Law Clerk on Gilligan's Island
Chapter 2: The Journey Begins
Destiny does not send us hearlds. She is too wise or too cruel
I don't really believe in them either, but I love the concept of omens-- the idea that some incident that just seems peculiar now is actually fate's way of warning you of some colossal tragedy waiting in the wings. I'm always reminded of a story Michele used to tell me about her sister's first marriage: a few weeks after the wedding, her sister's dog, who spent the day on a rope in the basement, mysteriously managed to hang itself from a ceiling fixture. Their marriage ended a few months later, and Michele always saw the dog's tragic demise as an omen of the impending disaster. While expressing the appropriate remorse over the sad aspect of the story, I often had a chuckle over the idea that the dog committed canine hari-kari in protest over their coupling. Of course, about a year after Michele and I got married, our dog started inexplicably jumping through closed windows and storm doors, and it wasn't quite as funny then. But in the long run, that too augured badly for our marriage. We split up about six months later. I guess that was an omen too.
So what am I to make of this? The first leg of my 20-hour flight to Palau began with a trip from Montreal (the airport closest to my hometown) to Newark. The flight itself was uneventful, until the last ten minutes. We were on our final approach to the Newark airport, expecting to be on the ground momentarily. I was sitting in the window seat of the front row of the plane, when suddenly, the cockpit door opens and the co-pilot steps around the bulkhead and stands in front of me, peering out the window intently at the outskirts of Newark speeding by below us. A few seconds of this pass, and the co-pilot, apparently either satisfied with what he had seen, or resigned that whatever the cause for concern was was inevitable, returned silently to the cockpit. We landed without incident about five minutes later.
Yep, that's gotta be an omen, but of what? I was almost ready to pop my head into the cockpit on the way out and ask what gives, but we were a shade late getting out of Montreal, and my connecting flight from Newark to Houston was already a tight squeeze into the schedule. At any rate, I figured I'd probably get some vague or evasive answer from the flight crew. So instead, I'm sitting here on the tarmac in Newark wondering what it all means.
Yeah, that's right. Sitting on the tarmac at Newark. That quick connection to Houston has been parked here for the last hour. It seems that the regularly scheduled captain for the flight "couldn't make it," and that we were waiting for some second-string, bush-league, utility-infielder of a replacement captain to take his place.
I ruminated on the idea that the captain "couldn't make it." Sure, we all call in sick to work now and then, but usually with airlines, another pilot is substituted without any acknowledgement to the passengers. IThis ain't Broadway, for God's sake, and I didn't book this particular flight because Cap'n Bob was flying and I've always loved the way he banked his turns. Hell, I just wanted to get to Houston. Of course, the reason why they were even telling us in the first place was because we had all boarded-- well, all of us except the guy who was going to fly the plane-- and after missing our departure time by 20 minutes, people had started to get restless. "We're waiting for another captain who's coming in on a connecting flight," the voice crackled over the P.A. system. Then every ten minutes for the next hour and a half: "He's still on his way. We apologize for the delay and will let you know as soon as he's here." When the understudy captain finally got here and trundled his way up towards the cockpit, there was scattered applause from some of the passengers. He looked around in bewilderment at the ovation, and disappeared into the cockpit.
At this point, these have become contemporaneous notes. I got tired of sitting here watching the ground crew catching a snooze on their souped up golf carts below the plane, and finally broke out my computer. Our benchwarmer of a captain just made an announcement about how he was sorry for the delay, and that we would be underway shortly, but first, they had to recall the catering truck because something was wrong with some of the meals that were loaded. I wondered to myself why the problem couldn't have been ironed out in the 90 minutes we had spent waiting for the captain, and finally decided, somewhat cynically, that the problem must have been over what our on-call captain wanted for lunch. So here we sit, which gives me a little time to speculate about just what it all means.
Should I be trying to interpret this? I'm not the least bit concerned that it is some indication of potential plane trouble. For one thing, barring extraordinarily infrequent exceptions, planes just don't crash. Plus, I was dealing with an omen here-- something cryptic, allegorical, and oblique, not the friggin' "coming attractions" preview. Whatever I was being warned about, it was down life's path a bit, not stuck in this aluminum cylinder with me for the next 24 hours.
But what was it? Let's see: captain equals authority figure. Maybe a problem with one of the judges I'd be working with? Captain late = late judge? Maybe the judge I was going to work for in Long Island after this year was over might retire or die in the interim, leaving me without a job to go to next fall? Or maybe it wasn't the captain that was the omen; maybe it was the catering problem. Should I be worried about accidentally poisoning a judge at a dinner party? Hell, this is ridiculous. I'll leave interpreting the omens to the soothsayers and take my lumps as they come. It might be nice to know the future, but if I can't do anything about it anyway, I might as well be surprised.
We got into Houston about an hour later than we were scheduled to. (The fact that we left two hours late but arrived only one hour late was, according to the captain, the result of us being granted a more direct routing to Houston from air traffic control. Of course, this begs the question of why the flight is usually routed in such a way as to add an unnecessary hour to the trip. But I digress...) I was met at the gate by my new co-clerk, Stephanie.
Stephanie was very outgoing, and we hit it off well right from the start, chatting about this and that while we waited for my bags to come off the plane. She eventually convinced me to come with here to a scuba shop in town to get some used gear to save on rental fees. Later that night, we went over to one of her friends' houses for a cookout.
That's the ultimate nightmare situation for me: a party where everyone's a stranger. I'm pretty self-conscious around people I don't know, and don't feel like I'm very good at making small talk. As I stand there trying to talk to someone about the weather or the playoffs, I can just imagine them thinking that this is the most boring conversation they've ever been trapped in. I also dread the awkward pauses in conversations like that, when you've exhausted all the possible ways of talking about how humid it is in Texas, and how it's not like Buffalo, but haven't yet figured out what pointless subject to bring up next.
But the point of this whole trip to Palau was to change the way my life was going. My anti-social tendency around strangers was one of the big issues that Michele always complained about. So I decided to do an about face, and go with the exact opposite of what my superego suggested was the best thing to do. I figured I'd avoid the awkward pauses by blathering on and on about whatever I could think of. Plus, I went out of my way to drink heavily, hoping that if everyone thought I was a blithering idiot, I could blame it on booze and fatigue from the flight.
Maybe my self-consciousness just made it feel like I was talking endlessly all night. Maybe what felt like overcompensating to me was normal social intercourse to everyone else. Or, more likely, Stephanie and her friends were just too polite to ignore me. They seemed very welcoming to this strange Yankee in their midst, and by the end of the evening, I felt quite at ease with all of them. I had actually had a good time. I thought to myself that, if nothing else, the party was a good sign that Stephanie would be an easy person to get along with over the course of the year. Or maybe I was finally learning how normal people interact with each other. At any rate, I'm going to find out: I'm going to be meeting a lot of strangers in the next few days.
8:00 a.m., the next morning. Mildly hung over from a slight overindulgence at the party the night before. Stephanie picks me up at my hotel to give me a ride back to the airport. I'm a little overwhelmed by the lengths to which she's gone out of her way to help me out,and resolve to return the favor when she arrives in Palau, since I'll have already settled in when she arrives two weeks later. A short 20 minute drive takes care of the trip to the airport, and I'm ready to start the hard part of the journey: a 17-hour flight from Houston to Guam, with another two hour fight from Guam to Palau after that.
Fortunately, when I booked the trip, some bizare quirk of the fare schedule made it possible to get a first-class ticket from Montreal to Palau for only $200 more than the coach fare. I boarded the plane with the rest of the bourgoise, leaving the plebians in coach back at the gate, and settled into the big, cushy seat. Within seconds of sitting down, a flight attendant is handing me something.
"Amenities kit?" he asks, handing me what appears to be a small blue calfskin purse.
"Would you like to see our menu?" another attendant asks.
I mention that I had pre-arranged for a vegetarian meal, which she already had marked down, so I tried to give the menu back. "Why don't you just hold onto it," she said. "For the wine list."
Heh-- wine list. I figured the folks behind me in coach weren't contemplating whether to get the Mondavi Chardonnay or the Oregon Pinot Noir. They were probably busy cramming suitcases the size of grand pianos into the overhead compartments.
A few hours into the flight, after catching American Graffiti on the mini LCD t.v.'s attached to every first class seat-- I'd already caught the main feature, A Perfect Murder, on the way from Newark the day before. The trip to Palau leaves plenty of time for catching up on flicks-- lunch was served. I passed on the salmon appetizer, and moved right into salad, then the entree. The vegetarian option was a stuffed pepper with couscous and three-bean salad. It just so happened that it was the same meal they had served for lunch on the Newark-Houston flight. But, for some reason, the trans-Pacific version lacked the chili sauce that had really clinched the deal the day before. For desert, the attendant came through offering a palate-cleansing course of cheese and grapes. Unlike my seatmate, I turned down the proffer of a glass of after-lunch port, Then, the flight attendant returned, wheeling out the desert cart featuring hot fudge sundaes.
God, I love first-class. I'm never going back to coach.
31,000 feet, now. Somewhere over the Pacific west of Hawaii on the Hawaii-Guam leg, and it's time for another meal. This day has turned into a non-stop eating frenzy. The pictographic itinerary on the ticket for the Houston-Guam leg of the flight showed one symbol for a meal and one for a "snack," assuming that's what the steaming cup of coffee icon is meant to represent. That was a little misleading. I've now been through:
And I'm not done yet. The menu threatens another "refreshment" prior to our landing in Guam, which I'll probably pass on. Other than carrying my bags through the terminal in Houston this morning, I've had precisely zero physical activity today, and my body is telling me the lay off with the eating already.
As I write this, it's 9:00 p.m. Houston time on my watch (and body), but bright daylight out the window-- I'm guessing maybe 3:00 p.m. local time, to the extent that you can have "local time" thousands of miles in any direction from the nearest speck of land. Having done the math during a short refueling stop in Honolulu, I figured that it's been 10 chronological hours since I left Houston, yet I'm still 5 hours from Guam, and another 7 from Palau. That means I land in Guam at what I perceive to be 2:00 a.m., and hit Palau at 5:00 a.m. my time, about 21 actualy hours after I left Houston. But it'll only be 8:00 p.m. in Palau when I get there, just in time to for the cocktail hour.
There's been nothing but ocean out the window for the last six hours, and I just came to the realization that this is the farthest from "home," however that may be defined, that I've ever been in my life. That thought arouses a certain sadness in me right about now. True, part of the decision to take this job was to leave a lot of demons behind in Buffalo-- a failed marriage, an unsatisfying career, and so on. But now, I'm 8,000 miles away and gaining, and those demons don't seem quite as intimidating as they did before. Is that a signal that I'm already putting my past behind me and "starting over," or am I getting nervous as an uncertain future hurtles towards me at 586 miles per hour? That thought leaves me feeling troubled. When the time to leave came, it came quickly, and I feel like I left some relationships that are valuable to me without resolution, and that makes me sad. Or maybe it's just the fact that I've slept a total of 8 hours in the last 3 days.
But enough introspection for now. Having now switched over to "Continental Micronesia" for the remainder of the trip, I'm rewarded with the luxury of a different in-flight magazine on this leg, one that's more focused on Micronesia and the Pacific Rim. This one appears to have a story about the K-B Bridge collapsing, but it's hard to tell because whatever it says, it says in Japanese. But it's hard to mistake the pictures for anything else. One shows a long, arched bridge, easily a good 700 feet, over a crystal blue lagoon; the other shows an aerial view of two bridge supports with the bridge deck slanting into the ocean on either side, and some ridiculously rusted out ship in the foreground. It's a strange sight in an airline magazine that's usually pretty positive about the place you're flying to. Is this another omen? Or is fate kicking me when I'm already feeling a little down on the idea of this trip.
O.k., time for another movie, and another two hours to kill. I skipped Hope Floats-- phooey on a romantic comedy-- but I figure I'll catch Deep Impact. Right now, the thought of an asteroid extinguishing humanity seems to fit my depressed state of mind right now.
Another plane change, and I'm now on the last leg of this trip: a 2 hour hop across the ocean from Guam to Palau. Total elapsed travel time today up 'til this point: 19 hours and counting. I'd like to be able to say that the Honolulu-Guam leg was excruciating, but about halfway through the flight, I went mentally numb. If you've ever stayed up all night for something, you know that after about 20 hours of continuously being awake, the body just gives up on trying to figure out what time it is. That's where I am right now. I have a feeling that jet lag won't be a problem going this way-- I'll get into Palau at 7:40 p.m. local time, and I plan to be in bed by 9:00. With any luck, I'll cram in 11 hours of sleep and be totally adjusted tomorrow morning.
But not before one last meal. It's already in front of me before I have the chance to refuse. Thankfully, it's not the ubiquitous stuffed pepper, but rather, some sort of Asian influenced vegetable stir-fry. Since my body feels like it's about 2:00 a.m. and is still stuffed from the smorgasbord from the last two flights, my brain is unable to persuade my arms and mouth to do too much eating. I feel vaguely concerned that the flight attendant who served it to me might be offended if I don't eat any of it. But then I realize it's not like she cooked it or anything. Out of guilt, I put down another bite or two, and rearrange things on the plate to make it look less full anyway.
So here we are. The captain just announced that we were beginning our descent into Koror. I'm about 80 miles and 30 minutes from the start of a whole new life. It's dark already, so there are going to be no revelations from the air. Anyway, the computer's battery is down to about 10% (impressive, considering I've written this entire chapter on one battery charge), so this would be a nice ending point. Whatever all those omens on this trip are supposed to be warning me about, I'll be face-to-face with it inside the hour.