25 Years in Spain: Planes, Trains and Automobiles 3

Reliving the day is almost as disagreeable as the trip itself.  Even twenty-five years ago just plain awful from nearly the beginning and just got progressively worse.

     Getting over to the airport went smoothly enough, I guess.  Even John looked surprisingly calm.  He just laid his head against the window, breathed into the pane from time to time and drew doughnuts with sprinkles on top.  Whatever it took to take his mind off the stress, that was my strategy.  I was just happy my little pep talk had finally made him relax.   I knew I had a knack for guiding people through trying times.  Things were brightening up.

     That was, of course, until we arrived at John Fitzgerald Kennedy International Airport and saw the line that awaited us.  In reality, it had started miles back at the Whitestone Bridge and had become progressively thicker from there.

     The real problem behind this all was the kind of flight our travel abroad program had assigned us.  As I mentioned before, the company was called Spantax, and though in America the name didn’t amount to much, in Spain the word, when pronounced correctly, eerily resembles the Spanish verb “espantar”, which means “to frighten”.  As a young student of the language I was not privy to this information, which meant I pressed on with my plans oblivious to what I was getting myself into.  It was an regular charter, a kind of oxymoron in air travel jargon, and a bad joke amongst travelers.  But it did prove that the FAA had a sense of humor.

     The check-in line was actually longer than the plane itself; so long, in fact, that I was sure we couldn’t all possibly want to take the same flight.   So I immediately decided to clear up the confusion and politely asked the man in front of us.  He was short and balding in most spots of his head and wore a cardigan jacket beneath a thick overcoat; just the kind of person who would know the information I was looking for.  He looked Spanish, but I spoke to him in English because, hell, we were still in America, and it was my constitutional right to speak my mother tongue.

     “Yes, it’s the flight to Madrid,” he replied with a noticeable accent.

     “All of us?!  What are we taking, a B-52?”

     “Ha!  You’ve never flown with Spantax before, have you?”

     “No, why? Should I have?”

     “Oh, you’ll see.”  And then he turned and faced the river of humanity ahead of us.  I now think it was because he had to laugh and didn’t want me to see.

     “What did he mean by that?” enquired John, with a nudge and a yawn.

     “It means this is gonna be a long flight, I guess.  Either that or were going to die.”

     “Oh, I don’t want to hear that kind of stuff now man?  This whole scene is really starting to bum me out.”  He began stepping away.  “I’m outta here.”

      “Where are you going?  Get back here.  What do you want us to do, lose our place in line?  Charter flights can be messy things, believe you me.  People leave their civility out by the sliding doors.”

     The only saving grace was that John was probably the largest passenger on the flight.  To talk to him, you had to position your neck as if you were looking up at the ceiling.  Chances are others would avoid confrontation with him, unless they were armed.  Still, you had to watch your step.

     “I was just going for a walk man.  Take in the scenes.”

      “What scenes?  This is the International Arrivals Building.   What could possibly interest you here?”

      “Those funky departure flight panels over there.  I think I’ll go check them out.  They blink and stuff.”

      “Hey what’s wrong with you?  I’ve noticed you’ve been acting strange all morning.  You seem so calm.  I feel like I spending a semester abroad with a yogi.”

      “It’s my new attitude man.  Except for the last minute or so, I’ve been flying already.  I guess those pills must have expired.”

       “Pills?  What pills?”  I asked.  He looked at me sheepishly.  “John!  What pills are you talking about?”

      “It’s no big deal, man.  Nothing illegal.  I just popped a few of your allergy pills to help get by on.  They were the only thing I could find in your medicine cabinet.”

     Those were my favorite drugs.  The ones I used to write poetry with, which probably explains why my poems were such crap.

     “Antihistamines?  What are you nuts?  Those are for allergies.”

     “I know man.  That’s what I just said.  I’m allergic to planes man, ha, ha, ha.” he sniggered.

     “That explains everything.  You gotta be careful with those things.  They can knock you out.  You’re not supposed to do things like drive lawnmowers or shoot people with them.  They dull your senses.  How many did you take?”

     “Not too many; I didn’t want to overdose.  Just four.”

      “Four!  You’re not supposed to take more than one at a time.”  There may have been a possibility that we would be splattered to smithereens in the middle of the Atlantic, but one thing was for sure, I could rest assured that John would not be sneezing on the way.

      “Under normal circumstances.  But this isn’t normal.  I had to make sure they were going to have an effect.”

      “Well trust me, they are.  You look like you just woke up from a coma.  Forget the departure board.  Why don’t you get yourself a cup of coffee somewhere?”  This was before the days of Starbucks, at least on the East Coast.  The best we could do back then was a Choc Full o’Nuts counter.

     “But I thought we shouldn’t leave the line.”

     “That’s all right.  I’ll hold you place for you.  We’re not going anywhere for a long time.”

       “You’d hold your place for me?  My friend, you are a good man.  God will hold you in kind regard for this, mark my words.  And I don’t even believe in him.  I’ll be back with a gift of appreciation for you.”  Then he gave me the Vulcan “V” sign.

     “That’s just great.  You can forget the gift and just worry about getting yourself back in time.  Be careful out there.  There’s a lot of wierdos crawling around theInternationalArrivalsBuilding.  Trust me.  It’s one of the most dangerous places on Earth.”

     “Mark my words.”

      “Fine I will.  See yah.”

       I turned back to see if we had moved at all when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

       “Just had an idea.  You wouldn’t happen to have any Life Savers? You know the ones with five flavors.”

      “No!  So leave me alone.”

       “Chill out man.  I can deal.”

       “Well, I can’t.  At this rate, we’ll be lucky if we ever get toSpain.”

       “All right. I’ll try something else.”

      John returned thirty minutes later apologizing that he would have been back earlier had it not been for the fact he had gotten in the Aer Lingus line by mistake until he realized that they were not speaking Spanish but English with a funny accent.  He had a Dr Pepper and a bag of Lay’s Potato Chips for me.  I passed on the soda because I could never figure out what flavor they were trying to emulate, and that made me nervous, but accepted the chips as a gesture of peace.  I was also hungry, in need of a cigarette and quite possibly a beer.

      We didn’t get our boarding passes until 5:45, fifteen minutes after the plane was supposed to take off.  And there were several dozen flyers behind us.  Needless to say, the aircraft wasn’t going anywhere.  It was a charter flight, for God’s sake, albeit an “official” one, and the problem with charters is that they are often sorely undermanned on the ground.  That means delays, more delays and lots more delays.  If the plane misses its scheduled take-off time, it is usually bumped behind the major airlines until later that evening.

      There was also word of a baggage handlers’ strike, which only made things worse.  Baggage handlers are kind of like the stomachs of the airport organism.  You fail to appreciate their importance until they begin to fail you.  Then you wished you never had an ill thought about one in your life.

      On the other hand, when it is 10:00 p.m. and you are still at the gate, you basically don’t care who is to blame, you just want solutions.  Spantax’s answer up to that point was to keep us in the dark about the truth. They knew the power of withholding information, and they exercised it to expertise levels.  The hostesses at the counter would just smile at the endless enquiries and say, “Wish we could help.  But they haven’t told us anything yet.”  God, they were effective.

       John and I moseyed off to a bar and began digging into our budget in exchange for a few skunky-smelling Becks.  In hindsight, there may have been some clear issues with mixing alcohol with antihistamines, but when you are twenty years old, those thoughts don’t come into play. In fact, if anything, they encourage you to experiment.

     Eventually some garbled instructions emanated from the PA system.  Back then they still alerted of boarding times over the airwaves without fear of a liability suit.  This was encouraging, in a pathetic sense that only desperation can produce, as it soon became apparent that departure was at least in the foreseeable future.  For the airline, I hesitate to call it such as it sounds too professional, it was a way to get us on the aircraft and make us feel as if we were closer to our destination.  That way we would shut up.

     There were so many rows onboard it became immediately evident that the designers did not have 20th Century people in mind when considering space.  I mean, if we had been a travel group of Australopithecus, well perhaps our gripe would have come under certain debate, but Spantax had clearly placed quantity over quality when deciding how many seats to fit in the plane, and thus comfort was spared at all expenses.  To put down the tray in front of me, I had to bend my elbows sideways and breathe in deeply.  John, to my left, could kiss his knees without even moving his head.  There we sat for an hour and a half reliving the horrors of life before the advent of air conditioning.  Just when I thought we were going to run out of oxygen, the aircraft started to move and head bumpily for the runway.  It is my firm conviction that we were the last plane to leave the airport that day.

     The plane started roaring down the runaway in Queens, then got on the Long Island Expressway for the rest of the takeoff.  By Montauk Pointwe were off the ground.  Most passengers sought relief at the bar cart, but naturally, as a charter, there just wasn’t enough alcohol to go around, causing no uncertain uneasiness among the masses, as we were left to practice yoga without any release.  And believe me, a good book wasn’t going to do the job.  John got out of it lucky.  A half an hour into the flight he fell asleep from a combination of excessive anti-hay fever doping and limited oxygen in take.  From time to time, I’d check his pulse just for good measure.  What are friends for?

      However, that essentially left me without anyone to entertain me, and I normally need plenty of it to get me through these ordeals.  Much of the rest of the flight has been essentially suppressed from my memory.   The aircraft sounded like it was connected to a life support system.  The engines ground and moaned like ailing refrigerators.  Inside wasn’t much better.  It was loud, cramped, asphyxiating, claustrophobic and stale.  I just had to sit and stare and let the polluting inactive cabin air form a layer of crap over my skin.  And that was the extent of it.  Except for the landing, of course, when the pilot decided to touch ground when the plane was still about a quarter of a mile above the Earth.  God, I thought the wheels were about to snap.  That finally jolted my friend astir.

     “What, Jesus!” he swore and flung his arms around as best as he could.  “Did we have an accident?  What should we do?  Where’s that instructions card again?  Oh, Christ, why wasn’t I listening to the stewardess when I was supposed to.   My fifth grade teacher warned me it would get me into trouble one day!”  He kept muttered and fumbled through the pocket in the seat back.

      “Would you knock it off.  We haven’t crashed!  We’re here!”

      “Oh, really.  Well that was easy enough.  Flying’s a breeze.  Viva España!”

A few months later while John and I went to visit some college mates of ours who were studying in Avignon, France, and we read in the Herald Tribune that our beloved airline Spantax had folded.  No, really?  Who could have imagined that?

         “John, I think we’re stuck here for a while.”

         That was particularly true in my case.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Yahoo! informed me calmly this morning of what brought about the demise of the pop duo Wham!  Although it never concerned me in the late 80s, and I can’t conceive why journalists felt there was a need to shed light on it now, I ended up falling for it and took a look at what became of the other side of the group, the not-George Michael, Andrew Ridgely who, at the age of fifty, looks like a tan 60-year-old surgeon more than a former international teenie-bopper singer.  That was about all I got from the piece.

      That and the fact that I was once again reminded of just how long it has been since I arrived in Spain the first time way back in January of 1988.  Twenty-five years ago.

       On that occasions, I flew with a Spanish charter company called Spantax.  It was the air carrier chosen by my university program, Saint Louis University, and in retrospect I now realize that the Dean of the school had little care about whether his study body made it for spring semester or not.

      Up till that point, I had always enjoyed air travel, but like any good citizen of my country, I was suspicious of putting life, limb and luggage in the hands and of a foreign airline.  Hell, we had invented the goddamn contraptions, God only knows what these Europeans were capable, or incapable, of doing.  Plus, a company whose name sounded to me like something you wear to an S&M engagement provided little encouragement.

      And yes, my deepest fears came true.  My first flight over to Spain would serve as more than an excuse for never wanting to board a winged vehicle again.  Not even a Pontiac Thunderbird.

      I was not alone in my travels that year.  My good friend John from college had also decided to brave six months in the wilderness of Spanish-speaking humans, but first he had to face the leap across the ocean, which was going to be a challenge enough for him.  Up to that day, the closest John had ever been to flying was when he sprang off diving boards in the summertime.  He confided in me this secret just two days before takeoff in an offhand sort of way which was so characteristic of his way of dealing things.  It wasn’t British stiff-upper-lip-ism, but more like Virginian low-key-ism.  I appreciated his demeanor and was proud to be the first to accompany him on such a monumental moment in his life.  Not being a veteran like me, he naturally had reservations about the feasibility of an 800-ton metallic canister becoming airborne.  So, to ease his nerves, I patted him twice on back, told him to relax, and then went back to stuffing boxer shorts in my suitcase.

     I guess my words of soothing must have lacked the kind of convincing one needs in those hours of anguish because the very next morning John went out and bought a carton of cigarettes and by dinner he was already running out and asking if we could go back downtown to get some more.

     “Take it easy John,” I said as we shared a shivering January cig outside my house.  “It’s no big deal.  Just think of the thousands of planes that take off every day and don’t crash into a billions pieces.”

     “I’m cool man.  I’m not worried at all,” he replied and let the silent night air reign.  We scanned the skies and observed the beauty of the universe above us.  Billions and billions of Carl Sagan’s twinkling baby stars blinked and winked away happily.  Two human beings awed beneath the hushing nighttime heavens.

      Suddenly there interrupted from the north a flashing red light.  It was just at that angle where you couldn’t tell whether or not it was moving horizontally or vertically.   Soon enough, though, we could discern it was a plane.  From the other end of the indigo dome approached another soundless projectile.  Two aircrafts coasted over the continent, softly like clipper ships coming into harbor, and headed for their destinations, wherever they were.  They were heading for their homes, for a place to rest, for a goodnight’s sleep; they were heading for…for…straight for each other!

        It was too late to scream at them to change directions, so we just gawked and sat back to watch the imminent disaster unfold before our very eyes.  I wasn’t going to be able to save any lives, but at least I could tell my friends and family I had witnessed it, and that can be very important in modern times.

        The red beads neared and neared until for a moment, they became one.   I held my breath in anticipation of a raging expansion of energy, a sunburst, a dying supernova, something loud and spectacular.  It was going to be awful, but from a distance, eerily beautiful.

      The explosion, however, would never appear.  Soon the tiny intermittent flashes parted and sailed away with the same calmness they had met before, as if nothing big had happened.  As if they hadn’t even seen each other for that matter.

       John and I stared at the exact dark spot where the catastrophe should have occurred.  We were speechless for a few seconds before he finally broke in again.  “Uh, do your folks have any valium hanging around?”