In 1971, at age 25, I was set to embark on eight months of anthropological fieldwork in an Alaskan Athapaskan Indian village. The first question was how to get there from New Haven, and in keeping with the spirit of adventure, I decided to travel via London on Japan Airlines, which offered a stopover. If I left JFK on Saturday night I could spend all day Sunday and Monday visiting my girlfriend Nancy, who had recently moved to England, and then on Monday I could proceed to Anchorage on the weekly nonstop.
The first sign that this was not the exotic international adventure I had hoped for came at the JAL check-in counter where a large sign enthusiastically WELCOMED a college tour of sheepskin-jacketed sophomores from Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, my seat pocket yielded, along with the traditional air-sickness bag and emergency card, dainty paper sandals, a "Happy Jacket" and a miniature fan. Dutifully, I robed myself like the airborne samurai I had intended to be, ignored the rendition of the Bucknell Fight Song that accompanied the firing of the engines, and awaited the hoped-for tea ceremony.
"Whereya from?" my seatmate demanded.
I thought of concocting a foreign accent and fabricating an answer like "Katmandu" or "Vladivostok," but he barely paused for breath.
"Me, I'm from Staten Island, N.Y., myself. Unbelievable place. Ever hear of Tottenville High? No? Unbelievable football season."
And then he recounted it, every game, every play, every player, including frequent mention of Ricky Tantolino, his nephew, injured in the first scrimmage but gamely on the sidelines ever after. Sometime after homecoming, I began to cast furtive glances out the window for the White Cliffs of Dover. We were due to arrive in London at 8:50 a.m.
At 8:30, Tottenville had just been cheated out of the district championship when the airplane's loudspeaker erupted in an excited burst of Japanese. The heretofore implacable faces of the Japanese travelers suddenly became placable; as one, their jaws seemed to tighten and they unfastened their seat belts.
At last, an English translation was provided: "Your pilot, Mr. Ito, regrets to inform you that Heathrow is closed because of fog, so we will go instead to Paris."
Mr. Tottenville slapped his thigh. "Bad for you, good for me," he chortled. "I was going to Paris, anyway." Mysteriously, however, after an hour's flying time, no land appeared--just clouds.
Another two-minute burst of high-pitched Japanese interrupted the Muzak. As the complexions of my Asian fellow-travelers paled to Noh hues, we were informed in English that, though Paris was, indeed, somewhere below us--and had been for the past 20 minutes of circling--it was currently experiencing a snowstorm and so was also closed to arriving flights. Capt. Ito figured we'd better head for Rome.
Contrary to my forebodings, Leonardo da Vinci Airport was open. Following instructions, we debarked, boarded a small shuttle bus, and segregated ourselves into "Happy to be in Rome," "Wish we were in Paris," and "Wish we were in London" groups. Numbering a disgruntled 12, the England contingent was the smallest but had the advantage of containing all nine Japanese passengers: two young student-types and seven businessmen. Besides myself, the rest of our little band consisted of a middle-aged Brit and a youngish American man. A Japan Airlines official with the improbable name of Gino Campanile gathered us together like conspirators. Heathrow was still closed, he informed us three English speakers, but JAL would like us to be their guests at a gala lunch.
With visions of Italian delicacies dancing in our heads, we followed him briskly to the airport dining room, only to be informed that there were no available tables. Our next stop was the cocktail bar where we were promised a drink and sandwich, but this room too, was full. After much telephone consultation punctuated with shrugs and eyes to the ceiling Gino presented us with, as he called them, "the alternatives."
Plan "A" was that we should all board a Kuwait Airlines plane, which was, at this very moment, preparing to take off nonstop to London.
"So Heathrow has opened," deduced Morris, the Englishman.
"Oh, no," replied Gino. "To our knowledge, it is still closed." Not pausing for objections, he continued with Plan "B": We would all go to a "seaside hotel," courtesy of JAL, and wait there until 8 a.m., at which time a JAL plane would "surely" deposit us in London, provided that Zurich, its first stop, was not closed.
"Will Zurich be closed, do you think?" asked Morris.
"I don't know, but I think so," replied Gino. He then asked us to make a decision immediately since Air Kuwait was awaiting our bidding, and he further asked that we reach a consensus, since JAL didn't want to be responsible for a "split group."
"But," sputtered Morris, who was getting upset, "if London is closed, how can Kuwait airlines land there?"
"That, I do not know," allowed Gino.