BOWL OF BAD OATMEAL, PART 1
Flying is like a bowl of warm, lumpy oatmeal. Either you like it, or you don’t. On the one hand, I hate flying like millions of others. But on the other hand, I enjoy oatmeal, lumps and all. However, recent international flight to the United States turned my favorite dish into a distasteful one loaded with a steady stream of stressful delays, detentions, and missed connections.
Three days before my trip, I scheduled a taxi to pick me up at 7:00 a.m. for my ride to the airport. The morning of my flight, I crawled out of bed before dawn for some last-minute rearranging and repacking of the stuff I wanted to take with me. Luckily, I live about 25 minutes from the Frankfurt airport. My flight was scheduled to leave at 10:25 a.m., so I had more than enough time to get to the airport if the taxi driver arrived on time. Unfortunately, he didn’t.
MY FIRST DELAY
By 7:25 a.m., the driver still hadn’t shown up. I began to worry a bit because Germans are notoriously famous for being on time. I called the taxi service to notify them that the driver hadn’t shown up yet. After apologizing for the delay, the dispatcher explained the driver’s logical mix up: He went to Kreuzweg 9 instead of Quarzweg 9. Though they are spelled differently, I didn’t realize that these two streets are pronounced the same. Damn those English synonyms! But to be on the safe side, I painstakingly spelled my street name for the dispatcher to avoid any further misunderstandings.
The driver finally arrived at 08:30, and I told him that I was pushed for time. He responded with, “Kein problem (No problem),” which assured me that he would get me to the airport in time for my check-in. I wasn’t worried because German drivers are also legendary for making up lost time on the autobahns as if they were vying to break a record on the Indy 500 Speedway. Nonetheless, the taxi driver got me to the airport with some time to spare.
After arriving at the airport, the driver unloaded my three pieces of heavy luggage onto a pushcart. I tipped him well for getting me there safely. The sturdy metal cart, loaded with my luggage, proved extremely difficult for me to budge even an inch. I felt like I was trying to push a dump truck loaded with rocks uphill all by myself. So, I decided to attack the cart with all the military gusto I could muster. After minutes of grunting, grimacing, and lacing the air blue with a slew of obscenities, I was finally able to move the cart to and through the double doors and over to the end of the long line of travelers inching towards the Lufthansa check-in counter.
After about 20 fretful minutes in line, I was up next. Still straining to shove my cart toward the counter, I finally reached it and gave my e-ticket and blue Retiree ID card to the clerk. I drifted off momentarily to mentally chastise myself: Damn it! I forgot my passport! I should have grabbed it from my dining room table before I struggled down the stairs with my luggage. I could swear that I saw it wave at me and tried to get my attention before I headed out the door. But did I pay attention? NOooo.)
The error of leaving my little blue passport friend behind would gradually contribute to turning such a routine pre-flight check-in into a nightmare. Unforeseen consequences were yet to come.
MY SECOND DELAY AT THE LUFTHANSA COUNTER
After carefully and slowly scrutinizing the front and back of my ID card the clerk looked puzzled as if my blue Retiree ID card validated alien citizenship from another planet. Unduly patient in this situation, I sighed loudly but remained tight-lipped as she continued to scrutinize my Retiree ID card with a frown on her face. I guess she thought that it would magically turn into that more familiar official blue passport. It didn’t. I expected her to get over her apparent ignorance about the validity and importance of my blue Retiree ID card. Naïve little me, I thought she would cave and issue me my damn boarding pass so I could continue on my way. But that thought never materialized into reality. As an American citizen, I was insulted and rightfully so. I wanted to snap at her with, ‘Yes, It’s me. I’m an American and a US Army Retiree! I am not a terrorist, dammit! But I kept my mouth shut even though this situation was ripe for blowing up into a nasty international scene.
I moved dangerously close to leaping over the counter to grab her around her neck. Wisely, I opted not to go that route because of my natural fear of the Polizei hauling my ass away and locking me up. Besides, I didn’t want to risk not making my flight.
More depressed than a White House staffer treading swamp water and biding unrecoverable time until they can flee, I thought about scrapping the trip altogether, going back home and trying to fly out the next day. But like the former seasoned military noncommissioned officer that I am, I stayed put. Unfortunately, this decision would trigger more drama than a raunchy episode of a bunch of bickering females on a reality show. The time ticking away before boarding the plane sidetracked my thoughts, but since some people behind me were slated for the same flight, I wiped that worry away and didn’t sweat it any further. Finally, the clerk sprang into some semblance of action. She huddled over her computer to enter my social security number into the system to await validation. After two attempts, she looked perplexed as the system apparently refused to accept my SS number. So she hopped off of her stool and stepped over to a middle-aged woman in uniform standing near the wall behind her. I presumed that this woman was a supervisor since she had that rigid, authoritative stance of her arms folded across her chest watching everyone else work. After a few minutes with the supervisor, the clerk returned to the counter to make another entry in the system which completed my check-in process and sent my luggage on its way. I wanted to get in her face and yell ‘bout damned time!’ But the moment had passed for me to act up or raise any unholy hell. So much unnecessary damn drama to fly these days!
MY HIKE TO THE BOARDING GATE
Before I left the counter, the flight clerk politely told me that I needed to board at Gate 17, adding that it was a bit of a walk down Hallway B. Much later I would find out one fact: she didn’t lie. After about 15 minutes of walking, I still hadn’t seen a sign to indicate that I was close to Gate 17. But I saw Gate 3 up ahead. Hmmm, so far, my progress to Gate 17 wasn’t encouraging, but I kept walking on what turned out to be a distance equivalent to the length of two football fields.
MY THIRD DELAY
About 30 minutes later, I arrived at the pre-check-in area where all carry-on luggage and other bags had to be scanned for contraband or prohibited items. After the partial dress-down drill, I got in the long line snaking towards the scanner and waited for one of the burly, menacing-looking personnel pumped up on steroids to wave me to the x-ray machine. After passing this uncomfortable, intrusive exam without incident, I gathered my stuff and went over to an area to re-dress not realizing that I had yet another check-in station to go through. Sadly, I had no idea that the next checkpoint would turn into a hurdle, which I might not clear.
AN ENCOUNTER OF THE WORST KIND
About 10 minutes later, I arrived in a spacious area with highly waxed floors. Large, colorful, confusing paintings resembling ‘art’ that kindergarteners would produce hung on the walls. I noticed five check-in stations on the far side of the area. I was surprised at the individuals sitting at each station. None had the business appearance of airline employees. Stylishly dressed, anorexic-looking women of various European ethnicities had draped themselves over their stools. They reminded me of starving models posing for a photo shoot. All of them had enviable slim figures and tiny waists. They all wore chic, color-coordinated outfits. It was hard not to notice the flawless skin on their faces, which seemed to have been plastered with makeup by a heavy-handed person who no doubt worked with clay. Long, thick tresses, impeccably manicured nails, tight mini-skirts, and mile-long legs wrapped up their fashion magazine appearance. All of them were beautiful, but truthfully, I hated all of those bitches! I was willing to bet good money that not one of them had more than a double-digit IQ. But I stepped away from my brutal assessment of these wenches to face one fact: one of these broads 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 before approaching a station, being careful to pick someone who 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. Before speaking to her, I smiled to grease the skids. Unmoved by my opening gesture, she demanded in broken English with all the pleasantness of a prison guard, “Boarding pass!” I had that. Then, she asked, “Passport!” I didn’t have that. Thinking to myself, I wondered why no one from the Lufthansa check-in counter up front notified these hussies of my passport situation. Again, I silently hoped that I wouldn’t have to reveal the military side of how I ‘take care of business.’
Sighing heavily, I gave her my boarding pass and my blue Retiree ID card, which she took, frowning and looking at it with a puzzled look on her face. I wanted to say, “I’m an American, dammit. I’m a United States Army Retiree with 22 years of military service. I’m not a terrorist!” I felt my blood pressure rising again, and I really wanted to get all up in her face. But reluctantly, I decided again to keep cool 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 it wasn’t her problem, she responded dryly and in heavily accented English, “No! It won’t leave. You haff plenty time. 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 calmly, “A strike? You’re kidding me, right? A strike?” Without even cracking a smile, she responded, “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 flight 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 into their demands because Lufthansa was losing money by the fistfuls with their planes grounded. But I thought to myself, “What if the strike lasts longer than Lufthansa anticipates? What will the Lufthansa staff do with the rest of the passengers and me? Entertain us? House us? Feed us all? Everyone who knows me knows that no matter what the situation is, I have to eat!”
I noticed an unanticipated sliver of compassion on her face, which indicated to me that she wanted to help me get past this point. Surprisingly, she turned around and motioned for an ‘assistant’ standing over in a far corner of the area to come to her. Approaching her was a tall, slim, tanned young man with slick back, coal-black hair. He seemed to float flamboyantly across the room to her station. His outfit seemed comical. He wore a tight-fitting gray suit of some type of shiny material along with black patent leather pointed-toe shoes. Completing his outfit was a white shirt and a skinny black leather tie. I had to stifle a laugh which was building up in my gut because all of this shit was getting more bizarre by the minute. She handed him my boarding pass and my blue Retiree ID card. He looked intently at both. Nothing on his face revealed that he had a sliver of a clue about the validity of 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, not at this point. I thought of all 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 his juvenile antics, 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 grin from his face. Quickly, he snapped around like a ballet dancer 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 atmosphere. 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 massive 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.
YET ANOTHER DETENTION
Opening my eyes, I turned around to face an unexpected fresh hell. Immediately, I became startled by a tall, pale and gruesome-looking man hastily marching like a commando towards me. Adding to his ominous approach was his damn shoes, which produced a threatening authoritative air as they clopped noisily on the tiled floor, echoing the sound of Clydesdale horses galloping down a cobblestone street. From my military intelligence experience, I assessed his aggressive approach and possibly questionable mediation skills would be as useful as a one-eyed Cyclops trying to referee a Wimbledon 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 jaw. His huge, bucket-shaped head, strangely flat on top, rested on his thick neck. His deep-set eyes nested underneath a thick overhang from his forehead. 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 broad forehead just like Frankenstein’s haircut. I just shook my head in disbelief! All of 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 neck like the Frankenstein monster had in the old horror movies. Seeing none, I winced at his uncanny resemblance to that classic 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. I actually thought they were 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 final checkpoint in this unfolding, deteriorating nightmare of a situation.
THE NEXT CONFRONTATION AND DETENTION
In spite of looming over me like a smug vulture ready to pounce on helpless prey in the Mojave Desert, he was frightfully friendly. But 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 sinking faster than the public’s faith in politicians. 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 God knows whom. 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 the unknown person on the other end. A man with an American English accent responded, “Ma’am, this is … from the U.S. Consulate in Frankfurt.” I thought, “The US Consulate?” Man, this was getting more serious than the WMD probe during the Bush administration. After a short 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 WAS A NIGHTMARE
The waiting area at Gate 17 was about the size of a high school gymnasium. An eclectic mix of about 300 people waited, all seemly 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 with only their eyes showing. A few women flaunted either fashionable ensembles or tacky western wear. I saw men in expensive, well-cut suits, tracksuits, hip-hop outfits with baggy pants, faded jeans and rumpled workmen’s clothing. Children of all ages ran around screaming like puppies. There were too many babies to count. Some people glued to their lap tops sat in chairs. Many of them 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, making the area sound 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. Oh, if I could sleep so soundly in all this din!