Flying is like a bowl of warm, lumpy oatmeal. Either you like it, or you don’t. Like many people, I enjoy oatmeal, lumps and all, but I hate flying. Case in point: a few years ago, I barely survived an international flight, because this trip raised my aversion level for flying the not-so-friendly skies to a dangerous, all-time high. My warm bowl of oatmeal in the guise of a flight from Germany to the United States turned into a distasteful dish loaded with a steady stream of stressful delays, detentions, and missed connections. Stay with me.
MY FIRST DELAY
I am not a morning person. Never have been since I retired from the Army. Luckily, I live about 30 minutes from the Frankfurt Airport, so since my flight was scheduled to leave at 1025, I booked a taxi to pick me up at 7:00 a.m. three days before my ride to the airport. The morning of my flight, I crawled out of bed before dawn to do some last-minute repacking, so I had some time to spare if the taxi driver was delayed in picking me up because of morning traffic. By 7:25 a.m., the driver still hadn’t arrived. I began to worry a bit because Germans are notoriously famous for always being on time. I called the taxi company to tell them that the driver hadn’t shown up. I received a logical but amusing explanation. The driver went to Kreuzweg 9 instead of Quarzweg 9. Apparently, these streets are spelled differently but sound similar. Damn those synonyms! But to be on the safe side, I painstakingly spelled my street name for the dispatcher to be clear and to avoid any further misunderstandings.
After the driver arrived at 0830, I told him that I short on time. With an understanding nod, he responded, “Kein problem (No problem),” which assured me that he’d get me to the airport in time for my check-in. German taxi drivers are well-known for making up lost time on the Autobahn. The cab driver cruised down the autobahn at the speed of a race car thundering around the NASCAR track speed towards Frankfurt Airport. I wasn’t scared or anything. Almost all German cabs are Mercedes Benzes, the epitome of sturdy, roadworthy automobiles, so I felt safe in the back seat securely strapped in with my seat belt. The ride was as comfortable as being on an airplane. A few minutes later, the driver arrived at the airport and pulled into the parking lot for taxis. Me? For a few seconds, I sat traumatized in the back seat to catch my breath, yet thoroughly amazed at the swiftness with which he got me to my destination. I sighed heavily as I slowly unpeeled my hands from the vise-like grip I had on the armrest. After unhooking my seatbelt, I stepped out of the taxi while the driver unloaded my heavy luggage onto a metal cart. Before he took off, I tipped him well for getting me there in one piece. Throwing my handbag over one shoulder, I strained to push my heavily laden cart through the automatic doors. I struggled to maneuver the cart to the end of the long line of travelers inching towards the Lufthansa check-in counter.
MY SECOND DELAY AT THE LUFTHANSA COUNTER
After about 20 anxious minutes, I was up next. I gave my e-ticket and blue Retiree ID card to the airline clerk. (The mental fog that had dogged me since waking up had cleared as I wondered to myself, ‘Why didn’t I grab my passport from my dining room table? I caught a glimpse of it waving at me, but I ignored it as I struggled down the stairs with my luggage.) I remained clueless about the upcoming consequences of leaving my little blue friend behind and how that blunder would gradually worsen and generate an unexpected crop of problems.
Annoyed, I watched the clerk slowly scan the front and back of my blue Retiree ID card. For some reason, she looked puzzled as if my Retiree ID card validated alien citizenship from another planet. I can’t put this any other way, but I was both pissed off and insulted. I wanted to snap at her like I was back on the block, ‘Yes, I’m an American, I’m not a terrorist! I’m a United States Army Retiree, dammit!’ But I kept my mouth shut even though this situation was ripe for developing into an ugly scene. With a sarcastic smirk on my face, I feigned patience and remained tight-lipped as she continued scrutinizing my ID card, turning it to look at the back then to the front, hoping that it would magically turn into that more familiar official blue passport. It didn’t. But I thought that she would overcome her apparent bout with ignorance about the validity of my blue Retiree ID card. I just knew she would go ahead and issue me my damn boarding pass. She didn’t.
Feeling my blood pressure rise, I thought about scrapping the damn trip altogether. I was seconds away from going back home and trying to fly out the next day, but this time WITH my passport. Yet, like the trooper that I am, I stayed put, a decision, which would trigger more drama than what passes for entertainment on a sleazy reality show. I knew in the back of my mind that the time ticking away to board the plane, but since some folks behind me were waiting for the same flight, I didn’t sweat that aspect. Finally, the clerk sprang into some kind of action. She huddled over her computer and pecked out some information on the keyboard into the system, hoping for validation of my blue Retiree ID card. After two attempts, she produced an astonished look on her face which indicated that the system refused to accept my information. I stared at her, pleading with my eyes for her to do something else before desperation forced me to snap hard. I guess a light bulb came on in her head as she swiveled around on her stool and hopped off to step over to a middle-aged woman standing near the wall behind her. With the rigid, authoritative position of arms folded across her chest watching everyone else work, I presumed that this matronly woman was a supervisor. After the clerk chatted a few minutes with the supervisor, she returned to the counter to attack the keyboard to make another entry in the system. Hopefully, this time she would quickly finish my check-in process. I hovered dangerously on the edge of a tantrum, but the moment had passed for me to act up. The clerk processed my information. YEAH!
MY HIKE TO THE BOARDING GATE
Finished with my check-in process, the flight clerk told me that Gate 17 was a distance down Hallway B. Later I found out one thing: she didn’t lie. After about 15-minutes, I saw Gate 3 up ahead. Hmm, so far, my progress to Gate 17 didn’t look good, but I kept walking a distance of what turned out to be twice the size of a football field.
MY NEXT DELAY
About 30 minutes later, I arrived at the pre-check-in area where a team of security personnel would scan of all carry-on luggage, handbags, and other items. After the partial strip-and-search drill, I got in the long line creeping towards the scanner and waited for one of the burly, menacing-looking staff to wave me to the x-ray machine. After passing this uncomfortable, intrusive inspection without setting off the beeper, I gathered my stuff on the other side and went over to an area to re-dress. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that I had yet another checkpoint to tackle; one which I might not clear.
MY FIRST DETENTION
About 10 minutes later, I arrived at a spacious check-in area containing five stations. I was surprised at the individuals sitting at each station. None had the business appearance of airline employees. Five flashy looking women, who looked more like anorexic models, seemed to be of various European ethnicities. Each had draped themselves lazily over their stools and looked like starving models posing for a photo shoot. All of them had enviable slim figures and tiny waists. They all wore stylish, chic, color-coordinated outfits. The flawless skin on their faces was plastered with makeup by a heavy-handed person who no doubt worked with clay. Long, thick black hair, impeccably manicured nails, tight mini-skirts, mile-long legs completed their fashion magazine appearance. All of them were beautiful. I hated all of those bitches! Truthfully, I was willing to bet good money that not one of them had more than a double-digit IQ. But I sobered up from my eye-opening assessment of these wenches to face one fact: these bitches stood between me and the last leg of my hike to the plane’s waiting area.
Brushing aside my exasperation, I decided to act civil as I approached one entity, which I thought would give me the least resistance to me moving on to the last waiting area. I headed to the nearest station at which a young Arabic-looking woman sat. I expected at least a smile and a polite greeting, but I got neither. So I adjusted my mug to put on my ‘don’t fuck with me’ look. Unmoved, she asked, in broken English, for my boarding pass, which I had. Then,, she asked for my passport, which I did not have. Thinking to myself, I wondered why no one from the Lufthansa check-in counter up front notified these individuals of my passport situation. Again, I silently hoped that I wouldn’t have to show my side of how I take care of business.
Sighing heavily, I gave her my boarding pass and my blue Retiree ID card. She took it and frowned as she looked at it quizzically with a ‘What the hell is this?’ look on her face. I wanted to say, “I’m a fucking American, dammit. I’m not a terrorist. I’m a United States Army Retiree with 22 years of military service!” I felt my blood pressure rising, and I really wanted to get all up in her face. But reluctantly, I decided again to keep my mouth shut and not cause a scene. Feeling helpless, I waved off a confrontation by forcing a smirk on my face as I waited for her to decide to let me through this last checkpoint. Unfortunately, that decision never came. She stared harder at my ID, slowly turning it from front to back, as if more scrutiny would magically change it into that familiar blue official passport. It didn’t. I was beyond livid at this point, so I blurted out, “But my flight leaves in 45 minutes!” Looking at me stoically as if that wasn’t her problem, she responded in heavily accented English, “No. It won’t leave. You haff plenty time. The flight attendants on strike. The delay is about one hour. You haff time.” Thinking she was joking with me, I stared at her and replied dryly, “A strike? You’re kidding me, right?” Without even cracking a smile or missing a beat, she said, “No, but it should be OK in about one hour. You haff time.” I thought to myself, ‘Who the fuck goes on strike just before a flight and an international one at that? Why didn’t they tell me at the first check-in counter? I’ll tell you that the strikers, whoever they were, were geniuses. Whatever they wanted, I am sure Lufthansa would cave in to their demands because Lufthansa was losing money by the fistfuls with their planes grounded. But what if the strike lasts longer than Lufthansa anticipates? What will the Lufthansa staff do with me and the rest of the passengers? Entertain us? House us? Feed us all? Everyone who knows me knows that no matter what the situation is, I have to eat!’
I could tell she wanted to help me get past this point when she then turned around to signal one of her male colleagues standing behind her to come over. Prancing towards her was a tall, slim, tanned young man with slick, coal-black hair. Flamboyantly, he seemed to float across the room to her station. He had on black pointed-toe shoes and wore a tight-fitting gray suit of some type of shiny material. Completing his outfit was a white shirt and skinny black tie. I had to stifle a laugh which was building up in my chest because this shit was getting more severe by the minute. He looked at my boarding pass and then at the back and front of my blue Retiree ID card. Nothing on his face revealed that he had a sliver of a clue about validity my blue Retiree ID card or that he was even remotely familiar with this form of American identification. He flashed a big grin of pearly whites at me, inhaled deeply and exhaled loudly in serpentine fashion, “Sssso, can I come with you”? I wasn’t even close to being amused at this motherfucker’s attempt to flirt with me with his lame humor. I thought of my delays so far and the strike situation just turned my warm bowl of oatmeal into a blob of cold slop from a pig sty. I had no time for this juvenile antics of his, which did nothing to ease my anxiety. Little did he know that he was about to experience an ass-chewing experience from my military background, which could send him fleeing to the far corners of the other side of the airport. Like a seasoned drill sergeant, I wrinkled my face as I loudly spat out abruptly, “No, you can’t!” Those three words were enough to erase the cheesy shit-eatin’ grin from his face. Quickly he turned around to exercise what I believed was his minute bit of authority. He raised his arm and snapped his fingers in the air to signal another employee at a distance behind me to come over. I immediately smelled an international incident funking up the air like a backed-up toilet. Oh Lord! Why me? I closed my eyes briefly as I vividly envisioned CNN headlines emblazoned with my name and some sordid details of an international incident of astronomical proportions involving me, a Black American Retiree and Lufthansa airport personnel. No shots were fired nor was any blood drawn, though. But, I could just see Jessie (Jackson) and Al (Sharpton) racing through the airport to come to my rescue like OJ ran through the airport in those Hertz Rental Car commercials.
MY SECOND DETENTION
I opened my eyes and turned around to be immediately startled by a tall, pale and gruesome-looking person hastily marching like a Nazi storm trooper towards me. Adding to this unexpected drama was his damn shoes, which produced a threatening authoritative air as they clopped noisily on the tiled floor and echoed the sound of a Clydesdale horse galloping down a cobblestone street in the French Quarter. From my military intelligence experience, I assessed his aggressive approach and possibly questionable mediation skills to as useful as a one-eyed Cyclops trying to referee a championship tennis match. “Oh, oh,” I thought, “This doesn’t look good, and neither does he.”
He had an enormous jawline, which far surpassed the size of Jay Leno’s prominent jaw. An extremely large, bucket-shaped head, strangely flat on top, rested on top of his thick neck. For some reason, he combed his hair from a mid-point on the top of his head down all around the sides. This hairstyle produced sparse bangs across his wide forehead. I just shook my head in disbelief! These noticeably odd features had all the hallmarks of a lab experiment gone wrong. I went so far as to look for facial scars and bolt indentations on each side of his head like the Frankenstein monster had in the old horror movies. Seeing none, I winced at his uncanny resemblance to that movie monster. I thought to myself, “What on earth could he possibly do to help me other than scare the rest of the shit outta me?”
As he approached me, for some reason, he grinned to show a top row of crooked, yellowed teeth pointing in different directions, which resembled fake Halloween inserts. His odd features and hysterical appearance induced a laugh, which began to rise from the pit of my stomach. But I swallowed hard to keep it from revealing my real impression. I forced myself to contain my brewing fit of laughter because “Herman Munster” here seemed to be the last obstacle between me and, hopefully, the last checkpoint in this unfolding deteriorating situation.
THE NEXT CONFRONTATION AND DETENTION
Looming over me like a smug vulture ready to pounce on helpless prey in the Mojave Desert, he was frightfully friendly. I shook in my shoes as he bellowed, “Ma’am, vee haff a problem!” His constant smile seemingly frozen on his face did nothing to ease my fears. In a heavy German accent fraught with broken English, he explained to me that my blue Retiree ID card was not sufficient enough for them to allow me into the plane’s waiting area. From what I could understand, he said they needed my passport, which I didn’t have. (Didn’t anyone think to call ahead to this section on this?) He asked if I had any orders. Orders? I wanted to say, “Listen, you idiot, I haven’t had orders since I retired from the military in 1999!” But I opted to stay calm by giving him a simple, negative response, “No, I don’t have orders.” Actually I did have copies of my 1610, military type orders specifically for civilians for this trip but I left them on my dining room table, right next to my little blue friend, my official blue passport. Oh, the lessons we have to learn the hard way!
For reasons still unknown to me, he kept grinning throughout the rest of the interrogation/lecture session. My answers didn’t give him a warm and fuzzy feeling to get him any closer to deciding in my favor. Frustrated, he whipped out his cell phone and stepped away from me to make a call. I thought to myself, “This situation is deteriorating faster than the countless failed Mid East talks. I hadn’t committed any crime. I am not a terrorist, and I hadn’t yet become unruly so he couldn’t have been calling the Polizei (German police).” After a short conversation, which I couldn’t hear, he returned to me and asked for other identification. I gave him my stateside and German driver’s licenses. He stepped away again to continue talking to on his cell to a person unknown to me. Minutes later, he marched back over to me and handed me the phone. I looked at the phone and then at him, thinking, “If this ain’t President Obama, then I ain’t talkin’.”
Putting aside any planned confrontations, I took the phone anyway from him and said ‘hello’ to God knows who on the other end. A man responded, “Ma’am, this is … from the U.S. Consulate in Frankfurt.” I thought, “The US Consulate?” Man, this is getting more serious than the WMD probe during the Bush administration. After my conversation with the guy from the Consulate, I handed the phone back to Gruesome Gus. Finishing up with the Consulate guy, ‘Gus’ said to me, “Ma’am, we gonna let you through but next time, please haff your passport, OK?” All I would allow myself to say at this point was a sheepish, “OK.” He ended his conversation with me with, “I hope you haff a nice flight.” I thought, ‘If only I could get TO the flight, I might just be able to do that.” I said “Auf Wiedersehen” to him and quickly scurried away and back to the impertinent airline twit. Finally, I got through the checkpoint and walked the last leg of my hike to the waiting area at Gate 17.
THE WAITING AREA’S AROMA WAS APPALLING
The waiting area at Gate 17 was about the size of a high school gymnasium. An eclectic mix of about 300 people waited, all seemed to be at different stages of boredom. I saw more women dressed in burkas than I would see on the streets of Baghdad on any given day. Some were swathed in colorful saris, others were covered from head to toe in all-black outfits; a few flaunted fashionable ensembles or tacky western wear. I saw men in expensive, well-cut suits and tracksuits and hip-hop outfits with baggy pants and faded jeans and rumpled workmen’s clothing. I saw and heard children of all ages running around and screaming. There were too many babies to count. Some people sat in chairs glued to their laptops, many had cell phones stuck to their ears, others were deep in conversation with someone next to them. The smells were indescribable, a thick mixture of pungent spices, cheap perfume, poopy diapers, overpowering body odors and locker-room sweat. Enough to make me gag, but surprisingly I didn’t. The sounds of so many conversations in so many languages became overwhelming and had the place sounding like lunchtime at the UN. Many weary souls had picked their choice spot on the hard tiled floor. Others had contorted their bodies on chairs in uncomfortable positions to catch some sleep. One guy sitting on the floor had propped his back to the wall. He was sound asleep with his mouth wide open, oblivious to all the noise around him.
THE WAITING AREA – I WAS GETTING HUNGRY
I found a seat near the boarding gate so that I could beat the mad rush to board if and when that happened. As the hour inched along, I fought off boredom by doing a few crossword puzzles or reading one of my magazines. Getting a bit hungry and since it was lunchtime, I got up and went to the lunch counter, weaving past adults and kids sitting or laying on the floor. After buying an extremely overpriced sandwich and some juice, I found a seat at a table near the back wall. I thought about my ordeal so far and prayed that this was the end of any other unforeseeable mishaps or disappointments. But I know that the Good Lord does have a sense of humor, and I was afraid that He wasn’t finished with me yet.