A Bad Air Day

Last week I shared with you the lengths to which Winooski’s Craig Hilliard went to have a margarita in Costa Rica: Over four and a half days, he saw seven cities and six different airports, took off or landed 14 times, and watched football in airport bars in times zones as far west as Phoenix and as far east as Philadelphia. But it was one heck of a margarita, and the vacation — though shorter than planned — was worth the ordeal.
At the same time that Hilliard was trying to escape the Land of the Polar Tomato around New Year’s, South Burlington’s Bill Reed and his family were trying to return. Reed, a singing teacher here in Vermont and at the Circle in the Square Theatre School in Manhattan, and his wife and younger daughter had just spent a week visiting their older daughter in London. This means that they had all had just about their fill of such cheerful British holiday fare as Christmas pudding: beef, raisins and prunes. (I should note that I am half-Swedish, and the scariest holiday fare ever had to be the lutfisk my Swedish mother once tried to prepare. Basically, she bought cod and aged and softened it until it became jellylike. Trust me: If you ever have a choice between Christmas pudding with beef and raisins or my mother’s recipe for fish jelly, go with the pudding.)
The flight from London to New York’s JFK Airport landed on time early in the afternoon on Jan. 1. It was the 300 miles separating JFK and Burlington International Airport that proved a little harder to navigate. Literally. Here, essentially, is what happened.
Their flight to Vermont early that evening was almost home when the pilot announced on the intercom that his windshield was coated with ice and the defroster wasn’t working. According to Reed he added, “I’m pretty good at what I do, but not so good that I want to land without being able to see out the window.” This is, of course, not the sort of thing a passenger wants to hear. It’s not as bad as a pilot saying, “I’m pretty good at what I do, but not so good that I can land without a left wing.” But it’s definitely worse than being informed that someone forgot the pretzels.
The plane returned to JFK where it was warm enough for the window to thaw and the plane to land. There the mechanics tried to fix the defroster. Meanwhile, it was a good thing that no one had forgotten the pretzels because that’s what the passengers lived on as they sat in the cabin. Finally, when it was clear the defroster couldn’t be fixed, the airline moved everyone to a second plane, and they set off for Vermont sometime around midnight.
This time as they descended, the defroster worked like a dream. Unfortunately, the pilot told them that the folks in the air traffic control tower had gone home — not an unreasonable thing to do in the middle of the night. And so, once again, they were returning to JFK. “In my entire career,” the pilot said, “I have never before flown to a city twice and turned around twice.”
The airline put the passengers up at an airport hotel, and everyone fell into their beds about 3 in the morning. The next day, the airline decided that the only sure way to fly them to Burlington … was to drive them. They announced they were sending the folks home by bus … which broke down. I am not kidding. The bus broke down.
Fortunately, it broke down on the way to JFK, and so — though sleep-deprived and nearly delirious — Reed rented a car and drove that last 300 miles, arriving back in South Burlington a mere 30 hours after arriving at JFK.
Reed notes that everyone at the airline did their best to put a good face on the nightmare. “Our stewardess was about 23, and even though she was clearly dying inside, she was always a complete professional,” he says. “It was sort of like in the theater when the act doesn’t show and the master of ceremonies has to tap dance.”
By the time Reed’s family returned home from their vacation, there was nothing they wanted more than … a vacation. Or, at the very least, Craig Hilliard’s margarita.
(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on January 20, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “A Bad Air Day

  1. I Can Fly Without Seeing, Folks, But The Landing Might Be A Bit Rough says:

    From the blog: According to Reed he added, “I’m pretty good at what I do, but not so good that I want to land without being able to see out the window.” Whoa! Trip of Pain! Man, I’d *definitely* be freaking out, upon hearing those Hearty Words Of Reassuring Calm. I must say, all these stories make me wonder if the horse-drawn wagon would not have been a better option? Even for over-seas travel? (PS: I will steer clear of the jelly-cod thing)!

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