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I Finally Caved and Flew on the 'Worst Airline in America'
I Finally Caved and Flew on the 'Worst Airline in America'
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22 secret codes of travel insiders
VOL 011: tales of an adolescent porn smuggler
The months that followed were wonderful. My small class of 7th graders was about 15 kids. Dad remained mellow. Robin remained funny. Casey kept on growing. Of course, considering my record of child endangerment, she, too, suffered. First, it was the night I had to babysit.
My Argentine classmates – siblings Maria, Tomas and Consuela – came over to watch Xanadu. And maybe Alien. They suggested we enjoy the requisite popcorn Argentina style, with sugar. Funny how a baby might enjoy sugary popcorn. I woke the next morning to intermittent screams from Casey, and Robin in a panic. “Bill! Oh, my God! She’s got meningitis!” In Robin and Obie’s bedroom, baby Case-o sat on the king bed, eyes wide. Robin inspecting her for signs of…. Who knows? When no one was holding her, Casey would begin to lean to one side, and that’s when the screaming returned. So now I know that babies shouldn’t eat fistful upon fistful of popcorn. It can make them painfully gassy. Which might present as meningitis.
CONSIDERING MY RECORD OF CHILD ENDANGERMENT, SHE, TOO, SUFFERED
I also learned to be very mindful of babies in strollers. After a walk en famille, we returned to the kitchen. Obie, Robin and I sat at the table, chatting, looking at the Herald Tribune, what have you. I tried to lift Casey out of her cloth-backed stroller, but she wouldn’t have it. I’d go to lift, and she would scream. You want to stay in that stroller? Fine. You stay. At 12, however, I will outwit you. You see, baby Casey, if I turn your stroller around so that you can no longer see Mom, Dad, and brother Billy, then you’ll want to get out of your stroller to come join the rest of us. How simple. I turned her away from us and sat myself back down. We three adults saw the results at roughly the same time, little Casey’s head peeking over the back of the stroller. She had outwitted me! This rascally child remained in the stroller, but now could see us. She was not smart enough to work out the mechanics – nor was I smart enough to foresee this possibility. Robin, Obie and I calculated simultaneously, that the top-heavy Casey would come crashing forward. And so she did, forehead-first, landing with a nauseating thud on that kitchen floor of centimeter-square blue and white tiles. For weeks, I could see a faint imprint in her forehead, looking something like a Manson-esque swastika.
Proof that Casey lived to tell! And that either she doesn't hold a grudge, or that she's playing it very cool. Here we are in Co. Mayo in 2018.
The most important lesson learned during those months, however, revolved around power, prestige, and branding. In this case, the brand was the United States. A few weeks after the school year began, a bigwig U.S. official came to town as part of a Mediterranean tour. I didn’t know the guy’s name then, and I still don’t. State Department? Department of Defense? I’ve no idea. I do know, however, that when he arrived in Tunis from whatever U.S. military base in Italy he’d been at prior, he arrived by small jet. Maybe a Learjet 35. From Tunis, Secretary Whosit was to spend a day in Fez, meeting with King Hassan II of Morocco. Something along the lines of an eight-passenger Learjet was apparently OK for making an entrance in Tunisia, but not for Morocco. No, no, no. Instead, the military equivalent of a 707 was flown over from Italy to give this particular appointee’s arrival some splash. Seems it must’ve been the C-137 Stratoliner. And with that Stratoliner came loads of empty seats.
I can't be certain that this was the equipment that flew us to Morocco, but it certainly looked like this Stratoliner. Photo by TSgt. H.H. Deffner, USAF, U.S. DefenseImagery and Wikimedia Commons, courtesy U.S. Air Force.
This set off something of a frenzy among the embassy staff and dependents, as those seats – about a hundred of them – were now up for grabs. When Obie gave us the news the evening before the flight, Robin, her pal, Judy, and I got on the list. Even though I’d miss a day of school, the educational adventure of four hours in Fez seemed too good to pass up. Getting on the list, however, was no guarantee of a seat. The exact criteria for boarding was nebulous, but essentially first come, first served.
Whatever the hierarchy of the embassy, we dependents were sort of left to fight it out. Robin and Judy were certainly ahead of me, though I don’t know by how many spots, if any. I also knew that I was very close to the bottom of the list, with a couple other kids. Even without guaranteed seats, we scrambled that night. Judy’s passport was in an embassy safe, so there’s was a madcap, after-hours operation to get into the embassy and retrieve it. The next morning, we dozens of freeloaders – Thank you, Reagan-era taxpayers! – sat in a lounge at the Tunis airport awaiting our fate. I was the cut-off point, last to be cleared for departure! Off to Morocco we went.
I WAS NEVER THE SORT OF CHILD
WHO WANTED TO VISIT THE COCKPIT
Onboard, the plane was quite a bit different than the 707s I knew. Some of the seats were configured conference-style, two pairs facing on either side of a table. The extent of the catering sat on some of those tables: generic potato chips from Giant Food, a mid-Atlantic pillar. When I saw that Giant logo, emblazoned on the cardboard cube of chips (perfect for parties), I felt a pang of nostalgic homesickness. Giant was our “nice” grocery store in West Springfield. Seeing tangible evidence that home existed, that those chips may have been on a shelf near Maryland’s Joint Base Andrews just a few days earlier, made me feel viscerally connected to metropolitan Washington. I’ve always been sentimental. While I was never the sort of child who wanted to tour the cockpit – as much as I longed to know how everything in the galley worked – it was rather insisted upon during the couple hours to Fez. The view through the cockpit was of sky blue meeting a dozen shades of orange and brown, Algerian sand and dust. That’s the altitude? Speed over there? Yep, yep. Wait, did you say that from your radio or whatever you can connect with any phone number in the world? I immediately thought of calling Mom from the cockpit. Wait…. I don’t think the crew is actually offering me use of the radio; they’re just showing cockpit pride. Ah, got it.
At Fez, it looked like our plane was the only one there that day. And, my, did the locals make a fuss. Our dignitary certainly got the bang he was looking for. A car was waiting for him and his party on the tarmac. There were Moroccan government vans for the rest of us. Though we boiled down to nothing more than tourists, those vans hurtled us through the tiny ancient streets of Fez, lights flashing, sirens blaring. Everything was a blur through the windows of our crowded van. I wondered if locals were lining the streets waving little American and Moroccan flags. That would’ve seemed completely appropriate to the rest of the trappings. The motorcade came to an abrupt halt at, of course, shopping. Welcome to one of the old markets of Fez, plump Americans. As your chief gets down to business with the king, please drop some dollars on pottery, leather, and the like. So we did. For about four hours, we wended our way through the stalls. I bought a nicely painted mug for my teacher as an apologetic gesture for missing class. Having chosen to get herself from the U.S. to Africa to teach seventh-graders, I knew she’d forgive my extracurricular field trip, but who doesn’t appreciate a gift? The shopping ended with many of the Americans eating a late lunch at some Western hotel in the market area. The service was fine until it came time to pay the bill. “Excuse me, we need to catch a plane.” As we waited for the bill in the bustling restaurant, we started to get nervous. “It’s Orlando all over!” my anxieties screamed. Money was collected to save time, though no one had any Moroccan dirham. We had traveler’s cheques. We had credit cards. We had dollars. We had nothing to just throw on the table. And still we waited. Eventually, it was decided that one noble guy at the table would see to getting the bill paid, while the rest of us would pile back into our VIP van. We waited for him there, relieved when we saw him rush though the crowd and jump inside with us. Instead of handing back receipts or change, he handed back those same credit cards, traveler’s cheques and dollars. No one ever came with a bill, and, whatever the price, it wasn’t worth being left behind.
HOW OBIE GOT
ALL THAT PORN INTO TUNISIA,
I'LL NEVER KNOW
Without much more damage to Casey, in late autumn we prepared for our trek home. For Obie, this was pretty easy. He had a quick flight to Europe and then a business-class flight home on TWA. The Tunis house had come furnished, so only the personal effects had to make it to the new post in Brussels. Some illicit effects, however, would be staying behind. How Obie got all that porn into Tunisia, I’ll never know.
“Billy, go into my nightstand,” his instructions began. I was to incinerate all his sexy souvenirs on the rustic backyard barbeque, half of a retooled oil drum split in two vertically with welded rebar legs. If you had a barbeque in Tunisia, you had this. There were two caveats: First, if I spotted anything I wanted, I was to turn it over to him, and he’d see that it returned safely to the U.S. to assist me through adolescence. Second, there was a bottle of Doc Johnson passion-fruit-scented lubricant that he insisted I should have. When I actually examined the bottle of Doc Johnson, I was puzzled to read the selling point: “Blow on it and it gets hot!” This world of adult sexuality was very confusing.
As for my follow through, I obeyed, to a degree. I sorted through Dad’s collection, maintaining a small pile for myself, including the aforementioned lube. Onto the pyre went the remainder. I went through plenty of lighter fluid that day. Where I dropped the ball, with regard to my instructions, was in turning anything over to Pop. While he was far more open – perhaps too open – about sexual habits, I was easily rattled. Even Dora leaving a copy of the children’s illustrated Where Did I Come From on the kitchen table after catching me in bed with my pants down made me blush. With Obie’s sexual sophistication, I also feared outing myself in that he'd surely notice I opted for anything that included male nudity and gladly torched the rest. I was so thankful he didn’t follow up to ask me to hand over my cache. “He should’ve at least asked for the Doc Johnson’s,” I pondered. But no. It all stayed with me. And what a voyage it had in store.
Robin, Casey and I were to set out in the Datsun – the very same I puke-painted in Paris years earlier – taking an overnight car ferry to Genoa, then on to Brussels, where we’d catch our flight back to the U.S., via New York to D.C. An adventure! By this point, Casey could toddle ably enough that she would not need to be carried everywhere. That was a plus, but also an anxiety. “On a boat with an ambulatory tot? She’ll run to the railing and fling herself overboard!” We’d just have to cross that bridge when we came to it. In the meantime, off to the dock. With the car parked in the hold, we made our way to our cabin. Not too shabby. We were in the high-end cabins of this comfortable overnight ferry. Four berths, nicely tiled bath. Plenty of room for the luggage, even with my Army-issue duffle bag that stood about three-feet tall, filled with dirty laundry, a few dirty magazines, and that little bottle of lube, all secured at the top with a padlock. Even if asked to remove the lock, I reasoned that no border officer would bother with a 12-year-old boy’s bag of dirty laundry. Ew. We settled in and sailed away that cool afternoon, setting out across the Gulf of Tunis and into the Mediterranean Sea. Like Obie, Robin had an appreciation for the gourmet, a longtime subscriber to Bon Appetit, connoisseur of Michelin stars. “Let’s eat!” she suggested with only somewhat mock enthusiasm. We three made our way to an oddly empty dining room for a late lunch. At the only other table occupied sat about five bridge officers. Then again, we’d seen very few other passengers. As far as we knew, this was nearly a ghost ship. We ordered a first course of salad.
IN THE BOBBING PASSAGEWAYS,
KEEPING MY FOOTING WAS NOT SO EASY
Merely two bites or so into my lettuce and tomato, I felt a bit clammy. Odd. “I’m going to go get some air for a second.” It was probably just stuffy. A fresh breeze would fix me right up. And, unlike most cruise ships, the dining room wasn’t in the basement; it was on a higher deck with easy access to the outer railings. In theory, anyway. I walked a short distance from the dining room to an exterior door. Locked? That doesn’t seem necessary. Or safe, for that matter. Maybe it’s some sort of maintenance issue. No bother, there’s another door right over here. Not budging. Hmm. What if the ship sinks? How the heck are we supposed to abandon it? It defies common sense that there would not be outside access! Let’s try the other side. Oh, here’s a door that seems sort of tucked out of the way, narrow and facing forward. I reached for the handle, and it moved. The door even began to open, but just a crack. That crack was just wide enough, however, for me to see that it had been tied shut with a bungee cord. “Why have they trapped us inside this boat?” I wondered anxiously. All those images from dozens of viewings of Alien came back to haunt me. No, I did not want to be trapped on a boat. But, in the nanosecond it took me to imagine H.R. Giger’s version of a sea monster, I spotted the real danger. Through the small window in the door, the huge splash at the front of the ferry caught my eye. My eyes locked on the bow, now in time to watch the entire motion of the ship rising out of the water, only to smash back into the waves. How did we not feel this as we sat in the dining room? My stepmother and I could both be fairly distracted when perusing menus, granted. But what happened to that calm Gulf of Tunis? This wasn’t the gray Atlantic. This was a big lake. This, I did not expect. This was making me ill. Very, very ill. And there was no time to make it back to the dining room. With a key of my own, I raced to the cabin. In the bobbing passageways, keeping my footing was not so easy. Still, I needed that bathroom – even if all I’d eaten was a few bites of salad. If they weren’t going to let me out to the railing to puke, the bathroom would have to do. Oh, how I heaved. My body was seemingly trying to reject not just the contents of my stomach, but my organs as well. Perhaps, too, my soul. It just kept coming. Crouched over the tiny toilet, I heard the door open behind me. Robin wasn’t looking for me. Overtaken in the dining room by her own nausea, she knew exactly where I’d gone, and she and Casey had come to add their misery to my own, heaving across the stormy sea as the gray light in the cabin window faded to blackness.
The hours that followed turned our cozy cabin into a sort of plague ward. We were almost fully incapacitated. We didn’t speak to each other. We all just lay there, wondering if it was possible to die of seasickness. At least, that’s how the night passed from where I was sitting. Or lying. Or puking. Robin was stronger. Maybe that’s what motherhood does. But she was able to get someone to come clean up the mess of a misplaced barf – mine – as well as score some Dramamine.
“Billy?” she called down to me on the bathroom floor, where I lay cooling my clamminess on the tiles. She was standing over me, grinning, slightly chuckling. We had the Dramamine, yes, but as suppositories. “Have you ever used one?”
“I’ll figure it out,” I groaned back. I took the waxy bullet from her and closed the door. No, I had never dosed myself with a suppository. But, with its conical shape, it was easy enough to figure out which end went first. How deep was another question. Second knuckle was the only answer I had for myself – as shallow as possible while holding little fear of my body rejecting it. As the only thing to enter my body that day and stay there, it seemed the whole my digestive system was working in reverse. But that little nub did the trick. We all rose the next day to freshen up as best we could, fearing another day of rough seas before we docked. It was misplaced fear. The most threatening bit of weather was overcast skies. The deck doors were unlocked, and we were free to replace everything we’d expelled with salt air, gliding over perfectly placid waters. I was as grateful for the break in the storm as I was that Casey didn’t attempt to jump overboard, though I fixated on that possibility, obsessing about how cold the water might be, whether I would need to take my shoes off before I dove in after her, how shamed I might be at every family function to follow should I fail and Casey drown. Thankfully, the ding ding of the little shipboard casino pulled us inside for a half hour or so of yanking on slot machines. Then it was off to the kiddie area where a wee manic German kept screaming at his father, who powered the boy’s revolutions on some little ride. “Schnell! Schnell!” I could’ve gotten sick all over just watching that kid. Instead, it was time to roll out onto the streets of Genoa.
WITH THE TEMPERATURES DROPPING,
ROBIN FLIPPED ON THE HEAT.
It wasn’t too cold in Genoa. It may have been Northern Italy in December, but the with the Mediterranean at our backs, it was still temperate. That geography, however, put the Alps in our path. We’d be driving through mountains into Germany, spending the night with a college pal of Robin’s who was a schoolteacher on a U.S. base. With the temperatures dropping, Robin flipped on the heat. Nothing. At least we had winter clothes. Bundled up, we carried on. In the mountains, the snow began falling. Robin flipped on the wipers. Nothing. Robin had been promised the car had been checked out, and, granted, that little Datsun – having crossed the Atlantic twice and now the Mediterranean Sea – was purring. It was in fine working order, mostly. But whichever mechanic had changed the oil and tuned the engine hadn’t considered the finer points of auto mechanics. And, with Tunis being so dry and hot, the wipers and heater likely hadn’t been used for years. Driving through an alpine blizzard, they remained off. “Rub her feet!” Robin would sometimes urge, squinting over the steering wheel, peering along the European highway, hoping not to hit another car and drive off the edge of a mountain bend and into the abyss. “She’s going to get frostbite!” It was pretty chilly in that car. To the point of ridiculous. So, rub Casey’s stockinged feet I did. Had we died that afternoon, Casey would have met her maker with warm feet. Frankly, I was glad to have something to do. Robin’s stress levels were, understandably, piqued. The distraction of Casey’s feet kept me from having to dwell on my own anxieties. Rub, rub, rub. It was like meditation. I’d occasionally look up and try to make sense of what was in front of us. I would see white. All around us, it was just blurry white. On we trekked.
The snow eventually died down. That didn’t make it any warmer, of course. In the evening, we arrived at the promised shelter of Robin’s gal pal. I was assigned a sleeping spot in a room with a record player. Robin and the pal drank wine from a jug. I listened to Christopher Cross sing “Sailing,” over and over. I had no idea that particular hit came on an album full of Christopher Cross songs. Turns out “Sailing” was the only one I liked. Over and over. In the clear morning, we drove on toward Brussels. Germany was still cold, but Luxembourg was an Eden – with a garage. Robin was able to find a mechanic to fix the heater. It took a couple hours, but we were able to finish the drive to Brussels in warmth, which made phenomenal difference. We spent the night with a guy from the embassy who was waiting for us. During that dark winter at nearly the most northern latitude I’d ever experienced, the little cot set out for me was bliss. All the more so in that the next day promised to have me in more familiar surroundings, sitting on a plane back to the U.S.
With the U.S. government opting to get its passengers on U.S. airlines whenever possible, I met a new carrier that afternoon: Capitol Air. The livery was a little flashy for my taste. A little overblown on the stars and stripes, along with the dull type font, that DC-8 looked like something out of an Airport disaster movie, if only the series hadn’t skipped 1976. This was a discount airline that wasn’t going to piss money away on branding, obviously.
But before boarding, there was the routine security check. Up onto the conveyor belt went my giant bag. At that moment, I suffered a little shot of panic in my gut. I hadn’t expected to be next to my bag as it was being scanned, but this was how they did it at the Brussels Airport that afternoon in 1981. I was panicked because I realized, should they have any question about my duffel bag and request me to show them the contents, the only option would be to remove the padlock and dump the contents. Because I’d made an effort to bury the porn, it was at the bottom of the bag. Were I to empty it for the sake of some security screener, it would land on the top of the pile, the flashiest, attention-grabbing piece being the stiff Swedish Erotica glossy publication detailing the adventures of some very Italian-looking roller-skate instructor. Egad. I hoped for the best, making conspicuous display of my diplomatic passport. Into the X-ray machine the bag went. From our side of the belt, the X-ray monitor was easily visible. The ghost-image of the padlock told me it was my bag’s turn. I was relieved to see gray blob after gray blob. “This all looks like nothing,” I thought, relieved that none of my dirty laundry nor the publications to follow would look like explosives. Then that initial zap of panic was followed by a lightning bolt to my innards. No clear shapes until that damned bottle of Doc Johnson’s lube. Could that “blow on it and it gets hot” secret ingredient be flammable?? Maybe they think I’m smuggling gasoline or something as some sort of pubescent terror tantrum. “I grabbed it from my dad’s bathroom! I thought it was shampoo!” For December in Belgium, I sweat a lot that afternoon. But no one made a fuss. Through went my bag, and onto the plane, like the rest of us.
SUCH A WONDERFUL CONVERSATION
WITH YOUR DAUGHTER"
After my wide-body experiences with Pan Am and British Caledonian, this narrow DC-8 seemed so sad to me. Even on my narrow-body TWA experiences, the mood was so much more glamorous. TWA had a magazine and soap and branded barf bags and cutting-edge terminals. Capitol Air had a crappy lasagna. Casey judged it harshly. At least, her bowels did. About half an hour after eating her bites of it, it was trickling out of her diaper. Robin and I noticed the stench immediately. Robin picked up Casey, who was wearing the cutest little traveling outfit, and a trickle of the darkest green-brown began running down her little stocking. Robin rushed her to the lavatory before this new iteration of the Capitol Air lasagna could pool in Casey’s seat. Thankfully, this didn’t ruin my cred with the couple behind us. Somehow, we struck up a conversation. I’ve never been particularly outgoing, and I’ve no idea what sparked the dialogue, but there we were. This sort of middle-aged couple, a little on the granola side, possibly educators, and I talked about the benefits of off-season travel, the particular beauty of European vistas in winter. Capitol didn’t serve up a movie, so I was really grateful to have a chat with these nice people. They apparently felt similarly, the husband leaning over to mention to Robin at one point, “We’ve had such a wonderful conversation with your daughter.” Robin responded with something equally pleasant, but had to focus less on a response and more on not laughing. She was still beating down the chuckle when she turned to check my reaction. I was initially stunned, but soon after granted that in the past six months I’d not gotten a haircut, I was ambiguously chubby pubescent, and – in the absence of a bullying school hierarchy – was getting gayer by the day. I got over it, making a note to myself to butch it up, be a bit more conscious of weight, and get to a West Springfield Hair Cuttery as soon as possible.
Once at JFK, we corralled into the appropriate baggage and immigration lines. Casey entertained herself by pushing around an empty baggage trolley. I hovered, altering her trajectory each of the many times she nearly bruised some fellow traveler's ankles. If I tried to stop her altogether, she would cry, and then Robin would snap. We were all so done with the long voyage of sea vomit, alpine blizzards, lasagna poo, and porn anxiety. It would be drawn out just that much longer, of course, as – in keeping with tradition – the connection to Washington National was again missed. But, after a late arrival, sofa surfing with Robin at her parents' place in Springfield, the next day I was back at the West Springfield residence I knew. I used my key to enter, as Dora and Ed were at work. It was so quiet. I’d left as the baby of the family, an elementary school student. Now I was an adolescent junior high school student, with two families – one of which offered me the new role of big brother. I had traveled solo between three continents. And I now had my own collection of porn. It was a time marked by synthesized clapping – Kim Carnes’ Bette Davis Eyes with my Tunis friends, Hall and Oates’ Private Eyes in Springfield. In less than a year, everything had changed.