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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Should They Stay or Should They Go?

Travel: For two Southland families, happily anticipated Thanksgiving trips took on a new aura after Sept. 11. Their anxieties echo dilemmas faced by many.

November 18, 2001|ROBIN FIELDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The arrangements were set, logged in airline computers or scrawled in mental calendars.

The Wrightens would spend Thanksgiving in Louisiana, finally attending a celebrated college football game with a clutch of seldom-seen, much-missed relatives.

The Tibbetses would return to Connecticut, introducing their 5-month-old daughter to her extended clan and to Thanksgiving rituals and recipes passed down for generations.

Then came Sept. 11, a poison cloud that blotted out tradition and left the two Southern California families and millions of other Americans contemplating Thanksgiving weekend, and flying, in entirely new ways.

The busiest travel week of the year arrives in 2001 with even the most seasoned fliers making new calculations. They inhale news about airports and airlines. They long for proof that safety has improved, but worry that it has not. They broker deals with themselves about when and how they will fly, then find circumstance or mood causing them to renegotiate.

For the Wrightens, the Tibbetses and so many others, the Thanksgiving of fondest imagination lies just a few days away. But for the last two months they have been asking: Is it worth it if you have to fly?

For years, Leroy Wrighten, 49, and his son, Jason, 23, watched the Bayou Classic on television the Saturday after Thanksgiving, wishing they could be there for the game between Grambling and Southern. The black universities' gridiron matchup often is just the warmup for the spectacular show put on by their legendary marching bands.

"I've always said, 'I want to take you to that,' " Leroy said of his son. "He's lived in an integrated world, with me being in the military. I want him to see what the black colleges have to offer."

In February, Jason, Leroy and his wife, Keleen, 38, decided this was the year to go. Piece by piece, they assembled an itinerary, part cultural pilgrimage, part family reunion.

They would leave their Lancaster home and fly from Los Angeles International Airport to Dallas to meet Leroy's younger brother. "I haven't spent Thanksgiving with him in about 30 years," Leroy said. Then they would drive to Reston, La., for Thanksgiving dinner with Keleen's baby sister, Lena. Finally, they would motor down to New Orleans for the game.

They had no qualms about traveling by air. Leroy and Keleen, now a sixth-grade teacher, had both served in the Air Force, though they met later. Leroy, now a civilian, works as an occupational safety specialist at Edwards Air Force Base.

Even LAX holds happy memories for them. Keleen flew in and out repeatedly when she lived in Chicago during their long-distance courtship. On one such visit, Leroy proposed to her across from United's Terminal 7. He knelt down in the parking garage, right there on the first-floor concrete.

Sept. 11, however, made them examine every part of their festive plan anew.

Only Jason, usually the family's most relaxed flier, became overtly fearful. "It just terrifies me," he said in early October, contemplating the three-hour flight to Dallas.

Keleen, her high laugh ringing out in defiance, simply refused to let getting from here to there enter her mind. Instead, she and her sister called each other four or five times a day, talking about what to pack, what the weather would be like, what to wear to a Saturday night concert.

Dread and determination to stay the course mixed in Leroy to form a strange hybrid.

"If it was just a vacation, or if we hadn't already purchased the tickets," he said, "we probably wouldn't fly."

'What if Something Happens?'

Daniel and Lorianne Tibbets' Thanksgiving destination was a given. It was Daniel's mother's turn to host. The West Los Angeles couple just assumed they would join the two dozen siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins converging at her home in rural Riverton, Conn.

Two weeks after Sept. 11, their plans were abruptly upended. Don't come, Joann Tibbets told her son and daughter-in-law. The family matriarch was annoyed--even a little angry--at her own decision. She counts on just a few visits a year and would miss seeing baby Grace, her only grandchild.

"Still," Joann explained later, "I just would rather see them safe. I'd rather not be worrying, 'What if something happens?' . . . We'll have other holidays."

Thus commanded, Daniel and Lorianne turned Thanksgiving into an opportunity to articulate post-Sept. 11 rules about family travel.

"Anything short of a crisis, it's not necessary," said Lorianne, 27, a freelance television scriptwriter. "It's not about whether we hurt someone's feelings by not going somewhere. Safety is the priority."

Daniel, 32, a top executive at the television division of a Canadian entertainment company, adopted a second set of guidelines for business, allowing flying for crucial meetings.

He canceled an early October trip to a conference in Paris, because most of the people he would have schmoozed with weren't going either. "Not important enough," he said firmly.

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