Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

About twice a year, millions of children make the pilgrimage back home to their parents' loving arms. Some of them with their own children, like the mismatched couple and their adorable little Raptor* that I rode with all the way from San Diego to Chicago to Pittsburgh.

The day was long, as indeed all days involving travel from the West to East coast are. Unless you have the good fortune to go direct or take a red-eye, plan to take a day and flush it. You lose three hours, some sleep, and probably a few years off the end of your life if you're doing it during the holidays. I was not of the good fortune to fly direct or find a red-eye that would allow me to pass the journey in a haze of sleep and white airplane noise, so I sacrificed the day before Thanksgiving to go home to my Dad and Pam. It began at 6:35 am when my alarm chirped me awake to finish the last minute preparations--showering, toiletry packing, emptying the trash and whatnot. I made it out the door by 8:21 to drive over to my gracious friend Tim's house, where I was to park my car in the peace and safety of the neighborhood where he and his wife and son live, and be dropped off at the train station.

San Diego public transportation is about as unimpressive as you'll find anywhere in most US cities, but one thing they definitely did right was operate the Coaster, which runs commuters, Padre fans, and travelers up and down the coast. Not wanting to risk a frenzied gauntlet run in the airport during a holiday bumrush, I took the earlier train at 9:23, which spit me out at the end of the line an hour later, and a comfortable two hours and twenty minutes before takeoff. From there, it's a quick bus ride on the 992 to Lindberg Field, where I checked in rather quickly and found myself bitterly sucking down an overpriced pumpkin spice frappuccino and a parfait, being too proud to spend just fifty cents more for a hot sandwich instead. (Which would have been about ten dollars.)

While I was killing time waiting for the plane, I did my usual people watching and created back stories for my fellow travelers. The twenty-year old with the tribal lower back tattoo was holding her very young infant. She, too, made the trip with me all the way to Pittsburgh, but I knew it wasn't her I had to worry about. Babies on planes get the bad rep, but at that age, they're mostly just sleeping, eating, and soiling themselves and aren't a whole lot of trouble for anyone but Mom and Dad, who want to shift in their seats but have to be careful not to bop the baby off the back of the folding tray in front of them. And generally, it's not the preschoolers you have to worry about either, because they can be distracted with some coloring books or portable DVD players. The ones you really need to watch out for are the toddlers.

And isn't that true of toddlers in general? Adorable, curious, rambunctious, monkey-like, and about on par with cave men in terms of peace negotiations. I spotted one, no more than 20 months old, I'd say, and he was boggled from the word "go". Why can't I run around in the terminal? Why?? Why stay here next to you when anything else in the world would be more interesting?, he would have said, had he the language skills yet.

Now, I admit that I was feeling a bit harsh by the time I got to Chicago and saw him and his parents getting off the plane after me, and as they continued to walk towards another gate, I gave the old-school western, "Yeh, you better just keep onnnn walkin..." Look. It had been four hours of nearly non-stop screaming halfway across the country. I had had enough. But, no, they eventually came back to the gate where I was waiting to continue on to Pittsburgh, presumably after a pit stop at a bathroom and to let junior stretch his legs. When we boarded the second plane, I realized that I had firmly planted my foot in my mouth and given karma an open invitation when the bedraggled family of three sat down directly in front of me. (Before they were a few rows behind and on the other side of the aisle.)

Earlier I called the parents mismatched. That's because he was a 40-something bandy-legged man with balding strawberry blonde hair and she was a tiny Asian woman at least several years his junior. Their child was a doe-eyed little mite with big brown eyes and gorgeously-dark amber colored hair, a perfect blend of his parents.

I can't even say I was focusing my wrath on the little guy. When you're that young, going on a plane ride must be one big, confusing nightmare. Can you imagine? Middle of the day, you're fully awake, enough energy to power a Vespa from here to Naples, and dozens of big people are expecting you to sit down, restrained, and entertaining yourself. With no toys for this boy, mind you. Not a one. I saved my self-riteous contempt for his parents, who are surely to be pitied as well. As the parent of a restless, screaming child, you must develop keloids on the back of your neck and side of your face from the burning, searing hate-filled looks you get from everyone else. They hate you and especially your gonads for having the gall to reproduce and then bring that crying, howling offspring within 10 feet of them. In an enclosed space. For four hours. They hate you, you should be sterilized, and your child taken away by nuns.

Indeed, I decided that his parents were clueless (as though I'm some sort of expert, me with my almost zero babysitting hours outside of my little brother, no children, and definitely not holding an early childhood education degree). I rolled my eyes, huffed, and got to work tearing pages out of the in-flight magazine as soon as we had reached cruising altitude and I could lower my tray table without being reprimanded. A few folds and I had a paper boat. When the boy was finally free enough to stand up in his seat and turn around, I handed it to him. Here, kid, I transmitted with my eyes and toothy grin, it's not much, but maybe you can go for a sail. Or pick it apart. Whichever.

He grabbed it, bewildered, and turned back around to his father, who told him to say thank-you. He didn't. I didn't mind. So young, no manners yet. I don't think he played with it, but he was rather content for the next several minutes in observing his surroundings. I got to thinking about my illustrious career in flying. The first trip was just three months after my birth when we went to Cleveland to see my Dad's parents for Christmas. I probably didn't get around on planes much while I was still a toddler, but soon after my parents were separated and living on opposite coasts several years later, I became an old pro. I loved to fly and saw a bright future ahead as a stewardess. Yes, stewardess, if you please, because even though I'm still young, I remember a time before stewardesses went the way of the mailman.

The only thing I dreaded as a child was the descent, during which my little ears couldn't keep up with the pressure equalization. I cried in agony, unable to understand what was happening to me, barely able to yawn or chew gum as my parents urged me to do. It's a pain I'll never forget, partly because I experienced it again earlier this year when I flew back from Orlando with a nasty sinus cold. I wanted to eject myself from the plane into the sweet release of death as an adult, so you can imagine what it was like as a child.

In a way, though, I envied him and his parents. At least they could sojourn and suffer as a family. I've mostly been alone in the friendly skies, ever since my first solo flight at the age of eight. Terrified, I received the news while I was visiting my Dad that I would have to come back to Tacoma by myself. I was a big girl now, old enough to go by myself. And something about money... I bawled myself sick to hear it. I would be lost, miss my flight, get stuck in Minneapolis and be carried off by bandits. None of the above ever happened, but nearly twenty years later, I cherish every rare opportunity I get to fly with a companion.

About eleven hours after the train and planes, I at last reached the automobile, piloted by my Dad and Pam, who dutifully came at midnight local time to retrieve their wayward daughter. "So how was your trip?", my ever-cheerful stepmom asked me as soon as we pulled away from the curb. "Uneventful?" I gave a wry smile and cracked, "Yes, aside from this adorable child..." My Dad immediately started laughing, detecting my sarcasm and knowing where this story was going. "...whose parents had not yet learned about the drop of Benadryl** in the juice yet...", I continued. I proceeded to give a brief rundown of events.

Looking back, truly, it wasn't so bad a trip, and in the end it's worth it to be home. I'm sure I'll recover sufficiently to do it all again next month when I go home to see my Mom for Christmas.

*I refer to screechy children as Raptors, for the sound that they make resembling that of the raptors in Jurassic Park.

**Okay, okay, okay, Mommies, please put your pitchforks down and hear me out. I've heard that dosing your young child up with OTC antihistamines is one possible way to get you both through a plane ride, but I'm also aware that some kids get hyper instead of drowsy on that stuff, and then there's the debate about whether or not it is kosher to "drug" your kids. I say it's not like you're giving them a shot of Wild Turkey to take the edge off... And folks used to rub brandy on a teething baby's gums and the world didn't seem so bad then, did it? In the end, it's always just up to you to do what's best for you and your child, blah-blah-blah, and if you can find a way to make it work without doping them up on Benadryl, do. Or maybe put off the plane trips until a little later, or better yet, start making the relatives come to you for the holiday. Or maybe hire a baby wrangler. The sky is literally the limit.