Recalling My Worst Travel Day EVARRRR

by Alan J. Claffie

Let's go to the Wayback Machine to a simpler time, 1989.

My brother Rob had gone to England to see the sights and visit Ma's side of the family the year before. I decided to do so for myself in the summer of '89.

The first wrinkle in my plans happened in the spring when our grandfather there passed away. Ma, understandably, went over at the time. Because of that, she wouldn't be able to go again over the summer as we had originally planned. Not a problem, I said. I'll go solo. What could possibly go wrong?

Mind you, while I was 21 years old at the time, it was a pretty na´ve 21. I had hardly ever left the cozy Berkshires of western Massachusetts, and had never been on an airplane. Flying halfway around the world didn't seem that daunting at first.

I arranged my flights through a travel agent - remember those? I was set to fly a Pan Am Express shuttle from Bradley to JFK, and go transatlantic on a Pan Am 747. The last piece of the puzzle was to get my passport, and I was set.

Ma drove me to Bradley. It was a 90-minute drive early in the morning but it could have been worse, I could have made someone drive me all the way to Kennedy Airport. That would have been unreasonable.

At Bradley, we waited. Ma was there to make sure I got on a plane, and it turns out that waiting was a good thing. The prop plane was coming from Providence, but it was delayed. The delay was long enough that we had concerns about my ability to make the connection to the 747 waiting for me in New York. While waiting, we changed the big flight to something taking off later in the day. That taken care of, we continued to wait. And wait. Eventually, we got the impression that the puddle jumper wasn't coming at all. We discussed options, and decided to just scrap the entire trip and try again the next day. I got my bags back, and we headed back to Dalton. My first day of vacation found me right back where I started.

We made the trip to Bradley again the following morning. We were on a first-name basis with the whole Pan Am gate crew there, and laughed at how horribly the previous day went. Ha ha! What a riot!

By the way, they said, the little plane is delayed getting out of Providence again.

This time, we waited the little plane out. It arrived, and a quick checking of various statuses showed that, if all went well, I would arrive in JFK in time to make the connection with the 747. It would be close, and I'd need to hustle, but it could be done.

I boarded the prop plane and geared up for my first flight ever. It went smoothly, at least well enough that it doesn't trigger any debilitating memories to this day. But it wasn't smooth enough to get me to my connection on time. I landed in time to find out that the plane had already left.

I got my bags back and headed to the Pan Am folks to figure out what the next step was going to be. By the time I got to the front of the line, things were going to be close again. They thought they could sneak me onto a British Airways flight leaving Real Soon Now. But as they tried making that happen, it got shot down for one reason or another. The only other option available to me was to hop on the next Pan Am flight. That flight left at 9 p.m.

I looked at my watch and saw that it was something like 10 a.m.

Well then.

Since there were no other options available, I signed up for the overnight flight and was now staring down the fact that I had to spend an entire day by myself in a large airport in a very unfamiliar land. The first task was to call home, collect, on a payphone, and explain the new plan to Ma so she could relay that to the folks who may or may not be collecting me at the other end of my upcoming flight. Having accomplished that, I was free to do... very little.

I had a Walkman and maybe a dozen carefully selected cassettes with me, so I put on my headphones and enjoyed some tunes. I had brought a handful of magazines for the flight. With an overnight flight, there's not much chance that I'd be reading them, so I dove into them.

Food would have been nice, but I had a small problem. While I had something like $750 in travelers checks with me, I only had maybe ten bucks in cold hard American cash. I don't think I had even signed up for a credit card at that point. So I was only going to have one meal at the airport, and it was going to have to be cheap, and its timing would have to be chosen carefully. By the time late afternoon had rolled around, it was time. I dragged all my bags - they hadn't opened up baggage check-in for my flight yet - to a Pizza Hut in the airport and spent almost all of my legal tender on a personal-size pizza and a cup of Coke.

I had walked many laps of the airport throughout the day. Some of it was for people-watching, some of it was to alleviate boredom, and some of it was to make sure I never spent too much time staying in one seat because I thought official airport-type personnel would start to wonder about a guy who's spending hour after hour in said airport without actually ever getting onto an airplane.

Finally, FINALLY, the gate for my flight opened. I checked in and handed over the suitcase that I'd been dragging behind me all day. Then I took another seat in the gate area and waited for boarding to start, even thought that was probably still another hour away. My Walkman hadn't exhausted its batteries so waiting wasn't a problem.

Then out of the blue someone approached me and asked if the seat next to me was taken. This was strange since the gate area was pretty empty. But I said yes, and realized it was Ma asking. I looked up to see her, and Pa, and big brother Rob.

What had happened, without my knowing, was that Ma found some problems on the England side of the trip regarding my new travel schedule. Nobody would be available to come to Heathrow Airport - a nearly two-hour ride from the family home base in Peterborough - at the time I was now due to arrive. Ma tried to inform me of this by having me paged at JFK with instructions to call home, but since I spent the entire day with headphones blasting Dokken into my ears, I never heard the page.

It's very hard to comprehend, as I write this in 2018, a world where cell phones didn't exist. How did we survive?

Having failed at communicating with my oblivious self long-distance, the folks had no choice but to come to me. They hopped in the car and made the three-hour ride to JFK. Fortunately, this was before they stopped letting people without boarding passes go through security and on to the gate areas. I don't know what would have happened if that were the case.

Ma told me about the transportation situation in England, and presented me with three choices. First choice: land in Heathrow and cool my heels there until someone could make it there to come get me. Second choice: get myself from the airport to the subway to a train station where I would take a train to Peterborough. Third choice: come home and try again, again.

After the day I had, there was no way I was going back home again. I'd gone this far and spent this much time to give up another day of my vacation. Spending another long stretch of time in an airport wasn't an attractive option either, as I was just winding up ten hours or so of doing just that in New York. The subway-and-train option was daunting, but I was up for continuing this adventure on the other side of the world. So I announced that I was going to somehow get myself to Peterborough, and, with that, the family wished me good luck and headed home.

The gate filled up as flight time arrived. I tried to act like this traveling thing was old hat despite having no real idea of how anything worked. When they announced that the flight was overbooked and they were looking for volunteers to get bumped to a later flight, I was shaking in my shoes. Being someone who was supposed to be on an earlier flight but had to get rescheduled to this one just that morning, I was convinced that I would get called out by name and told that I would have to wait for another flight, no ifs, ands, or buts. It didn't come to that. I don't know if they got the volunteers they needed or it was just a bluff, but when it was time to board the plane, I got on without any problems.

I had a middle seat over one of the wings. The woman who had the window seat, before sitting down, went into the overhead compartment and grabbed all three pillows. I think she was asleep before the plane even pushed back from the gate.

The puddle jumper that got me to JFK was nothing like this 747. This thing was huge. It was big and it was loud. I didn't know any of the protocols regarding getting up or using the restroom, so I did neither. Being an overnight flight, the cabin was dark other than a few overhead lights and the movie being shown. It was "True Believers" starring James Woods. It looked kind of interesting, though I couldn't hear it since I had no money for the airline's headphones. There was nothing to see out the window. The seat was too upright and I didn't dare try to recline it out of fear of upsetting the passenger in the row behind me. I spent the vast majority of the flight sitting upright, awake, watching a movie that I couldn't listen to. I didn't say a word to anyone for the entire ride.

As we approached Heathrow, in what I think was either late morning or early afternoon, we got the customs paperwork to fill out and got ready to land. I held my breath as the plane made all kinds of fun sounds and the flaps on the wing outside the window moved up and down. I was very happy when we were back on solid ground. I got off and we passed through customs, where I voluntarily approached one guy and plopped my carry-on bag onto the table in front of him. He instructed me to keep moving, and I figured I'd get flagged down by another officer. But as I kept moving, nobody stopped me and, the next thing I knew, I was out in the gate area staring down a bunch of people holding signs with names of people who weren't me. I was, literally, a stranger in a strange land.

Baggage claim was my next stop. That was an easy task. I looked at the cheat sheet that was given to me at JFK to see what my next move was: take the Underground to Kings Cross station. I found directions to the Underground and was probably three quarters there when it dawned on me that I was not carrying any of the right kind of money, and I was probably going to need that money to get anywhere. Back into the airport I went to change over some of the travelers checks at a questionably legitimate money changer operating out of a kiosk.

Back to the Underground, I found a train that wound get me to Kings Cross and hauled all my earthly possessions aboard.

Kings Cross was big. I checked with the cheat sheet, which said to get on a train to Peterborough. Only problem was that I couldn't find one going there. In an unprecedented move, I asked someone for guidance. I was told to look at each train's itinerary and, if Peterborough shows up on one, that means that it stops there on its route to its ultimate destination. I should have known this. So I found one, got a ticket, and looked for its platform. One wasn't listed, but there was a sign saying if a platform wasn't listed, "Queue here."

Despite being a college-educated dude, I had no idea what "queue" meant. Again, I asked about it and was told that the line for the train starts at that sign. So I went to join the line. I got to the sign marking the start of the line and looked to see how far back it ran. It was like a cartoon: the more I looked, the longer the line got. I had my doubts that the train could contain everyone in line, but we all got on the train and headed north.

At this point, I was running on fumes. The 48 hours or so leading up to the point where I sat down on that train were some of the most trying, stressful I had experienced up to that point, exacerbated by a night of practically no sleep. It would have been far too easy to close my eyes for a while on that train, but I was vigilant to keep that happen. Primarily, I didn't want to wake up to find my stuff stolen. In addition to that, I didn't want to wake up and realize that I missed the stop for Peterborough and was now in Edinburgh. Still, I caught myself with my eyes closed a couple times. One time, I was shocked back awake because we crossed paths with a train going the other way, at a high rate of speed, and probably only a couple feet away from my head that was resting on the window. It was gone by the time my brain came to grips with what just happened.

I successfully stayed awake well enough to get off the train in Peterborough. I called Uncle Robin, who was by in ten minutes to pick me up and deliver me to Granny Taylor's house. I said hi when I got there, then asked where the bed was. I was asleep before hitting the pillow, and didn't wake up until the next morning.

The ride home was a lot more pleasant. I got dropped off at Heathrow just fine and the plane was there when it was supposed to be there. We took off just fine and I even got up once or twice when the mood struck me. Some things never change: the movie was "True Believers" again, and I didn't pony up for sound so it was a silent movie for me again. On our approach to New York I squirmed in my seat because the plane was making all kinds of fun sounds that only seemed disturbing to me. Despite that, we landed just fine and I made the connection to the puddle jumper easily. Before I knew it, I was back at Bradley, picked up, and whisked back home. There I discovered that my dad had spent the two weeks that I was gone to sand down my '77 Civic and paint it the same color as my '71 MGB.

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