Airport 1969—

The 2,200-mile trip home was uneventful for my first time traveling alone. The flight took less than four hours from the San Diego International Airport to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Then I made the long trek, one I would make often over the years, weighted down by a very heavy sea bag and black tote bag, across O'Hare's length to the terminal housing the North Central Airlines ticket office. Between San Diego and Chicago I had been on a quiet plane propelled by smooth-operating jet engines. Between Chicago and Jackson I had the privilege of flying a North Central propjet that vibrated, violently at times, and was extremely noisy always. En route the propjet first landed at Kalamazoo, then at Battle Creek (home of the Kellogg's cereal company), and finally at Jackson before continuing on to other stops. Thus began three frigid, December-January weeks in Michigan. (Eventually Jackson would be taken off the route due to insufficient numbers of passengers.)

I was home, back where everything looked familiar. It was a time of showing pictures, telling stories and reaffirming ties. Somehow, though, things had changed. I was a different person from the young man who had left Michigan for boot camp. I had seen, done, and otherwise experienced things of which friends and family could have no reality. People I had known since childhood seemed distant, while some looked upon me as though it was for the last time. It would be this way each time I went home on leave. Each time the distance would be greater as I, and those who stayed behind, continued to stockpile experiences no longer held in common.

The days passed quickly, and, all told, it was a happy time. Then Christmas and New Year's Day were history, and time came for me to prepare for the return to San Diego. Mom washed my clothes (gear) and sewed the double-barred stripes denoting Seaman Apprentice on the upper right arm of several jerseys. I had a Navy-issue sewing kit received in boot camp. Still, I never sewed stripes or insignia on my jerseys, not so much from laziness as from wanting them to look inspection quality. Instead, I would have it done at the store called Seven Seas in San Diego, or, as in this case, by Mom. Meanwhile, her living room couch was covered by many small stacks of gear waiting to be systematically packed into the sea and tote bags. When all was ready Mom, my girlfriend Jeannie and I spent a quiet evening at Mom's house.

The next morning, January 4, 1969, my dad and step-mother came by around 7:00 o'clock to pick me up. Then we swung by Jeannie's grandparents' house to pick her up on our way to the tiny Jackson airport. At the airport terminal we drank coffee and chatted until 8:30 o'clock, when we said our good-byes and I climbed aboard North Central Airlines Flight 800. I was both excited and anxious about what new experiences might be awaiting me in San Diego and at the Naval Training Center. One thing I wasn't too concerned about was the journey to get there, especially now that I was a veteran airline traveler.

The old propjet left Jackson punctually and arrived in Kalamazoo at 9:30 o'clock, its last remaining stop being O'Hare Airport. Passengers departed and boarded, and everything was routine until airport officials discovered that one more person was aboard than the plane had seats. A woman had reserved seats for herself and her child, but the man at the reservation desk had only marked down a single seat for the two of them. After a half hour additional layover an Army man, who was already AWOL (Absent without Leave) a matter of twelve hours, volunteered to surrender his seat. The airline promised to intercede for him with his commander and tell of his heroic sacrifice.

Everything was set for departure. We were moving into position for takeoff when the plane stopped. It then taxied back to the hangar, where we learned that the plane was experiencing generator trouble. There would be a four-hour layover for repairs (a layover that eventually turned into flight cancellation). Unfortunately for all concerned this just happened to be the busiest weekend of the year, and most flights were completely booked.

The already crowded Kalamazoo airport now had 88 more people for whom to find transportation. Added to this, all flights into Kalamazoo were running late. I immediately called my youngest sister and her Army recruit husband at their place in Kalamazoo and told them of my predicament. It was now 10:15 AM, and I was predicting a flight out before long. Thus, not much concern was expressed. Then I got in line to find out about getting another flight.

I reached the head of the line at 12:30 o'clock in the afternoon and learned that I could try flying standby on Flight 872 at 1:05 o'clock. Yet, if I didn't get on this one, the next plane wouldn't be until 10:05 o'clock in the evening. It was now time for concern.

I again called Mary and Rob, figuring if I couldn't get the first flight at least I could spend a pleasant afternoon and early evening with them. Wrong. They were just getting ready to leave for Jackson. Mary was concerned for me and said that if I missed the first flight, they'd work something out.

Slowly 2:30 o'clock arrived, and an announcement sputtered over a faulty PA system that Flight 872 wouldn't be in until 3:30 o'clock. A great, collective sigh of resignation went up, and those visitors who had remained until then bade farewell to their loved ones and left. I informed my sister about the additional delay, so they drove over and left me $20 of just-in-case money. When 3:30 o'clock arrived, so did Flight 872. I was confirmed standby and let Mary and Rob know. They were relieved for me, though Rob was becoming anxious for himself. He would be flying standby to Augusta, Georgia, soon for the remainder of his Army training.

Flight 872 landed, and the spectacle was something like a scene from the movie Where Were You when the Lights went Out? In the movie, when the lights went back on at a New York City bus terminal after the power had been out for twelve hours, and in real life, when the arrival of Flight 872 was announced, the terminal went wild. It was pandemonium. Everyone jammed into the doorway leading to the landing strip. Off boarding passengers had to struggle against a living current of bodies to leave the plane and enter the terminal.

There were no other problems getting to Chicago for those of us lucky enough to have gotten this flight. The ride was much smoother, also, because the plane was a DC-9 jetliner. Still, I wasn't yet in San Diego, and ahead was the longest leg of the journey.

The O'Hare terminal looked like a much larger version of the crowded terminal we had just left. After hearing that many flights were booked solid, I decided to buy a regular ticket and forgo flying military standby, a much cheaper rate and my usual preference. I got in line to buy the ticket, but the long line crawled. Grounded Flight 800, and the very late Flight 872, had screwed-up airport operations. When I finally reached a ticketing agent, she frantically tried to get a reservation straight through to San Diego for myself and another Jackson military man and his wife. At last she made arrangements, though there would be a plane change and layover in Los Angeles. We were all to fly on Continental Airlines' Flight 9 to Los Angeles, and from there we would catch United Airlines' Flight 503 to San Diego. The ticket purchase drained most of my cash reserves, but the relief that came from having a confirmed flight removed any objection on my part to paying. Besides, I still had the $20 in just-in-case money to fall back on.

I retrieved my sea bag from North Central Baggage Claim and lugged it and the tote bag to the Continental terminal. Then, except for Flight 9 arriving late and leaving late, the cross-continent trip went well. We took off at 6:00 PM Central Standard Time and arrived in Los Angeles at 7:00 o'clock Pacific Standard Time. I knew that my next flight was to leave at 9:30 o'clock, so I immediately checked in at United to make sure everything was okay. It wasn't okay.

Flight time of 9:30 o'clock meant AM the following day and not PM today. Either I had to spend the night at the airport or at a motel, and of the two options the latter by far seemed the best. I made a few calls before choosing the Sands Motel near the airport. For a nightly rate of $8.30 it provided limousine service from and to the airport, a TV in my room and use of the pool.

The motel was managed by a pleasant couple and their daughter-in-law. (The son/husband was away in the service.) Here I had a most enjoyable evening visiting before ending it alone with TV and memories. The relaxation helped me to calm down and psychologically prepare for whatever was to come the next day. Then, early, I arrived at United's terminal, from which Flight 503 departed precisely at 9:30 o'clock. Now all that remained to be done was wrestle with all the red tape attendant to reporting on board the Naval Training Center and enrolling at Service School Command.

Copyright 1992, 1998 Charles W. Paige

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