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VOL 009: you're on your own, kid

    I closed out the end of sixth grade with plans to head back to Tunis for the summer. With Robin in the picture, I felt confidant Dad would be much, much more tolerable. Robin was always fun – even if she’d called me out in a little piece of correspondence a couple years earlier for my attempt to get Obie to pony up $50 to match Dora’s contribution toward my longed-for Atari. Her characterization of my clumsy pitch for cash introduced me to the phrase “thinly veiled.” 



    Aside from Robin, I had a new baby sister to meet, 1-year-old Casey. To get these plans on track, though, Dora first had to meet Casey’s maternal grandmother, Liz. Robin’s mother had been over for Tunisian visits already, and somehow that proved key to getting my ticket. Maybe Liz’s travel agent had a special connection for a discount rate on a scheduled charter flight. I have no idea. But because the Army would pay to relocate a family, though not for shuttling minors to and fro for divorce summers, a new world opened up: a trans-Atlantic flight on a non-U.S. carrier. Credit for this particular first goes to British Caledonian.


    First, however, the meeting of the matriarchs. This had me so anxious. I knew Liz, whom I’d met a couple times, was heading over with my ticket. I tried to calculate how close in years were my mother and step-grandmother. With Robin slightly older than Patrick, possibly that put Liz and Dora in the same generation? Not that it really mattered. I knew there would be no great and ironic friendship formed that overcast, late afternoon in suburbia. On the other hand, I was fairly certain there wouldn’t be any sort of scene, either. I didn’t know too much about Liz, but I knew Dora was no screamer. I guess I thought they both were very brave, perhaps maturely sophisticated. Dora welcomed – if not quite with tea and scones – the mother of the second wife into her home. She had the confidence of this being her new home, with her new mate, so she could comport herself with dignity. Surely she must’ve felt just a hint of resentment, not by anything Liz had done, but simply that a representative from the enemy camp was entering, leaving a mark on the living room furniture she’d chosen with Ed. Still, she kept a couple ceramic elephants Obie brought back from Cambodia as coffee-table bases, so she was obviously not too sentimental or territorial. After all, I was as much a reminder of my father as some South Asian pottery. 


    I wondered if Liz had volunteered for this assignment, or if she’d been drafted. Liz struck me as the sort of woman who’d read Our Bodies, Ourselves. She was an artist who let her hair fly free. She may have been wearing chunky lesbian-esque sandals and a shawl when she came calling. There was a Harvest Home spookiness meets Gloria Steinem crunchy self-assuredness meets Wind in the Willows hominess to Liz’s presence. How could she not have pondered the situation beyond more than making a simple delivery? She was aware of the backstory. Whatever may have been sitting in the psyches of these two mothers, courier Liz dutifully knocked and Dora opened her castle – as least as far as the living room, immediately adjacent the front door. Liz took a seat in one the chairs in the bay window, next to the big fern that was incredibly contemporary for 1980. That fern reminded me of Liz’s brushed-out locks, which framed her oversized glasses. She had a large handbag that covered her lap so that she could hunt for the all-important document envelope of rounded-edge paper tickets and dot-matrix itinerary printouts. 


    She handed the precious, nontransferable paperwork to Dora, who didn’t do much in the way of inspection. Liz left. The transaction was done. This could’ve been a modern rite of passage for these women, both arguably feminists in their ways. They had arrived to the 1980s and found themselves in social landscapes that would’ve been scandalous a couple decades prior. But they were in the ’80s now. In an era of Ronald Reagan and marauding yuppies, time for game faces; show no weakness. 


    This all made a much bigger impression on me than on Dora or Liz. Neither one recalls this exchange. Whatever distortions may have developed on my memorial lens, Liz made a visit and I ended up with tickets. 


    Dora advised that the enchanted envelope would be kept in her unlocked desk in the basement family room – “rec rooms” having somehow fallen out of fashion – of brown-vinyl flooring and deep-rust shag area rug. It was a delicate desk with a flimsy roll-top. Inside a desktop cubby, she placed the treasure of that bulging, slightly worn, white business-sized envelope. I would examine it almost daily after school. This was my Hope Diamond, a new and novel treasure. This was the first occasion of my jet-setting years, when I was part of the process from the beginning. I wasn’t simply running through a jetway to hold a plane. No, this time I was dissecting each morsel of data, learning airport codes and military time. It was a good thing, too, as this trip would also have me joining the ranks of Unaccompanied Minors. That obnoxious “UM” round-the-neck placard could be this diamond’s curse. Or, maybe it would be that Obie, despite Robin’s presence, would still find some way to be a tyrant. 




    But the treasure was too seductive for me to go without. The envelope’s contents of stiff tickets, colorful paper billfolds, computer printouts of restrictions and the rest – made all the more irresistible with my still-diplomatic passport paper-clipped to the package – was invaluable to me merely as a collection of documents. It had heft. I could spend an hour fondling this prize. When I imagined that it would all, within weeks, become my key to crossing the globe solo, I would have to catch my breath. Inside this envelope rested the seeds that would become my adventure alone. And I was prepared. I would bring a novel. Granted, it would be age-appropriate science fiction, The City of Gold and Lead. And I would have a carry-on not of crayons and comics, but toothbrush and underpants. How I ached for boarding. In the meantime, I had my envelope-encased shrine, to which I would return again and again, offering worship. I could call the travel agent to confirm my reservation: Washington National to Atlanta on Eastern. Atlanta to London Gatwick on British Caledonian. London to Tunis, also BCal. So much information! So much longing! 


    The morning of my June departure, Dora had me ride to work with her on her shared commuter shuttle van. With a handful of early ’80s white-collar workers in rounded glasses, lip gloss, cowl-neck sweaters and wide ties, off we drove at 7 a.m. to her Crystal City office. She was going to put in a few hours of work before cabbing me over to National. After introductions to adults who did not want to start the day making pleasantries to an 11-year-old, Dora set me up in a vacant office of her modern high-rise while she collated. I had my suitcase, carry-on, a lovely view, and a phone. I passed a bit of “bring your unaccompanied minor to work day” by calling Mike. We didn’t have too much to talk about. We were 11. Actually, he’d turned 12 in May. I had a couple weeks left to catch up. Still, a pointless call, as deadpan as our playground reunion. “Hello?” “Hi, Mrs. Albo. Is Mike there?” “Bill? Just a minute. Mike? Bill’s on the phone.” “Hi?” “Hi.” “I thought you were at your dad’s.” “I’m at my mom’s office in Crystal City. She’s taking me to the airport later.” “OK.” “Yeah. I’ll call you when I get back.” “OK.” “I guess I’ll go.” “OK.” Considering the staggering vapidity of that conversation, the last conversation of our elementary school years, it’s curious that just a few months later, as junior high schoolers, we would daily fill afterschool hours with phone blabbing. Hours.


    Making the short trek over to National, it’s remarkable that I felt little in the way of thrill. All those days leading up to this grand departure, and I just sort of shut down. I was overwhelmed. At the Eastern ticket counter, I was given all my boarding passes and my embarrassing “UM” lanyard. It wasn’t yet time, however, to hand me off to Eastern Airlines personnel. Mom would stay at my side in that main terminal with its broad windows looking out to the tarmac, rows of plastic and vinyl puffy modern seating and coin-operated TVs. Dora was sad that I was leaving for the summer. Of course, I didn’t know that. Particularly in those days, it was when Dora was at her most emotional that she displayed emotion least. I would’ve guessed she was pondering which Bird’s Eye frozen vegetable box to boil with dinner. But, no, she was thinking about me and my soon-to-begin months-long absence. In that Ed and I never got along very well, agreeing to a cool détente for the most part, I thought I was doing them a favor by doing time in Tunis. Mother’s consolation was that William Colby, former head of the CIA, was in the waiting area, also boarding this first leg of my trip. Dora had met him once at a party. “My son’s traveling alone on your flight to Atlanta. I would be so grateful if you’d keep an eye out for him.” Colby was traveling with others, probably in first class. We were little people, and it was a pointless request; one that my mother considered making, but did not. She was pleased, nevertheless, that a high-profile politico was on the flight, a good indication that maintenance would double-check the hinges and top off the fuel tank. Eventually, it was time to board. UM’s and the other misfits – infirm, elderly, etc. – to the front of the line, please. There were two others. At 11 – nearly 12 – I was sort of mortified that my UM peers were far younger, somewhere in the neighborhood of 8. Children, really. I was a pre teen, for God’s sake. Among rubes. Stepping off the jetway and into the galley, the attendant in charge glanced at our boarding passes. “Do you need help finding your seats?” Please. Obviously, this was a question for the kids, not for me. “No, thank you.” And off I went. Wait – the aisle seat on the right isn’t A? It’ C?  OK. but if A is a window, wouldn’t it be the window on the left, since we read left to right? What? Hold on. Argh. Keep cool. You can figure this out. Shit – the two other UM’s are already seated. Figure this out! Find your seat! And so I did. Finding my assigned seat came with another flying lesson: Don’t get cocky.


    On the flight to Atlanta, I was able to collect myself, claim some breathing room. And I was able to rekindle a bit of that excitement I’d been enjoying in the weeks after Liz dropped off my tickets. After all, how cool was it that I was transferring in Atlanta, at Earth’s shiny new showport, open less than a year? Landing, we UM’s were told to deplane last. Fine, I wasn’t in a rush. I had a three-hour layover. Off the plane, at the gate, I was handed over to a woman who – not that I could’ve known it then – bore a resemblance to Astronaut Sally Ride. She had that “I’m a straight woman constantly mistaken for a lesbian” confident swagger. In the UM lottery, I did pretty good. I don’t know who came for the traveling tots, but certainly my escort was the winner. Next stop: the Plane Train. The people mover running underground between the terminals was the jewel in the ATL crown. Welcome to the 1980s. We offer you food courts, not yet occupied by chains, but by one-of-a-kind counters from which to choose. We will charge forward with Ronald Reagan. We will ride a new wave, and we will do it on a train, at an airport, underground. As we rode the future to the international terminal, my astronaut-lookalike handler seemed to be beaming. She wanted to share as much as she could about this fresh-from-the-factory concept. But, really, how much could she say? It’s a train. It runs on a track. It moves people from one part of the airport to another. It might seem like magic, but don’t be frightened. It’s just the future. Thanks, Sally. She kept smiling. We arrived at my gate, a ghost town. With my long layover, I was quite early. No fellow passengers. No BCal staff. No janitor. Just me and Sally. And as far as she was concerned, her job was nearly done. She scanned the gate. She possibly grimaced. “Are you hungry? Do you want to get something to eat?” I had $20, but a long way to go. And I wasn’t hungry. Certainly I didn’t want to sit at a plastic table and eat while Sally sat with me, hoping to find a topic we might have in common. “Do you like Scott Baio?” “Yes. Yes I do, Sally. More than you know.” So I allowed my escort to get back to her other duties and I took a seat, alone, at my gate at the far end of the terminal. There was no passing traffic, no people watching. Just a couple of hours to hunker down and read of conical shaped aliens enslaving the human race, as adolescent boys attended their needs in the toxic cities of gold and lead. 

    People eventually trickled into the gate, and eventually onto the plane, a DC-10. Another wide-body! While this was my first DC-10, I was not completely unfamiliar. I’d already made a habit of walking into suburban travel agencies to grab whatever plane-related propaganda was on offer. My most prized piece was a sexy booklet – not a pamphlet, mind you, in that it was a goodly 8-and-half by 11 – from American Airlines. Fly AA’s DC-10 “Luxury Liner” cross country, those four glossy pages beckoned. So, not a pamphlet, but a one-sheet with a fold. But the most glamorous one-sheet I’d ever seen. “Mom, if we go to visit Megan, we should fly to California on the Luxury Liner.” My sister was in San Diego, not that Luxury Liner’s LAX destination. And so what if I was years from mile-high cocktails? Just look at the damn brochure! “Spacious coach lounge with stand-up bar. Another American Airlines innovation.” Want! Looking at what American had to offer, my Pan Am 747 seemed only a taste of what was buzzing around the stratosphere. This BCal DC10, however, was no Luxury Liner. It was fine, of course. But I was getting bigger and, thus, the seats were getting smaller. And uncomfortably settling into a coach seat for an overnight flight is just not as welcoming as a wide-body flying into the sun, with peach Melba and Mr. Billion. Not to mention traveling companions. Taking off from Atlanta for the night flight to Gatwick, I was actually more alone than I’d ever been. All alone, between homes. That night, a DC-10 served as surrogate parent, lulling me to sleep. 




    The next morning, arriving at LGW, I was handed off to another BCal attendant who had to get me to my Tunis connection. She really didn’t seem too happy about it. In her tartan uniform and jaunty beret, she led me to my gate. It was not open. There was no chair to simply plop me in. No co-worker to complete the handoff. “Damn!” I could hear her thinking. “What to do with the little bugger?” In a relatively vacant part of Gatwick, at a row of deserted check-in desks, she sat me down on one of the luggage scales and, without ever making eye contact, told me to wait. She handed me back my ticket and passport and abandoned me. I didn’t realize this immediately. It took about an hour. People who regularly handled children as part of their jobs had always struck me as trustworthy. And I was an obedient child, happy to do what I was told. That there was a little sort of kiosk a bit further down the terminal labeled “Unaccompanied Minors” did trouble me a bit, though. Should I make my way down there? No, best to keep waiting on the scale. The bothered BCal woman likely left me here, I reasoned on her behalf, as this was the counter where check-in would begin for my flight to Tunis. Surely, if I trekked down to that apparent UM office, the sour stewardess would return, and find me missing. That, of course, would’ve set off an airport search for a missing child, with police and calls of “Would British Caledonian Passenger, Unaccompanied Minor William O’Bryan, please identify himself to any British Caledonian employee immediately” echoing through the airport. Anyone who heard that would definitely think I was some sort of delinquent playing tricks on his handlers, and damn if I was going to have that sort of reputation. It took another hour to convince me otherwise. 

    Looking back to my spot on the luggage scale every few seconds, just to be sure no one was coming to collect me, I trudged to the UM office, walked up to the counter and just handed over my ticket. As this new adult peeled back the flimsier pages of my ticket, soaking in lines of information, the look on her matronly face quickly transformed from pleasantly helpful to one of panic. And we were off! This caretaker of children grabbed my hand and had us jogging through the terminal. Within a couple minutes she hit the brakes on one particular gate, still staffed, but otherwise empty. No passengers. Just my new handler, the gate agent, and me. I couldn’t understand what they said to each other, rapid fire, but it prompted the agent to pick up the phone at his counter, mumble something, and then make it his turn to usher me out the door and onto the tarmac, where a BAC One-Eleven 500 (I believe) full of English tourists was waiting – both to start their vacations, and for me. Seems I’d made it in the nick of time. How long does an airline hold a plane for one passenger who is both unaccounted for and a minor? Long enough. There was no airport-wide announcement implying I was a scofflaw. There was, however, a plane of about a hundred delayed merrymakers, some of whom glared at me like this was all my fucking fault. Once airborne, I made my way to the lavatory. With no bathroom break for hours – couldn’t leave my luggage scale post, remember – I didn’t have the luxury of avoiding pissy glares. I needed to pee. Even if it was in a disgusting, uncleaned toilet, clogged with a big pile of toilet paper and poop. Even if. There was no new lesson that afternoon, just reinforcement of the lesson I’d learned when my luggage went missing on my first trip to Tunis: The adults supposedly running the world don’t necessarily have any idea what they’re doing. 

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