Always smile at the dead bears at the airport

Last Saturday night I returned home to Lincoln, Vermont after a three-week book tour, and I learned something important: Never take the Burlington International Airport and everyone who works there for granted, even if the airport sometimes feels like a parking garage in search of a Cinnabon.

Make no mistake: I like our airport. I’m amused when our TSA officers tell me how much they enjoyed one of my novels or a particular column as they pat me down to make sure that I’m not a terrorist. I appreciate the fact that our gift shop takes books – including mine – seriously. It’s a terrific bookstore, among the best at any airport I visit.

If you have any doubts about how difficult it is to work at an airport, however, I give you Exhibit A: Gordon Coffin of the illustrious Pellston Regional Airport in northern Michigan. Pellston is one of those airports where taxidermy trumps shopping: There are way more big dead bears than restaurants and stores. In all fairness, I saw it on roughly an hour’s sleep, but I swear: It looks like a rustic lodge in the Adirondacks that once in a while has a regional jet parked outside. Gordon is a retired travel agent who works there a couple of days a week to make his retirement a little more interesting.

Essentially, what happened was this. I woke up on a Thursday in Milwaukee, flew at the crack of dawn to Minneapolis, and did two events in Minnesota. Then, after my evening event, I flew to Michigan, landing at Detroit Metro Airport at 2:18 in the morning. Detroit’s airport is massive, but when I saw it, there was literally no sign of human habitation for hundreds of yards. Between the exit and the entrance to the Westin Hotel, which is attached to the airport, I saw a fellow cleaning the floor and one policeman. That was it. It was like a zombie plague had wiped out most of the planet. I took a catnap between 3:15 and 4:15 in the morning at the Westin, and then was picked up at five in the morning and driven five hours north to Petoskey, Michigan. There I spoke at a lovely restaurant before a crowd of lunchtime readers and signed books until 4:00 in the afternoon. Then I was brought to the Pellston Airport for my 5:30 flight to Detroit and then, in theory, to Boston.

I do lead a glamorous, albeit sleep-deprived, life. I know that.

So, back to the Pellston Airport. That afternoon, Gordon Coffin is behind the counter and has to break the news to me that I will not be on the flight to Detroit. There has been a ticket snafu and I do not have a seat. Then, two hours later, he has to be the one to tell me that I will not be on the last flight to Detroit either, because that plane is missing a part. It’s not going anywhere. He also gets to inform me that the guy who owns what is, apparently, the only taxicab in Pellston isn’t picking up the phone and the airport is closing.

Just for the record, my three hours at Pellston weren’t completely wasted. There were five other people stranded at the airport and one, Nell Mabry Hartleib, bought my new book on the spot with her Nook. (Thank you, Nell!)

So, Gordon wonders what I am going to do, and I tell him that my publisher has found a hotel room for me in Petoskey, about half an hour away.

“How big are your bags?” Gordon asks.

“Two leather carry-ons,” I tell him. “Not even rollers.”

“My car’s small, but they’ll fit,” he says, nodding, and we exit the hunting lodge and wave to the dead bears, and climb into his Miata convertible. He drives me all the way to my hotel – an hour out of his life on a Friday night.

My sense is that there are Vermonters at Burlington International Airport who would do that, too. Nevertheless, there’s a lesson here – and it’s not merely to look sleep-deprived and pathetic when you need help.

It’s this: Always smile at the airport. You never know how you’re going to get home.

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This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on August 12, 2012. Chris’s new novel, “The Sandcastle Girls,” debuted at # 7 on the New York Times bestseller list last week.

Chris Bohjalian

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