Thursday, May 14, 2009

How I Got Home from Germany


Of all the stories I brought home from my 2008 trip to Bremen, Germany, there's one I get asked to tell more than all of the others combined: the story of how I got home. It starts off with a stupid mistake, gets complicated by a number of mishaps, and then ends with something strangely resembling a miracle. Having told this story to at least a dozen people now, I believe it might finally be time to put it into writing for all the world to read.

It goes without saying that there were a number of flesh-and-blood people involved in getting me home from Germany: my friend Nico, my parents, my aunt, my aunt's friend Mark, even the lady at the Frankfurt ticket counter who told me that she was hoping for the best. I owe all of them a debt of gratitude that I don't believe I can ever fully repay. Please know, though, that a lot of people who hear this story think there may be something more at work here than simple human kindness. I hope you'll enjoy it and decide for yourself.

"May the Road Rise Up to Meet You..."

On the night before I left for Germany, my mom took me out for Indian food at Nirvana, one of my very favorite restaurants in New Orleans. (I know, I know. It's very cute and endearing that my mom and I had dinner together. Anyway...) About halfway through our meal she got kind of quiet, and I could tell she was about to say something that was either meaningful, cheesy, or semi-serious. Maybe something along the lines of J, if your plane goes down in a parade of flame and fury over the Atlantic, I just want you to know that you were always my favorite. Always. Here. Take some money. But no, it wasn't that.

"J.," she said, "I don't know where you are with your religion right now, but I'll feel a lot better if you take these." She reached into her purse and hesitantly handed me a scapular and a St.Bridget medal. St.Bridget - just a little history lesson - is one of the patron saints of Ireland. She holds no special significance for me or my family, aside from the fact that she shares her name with a childhood friend of mine who died in 1991 (remember that date). "I thought you might like to have Bridgette with you," my mom said. Naturally, it made me feel sentimental, but I downplayed the religious side of it as much as I could. After all, my spiritual thinking became largely agnostic, leaning towards atheism, sometime towards the middle of 2007.

So that's what happened when I left for Germany. Getting back wasn't quite so tender and tear-jerking.

"I'm Sorry. This is Not Possible."

On the day I was scheduled to fly home from Germany, I showed up at the Bremen airport about 20 minutes before my plane was scheduled to take off. It was supposed to be very simple - Bremen to Paris to New Orleans - going back the same way I'd come. But when I got to the ticket counter at Air France, there was no one around to take my ticket. I stood in line for a good 5 or 6 minutes, assuming someone would eventually show up, tear my ticket, and tell me to run like hell for the plane...Nope. Never happened. No one ever showed up. And like a scene out of a bad movie, I saw my plane through a huge window behind the ticket counter as it took off for Paris without me.

About an hour later, several Air France employees began to crawl out of their holes to assist people. "Yes m'aam," I told one of them, "I missed my flight to Paris this morning, and I need to know when I can be re-scheduled."

"You missed your flight?" she asked (be sure to read all of her dialogue with a cute, sexy French accent).

"That's right. I missed my flight, and I need to be on the next one."

"But I did not see you come through the line."

"Well no, m'aam. There was no one at the counter when I got here."

"Did you come late? We stop taking tickets ten minutes before the flights take off."

"But I was here 15, probably 20 minutes before the flight took off."

"No, I'm sorry. This is not possible. I would have seen you."

It's worth noting here that the woman I was talking to was, no lie, one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen with my own two eyes. And I really wanted to be civil with her -- not only because she was hot, but because I know how Americans are perceived around the world and I really didn't want to fit the stereotype. Unfortunately, the next words that came out of my mouth were among the most American words I could have said...

"I'm sorry. What?"

"I say, 'This is not possible. I would have seen you.'"

"Well then, I guess I just witnessed the fucking impossible," I told her, "because there was no one at the counter when I got here. It's not like I missed the flight on purpose."

It's the same in any language, dear readers: "Let me get my manager."

Breakfast and a Series of Lectures

So the hot French gal's manager comes over and explains that there's nothing he can do about my missed flight. My only options are to get in touch with Delta (the airline I booked my flight with) or to pay Air France for a new flight. This new flight will cost either 6 or 7 thousand dollars, depending on whether I want to sit coach or first-class. Obviously, I decide to go with Delta, but I have no idea how to get in touch with them (no country-to-country service on my cell phone or my laptop air card.) So, I bought an international phone card and figured I'd wait a couple of hours, call my parents, and see what they could rig up. (I knew I couldn't leave Germany that day, so I figured I'd let them sleep in a little.)

As I sat in the Bremen airport, killing time and reading through some pamphlets, a couple of my friends from the Goethe-Institut came walking by. When I explained what had happened, we all agreed that my situation sucked (and that the French suck), and, after wishing me well, they went off to breakfast at the airport cafe'. A few minutes passed, and suddenly there they were again, asking me to join them for breakfast. I declined the first invitation, but they were very insistent that I join them. So, we all had breakfast together -- pastry and fruit, very European. Then one of them, Nico, gave me his cell number and told me to call him if I needed a place to crash.

After breakfast and farewells, I finally called my mom and dad, who put me in touch with Delta after griping at me for never being on time for anything. (I wish you could have heard the tenseness in my dad's voice when I told him that a new flight might cost 6 or 7 grand. It was truly a thing of beauty.) So I called Delta, and the lady I was talking to - obviously from Haiti or somewhere - asked me how long it had been since I missed my flight. "I guess it's been about 3 or 4 hours now," I answered. She then proceeded to lecture me about how I should have called Delta RIGHT AWAY. "I really don't know what we can do for you now," she told me. "This is a very busy travel season. We may not be able to fly you home for another week. Maybe 8 or 9 days." She said all this like she was personally disgusted with me - like I'd put her in a bad position. Then, when her lecture was finally over, she told me that my best bet was to search the airport and try to find a reasonable flight from one of the smaller airlines.

Walked the airport corridor -- and did I mention I was carrying about 120 pounds of luggage with me? -- and finally managed to track down a flight for just $1500. Of course, this happened at exactly the same time that the airport pay phones stopped accepting my phone card because I'd made too many calls to the same number in a certain span of time (keeping the 'rents informed). So now I have no internet, no phone, and virtually no money. Thankfully, the lady at the $1500 airline was kind enough to let me use her phone to call the States and iron out all the details. But when I talked to my mom, she told me not to fly with the new airline because she'd gotten in touch with my aunt Anna, who works for the military and was busy trying to work out a deal with a pilot friend of hers.

So, after using this nice woman's phone to place a trans-Atlantic call that lasted almost 15 minutes (and which involved some pretty intense arguing with my parents), I had to tell her that I wasn't going to be buying a ticket from her after all. In a monumental display of passive-aggression, she coldly explained that "some people might think it is rude for you to take up their time like this." If you're keeping track of the lectures, I count three at this point in the story.

The First Sign of Light?

Almost completely stranded now, I realize that the smartest thing I can do is call my breakfast companion Nico with the time remaining on my phone card. At least that way I'll have a place to stay if things get out of hand. Arriving about 30 minutes later, Nico let me use his cell phone to call home (he obviously has an awesome coverage plan). "Good news!" my mom told me. Aunt Anna had managed to get me a flight from Bremen to Frankfurt. And from Frankfurt, she assured me, there were 5 or 6 different flights that could take me home.

Overwhelmingly relieved, I thanked Nico for all his help, wished him my best, and then went to the airline counter where my ticket to Frankfurt was waiting for me....only to find out that my aunt's credit card had been declined. (My uncle had apparently made a couple of large purchases he'd neglected to mention.) Convinced that I was at the butt end of a cosmic joke, I called Nico again and asked him to come back for me.

From Nico's house, I was able to call my parents and aunt again. And once again, they told me I needed to make my way to the Frankfurt airport. And just my luck, there was a train leaving Bremen for Frankfurt in just an hour or so. Even better, it went straight to the airport with no stops in-between. It's like it was meant to be.

So Nico drives me to the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) and I purchase my ticket. Then, for the third time in a single day, we exchange farewells and promise to stay in touch with one another. About that time, a girl approached us on the train platform and struck up a conversation -- this happens a lot whenever Nico's around. hehe In the middle of this conversation, I realized that I'd left my cell phone in Nico's van. (For the record: this was not some ploy to get the girl all to myself. I really did forget my phone.) Knowing he's a lot faster than I am, Nico volunteered to go and get it, and while he was gone a train pulled into the station. Unsure of what train I was waiting for, I asked the girl a simple question: "Is this my train?" "No," she told me, "not this one. The next one." Nico came back with my phone just in time to see the train taking off. The look of panic on his face told me that I'd just made a huge mistake...That's right. I'd just missed my train to Frankfurt.

On the way back to Nico's house, he told me in no uncertain terms that I was "goofy" (no shit, he actually said the word "goofy") and that he couldn't figure out why I had taken the advice of some girl I didn't even know. This, obviously, was Lecture #4. Realizing that my best-case scenario involved staying with an irritated German who thought I was goofy, I began to lose a little hope. But, after a quick peek at the online train schedule, we learned that another train was leaving for the Frankfurt airport in just 5 hours. Convinced that something would go wrong if I fell asleep, I dozed off in little uncomfortable spurts for a while until it was finally time to go. And this time, I caught my train. :)

Destination: Cincinatti

Arriving at the Frankfurt airport, I dragged the aforementioned 120 pounds of luggage to the Delta ticket counter. There, the lady explained that my aunt's pilot friend had placed me on what's called a Buddy List. From Frankfurt, there were three potential flights I could take: one to New York, one to Atlanta, and one to Cincinatti. Unfortunately, by missing that first train I'd completely shot my chances of getting on a flight to New York or Atlanta in the foot. My only hope was Cincinatti. "But that doesn't look good either," the lady told me. "We're overbooked, and it's a busy travel season. But I hope for the best for you."

On my way to the terminal, I took a wrong turn and ended up on the absolute wrong end of the airport. Doubling back, I waited in line, checked in, and then waited for a very tense 90 minutes.
Discouraged, I watched as hordes and hordes of people came sprawling into the terminal, all of them determined to squash the hopes of the huddled masses on the Stand-By List. Finally, they started boarding. First class. Second class. Then, "We will now begin seating our stand-by passengers." Knowing I was pretty far down on the list, I took a series of deep breaths as they paged one stand-by passenger after another. And then: "Delta Airlines paging passenger Jason Wiltz. Passenger Jason Wiltz, please report to the Delta ticket counter."

Smiling and on the brink of tears like a beauty pageant contestant, I rushed to the counter and told the lady handing me my ticket how worried I'd been that she wasn't going to call my name. "You know," she told me, "it was the strangest thing. We're overbooked, and all of these people kept coming. We didn't think we were going to seat any of our stand-by passengers. But then, for some reason, the passengers just stopped coming." I kissed her hand, which I could tell freaked her out a little, even though she tried to laugh it off.

Settling into my seat for my flight back to the U.S. of A, I realized that it was a lot more comfortable than the airline seats I'm used to. Then a stewardess approached me and asked if I'd like to see the dinner menu. That's when I figured it out. "Oh...Oh, wait a second," I said, "am I in first class?" "Yes sir. There were no more seats in Coach, so we bumped you up. Would you like a glass of wine?" Later in the flight - when I was about halfway through my third in-flight movie - the stewardess came around with a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies. She told me they'd decided to bake them because they were bored. And because I was a Buddy List passenger, I got all of this for just $200.

"I'm On My Way. Just Set Me Free."

You can call me sappy. You can call me a redneck. You can call me whatever you want. But after a series of missed flights, trains, and opportunities, I had genuine tears in my eyes when I rounded the corner at Customs and saw the words WELCOME TO THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA written on the wall. I was back on native soil. Now all I needed was a flight to New Orleans.

I got on the phone with my aunt's pilot friend - whose name, by the way, is Mark - and he told me I was on the stand-by list for a flight leaving for New Orleans in about 16 hours. Glancing over his online flight roster, he said everything was looking great. There were 9 empty seats, and I was #5 on a list of 7 stand-by passengers. "If nothing changes, they'll be able to fit all the stand-by passengers. The only hard part now is finding something to keep yourself busy for that long," Mark laughed.

Not wanting to take any chances, I went ahead, checked in, and went through security. What I didn't realize at the time was that all the good stuff (stores, food court, etc.) was on the other side of the airport. If I went to any of those places, I'd have to go through the entire lengthy check-in/security process all over again. And if you know me, you know I'm at my absolute worst when I'm going through airport security. So, I found a bench and read for a while, then played around online until nighttime.

I started getting tired around 11, so, completely ignoring the "No Sleeping" sign, I crashed out in the airport chapel - the only place where I wouldn't have to worry too much about my carry-on items. Having been a voracious reader all my life - the kind of person who reads whatever's available - I thumbed through one of the pamphlets in the chapel before falling asleep. I can't remember much about it except that it quoted Luke 1:37: "For nothing will be impossible with God." It's not a Biblical verse I was familiar with before I read it there.

Playing the Numbers

When I woke up the next morning, I called Mark on my way to the terminal and asked him what my situation was looking like. "You're never gonna believe this," he told me. "During the night, they sold 2 seats, and then a single passenger, a couple, and a family of 6 moved onto the stand-by list ahead of you." At first I thought he was joking with me and commended him for being able to keep a straight face. "But I'm not joking," he said. "2 seats sold, a single passenger, one couple, and a family of 6." Thus, I'd gone from being #5 on a list of 7 passengers waiting to get into 9 available seats to being #14 on a list of 16 passengers waiting to get into 7. Needless to say, I was pissed. After everything I'd been through - up to and including my 14-hour layover in the boring section of the Cincinatti airport - some asshole family of 6 had to come through and mess up all my plans. By my calculations, 7 people would need to miss the flight in order for me to have a chance at getting a seat.

So for 2 miserable, self-pitying hours, I sat in the terminal waiting for the plane to start boarding. And just like the airport terminal in Frankfurt, it was absolutely overflowing with people. It wasn't long before I spotted the family of 6 hopping right along -- Mom, Dad, and their 4 bastard sons running around making loud "choo-choo" train noises, as if they knew what harm they were causing me and just wanted to rub it in. I tried not to think about all the people who'd probably bought last-minute tickets in the last couple of hours, and how my chances of getting a seat were probably even more limited than I knew. But of course I couldn't turn it off, so I went ahead and approached the boarding booth to ask how things were looking. The lady looked for my name on the list and told me it wasn't promising. "I wish I could tell you otherwise, but I don't want to give you any false confidence."

And boy, was she telling the truth. Once boarding started and I saw all those people heading onto the plane, I realized it was a lost cause. There's just no way. Then they started paging stand-by passengers...Well, the first guy they paged didn't come when they called his name. Neither did the second. But the third and fourth names were the couple. That left just 5 available seats, which put the family of 6 in a tight spot. Unable to decide which kid they were willing to sacrifice, the mom decided to take 3 of the kids on the plane with her while the dad stayed behind with the other one to look for a later flight. After that, a father and daughter were paged. The dad was willing to take separate flights, but he ended up having a defective ticket and the daughter didn't want to fly without him. They decided against it. Seeing our opportunity, me and another guy went to the counter just in time to see the FLIGHT CLOSED sign come on. "Aww damn it," said the other guy. "Those bastards aren't letting anybody else on. See how they waste your time? Why do they overbook these things? Damn it!" Then he slunked off, totally pissed.

That's when the stewardess looked at me and said, "Are you Mr.Pfefferton?"

"No m'aam."

She looked around and, without using the microphone like she did for her other pages, she quietly said his name a few times. "Mr.Pfefferton? Pfefferton?...Last call for Pfefferton?" Nothing. Then she gave me a just-between-us kind of smile and said, "Mr.Wiltz?"

"Yes?" I said, not sure of what would follow.

Still smiling, she printed out a ticket, handed it to me, and said, "Run."

Ever seen the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where Charlie runs through town victoriously holding the golden ticket? Yeah. My trip to the plane was a lot like that. Walking down the aisle to the LAST AVAILABLE SEAT, I told the mom from the family of 6 that she had beautiful children.

Reflection at 20,000 Feet

It didn't occur to me until we'd been in the air for 10 minutes or so that everything had just happened exactly the way it needed to. Right in front of my eyes:

The first two passengers who hadn't shown up + the dad and kid who stayed behind + the guy with the defective ticket + the daughter who didn't want to leave without him + angry Mr.Pfefferton who left before his name was called = the 7 passengers I needed to get a spot on the plane. What were the odds? I wondered, laughing to myself about the way things always seem to work out for me. But then I realized what a serious question it really was: No seriously, what were the odds?

Looking back over the ordeal, I realized that, on one hand, I'd missed a flight and was told I'd have to pay up to $7000 to book another. My early attempts to find a better rate ended in failure. My money was running out. I'd momentarily lost all contact with my family. My first real chance at catching another flight was thwarted by a declined credit card. I missed a train. I screwed up my chance to fly into New York or Atlanta. And I got myself stuck on the shitty end of the Cincinatti airport.

But on the other hand, I'd run into two friends who turned around after saying goodbye and insisted that I have breakfast with them. Realize - if they hadn't come back for me, I wouldn't have gotten Nico's cell number. And if I hadn't gotten Nico's number, I wouldn't have had anyone to call when my luck started heading south. Nico had managed to find a train that took me straight to the Frankfurt airport. And when I got there and found out that my chances of getting a flight to Cincinatti weren't very promising: "It was the strangest thing. The passengers just stopped coming." Instead of paying some budget airline $1500, I ended up paying just $200, got bumped up to first class, and was served a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies. And now there were 7 people in Cincinatti who'd all had to step aside for one reason or another while I took the last available seat.

A part of me felt like the French girl at the Air France ticket counter, saying, "I'm sorry. This is not possible." But at the same time, there was another part of me that couldn't help thinking about the pamphlet I'd read in the airport chapel: "For nothing will be impossible..."

Conclusion (Remember How I Told You to Remember That Date?)

Jogging down to the baggage claim area at the New Orleans airport, I was happy to see my luggage coming right along the track as if I'd told it to meet me there at a certain time. I was even happier when I noticed the lucky penny sitting directly in front of it. I didn't take a very good look at it until I was in the car. And it's a good thing, too. I don't know if my legs would have held me up when I realized it was dated 1991.

John 9:25


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cool story!

9:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

always enjoy reading your plights. However it did not move me to Jesus.. =)


10:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nearly ten years ago, the most spiritually-resolute man I have ever known inscribed the following excerpt from a Catholic communion hymn on a post-it note in my apartment:

"Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come, follow me, and I will give you rest."

I have kept that post-it in my wallet and am often reminded of its being there - as I was today when I read this post.

Make no mistake, there are miracles in your story...the kind that beg you to take pause and marvel at what you know to be True. Thank you for sharing it with all of us.

ahhh, und, na Klar, Herzlichen gluckwunsch zum geburtstag.

2:41 PM  

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