Before 2001, my wife and I had not had a proper vacation together, a holiday, since our honeymoon. We planned to rectify that situation, but with four kids at home, a daycare to run, and then Diane’s career change and accompanying educational requirements, we kept putting off our plans. Instead, we dreamed of it, played with the idea, and wondered what it would be like to set foot on foreign soil.
If only we could win the lottery.
In all that time we only left California twice -- once to visit Diane’s uncle in Arizona and drive back through a sandstorm, and once to live in Virginia City, Nevada, among ghosts both living and dead, for a little over a year. Both times occurred in the 1970’s. Trips to Tahoe didn’t count.
But I have traveled -- in my mind. For nearly sixty years I have gone to amazing places throughout the world, across the country, into deep space and closer locales, and through time. I have lain next to a dead President in his closed coffin on the Capitol Rotunda as mourners filed past. I could hear their respectful, muffled feet. I have ridden with George Armstrong Custer at the Little Big Horn, desperate and afraid, knowing I was about to die. I have written poems by candlelight at Walden Pond while Henry David Thoreau prepared a dubious defense for tax evasion because he opposed the Mexican War. I have wandered the streets of Uruk with King Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the wild man tamed by sex, as they wondered how to challenge the gods and live forever. I have feasted with Charlemagne at the battlefront, with his entourage roasting meat under billowing tents and the Saxon enemy sniffing the air with envy.
I am a time traveler. Point alpha to point omega, to infinity and beyond. I am traveling now.
Since December, 2001, I have become a physical traveler as well. I have managed to take one airplane trip each year. I cheat, partially. We flew to Holland in December 2001 and returned to America in January 2002. But it counts, at least to me.
My wife Diane has gone with me on all but one air trip, last year’s trek with my brother Ted to see my ever-dying uncle. Hennie has prostate cancer. The joke goes that prostate cancer is the thing you are dying of when something else gets you, like a Mack truck or old age. On that trip I got to spend time with my favorite niece and nephew, Annemieke and Erik, and many other friends and family. It was a good trip, if emotionally draining, and Diane, as gracious as she was to let me go without her, felt cheated and left out. Never again, she told me.
In 2001 there was no one dying and no sense of urgency. It was going to be our year. We decided that we would finally make the trip. It was our turn. Erik and Annemieke had come to America nine times in as many years and were anxious for us to see their home. We decided on a Christmas visit. We applied for our passports in April, knowing that the wheels of government grind exceedingly slowly and wanting the passport office to have plenty of time. We had heard horror stories about last-minute attempts to get overdue passports, crazy drives up to the passport office in San Francisco, or the huge extra expense of securing overnight express delivery from my employer, the United States Postal Service, to arrive the day of departure, hopefully before the flight. so we played it safe. Our passports came to us in two weeks.
We took that as a sign.
We got our cheap tickets through cheaptickets.com. Ted and Carolyn paid for our car rental while my mother gave us a bit of spending money to add to what we had squirreled away. Our youngest daughter would be watching the animals and the house. We would be going on the cheap but we would be going.
It would be my first flight back to Holland in 29 years, Diane had never flown further than Phoenix, Arizona, a good one hour hop.
In September our good friend Candida -- my Wild Irish Jewish Princess English Rose -- came to visit. She was playing chicken a bit. Her passport was due to expire on September 13 but her travel agent assured her it would be fine to renew upon her return. American flights, particularly those coming out of California, were never delayed, particularly in the early fall. She was slated to leave on September 12 from LAX.
Then terror struck.
While every airport shut down, her flight was grounded for three days. Meanwhile, her passport expired. Strings on both sides of the Atlantic were pulled to get her a temporary passport. Candida has had a lifetime of adventures, but three nights struck in a hotel at Los Angeles International Airport did not add to her fabulous list -- all of which are another story but not mine to tell. Still, her situation added a bit of uncertainty to our own travel plans. The entire airline industry was in turmoil after the 9-11 attacks. Though the shock did not wear off and many Americans feared a repeat attack, Diane and I did not. We would not let terrorists rob us of the vacation trip of a lifetime -- that would be victory for them.
We were also certain that 9-11 would not be repeated. That is, another terrorist attack might come, but not in the same way. Not with hijacked passenger airliners. A dirty bomb, perhaps, or some other as yet unforeseen tactic. While security forces throughout the nation scrambled to create new protocols, Diane and I would not be denied. We packed, prepared, and waited.
On December 26, Ted drove us up to the airport in San Francisco. I think he was almost as excited for us to go as we were to be going. He politely accommodated our request to get to the airport as early as possible. We were too excited to wait. So, when we got in line at the KLM-Northwest ticket center to check our bags and get our boarding passes, being four hours early, and being the day after Christmas, and being that 9-11 happened only fifteen weeks before, there wasn’t much of a line.
We got to the man at the check-in and presented our bags, one for each of us, carefully weighed in at just under seventy pounds. We didn’t realize we were allowed two bags each. We carried six bottles of California wine in our carry-on, something you no longer can do.
The man looked at our virginal passports and smiled. Diane said, “I had to be fifty before they’d let me out of the country.”
This made the man smile even more broadly. Then he asked the question, the key new addition to the still developing post-9-11 protocol. “Has anyone strange asked you to bring something on board this flight?”
I hesitated for a moment, then said, “Well . . . Nah . . . I guess he doesn’t count.”
The man’s face turned deadly serious. Di slapped me on the shoulder. “He means his nephew,” she explained. “He wanted Altoids.”
“Well, Erik is a bit strange,” I said in my defense.
I don’t know what effect all this had on the poor man, but since it was quiet he seemed to take it all in stride. He told us, “Listen, I’m going to give you the seats closest to the front. It’s still coach but you’ll have more leg room and no one in front of you.”
We thanked him for his generosity and wished him a Merry Christmas, and went through the boarding check point. Once inside we browsed through duty-free before deciding there was nothing there we couldn’t live without. We found a cozy little eatery that overlooked the tarmac where our plane was supposed to pull in and park. We had something to eat and drink -- I had a beer, of course -- and watched the big beautiful blue and white metal bird pull up practically under our feet. Our view was of the right side. Toward the nose there was a set of five windows, then a solid separation before a much longer bank of windows that were much more closely spaced. Di and I almost at the same instant said to each other, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could sit in those seats?”
I kept looking at the second window from the front. To me it looked perfect.
Finally it was time to board. We stood and waited for our assigned seat numbers to be called. They started with families with babies and people in wheelchairs. Next came passengers in World Business Class. Then they began filling the coach seats, loading from the back rows forward. I looked wistfully at my boarding pass. Row 2B. We would be the last ones called. So we waited. And waited.
After Row 32, the announcer said, “And all the rest.” feeling like the Professor and Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island, we followed everyone else onto the gangway and into the plane.
We could hear the stewardesses as they glanced at the boarding passes and, almost automatically, said, “To the right. To the right.” When we showed them ours we already knew what the lady would say, but she shocked us. “Straight ahead, turn left, through the galley, and you’re there.” We followed her instructions. There turned out to be row two in World Business Class, the very window we looked at wistfully from above the tarmac! The man at check-in had upgraded us and left it as a surprise.
I wondered why. Was it because it was Christmas? Were there so few passengers booked that they decided to fill Business Class with the earliest to check in? Was it our virginal status as world travelers -- break them in gently, boys? Was it my joke? Or did the man take pity on my wife for being stuck with a joker like me? I would never know.
Our stewardess beamed at us. “Free upgrade? How very delightful.” She treated us just as she would anyone who paid full fare. She called us by our surnames. We had a glass of champagne before the plane began to taxi. We had seats that reclined almost flat with room enough to walk around. Diane actually slept and I almost did. We had our own TV monitors and could choose what and when to watch. The food was great. When we reached the other end we felt rested and ready to go.
When Candida learned about the upgrade, she advised us the lesson she learned long ago: never turn right into an airplane.
Diane said she was spoiled for coach class, a feeling confirmed by our return flight two weeks later, without the upgrade. “Maybe that’s why,” she whispered to me.
“What do you mean?”
“I only want to fly Business Class now. Or better.”
“So you think it’s a plot. To corrupt us.”
“Me too,” I admitted.
Nine hours into the flight, after breakfast, our hands and faces refreshed by steaming hot towels, the reality of what we were doing began to take hold. We were going into a foreign country! Holland -- a land of mystery and adventure! Granted, it was a land of very safe adventures, but there was still some stomach churning uncertainty. We knew that Erik and Annemieke would be waiting for us at the airport to help us navigate this strange new world, but beyond that, even for me, it would be an alien landscape filled with people who spoke in tongues. How would we be received, two silly Americans coming across the Big Water to act as tourists in the dead of winter? What would we find waiting for us, charming and old and gezellig? And their friends, how hostile would they be toward two Americans even if we also hated George Bush?
We tried to stem our uncertainties and let the excitement overtake us. Mostly we would be seeing the Dutch, in their rich costumes and wooden shoes, with their quaint houses and magnificent art, on their flat bottom boats past windmills along their great canals, in the Old World with its centuries-in-the-making heritage.
Our anticipation mounted as we crossed over into Dutch air space and the plane began its descent. Lower and lower. Here we come! Strangers in a strange land, aliens in an alien world. Almost there. We could see houses, water, tiny little cars on the move, the airport. Schiphol! The runway! The cars grew bigger now, on the highway, pushing past. We were nearly on top of them. Dutch cars, Dutch airport, Dutch weather, Dutch houses, Dutch Dutch! The excitement was unbearable. Hurry up and land, let the adventure begin!
Then we saw them. As the plane banked before making its final approach, we saw them gleaming in the harsh winter sun. Dutch sun. McDonald’s Golden Arches.