The plan was good, as plans go. I spent Monday cleaning the house from top to bottom (a necessary precaution in Florida, lest the bugs and mold overrun your house while you are away), doing laundry, making lists of things to bring, and slowly packing. We put the kids to bed at seven and figured we could bang out the rest of the packing in two hours, get in bed by nine, and get five solid hours of sleep before we had to get up and get ready to go to the airport.
We finally fell into bed around midnight. Everything was packed, but baskets of clothes that had been weeded out and unpacked in an effort to make everything fit were strewn haphazardly about the house. Normally that would have bothered me, but exhaustion plus sheer dread of what was coming in two short hours overwhelmed any other concern.
Snooze buttons are the devil. The Ogre hit ours twice and we woke up 45 minutes late. We showered, threw toiletries in suitcases, kids in clothes, suitcases and kids in car, and sped out of Ave Maria.
Only to speed right back in, having forgotten ID’s, passes, phone chargers, and diapers. Once we finally had everything, we left again, only an hour behind schedule.
Here’s an important thing to know about how we travel: my aunt and uncle work for Southwest, and since we’re the only ones in my entire extended family who live out of state, they give us lots of buddy passes to come back and see everyone. That used to mean that we could come back a lot; now it means that we can all come back. We have to have five passes, since only little Lincoln flies for free.
It’s awesome be able to fly for free. There’s no way we’d be able to visit otherwise. But traveling on buddy passes is basically like traveling standby, except we’re after the people who are flying standby. So we have to get to the airport at least two hours ahead of the scheduled flight time.
Needless to say, we did not make it. Sienna and I checked ourselves and our luggage in about an hour and a half before the flight, and the Ogre met us a half-hour later with the other kids, having taken the car to long-term parking twenty light years away. I was sure there was no way we’d make the flight.
But we did. And get this — the flight was wonderful. 2 hours and 45 minutes is no short flight with four kids, but they all slept or played quietly. Even Angry Lincoln.
We got into Houston Hobby airport with an hour to spare for our snappy connecting flight to Dallas. I was feeling ridiculously optimistic. The big issue is always getting out of Ft. Lauderdale; Houston to Dallas is no problem. They have about 20 flights a day going between those two cities. I was, in fact, downright chipper about having such an easy day of travel and getting in before noon.
Alas. I should know better by now than to feel optimism.
Cancelled flights. Delayed flights. Overbooked flights. Angry customers. Lines and lines of angry customers, trying to get to Dallas. Overwhelmed, stressed Southwest employees. Clusterfrakery and chaos.
Here’s the other thing about flying on buddy passes: since we’re technically flying for free, when there are paying customers to deal with, we have to stay out of the way. Which meant, on Tuesday at Houston Hobby Airport, that we really couldn’t even ask the employees what was up with the flights, if there might be open seats later in the day, or if we would even get to Dallas at all that day until the rest of the customers had cleared out. My aunts, God bless them, tried to help us on the internet end, but a snafu with the website kept it from updated and reflecting the new, cancelled-flight-and-chaos status of Houston Hobby.
Do you know what is even worse than being stuck in a small, dingy, two-terminal airport with four kids under 8 for 9 hours? Not knowing when or if you will ever be able to leave. We could have rented a car and driven, but all the rental cars were sold out and we had no car seats with us. My dad volunteered to come get us, but it seemed so silly, when there was a possibility that we could leave in an hour or two. And yet, after a few hours, I started to feel like our family’s future was going to look like this:
I tried to keep everyone’s spirits up, joking with Sienna about living in the airport forever, and how she could grow up and aspire to make the milkshakes at Pappas’ Burgers, but she thought I was serious and started crying. After that I contented myself with keeping Lincoln from eating other people’s leftovers and shoe muck off the dingy carpet. After a while I even gave that up, and focused on rationing our water so we wouldn’t have to pay another $15 for water. After we ran out of water, I mostly just sat and stared, glassy-eyed, while the children ran around the Dallas gate (the busiest in the airport at this point, lucky for us) and terrorized the other passengers with their irritating childishness.
Luckily Liam picked that day to have diarrhea, so even though I brought enough diapers to last him a day and a half at his usual rate, we ran out after three hours and started putting him in Lincoln’s. When we ran out of those, we searched for hours before finding one tiny shop at the far end of Terminal 2 that sold packages of single diapers and six wipes, for a reasonable $3 each. We bought three while gnashing our teeth and cursing the evils of capitalism. I had packed enough snacks, diapers, and everything to keep our spending to $20 maximum, had the trip gone as planned, but by the time the day was over, the diapers brought our grand total up over $90. Every purchase stressed me out further. Every sugary, greasy, nutritionally deficit food-like substance the kids devoured brought me closer to the brink.
Until about 4 o’clock. Then I just stopped caring. My care-o-meter broke, shattered by the grim overhead lights of the Houston Hobby airport, until I was even past the point of being annoyed by the cuteness of the “Pappadeaux To-Geaux” sign we walked past 7000 times.
That’s when I knew we were in trouble.
Out of sheer desperation, I waited in a line of 20 passengers until I reached the gate agent. Clutching a squalling, over-stimulated, over-tired, miserably Lincoln, with mustard all over my pants and milkshake down my shirt, I said, “I know you have to clear the other customers first, but could you please just tell me when we might be able to leave this place?”
The woman, God bless her, was as sympathetic and wonderful as almost all Southwest employees are. She did some click-clicking on her computer, gave me a wink, and said, “sit tight.”
So. Tight we sat. Right by her booth, glancing up at her occasionally with the kind of desperation one usually sees on the face of a dying man in the desert who has glimpsed a mirage. The flight was scheduled to leave at 5:30. At 5:45 she began clearing standbys. At 6:00 she stopped, but she remained on the phone and the gate remained open. By 6:10 I had given up hope and let Lincoln out of the Maya wrap to resume his consumption of grime from around the country. At 6:20 she looked over and said, “Hand me your passes and get everyone ready.”
Oh man, it was like every Christmas of my whole life had been packed into that one sentence. We lept up and threw things into random other things, grabbing shoeless children, holding shoes in our mouths, our hands loaded down with bags and diapers and miscellaneous other children, and flew down the gate to the completely full airplane.
Liam had to sit on Christopher’s lap, Sienna had to sit a row ahead of me, and I had to sit sandwiched between two gentlemen, but I would have stood in the aisle at that point. The flight was short, only 45 minutes, Lincoln was a breakdown-ey mess, but the men on either side of me were mercifully kind and the flight attendants were as patient and sweet as only Southwest flight attendants are.
We landed in Dallas at 7:15. I have never been so happy to see Dallas Love. I almost cried, I kid you not. And it has taken us the last three days to even marginally recover.
But right now the kids are laying on couches, sunburnt puddles of blissed-out post-swimming exhaustion, Lincoln is sleeping peacefully, and I am typing happily in blessed, blessed silence, proving once more that however much it might try, air travel cannot kill the human spirit of resiliency.