22 December 2009

The Miracle Flight

JetBlue 363 departs LGA at 7:35 a.m., Gate 16. Destination: West Palm Beach.

We were in for a number of surprises, start to finish.

The cab dropped us at the airport way early and we were at the gate almost an hour before departure. I don't mind early. I hate late. Early means sitting in a chair at the gate with a cup of coffee and an extracurricular blueberry muffin, reading the Times in peace. Hah. Not on this trip.

I need to be careful here, and not disrespectful of the elderly and infirm, but funny is funny, and this was funny:

The first thing one notices upon arrival at Gate 16 is the switchback line of about 20 wheelchairs, all occupied by white sneakered older white people. The men's faces are uniformly tan, the women's not. All wheelers have carry-ons in their laps, all are wearing grumpy faces.

Obviously this parade of wheelchair travelers is a regular thing on this flight; the airline had cordoned off a wheelchair corral. Why did that scene tickle our funny bones? I am not sure. Think a Larry David/Mel Brooks collaboration, think the "Wheelchair" episode in "Curb", think the "walker" dance number in "The Producers." Think Sid Caesar, George Burns. Now you are at Gate 16. It was simply unlike anything I had seen before. I kept waiting for the music to cue up and the wheelchairs to start peeling out of their corral and spinning into their dance routine. Never happened, though.

Pinks and are just terrible people, I guess. Neither of us said anything but neither of us could stop giggling. I am ashamed. Well, really more "should be" than "am".

The second unusual aspect of our arrival at Gate 16, was that even an hour before scheduled flight time, every seat in the gate area was occupied, and the place was packed with standees. I guess earlybirding can be habit forming. These folks had had their visits with the children and grandchildren who wouldn't or couldn't come to FL to visit, and they now were hurrying back to the warm.

Forty minutes before the scheduled departure time, a squad of blue shirted attendants entered from stage left and started the process of releasing the brakes and, one at a time, wheeling the corralled passengers down the jetway. On board, the wheelers were mostly in seats up front. I think the airline reserves a batch of seats up front for these passengers because the wheelchair is too broad for the aisle of the plane. Anyway, when we got on, there they were, settled into their seats, belts tightened, luggage secured overhead, but still not a smile in a planeload.

But I get ahead of myself. After the wheelers were safely tucked into their upfront seats, the gate agent made the usual announcement inviting all people with small children, or others needing special assistance, to "pre-board." Yikes! Stand back! The in-need-of-special-assistance crowd for this flight must have attended the Lawrence Taylor school of airplane boarding. We are talking flying elbows, shoulder blocks, hip checks, the gamut. I saw no outright tackles or below the waist down field blocks, but a zebra would have had a field day throwing yellow flags. It reminded me of skiing in Austria. In the United States, skiers line up in a corral and get onto the lift by following the person in front of them. In Austria, the lift "line" is a funnel, and you will not get closer to the small end without figuring out how to move ahead of the person to either side of you. The accepted method, I learned, is to stand on your neighbors' skis.

It is more than possible that some who did not need special assistance in boarding incurred a change of status as a result of the pre-boarding scrum. I had this vision of the cleaning crew for this gate area coming by later and sweeping up an occasional shoe, hairpiece, dental bridge, you name it. In the movie I plan to do with Larry and Mel, I also see perhaps a girdle and a six-inch long hatpin.

There was one woman who came to my attention early in this process. Standing at the perimeter of wheelchair corral, tall, slim, very white skin, well-coiffed short curly white hair, wearing a black ski jacket, warm-up pants, and carrying a small black duffel. No wheels of any kind for this well put together lady. She came to my attention because she argued with the gate attendants about something, was rebuffed, but nevertheless pushed her way to the front of the rest of us ambulatories, and at the announcement of pre-boarding for people in need of special assistance, she was the first passenger to walk down the finger onto the plane. No, I did not see a limp.

Unscarred, Pinks and I boarded in turn and settled into our precious emergency-row seats, 11D and 11F. After a few minutes, the cabin attendant came down the aisle and asked Pinks and me if we knew we were in an emergency row and were we capable of rendering special assistance to other passengers in need of same. We said yes, and the attendant turned to the right and put the same question to the passengers in 11A and 11C. The guy by the window said "sure" and the tall, slim, very white skinned, well-coiffed short curly white haired, black-ski-jacketed lady in 11C said, "Of course." (Later in the flight, she leaned across the aisle and asked if she could borrow my New York Times. I hesitated a fraction of a second, and said, "No, the paper is heavy and I would not want you to hurt yourself.") I wish.

During the completion of the boarding process, my personal auditory space was brutally invaded by the woman in the row behind me. Standing in front of her seat, leaning on my seatback, she issued a string of non-stop instructions to people on the proper way to proceed down the aisle, secure their luggage in the racks above, find their seat, and she constantly complained to Harold, her traveling companion, (for his sake, I hope not her husband, though he seemed beyond caring in any event) that she had spied a woman with two carry-ons when the rules allowed only one, the airline should revise all boarding procedures, people with carry-on luggage should go first, or last, I am not sure, she was going to write a letter about this and lots of other problems. She had one of those super-piercing voices that reminded one of the days of defective chalk on blackboards. Upon reflection, I realize now that the only reason Harold hadn't strangled her long ago is that Harold is deaf.

Now comes the Miracle. (Credit for the "Miracle Flight" title goes to my sister and brother-in-law who were our gracious hosts for three days in Boynton Beach.) When our plane arrived in West Palm, the Purser announced that all wheelchair passengers should remain in their seats and they will be helped off the plane after the other passengers have debarked. But when Pinks and I made our way down the aisle to the front exit, we saw that most of the seats earlier occupied by wheelchair-bound Floridians were now empty! Behold, the disabled have risen! They have taken their luggage and boogied! Cured! Isn't God great? She made JetBlue 363 into a Jewish Lourdes!

My brother-in-law insists he once saw a woman who got on JetBlue 363 via wheelchair in LGA, and upon arrival in West Palm, walked off the plane, and once in the terminal, sprinted across the concourse to meet someone or make a connection!

Hey, ya gotta have a sense of humor, right? On the flight home, sitting in front of us was an elderly woman, small, frail, spoke English with a heavy Hispanic accent, traveling alone. She was a wheeler getting on and off. At the end of the flight she asked the young cabin attendant where she needed to go in the LaGuardia terminal building to get to Belize. The young cabin attendant was alarmed. Belize? She responded that JetBlue did not travel to Belize and she was quite sure no other airline flying out of LGA did either. As the conversation proceeded, the elderly woman's anxiety escalated. She just repeated "Belize, Belize", each time with greater urgency. Finally the cabin attendant managed to mollify the elderly passenger by assuring her that when she got off the plane, the wheelchair attendant would take her anywhere in the terminal she wanted to go. The woman instantly calmed and said quietly, "Oh, good, then he take me to where the bags come out and I get my Belize."

See, this little story has a happy ending.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Good health to all. And bring the troops home.

A bientot.

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