Once again in Maine, I rise to catch the dawn on Dyer Bay in Washington County. The ever-present swarms of mosquitoes fail to deter me. I sit on the rocks and watch the seals, birds and lobster fishermen. It is an idyllic scene. (Photos by the author, all rights reserved. Use by permission only.)
Flying standby has an obvious advantage, and that is the steeply reduced price given to airline crew members and their immediate families. I was delighted when I got the opportunity to travel standby, since I had lost the benefit of employer-paid flights when I left my last job. The timing was perfect, and it allows me to visit family and friends in the States on a regular basis. Recently, I returned to Maine to spend a few weeks on the coast, enjoy the beautiful scenery and reunite with family and friends. Waiting in the wee hours of the morning with my friend Alex, who is also flying standby, we barely get seats on the flight out of Bangkok. I have no problems getting from Narita to Chicago. But then, the gate hopping begins as I try to get to Portland. It's a frustrating business waiting for the standby lists in O'Hare to flash onto the screen at the gate. The flight to Portland has been canceled, so my sights are now set on getting to Boston. With a sinking feeling I see my name appear #16 twice, and then #25 on the third flight attempt. It isn't until those flights leave without me that my son Jonathan suggests Cleveland, continuing to Boston in the morning. "The chart shows seats available," he says, checking the United crew standby status. "And not many standbys." Uncertain about Cleveland (really--I can get to Boston by going to Cleveland? And on a much smaller plane?) I check the standby board and nearly leap out of my seat as "STI, J" appears in the #1 spot. How is this possible? But I don't care about analysis at this point. A short 50 minute flight from Chicago over the inky blackness of Lakes Michigan and Ontario, and between them light-studded southern Michigan, the small ERJ unloads us into the dead silence of the nearly abandoned Cleveland airport. I chat with two enormous dark-skinned men working at Dunkin' Donuts, the only establishment open at midnight. The two are fixated on discussing the rising cost of donuts. I order an egg croissant sandwich and large coffee and sit down to watch CNN to catch up on the U.S. version of world news as I await my $5.29 meal. Unimpressed with the style of reporting that sensationalizes even the most mundane subjects, I stick in my ear plugs and read On the Road, noticing similarities to travel 60 years ago, but now with a huge assist from technology. Briefly fancying myself a modern day Kerouac, I then laugh at such absurdity. Kerouac went standby hitchhiking across the country. I don't even have to worry about weather. Forty years ago I was perhaps something like that, striking out for San Francisco, living in a cheap apartment above a bakery and wondering if Golden Gate Park was ever anything other than misty and grey in the swirling fog. Maybe then, but certainly not now although a part of me twinges inside when I think about it. I nap fitfully as workers make repairs. Occasional travelers straggle by, after leaving another late arrival. No one seems tired but me. I am exhausted, but remind myself that once again, I pay the price for flying so cheaply. Electric carts glide by noiselessly. The last of the late arriving passengers walk by at three o'clock, and almost exactly then the first of the day's departing passengers show up, walking in the opposite direction toward their gates. It is interesting and strange at the same time, somewhat like the point at which the ocean tides reverse. At five o'clock, the United agent shows up at the gate and I nervously approach to inquire about my standby status. She immediately prints out a seat assignment. "Don't worry, the plane is only half full." As I enter the small jet, I breathe a sigh of relief. The attendant shuffles people around to better balance the plane. I will arrive in Boston in time to catch my bus to Bangor at the airport (unfortunately, United does not fly into Bangor), and then catch a minivan--one trip per day--to the small village in Washington County where we live. All of this has happened in a surprisingly short time, although as it happened it seemed to stretch out in an excruciatingly slow time frame. Happily, I will reach my destination at exactly the time I had originally planned, despite the frantic rush about the Chicago terminals. My relief is temporary. Arriving in Boston, I begin to plan a strategy for getting back to Bangkok, calculating risk factors in choosing Chicago, Newark or Washington Dulles as my international connection and the odds of getting a seat out of Boston to one of them.