Sunday, September 06, 2009

Midwest Misadventures

My “Mr. Big Stuff’s Day Off” started beautifully. The plan was elegant: accept the offer of a friend who has a private plane and St. Louis Cardinals’ season tickets. “A day game on Thursday; we’ll take off about 8:30, go to the game and be home in time for dinner.” With vacation time in my pocket and a holiday weekend on the horizon, how could I turn that down? It was irresistibly appealing. The sports fan in me was thrilled by it. My ego liked it. The romantic in me was infatuated with it. My inner cheapskate was screaming “if it’s free, it’s me!
Man, everything was perfect. The flight was uneventful and I had a front-row seat as we approached downtown St. Louis. A car was waiting and we were whisked away to the ballpark, where we arrived minutes before noon. By 12:10, I was sitting in the sun ten rows from the field midway between 3rd base and the warning track. I was having a hot dog and a cold beer. The temperature was in the low 80’s, the sky was blue and I was in arguably the best baseball town in the world. As life’s little moments go, this one was spectacular.
The game was terrific. Some of the sport’s biggest names appeared: John Smoltz, Albert Pujols, Trevor Hoffman. The final score was 4-3, Brewers over Cardinals; but the Redbirds had a chance to go ahead in the 8th or win in the 9th. Wow. Then, it was back to the car, off to the airport and a quick trip home. Or so I thought.
We hopped into the plane, the pilot cranked it up and was doing his pre-flight check when a concerned look crossed his face. Concern became a frown, and then he shut it down. Switches were flipped, Buttons were pushed and he tried again. Then, the dreaded words, “Okay, hop out. We need a mechanic.” It was shortly after five and we were at a municipal airport somewhere in western Illinois just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. The mechanic had to be called in, and it seemed he had already started his after-work routine of intoxication. We were not getting home.
This was supposed to be a day trip. I had no change of clothes, no tooth brush, no razor, and no case for my contact lenses. I had no computer, no iPod, no book. Most importantly, we had no hotel reservation. We did have one broken-down airplane.
I made a stab at being spiritual and philosophical about our predicament. We had noted earlier that there were storms in our flight path home, so I actually said “maybe God’s taking care of us.” My friend the flummoxed plane owner replied, “Maybe He is.” I wanted to make the best of things and turn all this into an opportunity to see more of the city, maybe have a nice dinner, and all that. There was, however, a rather strong-willed person in our traveling party who is a more no-nonsense, practical sort of guy. He thought we should stay there in Nowhere, Illinois and get a cheap hotel close to the airport. Guess who didn’t get his way.
So, instead of being home in time for dinner or having an adventure in a Great American City, I sat alone in what amounted to a cheap motel room and just kind of existed. I asked for a “best guess” on the chances that the proper parts could be acquired and the plane could be repaired in a timely fashion. I was told “50-50.” Given the fact that I was supposed to work the next day and had an evening broadcasting obligation on top of that, I didn’t like the odds.
Hastily, my wife and I cobbled together emergency travel plans. Timing and economic considerations led us to a Southwest Airlines flight to Dallas, where I paid a premium price for a one-way car rental to get me the rest of the way home. I don’t remember the flight because I was asleep in the seat before take-off, but I do remember sunrise at the airport. I made it home safely and made it to work, albeit a little late. I made it to my broadcasting obligation in the evening and then finally, about 28 hours later that I expected, I slept in my own bed.
That whole “If it’s free, it’s me” thing was blown to smithereens. Last minute travel arrangements, even one-way, can cost a pretty penny. As for my friend the pilot, he said more than once “I’ll make it up to you.” This is ridiculous, of course, because he was being incredibly generous with his kind favors.
If things had gone as planned, it would have been a fabulous experience. It was great, anyway, because the first two-thirds of the day were magnificent. The rest of it is just details; and that’s what makes a good story, anyway.
Oh, by the way: the plane got fixed. He got home an hour and fifteen minutes after I did.

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