the government had no concern for how they went about doing so.

So in the interest of higher profits, these companies handled it the cheapest way possible. They burned the trash, and they burned it all. Anything from broken down computers to medical equipment to human body parts were burned in one ginormous toxin spewing ash heap. That means that surrounding soldiers, airmen, marines, and civilians were perpetually inhaling the demon fumes around the clock and without any respite.

It has yet to be officially determined that these burn pits have had anything to do with sleep apnea, but they have been associated with numerous other respiratory conditions so far, and sleep apnea may very well be on its way to joining them on that list.

“It’s okay,” H.T. assured me, “My wife would normally handle this sort of thing, too. It’s just that she’s really tired right now, so I thought I might help her out this time.”

His admission made me feel better about the whole situation and led me to ask myself why I felt the need to give an explanation in the first place. H.T. had that way about him, though. Although I had only known of him for just a few hours, I could tell that he could melt the self-consciousness of someone with even the lowest self-esteem. He just knew how to make people feel good about themselves.

We arrived at the base gate and attempted to order a taxi who wanted to charge us nearly $40 to drive us less than 2 miles. Having encountered the infamous Dover-long way through town-drivers before and now armed with a GPS, I confidently told H.T to tell that cab driver to suck it. “Hang on a second. I got you,” I said as I quickly did some figuring on my phone, “We can get our first Uber ride for free, and it’ll be here in less than 5 minutes.”

The driver must have started his approach while I was entering my credit card information because as soon as I hit the submit button, he was there. He parked his very clean silver Miata, got out of the driver seat, and opened the door for me. “Hello, ma’am,” he said with genuine politeness, “Where can I drive you today?”

I fought the urge to ask him why he didn’t already know. “We are going to the car rental place,” I said a bit too excitedly. Joy was bubbling out of me at the thought of finally making a move towards getting a hotel room.

In the brief time available for small talk, I learned that this was our driver’s first day driving people and that he is actually an active duty service member who helps maintain security on the flight line. I thought about all the young airmen with families who struggle just to make ends meet and felt for this guy who was trying his best at it.

We thanked Ernesto for his service and walked into the tiny Enterprise office surprised to see about 10 people already in line. The three well dressed men behind the counter alternated between answering phones and helping the in-person customers. Despite the hectic atmosphere, they all remained calm and professional.

Our long wait in line was made easier through conversation. H.T. talked about his family’s upcoming trip to Ocean City, Maryland, and I talked about Spain. When we finally got our cars, we said our goodbyes and wished each other good luck.

I drove back to the terminal and picked up my 3 weary passengers who more than willingly shoved the luggage in the car before piling in, ready to move on to a clean and cozy hotel. I closed the trunk and then opened the driver's door, but before I got in, I asked a uniformed airman for some advice. “Do you live here?” I asked, “Which hotel is the best one?”

He quickly and confidently said that Mircrotel and Comfort Inn and Suites were the best value for the money and warned us to make sure to book Comfort Inn AND SUITES, not just the Comfort Inn which is its less desirable sister hotel.

I thanked him for his recommendation and started the hot car in hopes that the AC would quickly cool things off. I opted for the one that came with a pool and made reservations via the internet. I then called the hotel and asked if there might be a possibility for an early check-in time, but since they had been fully booked the night before, they informed me that it would be impossible to fill that request.

So with more than 3 hours until check-in time, our exhausted, smelly selves considered what we might do to fill the time.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Flying for Free: Part IV

The air in and around a military air terminal has its own feel to it. It’s like this mini-society where people often behave quite differently than they would out in the real world. For one, people are generally a lot less put together. Veteran space-a flyers know better than to try to look beautiful aboard a military aircraft, much less arrive to another terminal feeling clean and looking great. There is just no point in trying. That’s why my typical dress for any space-a flight is a pair of old and comfy blue jeans, a bandanna keeping my messy hair back and out of my face, and one of my husband’s t-shirts; and while my preferred style of footwear would be something in the line of sandals or flip flops, I actually wear support stockings and sneakers. I wear the support stockings to prevent the change in altitude from causing my 44-year-old ankles to swell up like watermelons, and the sneakers to comply with the military’s no open toed or high heeled footwear guidelines.

The differences related to hanging out at a military air terminal as opposed to places associated with our everyday lives are not just about appearances. Behaviors often veer from the norm quite a bit as well. For example, people tend to trust one another more than they would on the outside. It’s not uncommon to share cabs or get rides from other space-a hopefuls, and I’ve even been known to let a stranger look after my family’s bags a time or two. I know that may seem like a crazy thing to do, but when it’s 98+ degrees outside with 100% humidity, we are not about to drag our bags across the base just to get a halfway decent bite to eat, and we don’t mind occasionally trusting someone who is struggling with the same goal as we are. We are all trying to get somewhere, and we all understand how hard and difficult that journey can be.

But I guess the most prominent difference in behavior stems from the competition. Everyone waiting for a flight is competing for a seat on the plane, and the combination of more hopeful passengers to fewer seats and the typical one-upmanship attitude often found in military and their dependents can sometimes lead to some attitudes that aren’t always the kindest in nature. People try to be cool about it, but they can’t help but be obvious, and I must admit, I have been guilty of it as well.For example, as soon as I know how many seats are available, I start counting heads. First, I try to decipher how many people are in the bathrooms before adding that number to those sitting in the main terminal and then every nook and cranny of the USO and family/nursery/play rooms.

It wasn’t long before we had heard the news about seats on that afternoon’s flight to Spangdahlem, Germany. A fellow passenger was very quick to let us know that the number of seatsd been determined and that there would only be 19 available. “At Cat 6, that really puts you at a disadvantage,” she confidently stated, clearly  proud of her status as a Cat 3.  

Still, I thought at 19, maybe we would have a chance. John peered at my hopeful, smiling face through the small slits between the puffiness that took over his eyes. “I’m tired,” he said, “I can’t go any further.”

I encouraged him to press on, “But if we get to Germany, we can be in Spain by Wednesday night.” His silent response told me we still might have a chance, and he had plenty of time to consider it. It was only 6:30am, and that plane wasn’t scheduled to leave until after 4:30pm.

That was a long time to wait, and I was getting to the point where I couldn't sit around anymore. I knew I needed some coffee, so I asked the very friendly and helpful, Airman Welsh where I could score my family some breakfast. I had been watching him happily answer other weary travelers’ questions,so I knew that he would be more than willing to answer mine.

He pulled out a map of the base and highlighted my course as he explained to me the different offerings we could obtain at the base’s chow hall, and when he said I could get a made-to-order omelette for just $3, I was ready to hit the road. I thanked him for his advice and asked Darren to accompany me on my quest for coffee and food.

At first, Darren wanted to go out into the July heat of Dover, Delaware, with his flying clothes on, but John and  I insisted he change out of his warm sweats into something much cooler. “You don’t understand, Darren. This heat is different from the west coast. It’s muggy and gross. You do not want to wear sweats,” I told him as I remembered my younger summers spent in southeastern Virginia doing anything and everything I could to get cool.

We finally convinced him to change, and we were on our way through the blaring sun to the chow hall just on the other side of the main gate. After we passed a mini mart with a Subway and a Tim Horton’s, we continued following the map’s highlighted road until all we could see behind the mini mart was the base chapel and the chapel’s office across the street. We checked the map against our surroundings several times but could never figure out where the chow hall actually was. We gave in and went to Tim Horton’s. At least I knew we could get coffee there.

We made it back to the terminal to find John nearly asleep but still happy to see the hot coffee and warm food. I doled out the food and drinks while carefully saving a meal for Mikey who was still sleeping on a tiny, toddler sized couch in the family room. I still wasn’t sure how long we’d be going before getting sleep again, so interrupting his sleep would probably not be a good idea. Instead, I decided to broach the subject of taking that afternoon’s flight again, but John wasn’t having it. “We need sleep,” he said, “I just can’t do it.”

But I couldn’t understand his logic. In my mind, we needed to jump on the opportunity while it was still there, no matter how difficult that might be. I continued pleading with him as we ate our breakfast.

I was about halfway through my cream cheese everything bagel and slightly close to convincing John to see things my way when our friendly travel companion approached us with another seat allocation update. “They have cut the seats down to 7 now because there are several military dog handlers catching a ride with us. They are bringing their dogs, too. No offense, but our family of four will definitely be called before you, and I think there is another family of four with a higher priority, so you with a Cat 6; it’s just not going to happen for you.”

John and I looked at each other while simultaneously saying, “Well I guess that answers our question!”

I immediately made car reservations and plans to find a hotel room to get some rest before deciding exactly what our next move after that would be.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Flying for Free: Part III

We used the next day to get caught up on sleep and work because we wanted to be prepared for a flight to the east coast the following day. We figured it might be easier to catch a hop to Europe if we could at least get to the other side of the United States, so we set our sights on a flight to Dover, Delaware, and hoped for the best.

Still, after what had happened with the Spain flight, I didn't trust it. There was no way I was believing we were getting to Dover until we were up in the air, and I didn't bother even making hotel reservations.

There were people buzzing all over the air terminal when we arrived for the 1630 showtime. With so many people waiting to board a C-17, I wondered if we would even be chosen for seats. Still, we had to make the attempt, so John handed the agent our IDs while hoping for the best.

Knowing the drill, Darren quickly asked if he could scope out the USO's Girl Scout cookie offerings for the day. Already knowing that Darren was going to make that request, I quickly asked him to get a box of Tag-a-Longs cause the first box had already gotten eaten along with all the other plane snacks. I wasn't quite sure how that had happened being we had never even made it off the ground, but after 23 years of parenting, I knew better than to worry myself with such silly questions like that.

Since this particular flight was not delayed like the last one, the process was much quicker. It wasn't long before the announcement to approach the passenger service desk for a briefing was broadcast. "This is it," I told John, "Do you think we'll get selected?"

"I don't know, " he said with a little uncertainty, "It looks okay, but we'll have to wait and see."

They slowly invited one family at a time to individually weigh and check their bags before getting handed  the highly coveted boarding passes. Surprisingly, our family's name was called just after three others. Relieved to be selected for the flight, I happily lugged my very heavy suitcase over to the counter and gladly accepted our boarding passes with open hands. Our vacation was finally starting. Even if it was starting in an area as obscure as Dover, Delaware, I was happy to just get it going.

But we weren't there yet, and even when we made it on the plane seated next to one of the treasured electrical sockets, I still wasn't convinced, but my doubt didn't deter John's excitement. "See," he said, "The feel on this plane is different than the one the other day.. There is so much more activity. They're all busy, and they're clearly working their way down the checklist."

I believed him because he knows a thing or two about prepping for a flight mission aboard a C-17. He worked for years on the Air Force's heavy C-17 and its big brother, the Herculean C-5, so he definitely knows what he is talking about. His reassuring words brought calm to my mind as I mentally prepared for the next 6 hours in the air.

The big door shut and we were on our way. As soon as the plane finished its climb to above 30,000 feet, Mikey started building his own Minecraft world while Darren began unwrapping the pool floats.

We had felt so smart buying the pool floats to use as travel mattresses the last time we had flown Space-A, but that intelligence depleted just as quickly as the air in the mattresses. Thankfully,successful ingenuity often follows failed ingenuity, and I was not about to get beaten by some dollar store pool toy. I thought about weight distribution and how it affects things like pool floats and then realized that if we stack two of those floats on top of one another, they will better retain their air which will allow us to not only be on a softer cushion but also provide much needed space between our bodies and the ice cold floor of the metal tin can the Air Force calls an aircraft.

So after several hours of listening to a child scream at the absolute top of her lungs and getting kicked in the foot by my excited 9-year-old Minecraft architect, I arrived in Dover, Delaware, at 3am. The few hotels I called while waiting for our luggage were booked solid. I decided to wait and see what flights were available next in hopes that maybe the idea of dropping over $200 on a hotel would be moot.

All the luggage had been picked up, so we followed our flight companions out into the darkness of a quiet parking lot. The lucky or unlucky few whose final destinations would be Dover, Delaware, disappeared into the darkness of the quiet parking lot while we wanderers herded towards the entrance to the terminal. Exhausted and ready for sleep, the single and retired Space-A veterans each found their way to an empty line of chairs and set up camp while another family and ours got our bearings.

"This is where the fun begins," the super happy middle-aged father said as he rubbed his hands together in sarcastic excitement, "I'm just gonna wait til I can get a car at 10. I ain't even gonna try to get a hotel room for just a few hours sleep."

I silently agreed with him but knew my husband probably didn't share in his counterpart's enthusiasm for a night in the terminal. I called a few more places. "There must be something big going on this weekend," I said, "All the hotels are locked up tight. Some of them aren't even bothering to answer the phone." The other family had already bedded down for the night in the much less bright playroom while their exuberant father was intently watching his carefully selected Netflix selection.

John laughed, "What could be happening in Dover, Delaware?" he scoffed, "Big weekend at Dover Downs?" He picked up his phone and started reading off hotels, "Have you tried Mainstay Suites?"

"Yeah," I said hoping that the new line of questioning would lead to a quick resolution and dismissal of the hotel plans. I already knew there weren't any rooms, and even if there had been one available I really wasn't fond of the idea of paying 2-3 times the normal price for it.

He asked about a few more hotels before he started calling them himself. After a few no answers and several unanswered phones, he finally gave up and helped the boys get ready for some sleep.

I stacked our suitcases into makeshift ottomans while John helped the boys find the last couple sleeping spots in the playroom. We both sat down in the chairs, put our feet up, and plugged into our headphones hoping to drown out the announcement about not leaving baggage unattended occasionally aiming to interrupt our few hours of rest. Shielding my eyes from the blinding terminal lights with my hair bandanna, I found a semi-comfortable position and drifted off to sleep.

I woke up just a couple hours later to the sun blaring in through the terminal's exterior revolving door. Happy for the somewhat minimally interrupted sleep, I began to think about how we might approach the day. Sticking to my usual morning routine the best that I could in such a circumstance, I immediately brushed my teeth. The coffee would have to wait, however, because the USO had not yet opened its door.

Thankfully, they had left their wi-fi on the night before because without it, I would not have been able to search for plane tickets from Germany to Spain. "Look honey," I said excitedly pointing to my phone, "I found one-way tickets from Frankfurt to Jerez for $81 a person on Wednesday, and it's not even Ryan Air!" Ryan Air is a no-frills, terrifyingly torturous flying experience that is not for anyone needing to carry more than a toothbrush and a clean pair of underwear with them on vacation. Anything more than that, and their baggage will end up costing them more than the price of a couple regular fare tickets which then makes unsuspecting passengers wishing they had bought the full-priced British Airways ticket in the first place. Doing so would have not only saved them the heartache of having to dump half their belongings into an airport trash can, but it would have also prevented them from having to endure several hours of being sold anything from 5-day old vending machine mystery meat sandwiches to never-win pull-tab lotto tickets amid manipulatively chosen bright neon blue and yellow decor.

I was looking for commercial flights into Spain from Germany because while I wasn't seeing any free military flights headed for Rota, Spain, I did find several bound for Ramstein and Spangdahlem, and one of them was scheduled to leave that very same afternoon.

Armed with that information, we still weren't quite sure what our next move would be, but the one thing we did know was that we weren't going to be going anywhere until at least 10am when the one and only car rental place open on a Sunday in Dover, Delaware, would begin answering their telephones.


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Flying for Free, Part II

(Read Part I)

It wasn’t long before we began to realize that the plane was delayed because the 6:50 roll call time came and went. “Roll call is now 8:40,” the agent told us. I did the math in my head, ‘An 8:40 roll call means we will probably be in the air by 11 which means we’ll probably be in Spain at 10pm our time which is 7am Spanish time.’ I picked up my phone and texted Jilian, “We will be there at 7 tomorrow morning!”

She wrote back, “Awesome! I will have a pot of coffee ready for you, and I will make breakfast! Banana pancakes.” It felt good to know that she was excited about our arrival, especially since our busy schedules and the 9-hour time difference often preclude our ability to keep in touch as often as we should.

Jilian totally understands space-a travel, but the majority of the population does not. Most of the time, I don’t even bother to try to explain it to people. It’s even worse when I have to explain it to someone who does not speak English such as our current Airbnb host. That’s why when he texted us the night before to inquire about our arrival time, I just told him we’d be there in about 18 hours or so. I just hoped and prayed I was right, so I wouldn’t have to try to tell him why our flight was delayed by 5 or 6 days.

Meanwhile in the terminal, we were facing a long wait before our flight’s anticipated departure, so we decided to go see what the USO folks had on the grill for breakfast. Most military air terminals are awesome like that because a few dedicated volunteers offer their time and energy to provide weary travelers some much needed food, rest, and entertainment. This is an important service because these weary travelers are  often active duty members going to or coming back from Afghanistan and other incredibly not so fun locations.

Since we never want to drag our huge pile of luggage around, and it is a cardinal sin to leave it unattended in any air terminal anywhere in the world, Darren and I took the first shift hitting the USO while Mikey and John stayed to watch the luggage which Mikey was totally fine with because he was enjoying his newly purchased Minecraft game on his tablet.

The USO at McChord AFB is not too shabby. It has lots of great stuff including a diner type grill attended by at least two super friendly volunteers willing to fix you a sandwich any way you like it. But Darren already knew what he wanted before we even walked in the door. His eyes widened as we walked in to find several boxes of his two favorite Girl Scout cookies sitting on the counter by one of its three TVs. “Which one should I choose?” he said, happy to be facing such a delicious dilemma.

“Take them both,” a uniformed soldier replied, “They have plenty to give away.”

Darren looked up at me for approval. “Sure, go ahead,” I said thinking that they would be nice to have on the plane later. Besides, we ARE on vacation after all. Darren joyfully scooped them up and nestled them proudly into his chest. I grabbed some ice and handed Darren a $5 bill to drop in the donation bucket.
As we headed towards the door leading us back to the terminal, Darren peered inside a darkened room off to the side. Nearly drooling, he looked up at me again with the same childlike desire in his eyes and asked, “Can I stay and play with the Xbox?” I checked over the room and saw several unoccupied cozy chairs and a very large television just perfect for gaming, but my mind turned back to John and Mikey waiting for us in the terminal. I considered letting Darren stay and play on his own but then quickly put that idea out of my mind.

“We should probably get back to your dad and your brother,” I said, “Besides, once we get to Spain, we are going to have so much fun at the beach and on our bikes and playing with Emma!”

Darren forced a good sport attitude as we walked back into the terminal, “Yeah, you’re right. It’s totally fine.”

The obligatory USO adventure behind us, I decided to work on some homework. Since I am terribly ashamed of my horrid understanding of Spanish grammar, I decided to use my annual tuition benefit towards an intensive, 15-credit Spanish class this summer. I’ve been wanting to put some real time and effort into getting a grasp of the language for quite some time, so I had to jump on the upcoming opportunity to practice the language while at the same time learning the basic rules and conjugations.

Not wanting to drag my heavy Spanish book out of my overstuffed, military deployment sized backpack, I decided to do some of the homework using my laptop alone. That was a big mistake. I hadn’t slept for the past 29 hours, and the first assignment I opened was something I knew very little about. I attempted to do the assignment through my exhausted and probably very red eyes but gave up after just a few moments of trying.

Since my laptop was out anyway, I figured it was a good time to charge it up for the plane. I was almost certain I would sleep the whole way, but it’s always a good idea to have a backup plan in case sleep never comes.

I looked around the wall for an outlet because the handy, built-in outlets attached to every other chair were not working. Knowing that Darren can be quite the problem solver, I asked him if he could find any ports to plug into. A moment later, he told me I could plug my computer into the chair outlet. Just as I started to say they weren’t working, I saw that each of them was suddenly emitting a glowing blue light indicating a readiness to provide our electronics with their much needed juice. I looked at Darren with awe. “The chair plug was hanging out of the wall socket,” he said matter of factly and like it was no big deal that he had just single-handedly repaired a dozen built-in chair sockets. I smiled with pride as I gathered all our items in need of a recharge.

I was starting to feel in need of a recharge as well. I was beginning to really look forward to getting on that plane, so I could blow up my $3 pool float and catch some much needed Zzzzs. That’s when we heard the announcement, “All passengers wishing to board the flight to Rota, Spain, please approach the passenger service desk for a briefing.”

I almost couldn’t contain my excitement as we stepped up to the desk. “We are getting on this plane!” I told John as the exhaustion I had felt just a few moments before gave way to pure joy and anticipation.  

The agent read the script regarding baggage restrictions and the requirement to wear closed toed shoes with no high heels. We were then invited to weigh and drop off our checked baggage at the desk before they let us know that our plane would board at 10:10, which meant we would be waiting another hour and a half in the terminal. Still, this minor inconvenience was a small price to pay for a monetarily free flight to Europe.

Darren had slept through the briefing and was still sleeping when we returned to our seats. I was glad he was resting but worried about his poor neck cropped up on the cold, metal arm of the chair. We tried to prop his head on the neck pillow that had slipped under his arm but couldn’t get him to move his head the right way. We gave up resting in the assumption that 12-year-old kids are much more flexible and pliable than us grown folks.

As we sat waiting for our flight to board, the terminal began to fill with travelers hoping to get on the later flight to Travis AFB in California. The sudden activity woke Darren from his deep sleep before a young, curly-haired boy close to Mikey’s age approached us. “Are you guys going to California?” he asked, eager to make friends on the plane. Hating to be the bearer of bad news, I let John break it to him gently, “No, sorry, we’re going to Spain.”

With about twenty minutes wait time left, we finally considered the idea of turning on the TV that had been hanging on the wall in front of us the whole time, but neither of us had any energy to grab the remote control. A moment later, a passenger service agent appeared in front of us saying, “We have a very nice family lounge that you are welcome to use. There are comfy chairs in there along with a Playstation.” I smiled and said thank you, but inside I was annoyed that she had waited five and a half hours to give us that useful information. By the time we could get settled and ready to play a game in that room, the announcement to board the plane would surely come.

That’s not to say that we didn’t already know about the room. John had walked over to see it with the boys several hours before, but we didn’t want to drag our mountain of heavy luggage all the way over there just to have to drag it all the way back again. Unfortunately, we regretted making that decision and wished we would have made the effort for the boys’ sakes. After all, John and I had decided several weeks before that we would make this year’s trip more about the boys and less about us. Pledging to do better next time to alleviate the boys’ boredom while waiting for flights in the future, we chalked it up as a learning experience. It’s funny that even after six children and 23 years of parenting, we are still in need of a lesson every now and again.
As the clock approached ten o’clock before quickly passing the promised boarding time, we all began to pace in anticipation. Finally, at 10:35am, the moment we had been waiting for had arrived. The boarding call came, and we all lined up to have our bags x-rayed while we walked through the pre-flight metal detectors. From there, we got on a white school type bus and rode past countless C-17s before finally stopping in front of our chariot bound for paradise.

A uniformed female airman holding an official looking walkie-talkie approached the driver and spoke with him through the window. “Why are these people here? We aren’t ready for them. We told you to wait until 11. Now they are going to have to wait on this bus for 20 minutes.” It seemed as though the lower ranking driver was used to hearing such news that was news to him because he clearly took it in stride. Without saying a word or even shrugging his shoulders, we knew the words he so carefully held back in his mind. I sent a telepathic message of support and appreciation for him and his job, glad that thanks to him and his driving, we would soon be boarding our much desired seats on that plane.

The little girl marveled at the planes as she continually repeated the word, “plane, plane.” And her young mother would repeatedly assure her that, yes, that big gray thing outside the window was a plane, but upon seeing a bald, uniformed airman near the plane, the toddler spoke another one of her limited vocabulary words, “Daddy!” she said excitedly. Her mom explained to her the best she could that they were not there yet. That man out there wasn’t her daddy, but they would be getting on that plane to go see him soon. The young mom video called her husband to tell him the cute thing that their daughter had just said and to let him speak to her one last time before they got on the plane bound for his open and waiting arms.

Before long we were cleared for boarding. Since there were only 2 other passengers besides us, we didn’t worry too much about having a limited choice of seats. Properly choosing seats on a C-17 is of utmost importance, especially when approaching an 11-hour flight. The seats are all jump seats lined against both sides of the aircraft. Too close to the back of the plane leads to a frozen tundra environment that no amount of carry-on blankets can warm; however, choosing seats too close to the front of the plane leads to the opposite effect, leaving a passenger wishing they could dig in their checked bag for that really cool Speedo they bought for use on European beaches only. Then there’s the need for electricity. The amount of vacant sockets available on a C-17 is very limited, so it’s important to choose seats in close enough proximity to enable easy access to the highly desired feature.

We found our seats strategically located in the middle of the plane and began our usual bedding down procedures. We placed our carry on luggage under the seats, securing them by threading our seatbelts through their straps. We then buckled up and waited for takeoff. The loadmaster came over to give us the safety briefing that explains how to use the oxygen equipment in case of emergency before reminding us to stay in our seats and buckled until the plane reaches 30,000 feet. After that, we would be free to blow up our makeshift air mattresses and get some long awaited sleep. I figured if we could get some really good sleep for the majority of the plane’s flight time, we would be well rested and ready for the day upon our 7am arrival which meant a strong possibility of NO JET LAG!!!

John and I frequently diverted our attention to the open cabin door in hopes it would be closing soon, but time was ticking away, and we began to worry that something might be wrong with the plane. I passed the time by chewing on a huge apple that must have been close to weighing an entire pound while repeatedly asking John to share it with me. “Just taste it,” I said while shoving it in his face, “It’s delicious.”

He gently pushed the apple away, “No. I really don’t want any,” he pleaded. I gave in and aimed to finish the ginormous piece of juice laden fruit by myself. I was nearly three quarters of the way through it when the same female airman from the bus window walked over to us and began speaking.

“We need to inform you that this plane is now not going to Rota anymore. It is instead going to England, so if you want to go to England, you might be able to, but we need to check on some things first. We are going to have to send you and your luggage back to the terminal while we investigate your options.”

I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I had heard about these things happening. Even John would pack clothes and supplies for varied weather conditions when he would fly missions during his active duty days because he said you never know when a plane might get diverted to someplace other than the one it was originally destined for. He would tell stories about fellow airmen who had thought they were going to the hot and dry climate of the desert only to find out they were actually going to Alaska in the dead of winter or something like that.

Before we left the plane, I quickly checked for scheduled flights out of Mildenhall. “There’s a flight to Rota from there tomorrow,” I said to John and the young mom huddling nearby in hopes of figuring out what to do next. We all decided unanimously that we would go for it.

“We want to go to England,” John said.

Showing her surprise and what appeared to be a little disappointment, the female airman asked us, “You all WANT to go to England?”

The young mom responded, “I just want to go home.” She was clearly done and nearing emotional overload. The poor gal had already purchased tickets to Charleston to catch a hop from the air base there the day before but quickly canceled them when she discovered the short notice flight to Rota from McChord just a few hours later. I felt bad for her and knew her pain well. It hadn’t been long before that I had been trying to get back to my husband who had been anxiously waiting for me at the same place her husband was now waiting for her. I wished we could do something or say something to help her, but all I could really do in that moment was empathize.
We gathered our things and stepped back onto the white bus hoping to catch at least be given the chance to catch a ride to Mildenhall. We walked back into a much more hectic and crowded terminal and sat down in the same spots in front of the TV that had now been turned on, and began explaining to the boys what was happening. The curly-haired boy from before approached us again with a confused look on his face. “How come you guys came back here so quickly?”

I began to explain it to him as the announcement came over the loudspeaker, “Those passengers originally planning to board the flight headed for Rota, Spain, please approach the passenger service desk for a briefing.” Mikey asked what was happening, and I explained that they were going to let us fly to Mildenhall. But then, they didn’t. After waiting for the unaccompanied mom to come over with her toddler, they proceeded to tell us that the flight would no longer be able to accept passengers and that we’d have to find another route.

As the clock struck noon after a very long night of packing and even longer morning of waiting at the terminal, we dragged our children and our belongings out to the parking lot. Not even caring about my messy hair and disheveled clothes, I suggested we stop at Sonic for a bite on our way home to get some much deserved sleep, so we could wake up the next day hoping to find an alternate but still free route to our desired destination on the sunny beaches of Spain.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Flying for Free, Part I

Stay tuned for more blogs about our Ireland adventure soon, but in the meantime, enjoy reading my real time accounts of our attempts to get to Spain via Space-A military travel.

There is a huge benefit to military service that most civilians know little to nothing about. This phenomenon, known as space-a travel or military hops, is kind of a legal hitch-hiking service, but instead of cars and trucks, potential passengers are invited to catch rides on military aircraft.

Space-A travel can be likened to flying standby on commercial flights except that military flights aren’t nearly as plentiful or reliable, and they can often change course or cancel at any given moment without warning or explanation, but when the cost is considered, the inconvenience can be well worth the uncertainty.

My family was personally introduced to this concept of free travel while stationed at an overseas military base in Spain. With so many flights to other European destinations and even regular flights headed back to the United States, it was almost silly not to give the flights a shot.

For the most part, flying for free worked out well for us. We used the service to fly back home to the states on several occasions. Sure, there were times when we would get stuck paying for a few nights at a hotel room while waiting for connecting flights to appear, and other times we had to rent cars to get us to other military bases offering flights to our intended destinations, but with our large family, the amount of money we put out for those minor inconveniences paled in comparison to what it would have cost had we paid for seats on commercial flights, and the adventure often found along the way was an added bonus!

Our first experience using this unreliable yet free service as a retired military family was last year during our summer vacation. Accepting that we probably wouldn’t stay in our Spain based Airbnb rental for the entire month we had paid for, we went into the whole process knowing that we’d have to be flexible, and relatively speaking, it worked out well, and we still ended up spending far less than we would have had we purchased airline tickets for the entire journey.

We figured the first thing we should do is get to the east coast of the United States. With so many major military flight hubs out there, we were certain we could find a ride to get us across the pond civilians so fondly call the Atlantic Ocean.

And getting to the east coast was fairly simple. With several days to spare before our rental period would begin, we were able to easily get our family on board a flight to Charleston. We were happy to head to that Air Force base because in addition to being a major hub that often has flights to Spain, it also happens to be the current home of our seventeen-year-old daughter’s best friend whose family had been stationed in Spain the same years we were there.

The days we spent in Charleston were pretty amazing. Maria enjoyed visiting with her friend while we appreciated seeing her family again as well, but on top of all that excitement, we also got to tour the historic city and bask in its southern charms.

Had our travels not been dictated by the limited routes offered by the space-a military flight system, we might never have gotten to check that beautiful travel destination off our bucket list.
We got to see so many beautiful homes and historical sights, but after a few days of no available flights to Spain, I began to get concerned. Not wanting to spend more time paying for a hotel room while simultaneously paying for a vacation rental across the sea, we finally gave in and bought some pretty cheap tickets that would get us to Madrid. From there, we took the train and then the ferry to our final destination of Rota in Andalucia, Spain, before enjoying an uneventful and free journey back to our home in Washington State a little less than a month later.

This year, we are going for a repeat but hopefully without having to purchase any tickets at all. We chose to visit Spain again because in addition to its beautiful beaches, relaxed culture, and amazing food, I also  have a very dear friend there who honored me with the role of godparent to her daughter a little over two years ago.

We paid for our July 15th to August 15th Airbnb rental several months ago while again knowing that we may not be able to stay there for every day we have paid for. With this knowledge and a forced willingness to remain flexible, we began watching for possible flights on the 12th of July.

Not wanting to have to buy tickets from the east coast again this year, I have been hoping and praying for a direct flight to Europe from our west coast home, and it actually appeared on the official list of flights  just hours before our busy work and school schedules would allow us to hit the road and begin our highly anticipated beach vacation.

With intense excitement and anticipation, our family stayed up the entire night preparing for that flight. Laundry had to be done, packing had to be done, and snacks had to be bought. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from travel, space-a and commercial alike, it’s that a traveler should never get on a plane without packing some healthy and easily travelable food. There have been several occasions when I’ve been stuck on a delayed flight through one or more essential meal times and have also arrived at locations in the dead of night when no nearby restaurants were open for business.

With so much preparation needed in such a short amount of time, we never actually went to bed the night before the flight. We weren’t worried, though, because we were certain we’d be able to sleep on the plane. One of the nice things about flying space-a is that there are no flight attendants hitting my arm as they move up and down the aisles, no unruly passengers, and no persistent noises in the form of dinging call bells.

John and I left our home with our two youngest children at 4:20am and drove the 62 miles to the air terminal offering the flight destined for paradise. When we arrived just before the 6am roll call, we were informed that the system was currently down and they would need to wait for it to come back online before they could check us in. Worried that downed computers might ground our flight, or worse, make it leave without us, I asked what would happen if their computers failed to come back up again. The uniformed passenger service agent assured us that we would still be eligible to take the flight as they would manually enter our information instead.

There was nothing else to do but wait. We chose 4 seats from the almost entirely empty terminal and piled our luggage worthy of a month-long voyage in front of us. We struck a conversation with the young woman  who was rocking her sleeping baby just a few chairs down and discovered that she was on her way back to Rota where her husband is currently stationed. She explained to us that she and her daughter had been here visiting family for a month, and they were more than ready to go back home to Rota where her husband was anticipating their return.

Our conversation was interrupted by the intercom, “For those passengers wishing to sign up and be marked present for our flight to Rota, Spain, please approach the customer service counter with passports and appropriate IDs in hand.”

Excitedly, John and I both quickly grabbed the passports and raced over to the counter. “Did you pre-sign up for this flight?” the agent asked as he scrolled through a long list of names on his computer screen.

“Yes,” I replied looking at the emails on my phone, “we sent the email with our passport information last night.”

“Last night,” he repeated, “Do you remember what time you sent the email?”

“No, but I can tell you,” I said. I scrolled through my sent messages and found the one I was looking for. Holding up the phone for him to see, I told the agent that we sent the email around 4:20pm.

He took my phone and looked at the time stamped on the sent message. “Oh good,” he said reassuringly, “We don’t have this email in our system, but since you have proof that you sent it, we can put you in line as of 4:20 yesterday afternoon.”

His words began to spark some concern in my mind because space-a lines can be a tricky business, and out of the six levels of priority, retirees fall to the bottom. That means if 20 active duty members and/or their spouses signed up after we did, our place would be last and only ahead of other retirees who signed up after us. For this reason, I started to get a little worried, but with only 3 other passengers in the terminal and 52 available seats, I quickly let go of any fears creeping into my mind.

Between comparing travel stories with our fellow Spain-bound passenger and communicating with our Airbnb host concerning our impending arrival, we dreamed of sitting in a beach bar holding a glass of sangria knowing that we were just a few short hours away from making that dream a reality.