The Trip (Part 4)
The Bethel sky was clear and the sun shining on Sunday morning as I carefully walked across the ice covered tarmac and up the stairs to the plane.
Normally Alaska Airlines flies Boeing 737-400 combi aircraft to Bethel. These carry freight in the front and passengers in the back. However, this plane was a regular 737 and every seat was filled before we lifted off for the 56 minute flight to Anchorage.
The trip went smoothly and seemed even shorter than normal. The stewards hardly finished serving drinks before they prepared the plane for landing. But that only allowed my mind to stay focused on my next problem—how to get home before Christmas morning.
It was early Sunday afternoon when I stepped off the jet bridge and into Anchorage terminal. On the way to baggage claim I glimpsed the Alaska Airlines customer service lines that wrapped around like a TSA checkpoint at rush hour. I continued on and collected my bag. After walking just a few feet from the carousal I stopped. Where was I going? What was I doing? Did I want to get a hotel room or join the long line I had just passed and see if there is a seat available on a flight, any flight, heading to Seattle tonight? I walked back and forth and then in a circle before I stopped near the center of the large room. With a sigh of determination I turned and joined the lengthy customer service line.
When you are in a slow moving line you can stand silent and alone in your own universe or you can meet people. I got to know a Bering Sea fisherman, half a dozen students from an Alaskan military academy and a several families just trying to get home for Christmas.
An hour later it was my turn to talk to the customer service agent. She leaned forward, one elbow resting on the counter. Her hair was slightly disheveled. I could imagine her day—I was a small part of it. I leaned on the counter with her and said, “I’m not sure where to begin. Maybe with this.” I handed her my scrap paper ticket.
Without blinking an eye she started typing on her keyboard. “How many changes of itinerary have you had?”
“Ah…I’m not sure.”
“Why did they cancel your Christmas Eve flight and put you on this later one?”
“It’s all blurring together at this point.”
She continued to type.
“I’d like to get home sooner if possible.”
“I understand.” For nearly a minute she stared at the screen and punched keys. “I can get you on the 9:40 flight tonight.”
“They scheduled a larger plane for that flight,” she said handing me a boarding pass. “You can only check your bag four hours before the flight, so you’ll have to come back in two hours for that.”
“Thank you. Merry Christmas,” I said walking away with my new boarding pass.
I bought a news magazine and ate a burger and fries for supper. At exactly 5:40 I checked my bag and then joined the TSA line. I arrived at the gate long before the flight appeared on the board.
As I read my magazine in the nearly empty waiting area a woman approached me. “Is this the gate for the 9:40 flight to Seattle?”
She sighed and sat down near me.
I’m not sure who spoke first, but we were soon talking. She worked for the Lower Yukon School District, just north of my district, and like many others was trying to get home. She wanted to get to Seattle and then try and catch a flight east to Chicago. We talked off and on until the flight boarded and then were surprised to discover we were seated together. I was in 7C, she was in 7B.
The flight from Anchorage to Seattle is normally just over three hours. As we landed, just before two in the morning, the pilot announced that tailwinds shortened our flight. I wouldn’t have known; I slept most of the trip.
I walked briskly to baggage claim, confident that I was nearly done with airports, at least for a while. My son Robert sat dozing near the carousel. He spotted me as I approached and we embraced. We stood together as the bags tumbled onto the carousel. My luggage has never been one of the first to appear, but it has frequently been one of the last. That morning was no exception. Two lone individuals stood on opposite sides of the carousel as we walked away.