It’s a beautiful afternoon in Texas and I’m landing at the Dallas Fort-Worth airport. The clear blue sky is the epitome of friendly. If it was night, the stars would have been bright, such is my optimism as the plane is touching down today deep in the heart of Texas. With a naive ease of mind, I disembark the plane to a waiting wheelchair. I’m fully ready to let the intricate network of Accessibility Assistants whisk me away to the gate of my connecting flight. Trust in the system, they say, the system will never let you down. Lay back in that wheelchair, you’re going to be just fine.
When the wheelchair ride ends abruptly after we, the wheelchair pusher and I, decamp the jetway, I sense something is wrong. Everything is bigger in Texas, I think, but does that apply in equal measure to her successes and failures? Remember the Alamo.
“Wait here for the cart.” The Wheelchair Pusher instructs, and I, having a sense of duty, do as I’m told.
I have one hour to make the connection and despite being rather indistinguishable among the other travelers in the busy terminal I remain confident the intended cart is coming for me. For those of you who have never been in an airport with a passenger cart, they look like a limousine version of an electric golf cart.
My confidence pays off because about 10 minutes later, the cart shows up. I climb on and we zoom off.
We cruise for a few gates and then stop to pick up these additional passengers. A middle-aged Lady with a cane, four Unaccompanied Minors (children), and their airport-employed handler who appears to be an Assistant Manager of something. He speaks with the authority of a vice principal, directing our driver to continue on and not pick up any more passengers. Hurray, I rejoice. The cart has no room for mercy and neither does my itinerary.
Before we continue further, let’s discuss the incredibly brilliant layout of the Dallas Fort-Worth (DFW) airport. The terminals are connected by impossibly long hallways because an airport with short hallways gets made fun of by the other airports. Normal travelers use the DFW train that takes them promptly from one terminal to the next. However, the cart, the steel demon-steed I am astride, cannot go on the train. Trains are snobby like that. Also the cart won’t fit. Instead, the cart must traverse the unbearably long hallways betwixt terminals, which seems like a perfectly fine compromise at first. The cart does move faster than walking speed. However, the hallway isn’t actually one big stretch, it’s several stretches at different heights because airplanes and other traffic must pass underneath them. These smaller stretches are connected by elevators taking you, the abnormal traveler, up and down the different heights. Think of it as walking down a corridor, then getting on an elevator to go two stories up, then walking down another corridor to the next elevator to go back down a few stories. Now imagine needing to repeat that process about three times just to get from one terminal to the other. Got all that in your head? Ready for the kicker?
The cart cannot go on the elevators.
That’s right. The cart can only take you as far as the first elevator it encounters. Then, you have to use the elevator on foot and wait for the next cart, the cart assigned to that level of the terminal hallway, to come pick you up. With many elevators between you and the next terminal, this means you’ll be waiting on a cart not once, but numerous times. How could this system ever go wrong?
Returning to our plucky hero and his cohort of defenseless children, the defensive vice principal, and the aloof cane lady, we manage to make it past two of the elevators without imprudent incident, although the attrition of the waiting eats in to my deadline.
With 30 minutes to go, we arrive at the last elevator. Having already worn myself out from marathon exasperation at the airport’s design, I expect there to be a massive sculpture from Lord of the Rings at the end. While my fellowship isn’t exactly complete, we’re missing an elf, we do have hobbits (unaccompanied minors). Also, the Manager is in a grim state befitting a ranger who’s just lost his wizard to the Balrog. Or in (less cool) non-Lord of the Rings terms, the guy in charge is banking heavily on this final cart to show up when he expects it. And he expects it now. Otherwise, me and the kids and the lady with the cane are not going to make our flights.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a story if the cart had shown up on time.
Fifteen minutes elapse leaving us with another fifteen minutes before my plane takes off without me. The Manager makes several attempts to radio for the cart, but he’s met with gibberish, then static. He tries again. Nada. His inner vice principal sweats insecurity as he tries to maintain the ruse that everything is under control. The radio will save us. Believe me. The radio.
I never place any faith in radios. Whenever you watch a war movie and the soldiers have to radio in for support, it never works. I suppose if it did though, like the cart showing up on time, there wouldn’t be a story.
The Manager makes his last plea over the airwaves. Static replies back. Desperate, the Manager does something I don’t expect. He points at me, and then to the unaccompanied minors, and delivers his orders. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
We never see him again.
There’s a certain point where it becomes evident that the system is no longer working and one is placed at the precipice of a decision. Two options. Both feel like falling off a cliff. Either you keep calm and carry on believing that you haven’t been forgotten, that you’re not actively slipping through the proverbial cracks. Or you realize the only way out of this hole is to raise a fuss. Break the cycle. Write a letter. Do whatever it takes to get you and yours back on track. It’s tempting to say always do the latter, causing a kerfuffle is fun, but I would hazard a guess that most of us choose the former, to keep the faith in the system. Most often it’s the path of least resistance. If there’s a setback, usually things take care of themselves.
Except I can’t risk that.
I can’t always accept the consolation prize for doing what I’m told when I see a flaw in the system. I don’t have the same resources as a normal person. The system doesn’t usually account for people like me. In this case, missing my connecting flight to Charleston would result in me spending the night in Dallas. I can’t do that easily, I need my oxygen machine to sleep, and I didn’t have it with me. It doesn’t travel well. While most people can deal with a night of bad sleep, for me that’s often a catalyst for illness. From there, things can snowball until I’m in the hospital with an asthma attack yelling at the nurse to get me the damn chicken tenders.
When I hear the intercom announcing the boarding of my flight, I am no longer down with the system.
Weighing my options, I estimate how far the walk is to get to my gate. I can walk, I’m not an invalid, but I’m also not exactly a speedster either. Not yet. It will take me longer than I can afford right now to walk, but maybe there will be a plane delay? Maybe the pilot gets stuck in the bathroom? Walking would at least be doing something and in my growing panic, something is looking a lot better than nothing. But when I glance back at the unaccompanied minors (hobbits), I realize I’m no longer just another traveler trying to make his flight.
With the absence of the Manager, and the abdication of all responsibility by the Cane Lady who has chosen to sit a fair distance away, suddenly I’m now the Guy in Charge. Praise be. The children look at me with their little adorable eyes and that damn sense of duty swells inside my heart. Fear not, little ones, Tuck will get you on your flights.
Most of life is anti-climatic. And then there are those moments of glory.
Down the hallway comes a cart.
As it gets closer, I wave to the two guys driving the electric beast. They do not wave back. I wave again. They do not slow down. I wish for a radio, but they have no radio. Not really thinking it through, I do the only thing I can to stop the cart. I step out in front of it committing my own Tienanmen Square stand, albeit with far less gravitas. With a grinding squeak, the cart stops. The two guys on the stopped cart stare at me. I notice the cart is full of baggage. It’s a baggage cart. This is not the transportation that was foretold, but it has four wheels, a driver, and a few empty seats. Close enough. I motion for the kids to get on the cart without asking for permission. The driver and his co-pilot offer no resistance, which is good because I’m not going to move from out in front of the cart until those kids get on. After I mount my commandeered prize, I realize there’s no room for Cane Lady. She motions for us to go on, making the penultimate sacrifice. We never see her again.
The cart lurches forward.
We make progress through the terminal, but time is running out. My cellphone rings. It’s the gate calling to see where I am. Of course, my voice being the soft whisper that it is, I cannot communicate that I’m almost there. I hand the phone to the kid next to me. He tries to talk, then politely informs me they’ve hung up.
The system has given up on me. We need to go faster.
I’m sitting up front, no actually I’m standing up front much like the painting of Washington crossing the Delaware because there’s no available seats. I glance at the dashboard and see the speed control is measured by the ancient metric of Turtle (slow) to Rabbit (not slow). From my years piloting a mobility scooter through high school and university, I am well aware of the travesty going on regarding the speed. These fools have it set to Turtle. No wonder we’re going so slow. I grab the shirt collar of the driver and lean in close to his ear. In what I hope is a calm, firm voice, I tell the Driver the only thing he needs to hear.
“Drive this cart like you stole it, these kids need to make their flight.”
He nods, “Yes, sir” and cranks it up to Rabbit. The other guy lays on the horn. We boogie.
Three minutes later, we stop at my gate. I wave bye to the kids, I got them this far, they can make it from here. I run as much as I can up to the gate. The Gate Agent sees me coming.
“Are you Christopher?”
I nod. He pulls out his whistle, gives it a mighty TOOT. Did you know they have whistles? I didn’t and briefly thought I was in trouble for hijacking the baggage cart.
The Gate Agent runs down the jetway tooting his whistle. A few yells later, he comes back, motioning for me to follow him down. Apparently, my arrival was seconds away from being too late. The plane had disconnected from the jetway but the door wasn’t closed. If the door closes, there’s nothing anyone can do. That’s the system for you.
I board the plane and take my seat. The Flight Attendant isn’t happy about the delay, but she can stuff it.
When I pass through DFW again, I insist on taking a wheelchair the entire way through. We ride the airport train and arrive on time at the gate only to discover the plane is delayed. The heater is broken. There’s nothing I can do but wait.