Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Chapter 16: A Touching Reunion -- In which one big happy family is restored to one big ugly house


For a while there, it looked as if American Airlines might succeed in keeping us from making it back. We've done a lot more flying in the last few weeks than we usually do, and our experiences on most of those flights were quite good... Vietnam Airlines and Cathay Pacific were excellent. However, American Airlines seemed determined to botch our attempts to travel between LA and Chicago both ways. Faithful reader, you will recall our initial attempt to get out of Chicago and fly to LA, which was stymied by American Airlines first delaying the flight several times and then finally cancelling it altogether (when the captain apparently did not show up). Well, our return flight took us from Hong Kong to LA, where we were to connect to a flight to Chicago on American. Our original itinerary allowed for more than two hours for that connection, but the flight from Hong Kong was a bit delayed, and then customs took a long time, and so we found ourselves with only 30 minutes to get us and our luggage onto the flight to Chicago. You can picture us at about 11pm sprinting (well, as close to sprinting as we could come after 18 hours of travel from Hanoi and hauling three suitcases and three carry-ons) from the LAX international terminal to terminal 4. When we finally found the American counter to check our luggage and get our boarding passes, the supervisor who helped us seemed to believe that we had arrived late and in a panic solely to annoy her and ruin her evening. She told us, "Your flight leaves in twenty minutes. There's no way I can get you on it. What did you expect showing up so late?" (Those were nearly her exact words.) Naturally, we apologized abjectly and crawled back under our rocks. -- Well, truthfully, we were so bushwhacked, that we couldn't say much, and we allowed her to put us on a flight the next morning at 9am. And she gave us a discount voucher at a nearby motel. (She pointed out that since Cathay was responsible for getting us to LAX late, perhaps they would spring for the whole motel bill. But it was after midnight, and we did not have the energy to drag ourselves back to the international terminal to find the Cathay counter to ask about that.) But nary a word of sympathy or kindness passed her lips.

We took the shuttle bus to the motel and passed an uneasy night of about 3 hours of sleep. Fortunately, Minh had slept quite a bit on the flight from Hong Kong to LA. All in all, he was a trooper, and behaved far better than we had any right to expect... though he had his moments.... The next morning, though, offered more hair-raising events. We missed the earlier shuttle to the airport, so we were already running a bit later than we had hoped. And when we arrived at LAX, we decided to do the curbside check-in, since we already had boarding passes. However, we accidentally got in the wrong line... the line for the TSA screening. It took us about 10 minutes to figure that out and run to one of the regular check-in lines... but then, when we made it to the head of the line, the AA gentleman who was checking folks in and taking their bags pointed out that all three of our boarding passes were flagged with "SSSS", which means that we had been selected for extra special treatment by Homeland Security. The AA gentleman (who was indeed one of the nicest AA employees we met) said that we would have to go inside to have our bags checked. At this point, we were close enough to missing a second flight that E. produced Disney-sized tears welling in her big blue eyes, and with a quaver in her voice, begged him to help us. And, reader, he did. He ran inside himself and somehow got our bags checked in, and sent us running toward the gate. We tipped him well.

This brings us to the source of our feeling that if we ever pass through LAX again, it will be too soon. The LAX procedures for getting people through security and to their gates make O'Hare seem positively efficient and streamlined by comparison. We had to stand in three different lines and be checked three different times even before reaching security. And there, when they saw the big "SSSS" on our boarding passes, they shunted us into a special cattle run to be prodded and patted while they rummaged all our carry-on luggage. I suggested that they might want to pat down Minh, too, but they politely declined. In fairness, the TSA people weren't that bad, but we made it to our plane with only moments to spare. And, naturally, American Airlines had decided that we really didn't need to eat anything on the nearly four hour flight from LA to Chicago.

Footnote: We are left wondering whether the rude and easily annoyed AA supervisor who had "helped" us the night before could have vindictively flagged us for the security check. I asked tha gate agent when we boarded how those "SSSS" flags get assigned, and she said that it was randomly assigned by the TSA... but she also said that a child should never have been flagged. So... did she do it to us on purpose? We'll never know. But we'll also be avoiding American Airlines when next we fly. (Though we fly so infrequently that I'm sure AA won't miss us.)

Second Footnote: Special message to the unpleasant man whose sport coat I accidentally squished when placing my bag in the overhead compartment on the flight out of LA:
"Just wanted you to know that I did it on purpose, and I'll do it again if I ever see you on another flight."

It was all worthwhile, though, when we finally walked into the baggage claim area at O'Hare with Minh and saw all of our other kids running toward us with outstretched arms. If you had seen it in a movie, you would have dismissed it as unbelievably sweet and touching. And so it was. (Of course, D. took a header as he tried to run toward us, bashing his chin on the floor, but he bounced up and kept coming.)

We realize that Minh is probably baffled by these changes, though he's seen pictures of the kids and seen them on the computer screen. But he's been remarkably quick to play with them and laugh at their antics. He seems to really like having other kids around, and our other kids have been really good so far at wrapping him into the gang. We're all still getting used to being back and together and integrating this new member, but all is well.

This evening, as were getting ready for dinner, though, there was a large "bang" in the backyard, and when we looked out, we saw what looked like fireworks. A second glance, though, revealed that a power transformer on the utility pole next to our garage had exploded and bright blue flames were leaping up with a frightening sort of sizzling sound, while showers of sparked rained down into the yard. Our power went out briefly with the first explosion, but then came back on. I quickly dialed 911 (the first time I've ever done so, I think!) and they sent fire trucks... though the fire trucks didn't really do anything but wait for ComEd to shut off the power and stop the arcing electricity. In the meantime, a neighbor advised me to shut off our main breaker to avoid any power surges. In the end, it was a great deal of sound and fury, but very little signification. The garage didn't even burn down. -- E.'s mom was happy that it had not happened while we were gone, though. -- And Minh and D. really enjoyed seeing fire engines. A bonding experience for them, I'm sure.


SterlingSH said...

in response to the sport coat incident - hahahahaha...wonderful.

I am glad you are back safe and good thing the garage didn't burn down.

Oh and well done E. on the tears. I know it was totally emotional and not intentional but tears do help in times of need. When traveling last year my friend and I were trapped in Rome with no place to stay and we both started crying unintentionally and we ended up getting a room for half off at a hostel. Random I know

See you soon

Anonymous said...

Yay! Home! So glad that you finally made it back safe and all as sound as 6 children and 3 adults can be. And so glad that Minh and the other kiddos are getting along well. Yay!

Anonymous said...

I think the AA gate agent sabo-t'ed (as Bertie Wooster might have written it) your power transformer!


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