Information desks provide information. They had it, and I needed it.
“Well hello sir,” came the greeting from the spritely young female behind the counter, “Now, how can I assist you today?” The question came with a searching look, as I must have appeared to be a little disoriented.
“Where am I?” I asked. I was hoping that she might know. They had it, and I needed it.
The young lady took a step backward, as if, for a moment, she didn’t quite know where she was either. She eyed me carefully; puzzled, and slightly amused. Everyone that she had ever met in her life had known where they were. She looked upwards and to her left, as if the answer might be hanging from the ceiling on a long piece of string.
“Excuse me, but you don’t know where you are?” She laughed a little, checked herself, and then tried to be serious.
“No, I don’t… I don’t know where I am. Can you please tell me?”
This was too good to be true. She was going to smash this one out of the stadium.
“Why, you’re at the AIRPORT!”
Yes, Okay, I had pitched that one up, but I didn’t have time for games. “I know I’m at an airport. Can you now kindly tell me WHICH CITY?!”
Priceless. The attendant shot a sideways glance at her male co-worker, to see if he had picked up on the conversation. They had themselves a real one here. Might be needing security on this one. It was just like the training video. The red button was probably just below the desk. She took her hands off the counter and put them by her sides. So, this guy with the funny accent doesn’t even know which city he is in? With a grin that was broader than it should have been, she put me out of my misery.
“Why, you’re in HUNTSVILLE!”
“That’s great,” I spat back immediately, “but I’m supposed to be in LOS ANGELES!”
Her fingers may have been circling the unseen panic button. The attendants were too afraid to look at each other, in case they completely lost it. Then, after a moment of re-composure, they swung swiftly into crazy passenger management mode, and asked me to take a deep breath and start from the beginning, pointing out in lowered calming tones that they were, indeed, there to help me.
So I hastily explained what I think had happened. In a nutshell, I must have caught the wrong plane, then fallen asleep, snoring through any PA announcements, and then come to when the plane was losing altitude (after only about 30-60 minutes) above snow-covered fields, landing on a smallish landing strip, and spilling out into this airport terminal. No signs, no discussions; I simply walked off the plane with absolutely no idea where I was. Ridiculous but true.
The male co-worker now had his eyes closed, his frame tilting a little, and slightly trembling. He looked like he was moments from lift off. The girl focussed on her rapid keyboard tapping whilst taking long steady breaths, so that she didn’t fall over behind the counter and spasm with laughter.
Now, I’m happy to be labelled as a complete numskull, and yes, I did mindlessly board the wrong plane; but at a stretch, I deserve a few credit points because they (the airline) let me do it. I had been working for nearly three weeks in Atlanta Georgia (this was back in February 1995), and I was tired and just wanted to go home to my young family in Melbourne Australia. Atlanta was unusually cold at that time and totally covered in snow, and, of course, I didn’t even have a coat. Really clever. Anyway, sitting at Atlanta’s departure gate lounge, I do remember not feeling all that sharp. When I thought back on it, there were two gates being serviced from the one lounge, and there were two planes boarding at the same time. I had a feeling that the “gate-keeper” checked my ticket but did not scan it, and then ushered me cheerfully aboard what would become the plane of shame.
My Melbourne bound connecting flight departed LA in seven hours time, but if I didn’t check in within five hours, my forwarded luggage would be offloaded and I would miss the long haul flight home. So I needed a lifeline flight to LA. They had it, and I needed it. The keyboard tapping stopped suddenly as a flight had been found … to Memphis. I paused and stared for a long time at the dynamic duo behind the counter, trying to detect any escaping merriment. They were serious. “I’m sorry,” I started, “but I don’t really want to go to Memphis right now. I really need…”
“…It’s the only way. You’ll have to try to get another flight from Memphis to LA, but there is no guarantee, sorry. Here’s your ticket, good luck, we hope you make it!” I took the chance, because that is what people with no other options do.
When I saw the plane sitting out in the field on its own in the semi darkness, I felt confident that my grinning counter buddies were peering out a window at me somewhere, doubled over, wetting their pants.
I was about to board an igloo with wings.
It was totally frozen. Great, I thought. I’m to be propelled off the ground in a popsicle. It was a twin prop plane, a 20 seater I think. I climbed the frozen steps and clambered aboard. By the time I sat down my teeth were chattering. It was freezing in there (no coat, remember), and I couldn’t see out the windows. I wasn’t even sure if there were any windows. A loud engine noise outside was followed by a continuous thudding noise on the roof above me. The captain crackled over the PA, “Welcome aboard. We’ll be on our way just as soon as the tanker can DE-ICE the plane!” So now I was very nervous, and cold. There were only two other people on the flight and they both had massive overcoats and scarves on. So I was nervous, cold, and envious. I started seeing headlines. “Lost idiot falls out of sky, trapped in refrigerator.” The ice started melting on the windows as my deadline time clock ticked down. It took 15 minutes of solid soaking to thaw out the vehicle. Eventually the props agitated themselves to life and we taxied out and left the mystery town or city of Huntsville behind.
Thankfully the aviating igloo arrived in Memphis, and after repeating my story again at another information desk (this time I knew where I was), A connecting flight to LA was found. The timing was tight, but it was my only option. Once again, I took the chance. The airline that I had booked with was keen to take care of this issue because they sensed some liability for allowing me to board the wrong flight.
But it was all to no avail. Arriving in LA, I had missed the baggage cutoff time by 20 minutes. I was gutted.
Now I had to conference call my bosses in Melbourne and tell them that I was a complete idiot, and that I was going to be staying an extra night in a hotel in LA and returning to work a day later than expected. I answered everything truthfully, however they did not ask all the right questions. They asked what had happened, and I explained that I missed my connecting flight by 20 minutes. There was silence at the other end of the line for a while, and I was waiting for the question “why?” But it never came. It was not uncommon for one of them to ask, “Is there anything you haven’t told me?”, but this time neither of them pressed me on it. They moved on to the details of where I was going to stay, and then onto work related issues. My bosses both had a good sense of humor and they would have handled it well. I always thought I’d tell them the story at some stage, but I never have. I might have been too embarrassed. One of these guys (the company CEO and my ultimate boss) will probably read this and finally find out the whole truth. Hope you enjoy the tale Hoops!
Some time after making it home, my wife Susie, my Aunt Jacqui and Uncle Geoff, and I, were sitting around chatting, and the story resurfaced. We decided to hunt down that mystery city/town to find out where it was.
Looking for Huntsville.
We looked it up on the on the Internet, and to our surprise, discovered that there are in fact three Huntsvilles in the US; one in Alabama (180,000 pop.); one in Texas (38,000 pop.); and one in Tennessee (1200 pop.); and all were within the flight time window from Atlanta that I had snored through.
So, to this day, I still have no idea where I landed on that freezing late afternoon somewhere in the southern states, welcomed by a couple of grinning, out-of-stadium ball slogging comedians. I’d say the smart money is on Huntsville Alabama, but you would do better than getting your “smarts” from me.
[Footnote: “Hoops” did read the story and we had a good laugh about it later.]
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