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Or, the Christmas Vacation Diary.
Or, What I Learned This Christmas.

I was one of the roughly three to five thousand people stranded in Denver International Airport this Christmas.

Here's my story.

I sat around Portland bemoaning the fact that I was going to have to spend another Christmas with my family.  Our family dynamic such that I'm the scapegoat for my mother's failures.  That is, if, for example, she forgets to do something, it's not that she forgot to do something, it's that I didn't proactivly remind her to do it.  It's quite ridiculous, and several years ago I figured out it's easier to just not argue and go on with my life.  The mother-child version of, "Yes, Dear."

Even though I've figured out how to keep things flowing smoothly does not mean I look forward to doing it.  There is a very good reason why I stayed around in Portland when they mved some three thousand miles away.  My flight was fairly early.  I got a ride to the airport.  All was well.  I got a cup of coffee, swallowed it whole before I had to dump it out because of potential explosive power of the gingerbread latte and staggered through security.  

Did you know that Ricola's Honey Cherry cough drops set off the metal detector?  That was a trip to the little table for the bag search, wanding, and crotch-grab.  The Transportation Security Administration:  Protecting us from Gatorade and Cough Drops.  

My plane arrived in Denver around ten o'clock (Denver time) that morning, and by the time I got to my connecting flight's gate, the snow was blowing sideways.  About twenty minutes later, I couldn't see the airplanes parked at the gate.  About an hour later, I couldn't see the little gates.  There's something surreal about being at the end of a long concourse with floor to ceiling windows on three sides, and all of them being pure white.  I eyed the now very long customer service line, shrugged, and staked out a place in line.  I figured I had plenty of time at that point, and nothing much better to do.

I have learned more about airline reservation, booking, and scheduling that I should ever have to know.  I know what an "Arrival Unknown" is.  I know, with mind-numbing detail, how to perfectly fly standby.  I know the exit row numbers of at least ten different aircraft, and the policy for booking said rows on three different airlines.  I know how many planes can take off and land on a given runway at Denver in an hour.  I know how many people can fit on at least three different type of aircraft.  I am convinced I know every method of overbooking a flight known to man, and I can repeat, verbatim, the announcements every part of the Denver International Airport.  

I have learned where every fast food join in DIA is.  I know when they close.  I know where the cheapest bottle of water is, and I know where every fountain is.  I know the least-busy bathroom, and I know where you can go to change your underwear.  I know where the cardboard boxes are thrown away, and I know how many you have to break down and layer to get a mat-like padding on a cold tile floor.  I've learned which concourses have what types of seats, and which you can move, tip over, or adjust.  I know that the mats behind the podiums make great padding, and I know how to pick the lock on the cabinets with the backup airline food in them.  I even know where the darkest parts and the warmest parts of the concourses are.

I learned some things that may have seemed obvious, but there comes a point, at about the 30 hour mark, when you realize it can't hurt to ask, and, really, it's not like they can send you to jail for asking.  And even if they could, it's not like you could get to jail.  I learned that under no circumstances what-so-ever, is a human being allowed to go head-first through the x-ray machine at the security checkpoint.  Or feet first.  I learned that, even if I do know where the luggage x-ray machine is, I can not go through that, even if I "would obviously fit".  I learned that it is not ok to build a snow man inside, even if you need to move the snow in to get it to melt a bit so it will stick together.  

When I first arrived in Denver, and it was obvious I was going to be there a while, I, like most people, first experienced a bit of nearly uncontrolled rage.  That dissapated fairly quickly when I overheard a ticket agent tell another passanger, "Sir, I understand you are an Ascent member, but that does not mean I can change the weather."  

I moved into the acceptance and survival stage.  I travel fairly lightly, which, being diabetic, is probably fairly stupid.  I had a box of pop tarts with me, plenty of insulin (I'm not a complete retard), a couple packages of Starburst, and about seven dollars in change.  

After waiting in line for roughly three hours (the Frontier Airlines people were kind enough to serve drinks, even with the little cart from the plane to those waiting in line) and being booked for a flight at about 8p the following day, I wandered over to McDonald's and got a snack wrap1 (my god, that's disgusting) and called my parents.  I mentioned my Starburst and Pop Tart dilema, and got them to wire me some cash for the next couple days.  Money goes fast in an airport -- if you've not noticed.  And no, the airlines didn't give us any solutions beyond, "Wow, here, we'll rebook you. It must suck to be hungry!2"

It seems like it'd be a horrific experience.  I keep thinking it must have been, but for some reason, I wasn't upset.  I mean, I was generally impatient, and I found myself grumping at the situation in general.  I was sort of wondering what I was going to do when the cash I had on my ran out (a lot of the merchants didn't take plastic, and that doesn't really matter, because I don't have plastic anyway).  I was sort of wondering what was going to happen when the merchants ran out of food themselves.  

But something strange happened.  People starting being nice to one another.  The Red Cross came in, they had some water, sports drinks, and staples -- granola bars, energy bars, chips and so forth -- and supplies.  Things like cots, blankets (no where near enough for everyone, of course), diapers, medicine for people that needed it, and so on.  But it wasn't even that.  I myself got a couple food vouchers the first day, before I got cash wired in.  I had used one.  I went to the room where the Red Cross was hanging out to give it to someone there, so they could use it for someont that needed it, and I saw maybe twenty passangers helping out.  People that've been sitting around an airport for, at that point almost 24 hours, must have slept on the same cold, hard, uncomfortable floor I did, passing out blankets, running around fetching cots and wheel chairs, and generally being kind to one another.  War on Christmas my ass.

I talked to so many interesting people.  

The local news showed up (and got trapped) to televise our Plight.  They, naturally, set up right next to where I was hoping to stay out of the way and eat my Pop Tarts.  I didn't mind, really, it was fairly fascinating watching the reporter do her thing, trying to write up a bit.  I got to watch the camera man get the dramatic shots of the traumatized passangers sleeping curled up under a map of the airport and standing in five-hour long lines.  I got to watch a bit of the local FOX station (by the way, did you know that every FOX station has a "Good Morning [state]"?  And that I actually heard the words, "Sometimes I'm embarassed to work for FOX."?) -- when an albino blind guy dropped some random thing and, between bites I said, "Sir, you droped your (random thing)."  He stopped, stooped down and picked it up, and without a second thought, plopped down on the ground next to me and started chatting.  

Here's something.  The entire time I was in the airport, I didn't tell a single person (besides the ticket agents) my name.  I didn't ask for names.  It was a little experiment I ran to see how talkative people are.  It's sort of an extension of my "regular" life; I don't address people by name -- not out of habit, but out of simplicity.  If I'm talking to someone, they know I'm talking to them.  I don't feel the need to say, "Thank you, Phil" or "Yes, Betty, I understand you."  Try it sometime.

I learned about all sorts of things from the Blind Guy.  I learned what I already knew -- people with disabilites, especially the blind, hate being treated as if they're invalids.  The blind hate people holding their hand or gently guiding them over a curb, or so forth.  They've got canes for that.  Which, by the way, they are more than willing to let you x-ray, but you've got to bring it back to them before they'll move.  I learned that blind people can cook, and they do it by feel.  I'm still a little amazed at the guy's claim that he can dice an onion faster than his "sighted" mother.  Yes, I checked for fingers -- all intact.  I was amazed at his hearing, though, I don't know why.  He could pick me out of a crowd days later, when I was talking to other people.  I later found him in the Red Cross room helping out.

I met a young girl who was flying to Dallas, and whose mother was having surgery the day the blizzard hit.  When they told us the first day they could get us out was the 23, she broke down crying.  The ticket agent looked mortified, and the people in the counter over, stopped what they were doing, and the agent that was helping them, and just hugged her until she went from crying to that gentle sobbing.  I am almost certain that they were complete strangers.

I met two older ladies, the kind of people you see on television peeping through the blinds and making wild assumptions about what they see.  They did the same with everyone passing by.  

I met a Dept. of Transportation planner who loves SimCity.  I met a Network Design Engineer who agreed that the IP6 scheme, while useful, was far too confusing.  There was a lawyer, and a mechanical engineer.  I met a couple of yuppie parents -- I didn't know they still existed -- on their way back from a trip to Aspen.  I even met a woman who I call "The Mean One": She was so angry at having been in the airport for hours that she threw a hissy fit to a gate agent.  My sympathy was elsewhere.

I finally made it out to see the family on Friday, the day the airport opened back up.  American Airlines, naturally, lost my luggage and had to deliver it the next day.  

It was a fairly normal Christmas otherwise -- at least for my family.  No major announcements, nothing overly bad happened, but then, also, nothing overly good happened.  The joys of a dysfunctional family, eh?

On the way back, I ended up with an exit row seat by the window, on a half-full plane.  I could actually stretch out.  On a plane.  

I'll repeat that.

I had leg room on an airplane.  

I noticed that familiar falling sensation which meant we were starting the controled plumm-- I'm sorry, descent-- and looked out the window.  It was already dark out, but I could just barely, if I turned off the reading light, see the top of Mt. Hood poking up above a sea of white clouds.  I very nearly cried.

I guess there really isn't much of a point.  I don't have some grand political agenda, or even a reason for sharing.  But it was nice to type it all out.  

I'm never eating fast food again.

----
1The list of what I ate (I kept track):  

  • 5 McDonald's Snack Wraps
  • 2 small McDonald's Fruit & Yogurt Parfait's
  • 1 small Quizno's Italian sandwich
  • 1 Italian sausage roll
  • 2 Taco Bell Ranchero Chicken Soft Tacos
  • 1 small Burger King onion Rings
  • 1 Burger King cheese burger
  • 1 Coffee People mocha
  • 1 Coffee People latte
  • 1 Pizza Hut "meal deal" (personal pan cheese pizza and 3 breadsticks)
  • 1 family sized popcorn chicken
  • A hell of a lot of water.  

That roughly cost $85.
2That's not entirely true.  If you begged and pleaded and cajouled and promised not to talk about it, Frontier will issue you to $7 "food vouchers", good for up to $7 at a shot at any of the merchants around the concourses or terminal.  But they'd only do it once.

Originally posted to ew73 on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 01:21 AM PST.

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