Flying is like a bowl of warm, lumpy oatmeal. Either you like it or you don’t. Like many others, I hate flying, but I actually enjoy oatmeal, lumps and all. I barely survived an international flight, because this trip raised my disdain for flying the not-so-friendly skies to an all-time high. My 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.
MY FIRST DELAY
I am not a morning person. Never have been since I retired from the Army. 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 flight for my ride to the airport. The morning of my flight, I crawled out of bed before dawn for some last-minute repacking. Luckily, I live close to the Frankfurt airport, so I had some time to spare if the taxi driver failed to pick me up on time, which he didn’t. 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 service 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. Obviously spelled differently, these streets sound similar. Damn those synonyms! To be on the safe side, I painstakingly spelled my street name for the dispatcher to avoid any further misunderstandings or delays.
After the driver arrived at 0830, I told him that I was pushed for time. With an understanding nod, he responded, “Kein problem (No problem),” assuring 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. Cruising at NASCAR track speed towards Frankfurt, the driver safely arrived at the airport and pulled into the parking lot for taxis. Me? I sat traumatized in the back seat, yet fully amazed at his excellent driving skills. I sighed heavily as I peeled my hands from the vise-like grip I had on the arm rest. After unbuckling my seatbelt, I stepped out of the taxi while the driver unloaded my heavy luggage onto a push 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 was barely able to ppush 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, cleared: ‘Why didn’t I grab my passport from my dining room table? I caught a glimpse of it but ignored it. I pictured it waving at me as I struggled down the stairs with my luggage.) Clueless as to the upcoming consequences, the mistake of leaving my little blue friend behind would gradually worsen and generate a fresh crop unexpected problems.
Annoyed, I watched the clerk slowly scanned the front and back of my 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 pissed off and insulted. I wanted to snap, ‘Yes, I’m an American, I am not a terrorist! I’m a US Army Retiree, dammit!’ But I kept my mouth shut even though this situation was ripe for developing into an ugly scene. Feigning patience, I remained tight-lipped as she continued scrutinizing my ID card, hoping that it would magically turn into that more familiar official blue passport. It didn’t. But I expected her to beat her obvious bout with ignorance about the clear validity of my blue Retiree ID card and issue me my damn boarding pass. She didn’t.
I mulled scrapping the trip altogether. I thought of going back home and trying to fly out the next day, but with my passport. Yet like the trooper that I am, I stayed put, a decision, which would trigger more drama than what’s shown on a sleazy reality show. I thought about the time ticking away to board the plane, but since some folks behind me waited for the same flight, I didn’t sweat it. Finally, the clerk sprang into some semblance of action. She huddled over her computer and punched some information into the system for validation. 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. I guess a light bulb came on in her head. 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 stance of arms folded across her chest watching everyone else work, I presumed that this matronly woman was a supervisor. After chatting a few minutes with the supervisor, the clerk returned to the counter to make another entry in the system, hopefully, to quickly complete my check-in process. I hovered on the edge of a tantrum, but the moment had passed for me to act up.
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 on what turned out to equal a sizable part of the airport.
MY NEXT DELAY
About 40 minutes later, I arrived at the pre-check-in area for scanning of all carry-on luggage and other items. After the partial strip-and-search dress-down 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 and went over to an area to re-dress. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that I had yet another checkpoint to tackle, and one which I might not clear.
MY FIRST DETENTION
About 15 minutes later, I arrived at a spacious area containing five check-in stations. I was surprised at the individuals sitting at each station. None had the business appearance of airline employees. Five flashy looking women, seemingly of various European ethnicities, leisurely sprawled over their stools like models posing for a photo shoot. All of them came replete with enviable figures, tiny waists, chic coordinated outfits, and beautiful faces with flawless skin, plastered with makeup by a heavy-handed person who obviously worked with clay. Long, thick black hair, impeccably manicured nails, tight mini-skirts, mile-long legs completed their fashion magazine appearance. I hated all these bitches and was willing to bet that none had more than a two-digit IQ. But I resigned myself to accept one sobering fact: these wenches stood between me and the last leg of my trek to the plane’s waiting area.
Brushing aside my exasperation, I decided to act civil and approach one entity, which I thought would give me the least resistance to me moving 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 got neither. So I adjusted my mug to my ‘don’t start with me’ look. She asked for my boarding pass, which I had. She asked for my passport, which I did not have. I wondered why no one from the Lufthansa front check-in counter called to alert these individuals of my passport situation.
I gave her my boarding pass and blue retiree ID card. She frowned as she looked at it quizzically with a ‘What the hell is this?’ look on her face. I wanted to say, “I’m an American, dammit. I am not a terrorist. I’m a retiree with 22 years of military service!” As my blood pressure rose, I really wanted to get in her face. Reluctantly, I decided to keep my mouth shut and not cause a scene. Feeling helpless, I staved off a potential confrontation by forcing a grin as I waited for her to decide to let me through. 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. Beyond livid at this point, I blurted out, “But my flight leaves in 45 minutes!” Looking stoically, she responded in heavily accented English, “No. It won’t leave. You haff plenty time. The flight attendants are on strike. The delay is about one hour. You have time.” Thinking she was joking with me, I responded dryly, “A strike? You’re kidding me, right?” Without even cracking a smile, she said, “No, but it should be OK in about one hour. You haff time.” I thought to myself, ‘Who the hell 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 were savvy geniuses. Whatever they wanted, I am sure Lufthansa would cave. But what if the strike lasts longer than Lufthansa anticipates? What will they 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!’
She then turned around to one of her male colleagues standing behind her and signaled for him to come over. A tall, slim, tanned young man with slicked-back, coal-black hair floated flamboyantly into the scene. He looked at my boarding pass and then at the back and front of my blue ID card. Nothing on his face revealed that he had even a minute 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, inhaled deeply and exhaled exhaustively, “Sssso, can I come with you”? I wasn’t even close to being amused at this wannabe gigolo’s attempt at 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 pig-sty slop. I had no time for this juvenile antic of his, which did nothing to ease my anxiety. Little did he know that he was about to experience some of my military background, which could send him fleeing to the far corners of this side of the airport. Like a seasoned drill sergeant, I loudly spat out an abrupt, “No, you can’t!” His cheesy shit-eatin’ grin quickly disappeared as he turned to exercise what I believed was his miniscule bit of authority. He 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. I closed my eyes briefly as I vividly envisioned CNN headlines emblazoned with my name and sordid details of an international incident of astronomical proportions as Jessie (Jackson) and Al (Sharpton) sped through the airport to my rescue.
MY SECOND DETENTION
Opening my eyes, I turned around, quickly startled by a tall, pale and gruesome-looking person hastily marching towards me. Adding to the unexpected drama, his shoes produced an ominous authoritative flair on the tiled floor by echoing a sound like a Clydesdale horse galloping down a bricked street. I rated his threatening approach and presumably questionable mediation skills as effective as a lazy eyed Cyclops refereeing a championship tennis match. “Oh, oh,” I thought, “This doesn’t look good and neither does he.” He had an enormous jaw line, which far surpassed the size of Jay Leno’s. An extremely large, bucket-shaped head, strangely flat on top, rested askew on his thick neck. He combed his hair from a mid-point on the top of his head down all around which gave him sparse bangs across his wide forehead. These noticeably odd features had all the hallmarks of a lab experiment gone awry. I went so far as to look for facial scars and bolt indentations on each side of his head like Frankenstein had in the 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?”
Approaching me, he grinned to reveal a top row of crooked teeth, which resembled fake Halloween inserts pointing in different directions. His odd features and hysterical appearance induced a laugh, which began to escalate 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, he was frightfully friendly enough. 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 to 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 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!” But I opted for 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 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. And when my answers didn’t give him a warm and fuzzy 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.” 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’.”
Baring any further confrontations, I took the phone anyway and said ‘hello’ to God knows who on the other end. A man responded, “Ma’am, this is ….. from the U.S. Consulate.” I thought, “The US Consulate?” Man this is getting more serious than the WMD probe. After my conversation with 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 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 UTTERLY 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 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 black gothic getups, a few flaunted fashionable ensembles or tacky western wear. I saw men in expensive, well-cut suits, track suits, hip-hop outfits with baggy pants, faded jeans or rumpled workmen’s clothing. I saw and heard children of all ages and babies too many to count. Some people sat comfortably 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. The sounds of so many conversations in many languages had the place sounding like lunchtime at the UN. Many weary souls had picked their choice spot on the hard tiled floor or had contorted themselves on chairs in precarious 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 – 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 staved off boredom with a crossword puzzle and a few 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 the Good Lord does have a sense of humor and I was afraid that He wasn’t finished with me yet.