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Some years ago, my business partner and I needed to be in Bentonville, AR, for a client meeting. We flew in from Chicago the night before. Walmart was a quarter of the size it is today, thus the town hadn’t yet experienced its boom nor built its own airport. As a result, we touched down in Fayetteville and drove over.
At the time, business meetings were still done in a suit and tie. I commented how dapper he looked as we checked-out of our hotel. A chaired and distinguished professor from one of the top business schools in the country, he defied professorial stereotypes: that morning, he wore a hand-tailored double-breasted suit, a French-cuff shirt, Hermes tie, and little Italian loafers. He wore his hair long and perfectly coiffed – over his ears and beyond his starched white bankers’ collar (in the back). He was gorgeous.
He looked out of place.
Other guests who were queued at the check-out examined his face and carriage as he passed to determine if he was a dignitary of some sort – someone they should have recognized but didn’t. It happened everywhere we went and it always made me chuckle.
Have a great day! Thanks for staying with us.
We strode through the lobby … briskly through the vestibule … then wham! We walked smack into a wall of heat and humidity, the likes of which haven’t been seen on this side of Hades. Ever aware that his bouffant could fall under such conditions, he groused at me to get the car and air conditioner going.
We had a 15-minute drive in front of us.
By the time we reached the first light, the air coming out of the vent was still hot. Next light … still hot. Third. Eighth. Guard shack. Still hot. Even with my jacket off, I quickly became a sweaty mess. I looked across at him and saw that his hair was beginning to stick to his forehead. Sweat droplets from his nose and chin made dark blue splotches on his light blue shirt. He was scowling.
As we exited the car, I left the windows down for good measure.
Ours was a rough meeting, made worse by the fact our respective underclothes were damp and cold. They kept us longer than they should have. Handing in our visitors’ badges, we saw that we were in jeopardy of missing our flight.
We dashed to our mobile sauna and made a beeline, compressing the hour trip into 45 minutes. Upon seeing the highway exit for the airport we began to bicker whether leaving the rental car at the curb (for expediency) would result in a ticket or class C felony (for auto theft). Prudence won-out, and we returned the car appropriately, taking time to harangue the agent about the AC.
By the time we pushed into the air-conditioned terminal, we were soaked and smelled as if we had been on a bender.
We rushed to the big board – still manual at that time – only to spy that our flight was delayed … a ground-hold in Chicago due to thunderstorms. Ugh.
Michael was well-regarded in those days and highly sought as a speaker. He’d be in New York one day and LA the next. And London the one after that. With him, everything was first class. Lodging. Seating. Food. But the best I could do for him that day was a hot dog and a beer. It was 1986 in the Fayetteville airport.
Do you want chili on it?
Elbow-to-elbow, we almost missed the PA boarding announcement over the cacophony of the bar. Once more, we found ourselves running.
Gate 3. Gate 4. Fifty more yards. We’re there! Last ones on. A small, 80-passenger commuter plane. It’ll do.
I stole a glance at our ticket stubs while Michael endeavored to hang his garment bag in the fore closet. We would be sitting about three-quarters of the way back.
Next, I hear Michael barking at the attendant. There’s no more room for his bag – it would have to be checked. He tossed it on the ground and advised it was now her problem. He mumbled under his breath the entire way to our seats. I looked around. Everyone was uncomfortable – hot and tired.
Over the next two hours, we’d have four false promises of ground-clearance.
Flight attendants, prepare the cabin for takeoff.
At each promise, the pilot would bring the engines to max, and we’d feel the cool life-giving breeze from the overhead AC. Then, at each abort, he’d throttle back the engines to their minimums and the AC would dry to a trickle; the cabin would quickly get as hot as a blast furnace.
Michael was fit to be tied. Had I known better, I’d have thought he was trying to mount an insurrection by trying to enlist the anger of all within earshot.
This airline is a joke! This is no way to treat customers!
Just when I thought he had sufficiently agitated the mid-section of the plane, we heard what would be our true clearance for takeoff notification. We rumbled down the runway and all the people – Michael being the exception – cheered.
Midwest summer thunderstorms ensured our flight was bumpy. Under advice from the pilot, the attendants remained in their seats and informed us they’d not be providing a drink service. Michael had a cow. So they rolled out the drink trolley and served. Drinks in hand, we’d just reached O’Hare airspace when the intercom crackled.
Uh. There’s been another ground-hold in Chicago. Uh. We’re gonna turn around and fly to Peoria to grab some more fuel.
We touched down in Peoria. We’d been in our seats for 3½ hours.
Peering out the window, we saw maybe a dozen planes sitting on the tarmac a hundred yards from the terminal; they had all been diverted, too. It was obvious we’d be there a while.
No sooner did the plane come to a complete stop than the Professor demanded to speak with the Captain. He marched to the front and demanded a portable air conditioner and fresh drink catering be brought to the plane, or they let all of us off. One or the other.
After some back and forth with the tower and – I presume – the airline, the Captain announced they’d be bringing over portable stairs for us to disembark. Michael had by that time become kind of a local celebrity – passengers near us seemed to like him. (Think Stockholm syndrome.) Others, not. Certainly, the airline people had had enough.
Stepping onto the asphalt, we took a hard right, ducked under the nose cone, and followed the column of travelers in front of us who were heading to the terminal. Oddly, midway, we noticed the folks who had been first off the plane (and had made it inside the terminal door) were heading back. Passing us, they said that Chicago had given us a wheels-up time. The line began collapsing on itself immediately as people realized the change in plans; everyone fast-walked back to the moveable steps. Everyone except the Professor. And me.
He was incredulous that they believed the plane would in fact leave. He scolded them. And then he laughed at them. He looked up at the pilot, still sitting in his cockpit seat. He made eye contact, then flipped him the bird, spun on his heals, and marched towards the terminal with me four paces behind.
He had a plan to circumvent the U.S. aviation system. We’d rent a car and drive.
At the rental car counter, we discovered that a hundred other geniuses had beaten us to our own strategy – more than 50 planes had been diverted to Peoria throughout the afternoon with a fair number of their fliers having opted for ground transport over air. There were no more cars.
There were no buses either. We checked. Uber wouldn’t be invented for another 20 years so it wasn’t like someone would drive us using their own car. And all flights originating in Peoria heading to the Second City were sold out for the next 48 hours.
I checked my watch. It had been 35 minutes since we saluted the Captain. Might they still be there? It was worth a try.
For the last time that day, we ran – slowing down just enough to pass through the magnetometer – back to the gate through which we had come. It was totally empty. Out the window, we could see our flight … its nose turned towards the active runway waiting its turn in a long line. Beleaguered, we sat down and began taking inventory of the day. With neither of us being the self-reflecting type, we stopped short of recognizing our own hand in the day’s events.
Over my shoulder, I heard a voice ask, “Are you the two guys who flipped-off the plane? That was so funny. You had us all laughing. You guys are goofballs.” I had to agree.
Then he asked, “You want me to call the pilot and see if he’ll take you back on?”
Yes! But how would we get on the plane?
It was 1989 in Peoria! Not 2023 at O’Hare!
He called the pilot and after a few inaudible words, looked at us and said, “Let’s go.”
The Professor and I stepped outside and – at the guy’s direction – sat down on the first step of one of those staircases-with-a-truck-underneath things. He turned the key, the engine coughed, and we were on our way. He expertly pulled up astride the plane aligning the top step with the door.
As we began to ascend the stairs, the door handle turned and the door popped open. There stood our pilot. With a beaming smile he exclaimed, “Welcome aboard, boys!”
We were assigned seats in the very back – next to the lavatory. The heckling eventually subsided. We were airborne within minutes and shortly thereafter, the flight attendants were in the aisle serving drinks and peanuts. Michael and I asked for a couple of stiff drinks.
When we went to pay, the attendant informed, “No need. The pilot said the drinks are on him.”
It was 10 p.m. before I pulled into the driveway. It was 11 p.m. when I laid my head on my pillow. As I drifted off, I couldn’t help but think of the grace we had been shown throughout our odyssey. Cranky and disagreeable from the start of the day, we were unlovable – we neither engendered sympathy nor deserved consideration. But that’s the magic of grace. It was given to us, nevertheless.Published in