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Ship Of Fools

The first fall of snow in the winter of Chicago landed on my bare forehead. I skirted the rear of the van as the driver loaded my luggage and went around to take a seat in the front of the Airport Express shuttle-bus, felt the wind whip up to splay my coat open, felt a cold splotch on my brow. Then another. A thin spray of tiny snowflakes swirled across the road, almost invisible but for the bitumen's contrast. In the air, against my face and on my hands, those first flakes froze tiny punctures into my already chilled flesh. I had been waiting for the van for fifteen minutes. Waiting; get used to it.

I squash my bag in around my feet as I climbed inside the van, sitting awkwardly, foresaw an uncomfortable ride, hoped that it would remain as this delicate light fall...

It didn't. Flurries of powder snow slowly descended on the town. Windshield wipers struggled against ice, cars all became dusted down quickly to white. It was not a big, heavy dump, just a consistent shower of wind-harassed flakes. Vision out the van window stayed clear for long distances. The roads whitened in the middle and sides, never freezing in the tracks-paths of all these tyres, but the traffic slowed and became more congested. I used to worry about the mathematics of rain-induced traffic-jams as a kid. One day, I don't remember when, I saw them as a simple funnel issue - normal numbers of cars but a reduced speed meant that the outflow was restricted so it all backed up.

And so mathematically, predictably, the freeway ground down even if the fall was light. After an accident (smashed-in Lexus) bunched us even closer together, our driver took an off-ramp to a series of clever short-cuts that brought us back to the freeway just short of O'Hare. Suburbs, American flags in windows, on walls, small houses, small plots, but with a tavern on many corners, just as Indy had told me last week. (I hate it when he's right. Luckily, it's not all that often.) When we arrived at the airport, one lady, an airport employee, grumbled that the driver... She was late, it was his fault... He rolled his eyes, as if to say, Lady! geddardaveer! He said nothing to her, though... Just to us...


The screen display in the departure lounge gradually filled with more and more flights marked as CANCELLED. Our 3:45pm Air Canada flight to Montreal steadfastly remained open and ON TIME, even as the reserved Gate stood empty 15 minutes after the flight had been scheduled to depart. I looked up from my logic exercises - undistributed means and the appropriate number of negative premises - and saw the time. A sense of suspicion emptied itself into me. Why was I still here? Was I actually at the right gate? Should I have gone to the downstairs gate E2B and taken a shuttle, not sit here with all these French and Chinese speakers, at the E2 direct gate? You know that dread of error, that feeling of, "I fucked up here somehow"? It's a draining feeling, not a filling one.

I hesitantly walked up to the enquiry counter just as a small plane pulled in against the accordioned rubber at the end of the umbilical pathway to my gate's doorway. It was now twenty-five minutes after our scheduled time to leave. The person on the desk, a stocky Japanese women with a strong Hokkaido accent, received a message on her walkie-talkie, and enthusiastically announced over a crackly loudspeaker something I interpreted to mean that we would be boarding as soon as they could find some ground staff to load our stuff and clean away the detritus from the in-flight. Exhausted travellers from the in-coming flight, trailing black Samsonite roller-bags, came up into the concourse a few minutes later.


The snow, never really heavy, had turned to rain and as the temperature had kept low, the problem was not going to be piles of snow on the runway or poor visibility but ice on the wings, ice playing havoc with Bernoulli's requirement for high pressure laminar flow on the bottom of the wing and low-pressure chaos trailing from the top.


At 4:40, 55 minutes late, we boarded the plane. My 13C was an aisle seat at the VERY BACK of the plane. That gives you an idea of the size of this rubber-band driven toy. My head nearly grazed the roof as I made my way down the aisle. The seat was hard against the back wall, it could not recline at all. I was sitting directly adjacent to the toilet. I don't mean in front of, or near, I mean - there, at my right elbow.

We sat and waited. The steward gave us all some water. It was getting close and warm. People started getting up and going to the toilet, bumping against me each time, I was trying to read, struggling to figure out that they had to PULL the recessed handle to bi-fold the door open toward themselves.

Three hours of this. 15 of 18 people (83.333%) got the toilet door WRONG first time. I counted. What, was everyone a first-time traveller? Like the people I get in front of me at ATMs.

I listen to my new iPod. The song playing did not correspond with the title that was being displayed on the screen. Holy fuck, the database was fucked already after only 1 day - an achievement that had taken my first iRiver 13 months to manifest. I had got into the On-The-Go playlist, clicked, don't ask me, somehow, I haven't totally mastered the "simple" interface. A new song started, still with the wrong name...

At 7:40, some minutes after a second round of thumping outside the plane and a misting over of the windows had indicated another de-icing of the wings with green fluorescent gel (glycol?), we began to pull back from the gate. I stored my iPod and put away my book. (Mercer Machine [a fantasy novelist] would be pleased to know I am reading and enjoying a wonderful fantasy novel - The Drawing of the Dark - about how beer saved Western World... I've always [except when on a low-carb diet] maintained that 'beer is key'...)

We trundle slowly along, our plane stops and starts as other planes sneak ahead of us or land on the runaway we want. Then, at 7:55 (I kept score on this, as I had for the toilet), the engines begin to roar and... we swing back away from the runway towards the terminal again. The pilot wearily informs us that 25 minutes have elapsed since the last de-icing and that is the limit. We must return to see what's up...

Not much is up. Certainly not us. Nothing, for quite a while as we sit at the gate. A decision is yet to be made whether we de-ice straight away or de-plane, or even cancel the flight. We sit. My iPod seems to have righted itself: song titles and music again correspond. Eventually, at 8:25 the captain says we would be more comfortable on the concourse. This is true. (Much later that night I am horrified at the rash that has developed in my groinal areas from the interminable vinyl seating.) So we de-plane (I love this expression,, it reminds me of how Auschwitz internees were de-loused in the showers) and sit back in those same paranoiac seats from earlier in the afternoon.

At 9:00, I get a translation of the Japanese lady's most recent announcement, to the affect that she will make another announcement at 9:15.

At 9:30 the plane is still sitting there. No sign of de-icing. No new announcements. The book is getting very interesting. The lady talks on the phone, on the walkie-talkie, shrugs to us all. What I like about fantasy books, the good ones, is the way they balance the possible with the improbable. Here is mediaeval hero, Irishman Brian Duffy, about to rescue Vienna from Seuliman's armies with the help of daemons and phantasms which he isn't sure he believes in himself...

I am not sure I believe in this manifestation of an airline official, beanie pulled down over his ears, yellow high-visibility jacket, as he speaks into the intercom. It is 10:05. The flight, finally, is, he says, kairrrrrrncelled.

There is an equally long story (to this bloated, drunken waffle) about the predominantly Mexican queue (where had they come from?) to get a new flight, about the struggle to find a new hotel for the night (Wyndham O'Hare Hotel, and the gay guy with six gorgeous chicks in the bar, grab two beers at midnight despite the bar-tender's protestations), about the regret of not being able to visit Old Town Montreal, about the non-refundable $S290 for the hotel booking...

But there is the next day to talk about instead.


Many of the Mexicans are on the same flight the following morning, United something something something, 10:40 to Montreal... Again, I am at the very back of the plane, again a non-reclining seat. Fuck I need a neck massage. We taxi out on time. We get to the runway. The pilot tries to call to the cabin crew but nothing happens. The intercom is faulty. Crucial. We head to a resting point near the runway. They crew reset the intercoms. Nothing. We have to head back to the Gate.

Sigh. It is my destiny. I will never to get to Montreal.

We sit for 20 minutes. All power is turned off in the plane. With my book against the window, I thrill to humorous sword fights in Austrian bars and tall boozy tales of Irish hero, Finn MacCool. Vikings in Vienna. Wingéd demons who can't touch the ground. More beer. More fun.

More frustration. For twenty minutes as maintenance crew sort out the incredibly important problem there is no light and no air-conditioning. It is minus 2 outside and plus 30 inside.

It is midday before we things sorted and we get moving again. No chance now to view Montreal - I will go direct to my very nice hotel on the shores of the Baie de Vaudreiul.

Flying high for an hour, coming down, we dip into the top of a dense cloud. A layer of mist washes over just above the wings, the breath-steam of the giant gods of the stratosphere. We sit in this region for a few minutes, wispy near-clear above, puffy densities cushioning us below.

Then, as if we had been taking a deep in-breath for the last few minutes, we plunge in the cumulosities and immediately begin to be buffeted, dropped and stopped, tilted and bumped. Eventually, the turbulence ends and we descend below the clouds and to see frozen white squares of ice-covered fields around the edge-frozen lakes of the Hudson, its streaming choppy blue the only colour in the entirety of my vision until we come close to the houses of Montreal and their dark, solid, evergreen, garden trees... and so we land.

It is minus 11°C. I have arrived.



Posted by: expat@large on Dec 03, 07 | 10:16 am | Profile


Sounds like "a voyage of survival, across the stormy sea" - FROM the city of Chicago!

Very descriptive and interesting tale - glad you made it, safely, in the end!

Posted by: Sister on Dec 03, 07 | 7:24 pm

Oh, the prosody!

I will seek out said book forthwith. Also, I've started a new one. Tell you more about it when next we drink.

Posted by: MercerMachine on Dec 04, 07 | 1:37 am

BBrrrrrrr - I survived, but can't comment, hands frozen to the keyboard... It has been snowing all last night and all day...

At least I have some direct experience for my background of the weather in my yet to be writtn (is it two years or one since comissioned?) Siberia story.

Prosody - isn't that some fancy teacherin' word for "self-indulgent waffle"?

Posted by: expat@large on Dec 04, 07 | 7:08 am

Good read. I like the idea of Finn McCool de-icing Mexicans in Hokkaido. It really is a global village.

Posted by: Dick on Dec 05, 07 | 1:27 am

Dick: thanks - and the village getting more globaller every day!

It's a cosmopolitan airport, that's for sure, apart from the food. North America seems to subsist on isomers of Caesar salad and large cups of horrible coffee.

Posted by: expat@large on Dec 05, 07 | 2:07 am


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