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VOL 005: divorce, Disney, and learning the airport rush

    As the family lore goes, Dora became suspicious. She become adept at the pattern, whatever it was. Her husband was being unfaithful and she couldn’t ignore it. The proof was easy enough to come by: American Express receipts for hotels near the Pentagon, where he worked. Her accusation of infidelity was answered with a feeble counter-charge of her breaching the privacy of his briefcase. Soon thereafter, my family would join the trendy ranks of “broken” families. Whatever the term, I saw this as a great first step in fixing the family. 

    Standing at the edge of the kitchen – my apparent m.o. – I could sense the tension as Dora, Megan, and my brother’s fiancée, Sandy, spoke cheerlessly. Something serious was happening, but I couldn’t piece their few words together into any meaningful translation. No matter, I was soon spotted and my mother had me come into the kitchen to join them. On that evening in late winter, she told me that she and my father would be divorcing. Oh, my. 

    She asked if, at 8, I understood what that meant. I did. Perhaps the only concern I needed her to address was the question of my accommodation, being the only child at home with Megan graduating in months and heading to college. She confirmed that in this war, I would be in her camp. Even better, we’d likely be relocating to San Diego as Dad packed up for his next posting, Tunis. 

    Because of that intensely serious mood in the kitchen conference, I excused myself, assuring all present that I was not wounded, that I’d be quite all right in my room. I was more than all right. Down the hall, in my bedroom – now to include a bed – I buried my face in my pillow so that I could shout my glee, so thrilled was I that Obie would once again be ejected from the matriarchal camp. The women’s wagon train would circle and again I would be protected, safe in an estrogen-scented bubble. Practically a return to the womb.



    All this happiness and I hadn’t even yet learned of the bonus divorce vacation. 


    When children are part of marriage-dissolution equation, consolation prizes are not uncommon. At least, in consultations with my peer group of the time, we agreed many of us shared similar circumstances: The divorce is announced. Shortly thereafter, one parent – if not both, separately – take the kids on a trip. Maybe the motivator is sentimentality. Maybe it’s a power play. Regardless, not long after the announcement, Dora had Megan and me on a plane to Orlando, marking my first departure from Washington National Airport. Ronnie Reagan was still years from the White House, the name change decades away from DCA. We spent a little extra time in our far-off-site parking spot so that Megan could hear the entirety of Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise” that cold gray morning of our flight, possibly some Easter-related long weekend. In that we were on our way to Florida, the chill wasn’t bothersome and the Buffet was fitting. Also fitting was our airline, National Airlines, with its tropical-yet-stoic sun-profile logo, adding a new carrier to our family’s culture to mark this new chapter, the end of the nuclear family. 

Large wall of windows in an open, empty space, with view of small passenger jet taking off

Today's DCA Historic Terminal was our 1978 departure point.

    Dora was really pulling out the stops, here. Relative to our family vacations, this was a splurge. Dad favored road trips. Getting on a plane for a long weekend away was about as “jetset” as I could imagine. We had no choice but to get on a plane to cross the Atlantic. But to a place we could drive to in less than 48 hours? Pinch me. 


    Of course, by setting the bar so high there was room for disappointment. 


    Maybe Dora already knew what sort of settlement she’d be getting in the divorce. I don’t know about the figures, but I know things were somewhat tight. Whether that was due to actual figures, Megan’s tuition, or Dora’s emergency-mode frugality, I don’t know. Regardless, we’d soon be taking a step down from the split-level, four-bedrooms-and-a-yard normal.




    As for The Magic Kingdom, the details were all far beyond me. Every kid knows Disney, but I don’t remember ever being of the ilk that whined about needing to meet Mickey in person or visit Cinderella’s castle. I had, however, caught the Eastern Airlines ads showcasing the Magic Kingdom as its official carrier. That’s how I knew about the Contemporary Resort with its child-seducing, sexy, monorail-stopping lobby. But we didn’t have Contemporary Resort-level alimony/child support/secretarial income. We had the Disney Golf Resort. No onsite monorail to whisk us from lobby to paradise. Instead, we got a magical shuttle bus that would take us over to the Polynesian Resort, where guests enjoyed their own tropically themed monorail stop. That was but a minor disappointment, though, when I was overdosing on acres of kiddie crack. The steamboat! The submarine! 


    TheWedway People Mover! The rush of climbing through the Swiss Family Robinson’s fake tree! A tickets! B tickets! E TICKETS!  

    At the Magic Kingdom, Dora found her own divorcee drug, something possibly even more potent than my kiddie crack. As part of our Disney Golf Resort package, our booklet of tickets included a half-hour piloting a Disney speedboat in the Seven Seas Lagoon. Just about to graduate from high school, my sister had been driving for some time and was eligible for her own boat. “I wanna go with Megan.” No dice. I was certain a half hour in my mother’s speedboat would be a leisurely tour hugging the shoreline to look for intriguing flora and fauna. Perhaps a flamingo if we were to be so very lucky. My sister’s boat, on the other hand, would surely break the 10-mile-an-hour barrier. I hadn’t counted on dear ol’ Dora’s aggression. Whether it’s part of Swiss culture or something in the genes, my mother is painfully skilled at bottling her emotions. Bless the Disney imagineers for managing to coax a few out. As Megan made her leisurely figure 8’s, Dora went straight for the wake of the bigger boats, nearly shooting us out of the water. I’m sure she imagined my father bobbing in the wake of every grand paddleboat that passed, as she plowed full-steam ahead. My mother gunned that little boat like… a mutha. It’s the only time that my mother’s wee bit of recklessness caused me even the slightest fear. At the end of the half-hour, she was breathless, vibrant and happy. Finally – if only momentarily. 



    Patrick even managed to join us for a day, driving down from Atlanta. Splashing about in the pool, it was as though we were back at the Manassas Holiday Inn – minus Obie. That was an adjustment I’d already made, though. By the announcement of the divorce, Obie was no longer at home. I presume he was spending most of his time with Robin, his secretary, with whom he was sharing those Pentagon-area hotels. They were preparing to wed and relocate to Tunisia. In the meantime, I was pretty happy. This high-flying weekend was all right by me. Disney even had an amazing attraction back in the 1970s to nurture my budding interest in air travel. As I earned my wings, the sweeping chorus of “If you had wings, had wings…” was my soundtrack. That’s what you would hear while riding at two miles per hour through “If You Had Wings​,” Eastern Airlines’ Disney World dazzle factory. The Eastern of yesteryear is gone, but that tune – not so much a tune as a mind-numbing chant – has ear-wormed its way into my brain for eternity. 

    The Magic Kingdom weekend, while opening a new chapter of my life and closing my nuclear family’s, also gave me my first taste of the adult world of air-travel drama. With prior flights, I was hand-held every leg of the way. I was a quiet child who did what he was told. In return for my compliance, I did not have to worry myself with departure times, seat assignments and customs forms. I was getting older, though. 

    In this new reality, I would need to step up a bit. With my father’s bulk removed, there was room to stretch and grow. It was welcome and it was expected. Leaving the Golf Resort, we waited at the covered driveway for yet another shuttle. This one would take us to Orlando international airport – where one still sees Disney characters. You cannot escape Disney. Bored as we waited, I swung the Disney gift shop bag holding my sole purchase: a clear plastic cube with a Magic Kingdom logo, filled with Red Hots, or some generic equivalent thereof. Round and round that bag would twirl, slow steady loops perpendicular to the ground. I would generally trust my life to Disney quality – despite those ill-fated travelers to make-believe Mars – but this gift-shop bag developed a tear, though the Disney designers surely knew that their target audience of sugar-loaded children would put them through their paces. One the final downward loop, the cube, perhaps five inches to a side, forced that tear to a degree that my prized souvenir came sailing through the bag and crashed into the sterile white concrete pavement. The box was intact, thankfully, but the force of impact had knocked it open. The Red Hots were forcefully ejected – yet salvageable, I was certain. I could surely save the bulk of them. But here comes the shuttle! On my hands and knees, I inspected for grit, picking up fingerfuls of seemingly untarnished candies. Now Dora became irritated. The look on her face was not so different than when she came upon me on hands and knees with my father’s pornographic comics. After all, she knew what time our flight was, and that we were late. I was unaware. Not that I wasn’t panicked too, though. Here was the shuttle, opening its door to welcome us, and I’d managed to save possibly a third of my treasure. Carrying my little cornflower blue suitcase – not mine, really, just one of the family’s collective-use Samsonites – I felt defeated, yet tried to focus on uses for the plastic cube. I could buy other Red Hots and refill the cube. I could preserve a sprinkling of Disney magic.

    It was unfortunate, however, that I was able to calm myself down. Holding onto the adrenaline would’ve helped me with the task ahead. Arriving at the National Airlines desk at the airport, we were advised that we were very late for our flight. Perhaps there would be time to board, perhaps not. I wasn’t sure what that meant. This wasn’t a scenario I’d ever imagined, not a possibility for which I’d ever accounted. Not that it bothered me much. I just assumed we’d go back for another day at Disney and return home the next day. No different than missing a sunset. Come back tomorrow and try again. Dora and Megan, however, seemed tense. I knew how tense after security, when quite contrary to character, Dora encouraged me to run. Not just run with her and Megan, but run ahead. Maybe my little legs were the fastest of our group, or perhaps they had too much hand luggage. Carrying only a trace of my original Red Hot haul, I was unencumbered, so ahead I ran. The jetway to our flight was a sort I hadn’t encountered prior or since. It was not at all level. Instead, my memory has me entering the hall to the plane at roughly tarmac level, running a vertical zig-zag rising to the level of the cabin door.



    With Dora and Megan maybe a minute behind me, I arrived at the door, out of breath, just to see it closing. The flight attendant, however, spotted   me and stopped. “My mom… my sister… coming,” I panted. I was afraid to cross the threshold, of course. There was room for me to slip in, but then the attendant would surely close the door after me, separating me from my family. I’d be abandoned at National Airport, and what would I do then? I held back, catching my breath, and more eloquently explained that my mother and sister were just seconds away. The flight attendant raised her eyebrows and kept her grip on that door. I knew she was just about to explain, quickly, that the plane was leaving and my family was staying. But Dora and Megan beat her to the punch. We made our flight. And I learned the valuable lesson that far more could go wrong than a bit of vomit.


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