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On a Wing and (Without) a Prayer

January 29, 1989|ALAN C. MILLER | Times Staff Writer

Several weeks ago as we left my parents' house in Washington Crossing, Pa., to return to Los Angeles, little did we know that our courage and endurance would be sorely tested as we jetted across the continent.

To begin with, we'd already had enough of the cross-country blues. Earlier, in July, we had missed our connection in Dallas-Ft. Worth after a thunderstorm stranded our early evening flight at the Philadelphia airport for three hours. We spent four miserable hours in an airport motel before catching a sunrise flight to Los Angeles.

We each arrived at work late, bleary-eyed and cranky following this long night's journey into day. A relaxing five-day vacation was a distant memory before we had even reached home.

Never again, I resolved.

That's why I booked a direct flight from Newark, N.J., to Los Angeles six months in advance of our holiday trip. The inconvenience of getting to the airport would be worth the peace of mind. I even made it for 12:30 p.m. to give us a safety net of several hours in case something went awry.

It did . . . fully three weeks before our departure.

The airlines called to say we would have to change planes in Chicago. I was about to object when the agent pleasantly added that our arrival time in Los Angeles still would be 5:15 p.m. I let it go.

Weeks later I would mentally replay this fateful conversation over and over, trying to make it come out differently.

The sun was shining on a crisp December day when we reached the check-in counter at Newark International Airport. We had already taken a car, train and cab during a two-hour trek to the terminal when Katherine inquired about the weather in Chicago.

"Snow," the agent replied so cheerfully that I thought she was kidding. "Three to six inches. But it's not expected until this afternoon, so maybe you'll miss it."

Unfortunately, this would not be the last misinformation we would receive on this, our longest day.

Flight 1155 boarded at 1:30 p.m., one hour late. A flight attendant merrily recited the emergency instructions in rhyme, including holiday greetings. The rest of the journey would be pure bah humbug.

Moments later the pilot announced that a snowstorm in Chicago would force us to wait at least another hour, maybe longer. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. Soon I would feel something more immediate: hunger pangs.

Katherine said--a little late, I thought--that one should never connect through Chicago in winter. I burrowed deeper into my novel, "Ransom," escaping to suspense in Japan.

"It was almost dark. Ransom looked up at the huge gray sky. He could almost see the first faint stars. He could feel the planet turning and moving through space. He could feel the tug of gravity in his arms and legs, and he could hear the roar of darkness sweeping toward him like a fist."

It was 2:30 p.m when the pilot announced another delay. He reassured passengers that connecting flights would also be held up in Chicago. He would repeat this so often that it sounded like a mantra meant to ward off psychic duress.

The baby across the aisle, a veritable olfactory and auditory time bomb, was growing restless. My stomach was growling.

Wasn't "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" last year's big holiday movie?

At 3 p.m. the fasten-seat-belt sign flashed on. "We're cooking," the pilot chortled as he began to taxi toward the runway. My sophisticated wife put her fingers in her mouth and whistled.

"If we make that connection, all will be forgiven," I told her, not sure who there was to forgive.

But moments later the captain was back, sheepishly announcing another delay. His credibility was shot; we would not hear from him again. A flight attendant would make all further announcements.

The baby across the aisle was pounding the service tray. I thought maybe next year we'd have the folks come visit us .

Perhaps fearing an uprising, the head flight attendant challenged the restive passengers to guess the combined ages of the five flight attendants. The prize was a bottle of wine. It would, of course, have plenty of time to age quite nicely right there.

I said 133. The answer was 126. I considered protesting; my estimate was based on their ages when the flight was completed.

At 4 p.m., after 2 1/2 hours held hostage on the runway, we were finally airborne. Halfway to Chicago I finished the novel. Ransom was dead. I tried to be fatalistic about what lay ahead for me.

As the snow streamed past the glistening wing of our jet in a dazzling fast-motion kaleidoscope, the pilot assured us again about connecting flights. Now, however, he had downgraded his assurance to refer to "most" of them.

He might as well have told us he was Kris Kringle. One airline alone would cancel more than 400 flights on this fateful day.

We arrived in Chicago at 6 p.m., nearly 10 hours after leaving my parents' home in sunny Pennsylvania. Our Los Angeles flight had been canceled.

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