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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Plane truths from a real road warrior

The guy gave me friendly grin as he squeezed past to get into seat 12-A, Northwest Airlines flight 2732. He settled into the window seat, buckled in and turned to size me up.

My guess is that he saw a compadre, a fellow road warrior. Like himself, he saw another frequent flyer, a battle-scarred survivor of all the hellish conditions the woe-begotten airline industry can thrust upon a 21th century trans-continental traveler.

We thus began the familiar road warrior waltz. Where you headed? Where you staying? Gonna be there long?

His name was Phil and he was headed to SoCal for business but, as always, planned to tap the expense account to hit all the posh area golf courses. He was on the road for about 20 days of every month, all over the world, but primarily out west from his Pittsburgh-area base. He’d been at it for the last eight years.

“It’s a real grind,” Phil said. “People say they envy me for getting to travel so much to so many exciting places, but they don’t understand what it means to have to travel commercial these days. It’s delayed and cancelled flights, lost baggage, rude desk clerks and now they charge you for wanting even a sip of soda. I don’t know how much worse it can get.”

Seatmate etiquette in this regard is very important. You don’t want to come off as a chronic whiner or a some kind of show-off who finds it irresistible to bury your seatmate with tale after tale of air travel horrors.

Phil played it right down the middle. He asked me about my flight experiences. I told him about the time I got stuck over night in Dulles and had to sleep on the hard floor, the time one airline held me hostage on the tarmac for five hours until storms over Cleveland cleared. And I told him about all the times they lost my golf bag and inconvenienced me by having to use awkward rentals.

The whole thing took maybe 10 minutes. Then we exchanged friendly nods, a conversational ceasefire signaling it was time we could drift into our own little worlds until the drink cart came rattling up. Phil dove into his laptop. I closed my eyes and drifted off to dreamland.

But dreamland wasn’t far off. In my dreams, I was in the same seat high above the Great Plains, but Phil had become Jacob, a 19th century blacksmith who 160 years ago crossed the country by wagon train with his family in hopes of a better life in the land of milk and honey.

I tried to make friendly small talk. I told him I was heading to a swanky resort for a weekend of -- yippee! -- free golf, free booze, and the kind of revelry I dreamed about when I first gleaned the perks of being an ethically-challenged travel writer.

Jacob said, “My family got the westering fever in 1848 when the land dried up and the cows began to die. We took what we had and joined a wagon train with my cousin Sven, his family, and four other families.”

You don’t say. Boy, I’m sure glad we got a direct flight to LAX. Why, I remember one time I had to connect in Dallas and Albuquerque before finally landing. I spent about eight hours in the air that day. I was so exhausted I had to miss the evening cocktail party and was grouchy the whole next morning.

“We left by mule train from Springfield, Illinois, on May 10, 1846. We had hoped to make it to California before the snows made the mountains impassable. I’d heard tell of one wagon train that had made it clear across the country in seven months. We were hopeful that it would take nine months at the most.”

How ‘bout that. Hey, at least you probably didn’t have to worry about losing your luggage. I can’t tell you the number of times the airlines have lost mine. One time it took them a whole week to find my suitcase. By the time they were ready to return it, I was already headed home!

“We lost the Robinson family crossing the Platte river. Rains had swollen the river and our guide had made a bad decision. The Robinsons went first. The river was too swift and we couldn’t save them without dying ourselves.”

Now, that's a shame. One time I had to fly with a plane full of drunken insurance salesman bound for a Vegas convention. Talk about obnoxious.

"Comanches killed and scalped Ned Coyne when he was off scouting for water. They had us surrounded before the Cavalry came and ran them off. Thought we'd all die there."

You don't say. Boy, I’m getting thirsty. I wish that drink cart would get here.

“We went 33 days without drinking water crossing the Great Basin west of Salt Lake. Our tongues were thick from thirst. The animals and the old were the first to go. But we perservered. It was either push on or perish."

Hey, I remember not too long ago when they actually used to serve meals aboard flights. No kidding. Meals! And not just first class. Even us peons back in coach could get a bite to eat!

“See down there in those mountains? That’s where we decided to eat Sven’s ass. We’d gone three weeks without food.”

Oh, my goodness! The trip got so bad you had to actually eat one of Sven's mules to survive? What was the poor donkey’s name?

“No, it wasn’t Sven’s donkey. It was his ass. Sven died in the mountains and we cut strips off his ass and roasted the flesh in the little fire.”

That’s too bad. You know they charged me for a bag? Can you believe it?

“That’s where we ate Sven’s leg . . .”

Wanna bet they send our bags to the wrong carousel?

“That’s where we ate Sven’s arm . . .”

I woke up when the descending landing gear gave the plane a gentle jolt. Phil smiled and pointed at his watch. The plane was going to be about 15 minutes late. We both shook our heads, two world-weary travelers condemned to a lifetime of such inconveniences.

That was the flight that had me vowing to cut back on my in-flight naps. I don’t want to have another dream about a guy like Jacob.

The guy did nothing but complain.

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