The Long Way Home For Christmas

I felt a sense of impending doom as Steve drove me to Logan early on a Friday morning, three days before Christmas. I had an 8 AM flight to visit my parents in Iowa. Since no direct connections between Boston and Des Moines exist, I would have a layover at O’Hare in Chicago. Not that I’ve tested any scientific data to back this up, but I believe O’Hare to be the most hated airport in the country. Due to its central location on the continent, it serves a large volume of flights which only increases the probability for delays, cancellations and other travel hijinks. I’ve rarely had a smooth experience flying at O’Hare: this particular travel hub seemed cursed all the way back to my first airplane trip ever when an arrival there from then-President Clinton delayed my flight to Boston (to look at apartments for my upcoming move) by over six hours.

Five years after 9/11, I’d grown accustomed to such air travel hassles as luggage checks, taking off my shoes and putting small liquid containers in sealed plastic bags. The idea of transferring at O’Hare, however, conjured up recent memories of sitting on the floor there against a bay of windows at a congested boarding gate, removing my headphones every five minutes to check if there were any updates as to when my puddle jumper to Des Moines was now scheduled for takeoff. As Steve pulled into United’s departure area, we hugged, somewhat sad not to be spending our first Christmas as a couple together (though we had celebrated and exchanged gifts the previous evening.) I grabbed my suitcase and backpack and proceeded into the terminal, ready to begin a long-ass day of likely aggravations.

The flight from Boston to Chicago was smooth: everything on time, with no delays for wind, snow, late return of aircraft or engine problems. I anticipated not being so lucky once at O’Hare. After all, this was the same place where, seven years before, I sat in a stagnant plane on the runaway for nearly four hours before takeoff. Eventually, the flight attendant informed us on the intercom system, “We’re delayed because we can’t find the pilot.” We can’t find the pilot are words you never expect nor wish to hear on a plane, along with “Is there a doctor on board?” and “The second engine just failed.”

Sure enough, upon arriving at O’Hare I spotted the Departures board and saw a big red X next to my Des Moines connection. The reason for its cancellation? Yesterday’s massive blizzard in Denver (another travel hub) had a chain-reaction of an effect on screwing up scheduled flights across the entire continent. A cancelled flight is unfortunate but usually easily rectified by replacing it with another one, even if one has to switch airlines. However, given the high quantity of cancellations and also that it was already one of the busiest travel days of the year, no more available flights were to be had until Sunday. The day after tomorrow. Christmas Friggin’ Eve. My only option was to wait on standby for a slew of other Des Moines flights throughout the day.

My name was not called for the first flight. I remained calm and hopeful.

My name was not called for the second flight. This is when I began to panic. I may or may not have actually screamed out loud at while walking away from the boarding area. I did not want to be stuck at O’Hare for potentially two whole days, let alone ten or twelve hours. Three more Des Moines flights were scheduled for the evening; all I could do was wait.

With hours to kill, I walked from one terminal to the next in an effort to hang on to as much of my sanity as I reasonably could. O’Hare is one of the more sprawling airports I’ve ever flown in or out of. United alone takes up so much space that there’s a long underground pedestrian tunnel connecting terminals B and C. It’s decked out in structural curves and neon light wall panels that continually morph into a rainbow of colors. Completed in 1988, the tunnel is a trippy throwback to that era: a version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” (United’s theme song at the time) plays overhead, synchronized with the neon’s changing colors. Given the design, one would expect to hear something more 80s-adjacent such as “Take On Me”.

I must have shlepped that tunnel’s moving walkways at least ten or twelve times during the course of that day stranded at O’Hare.

After dinner at what was then known as the “Jazz Food Court”, presumably named to celebrate Chicago’s musical heritage (though the city’s arguably more famous for the Blues), I mentally prepped myself for those three remaining flights. I was hopeful but also cautious: “Forget it, Jake, it’s O’Hare!”, I thought to myself, paraphrasing that killer last line of dialogue from Chinatown.

Fortunately, I had a backup plan. Ag, a good friend from high school, lived nearby as she was serving her medical residency at the University of Chicago. I could stay with her if she hadn’t yet gone home to Milwaukee to see her parents for the holidays. I called and she was still at her apartment! I had somewhere to stay overnight if it came to that.

I phoned my dad next. We’d been in contact all day. He and my mom offered to drive the six hours from Des Moines to Chicago to pick me up the next morning if necessary. No way was my mother going to let me spend one minute on Christmas Eve in another state.

My name was not called for the third Des Moines flight, nor for the fourth. I had one chance left and a few hours to kill, as the final flight didn’t depart until 11:30 PM. I found an empty boarding gate to zone out in, reading chapters of Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (from which most of perennial holiday movie A Christmas Story was adapted) and Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers. Oddly enough, Ag had gifted me both of those books.

Many standby names were called for that last Des Moines flight of the night, but not mine. All day long I kept thinking I was near the end of my rope but now I had truly grasped it. Us remaining, rejected passengers were instructed to head down to baggage claim and remain there overnight; I opted to take a cab to Ag’s high-rise studio apartment in Downtown Chicago. At her tiny but modern 33rd-floor unit overlooking the Playboy headquarters, she welcomed me with open arms, an apple and some almonds to snack on; she also mixed me an exceptionally stiff (and much appreciated) Cape Codder.

My parents arrived at her building at 10:30 the next morning. After saying our goodbyes and my mom gifting Ag a box of her homemade Christmas cookies, we set off westward. We soon stopped at an outlet mall just outside the city, in Aurora, for an early, quick lunch at a Panera. As we left the parking lot to continue our journey back to Des Moines, a white Hyundai pulled up next to us. The driver, a balding, middle-aged man cloaked in a sweatsuit, rolled down his window and pointed out to us that we had a flat rear left tire.

Supremely flummoxed, we ambled over to the nearest gas station, a just-built self-service Shell with a half dozen grinning employees, none of whom seemed to speak much English. A random guy coming out of the McDonald’s next door offered to help change our tire for us—we did have a full-sized spare in the trunk. However, my dad could not find the key to unlock the tire’s lug nuts (much worse than not being able to find the pilot, in this case.) Our vehicle, a tan Audi sedan, was a newly acquired company car.

The three of us sat in the Audi for an interminable period of time, snacking on another red-and-green Tupperware container of my mom’s sugar cookies, pinwheels and pecan fingers. This was still the pre-smartphone era, so my dad had to call a 1-800 number in order to find the closest Audi dealership, which happened to be in nearby Naperville. Their maintenance department was closed for the day, but a customer service associate got my dad in touch with a local towing service.

About forty minutes later, a flatbed tow truck arrived to take us and our car to a Goodyear store a few miles away. To safely accomplish this, the three of us had to cram ourselves into the truck’s passenger seat, which was built ideally for one person or two at the very most. I wish someone had taken a photo of me and my parents literally squished together along with the truck’s driver as they dragged our new but unusable Audi through western Chicago suburbia.

It was only early afternoon, but Goodyear was already closed. Luckily, Chihuahua Motors, a local service garage on the other side of Aurora was still open. After we plied ourselves from the truck’s passenger seat (and each other), the mechanics successfully hacked off the locked lug nuts with a foreboding implement resembling a giant ice pick. They removed the flat tire and put a new one on. Nearly 28 hours after my arrival in the Land of Lincoln, the three of us were finally back on the road to Iowa.

We reached Des Moines a little after 7 PM. Thankfully, the airport there had my checked luggage, albeit with the wrong name on the claim ticket. After wearily but determinably settling this with United (an airline I then vowed never to fly on again, although I have a few times since), my parents and I went to their apartment, had martinis and broiled lobster tails for dinner and all promptly passed out from the day’s (or in my case, days’) travel. I’d made it to Des Moines before Christmas Eve.

I also made it clear to my parents that we would not be spending Christmas together in Des Moines again, at least for the following year. Instead, they came out to Boston to celebrate two weeks early. I don’t recall if they were required to transfer planes in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit or (god forbid) O’Hare, but they made it without having to spend the night in their connecting city. Along with Steve (now my spouse), I still occasionally travel for the holidays (though not in COVID times.) I return to the Midwest less often now that my parents have relocated to South Carolina. When I do, however, I’m secretly thankful if I can at all possibly avoid O’Hare and its endless neon pedestrian tunnel, its montage of shifting color mocking its passengers as they flail from one terminal to the next, lost in the temporary limbo of moving towards, however slowly, their final destination.

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