Christmas in California, and a routine trip home that proves anything but routine — a life lesson in the kindness of strangers and the comfort of Home. This past Christmas I spent a lovely five days with my youngest son and family who live in Riverside, California. We dined out, hung out, and opened presents by the tree and fire on Christmas morning. After we all shared a great lunch at a local eatery on Saturday, my son drove me to an Ontario airport hotel so I could spend an early night there to catch a 7 a.m. flight on Sunday morning – straight back to Richmond through Dallas-Fort Worth. I awoke at 3 a.m. California time that Sunday to have coffee and pastry in my room and jumped on the 5 a.m. shuttle to the airport.
Now the airport at Ontario is a rather small one – easy to go through security, but the planes, for some reason, are frequently delayed in departing. In my case that morning, the 7 a.m. flight was delayed more than an hour because first we were missing a cabin crew member, and then we were missing a pilot. But the latter finally showed up and we took off for Dallas.
It turns out that the day before, the Dallas area had been hit by serious tornadoes, and a number of folks were killed. In general, there was BAD weather all over the Western states. Thus there was a cascade effect on major hubs like Dallas, and either planes weren’t available or, when they were, crews couldn’t be gathered because they were stuck somewhere else.
At any rate, we took off from Ontario and I thought I still had time to catch my 2:05 connection (American flight 2324 – I’ll never forget that number). As we were about a half hour out from Dallas, the pilot came on the intercom and said that we were going to have “severe turbulence” approaching the Dallas airport, and therefore, the flight crew needed to prepare for landing right now and then sit down!
I was sitting next to a friendly fellow and we had exchanged a few words earlier in the flight. At the first sign of “bumpiness,” however, I grabbed his hand and said I hoped he didn’t mind. And he assured me he didn’t. When the turbulence let up for a few minutes, I let go. But as soon as it started up again, he laid his hand in easy reach for me to grab and cling to as we descended into Dallas. I was grateful for his kindness. I assured him if he looked at my next blog he would see himself honored as a very kind hero!
To make a very long story short, the 2:05 flight that I could have easily connected with was first delayed until 4, then 5:30, and then of course cancelled – in red. I knew there was an 8 p.m. flight that I could have originally taken that would get into Richmond by 10:30 – later than I wanted to get home, but hey, better now then nothing.
By this time, everyone Richmond-bound in the waiting area were great friends, and the pilot who showed up said if we boarded at a reasonable time, we could just squeak by the FAA’s 13-hour time limit for crews to be in the air without a break. We boarded, late – around 9:00 – but we boarded. And so we sat. Because it was raining hard but more significantly, there was lightning and thunder in the area which prevented the ground crew from coming out and pushing us off from the gate.
After a half-hour of sitting there, the pilot came on the intercom and said he hated to be the bearer of bad news, but he and the crew had now exceeded the FAA rule for flight time and … you guessed it … the flight was cancelled.
So we all got off the plane and stood in a long line to get re-booked the next day. As I stood in line, I was determined not to sleep on the airport floor if I could avoid it. So I called my Marriott rewards number and miraculously got a room at the airport Marriott. By the time I had gotten to the front of the line, it turned out that I already had been booked the next day on – you guessed it – flight 2324, the original flight I was supposed to have taken eight hours earlier.
So off I went by taxi to the hotel, bought an extra large Dallas Cowboys T-shirt to sleep in, and had a terrible night’s sleep because of the uncertainty of it all. I had a nice breakfast compliments of the hotel in the dining room the next morning, and decided I’d go ahead and take a shuttle to the airport and check in for flight 2324 and at least get my boarding pass.
As I was standing in line to get the pass, I was listening to the automatic American Airlines update on my cell phone. As I was next in line to approach the counter, I heard the computer voice say, “Flight 2324 from Dallas to Richmond, Virginia is now … cancelled!” I was now desperate to get to Richmond via any city in the country, and a very nice man at the counter booked me through Charlotte, North Carolina, to Richmond. And to end the suspense, all of that went very, very well and I actually touched down at Richmond International Airport around 5:30 p.m. – sans luggage, of course, which was still in Dallas.
But I was home. Now here’s the thing. As I drove away from the airport in my very own car, headed to my very own home, I cried. Not a sobbing cry, but with tears in my eyes. And when I pulled into my driveway and went into the side door off the kitchen, tears were still in my eyes. And I kept saying, “Thank you Lord, thank you Lord” – I had never been so happy to be home.
Home. What does that mean to us? The next morning, still ecstatic to find myself at home base, I thought of a little book of essays by Frederick Buechner titled The Longing for Home. And in it, I found this:
I have it in me at my best to be a saint to other people, and by saint I mean life-giver, someone who is able to bear to others something of the Holy Spirit. … And so of course, have we all – the life-giving, life-saving, and healing power to be saints, to be saints … maybe at rare moments even to ourselves. I believe that it is when that power is alive in me and through me that I come closest to being truly home … that holiness that I may have glimpsed … I cannot claim that I have found the home I long for every day of my life, not by a long shot, but I believe that in my heart I have found, and have maybe always known, the way that leads to it. … I believe that home is Christ’s kingdom, which exists both within us and among us as we wend our prodigal ways through the world in search of it.
The kindness of strangers who turn out to be saints. And the comfort of Home.