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 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.

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