The Return Trip From Hell…
From Rome to New York
It was November when I drove from my New York home in the Catskill Mountains to Newark Airport, New Jersey. I had plenty of time to park my car in the long term parking lot, check in for the night flight to Rome aboard British Airways. Luckily, my coach ticket was upgraded to business class for the Atlantic flight, arriving in Rome the next morning. I slept all night stretched out flat, what a joy!
Rome airport was like any other in a big city. Much hustle and bustle and there at the baggage carousel stood the tour guide with a big sign with the name of the tour company. The group assembled, in couples, arriving from different countries all over the world. I was traveling alone. We were lined up like school children against the wall and instructed to stay there until the bus arrived and everyone was accounted for. Friendly conversation between the different people in the group commenced.
The tour of Italy and Sicily started after lunch in Rome. We visited the most famous sites, the Vatican, Sistine Chapel, Trevi Fountain, Michelangelo’s David, the Colioseum, the Wedding Cake, to mention a few, then hustled off to the next stop. The tour continued north and east to Venice, then down the eastern coast of Italy, south, ferry across the Straits of Messina for the tour around Sicily making a side trip to see Mt. Etna erupting. Spectacular at night. The itinerary was long and vigorous, but the tour itself is not the subject of this story.
The tour passed quickly. We went everywhere and saw everything listed in the tour guide. The hotels were just okay. Food in Italy is world famous, but on this tour, mediocre at best. Since it was my first European experience, I found out that I’d much rather find my own trattoria and eat home cooked food in mama’s kitchen than preplanned dinner in a hotel. I’ll know better next time. Although the tour was very strenuous, everything coming and going seemed to be uphill, I enjoyed it very much, especially the rides on the bus from place to place. The countryside is spectacular all through Italy and Sicily.
On the bus, returning to Rome for the last night, all morning arrangements for the airport transportation from the hotel were distributed. Fully packed, bags outside the door of my room, ready to go. I was picked up at 5 a.m. for an 8:00 a.m. flight to London, making a connection there for Newark Airport after a one hour layover. It was perfectly planned. All was well, I thought.
I had a 2 hour wait for my plane in Rome. I took my time, had some breakfast, I checked in, bags ticketed and taken away. The time came and passed for the first boarding call. No call. Everyone waited patiently. No explanation was given for the delay. After an hour passed, all we were told was that the flight was delayed. I was still waiting when the next shuttle bus full of people, picked up from the hotel 2 hours later than me, arrived at the airport. They found their respective airlines and were gayly on their way to wherever they were going. My flight still was not boarding. People began to get disgruntled. Finally we heard our flight number.
"Due to weather conditions in London this flight is delayed," said the attendant. "We are waiting for a break in the weather."
"Okay," I said to myself. "Better safe than sorry, but isn’t London always foggy?"
Everyone waited while time passed. After several hours we were finally allowed to board, but the plane sat at the gate for a long time after the aircraft was secured and the seat belt sign was on. We sat silent for long time. I must admit I was scared because the flight attendants were very agitated. I wondered if I should be worrying about this flight.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain," on the intercom. "We are experiencing some difficulty with the aircraft. As soon as it is remedied we will be underway. Relax while the flight attendants offer you refreshments."
Since this was a morning flight, no food was available. We were given salted peanuts and soft drinks, coffee, tea and some passengers ordered hard liquor. Technicians crawled all over the front of the plane, like ants at a picnic. Another hour passed. Stomachs were growling from hunger and tempers were getting raw. Not from the passengers, but the flight attendants were carrying on in a most unprofessional manner.
"Ladies and gentlemen," again. "This is your captain speaking. We had a minor problem with our radio. We have been cleared for take off."
Within minutes, we were backing out of the gate and on our way toward the runway. Another click on the intercom.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain," he groaned. "The radio is not working properly, we must return to the gate."
The engines, air conditioning and lights were turned off and we sat in the stuffy, hot, dark plane while repair crews attempted to fix the problem. By this time I doubted that it was the radio that was broken and visualized flying over the English Channel and falling from the sky. I must admit that I was frightened and so were the other passengers. I wanted to get off the plane but was not allowed to leave my seat.
Of course, we lost our place in the takeoff lineup for departure when we were finally able to get underway. The plane waited for our turn to take off. By that time my connecting flight to Newark Airport left London without me.
Meanwhile, inside the plane was chaos. Flight attendants were angry, rude and stomping up and down the aisles, tossing little bags of peanuts across passengers, serving drinks without ice, banging the refreshment cart into passengers seats, complaining bitterly about missed boyfriends, girlfriends and rides, creating a tense and frightened environment among the passengers. It was a rough ride to England due to turbulence inside the aircraft and out.
We landed in London. Me, along with 200 other people on the plane who missed their connecting flight waited in line queued up at the British Airways counter attempting to get home. There was yelling, frustration, anger and threats screamed at airline personnel by passengers. Finally, it was my turn.
"The next available flight to Newark is tomorrow morning, madam," the pale, overwrought ticket lady reported from behind her computer.
"Is there no other flight leaving tonight?"
"Well," says she. "There’s a flight leaving in 25 minutes if you can run to the other side of this airport in time. There is one seat left."
"I’ll take it," I hurried to say.
She booked the flight and guaranteed me that my luggage would be transferred to the other plane and go with me to Newark. I jumped into one of those electric carts and sped off to my flight.
"Okay," I said. "Better late…"
The ticket lady was not lying. I did get the last seat on the plane. It was in the last row. It was the farthest seat from the cockpit, directly in front of the lavatories and galley.
"Oh, joy," I said under my breath. "I get to ride in the toilet."
The last row in that plane had 2 seats. I scurried down the aisle to my seat, where a very large man sat in the aisle seat. He also was sitting in the window seat. He had raised the arm separating the 2 seats so that he would fit. Unfortunately for me, I’m not a skinny woman. This was going to be a problem. The flight attendants stood by, had a good laugh and did nothing to help.
"Excuse me, sir," I said to the man. "You seem to be sitting in my seat."
"No," says he. "This is my seat."
"But you are also sitting in my seat." I motioned to the window seat area.
"Oh, yes," he said smiling. "The window seat is your seat."
Squeezing out into the aisle he let me pass to my window seat. I sat down and buckled up before the enormous man returned to his seat. I was very unhappy wedged against the wall all night. The poor man felt awful too. He kept apologizing for my discomfort. I tried to take deep breaths and remain calm. I tried to sleep. I didn’t need a blanket. The man was covering half my body with his flesh.
The flight was otherwise uneventful, except for some falling-out-the-sky turbulence that raised screams from passengers. And folks, this was just the beginning of my nightmare.
We arrived at Newark Airport. The weather was cold and it was raining heavily. I waited with the rest of the passengers from my flight while they retrieved their luggage until the carousel was empty. Did you guess? Airport personnel after much hassle, forms, keys, assured that as soon as they "found" my bags they would be delivered to my home within 72 hours. I think I heard her wrong….maybe she said 72 days.
I boarded the shuttle bus to the long term parking lot, made it to my car and prayed it would start. Yes, yes…thank you, thank you, God. I was on the last lap home, at last. Three more hours and I would be sleeping in my own bed. Hooray!
Rain was coming down in sheets and visibility was poor. I was trying to get out of the parking lot, looking for the exit sign. Unfamiliar with Newark Airport, especially on a rainy dark night, I ran over a curb type barricade in the road and blew out a rear tire. Of course, I didn’t have AAA.
Now is when the real fun begins.
I sat inside my car crying from frustration, hazard lights blinking at the side of the road. Nobody stopped to help me. Wearing only a heavy sweater, I got out of the car, stood in the road, soaked to the skin and tried to flag someone to stop. The cars drove around me. Not one vehicle stopped. I knew I could not change the tire myself, so I started to drive very slowly on the flat tire and rim trying to find a gas station. Would you believe I could not find one gas station in Newark Airport?
Finally I saw a light on in a private parking area office. Bedraggled and shivering, steam rising from my shoulders, I banged on the door until a woman answered. She refused to open the door to let me in out of the rain. I begged the woman to call a tow truck for me. She called, I got back into my car and waited… and waited… and waited. I turned the car off to conserve fuel. In no time I was shivering so badly, my teeth were chattering.
Finally, the tow truck arrived. The young man tried to change the tire but was unable to remove the lug nuts with the tools he brought. He had to tow the car to a garage. At this point I would have agreed to anything, just to get home.
The towing apparatus was attached to my vehicle, the rear end lifted off the ground, setting off an alarm. Not little beep beep alarm. Oh, no. This alarm sounded like a police car and deafening. I didn’t even know the vehicle had an alarm since I bought it used and it wasn’t factory installed as standard equipment. The tow truck driver didn’t know how to turn it off.
Off we went, alarm blasting, to the garage. The owner of the garage changed my tire in two minutes with the alarm still on and screaming. He could not figure out how turn it off either.
"Oh," he chuckled. "When it runs the battery down, it’ll stop."
"Oh, no," I said, thinking the battery would not run down if I was driving. "I’ll drive with the alarm on. I don’t care now."
I got into the car and turned on the ignition and found out that the alarm system had a kill switch that prevented the car from starting until the alarm was disarmed. By this time, I was so frustrated and tired, I started screaming to relieve the tension.
"Let me try one more thing," the man said. "I’ll call my alarm guy."
"Duh!" said I to myself.
He got instructions on how to kill the alarm and start the vehicle. Thanking the man, paying him a whole lot of money, I drove off into the night, warned not to turn the car off until I got home because I might not be able to restart it.
It was now about 2:00 a.m. I was also low on gasoline with a 150 mile drive from Newark to upstate New York in the Catskill Mountains. I drove on, hopeful of finding an open gas station. I didn’t see one open gas station between Newark and home. I prayed that I had enough to get me there.
Grateful to be on my way home at last, I was painfully aware of the limited amount of gasoline. Visibility was poor in the heavy rain. I drove slowly to conserve gas but it took me twice as long. At that point I wasn’t sure that driving slowly for twice as long would cancel itself out.
Wurtsboro Mountain on Route 17 was ahead of me. My vehicle climbed to the top of the mountain and the rain suddenly changed to snow. It was coming down in flakes as big and fat as silver dollars. It was a blizzard of white-out proportions and, of course, I didn’t have my snow tires on yet. It was just November. Who heard of a blizzard in November? This was not good. No snow plows or sanders had been out yet. The snow was already six inches deep on the road. The car slid and skid, slipping, fish tailing, spinning down the other side of the mountain. Luckily there were no other cars on the road at that hour or I would have been involved in an accident for sure.
Driving 10 miles an hour for 35 miles, I got off the parkway at Liberty, exit 100. It was another 11 miles home. My gas meter read empty.
The huge, thick snow flakes fell so heavily I missed the turn for my road. Not daring to attempt turning around I drove to the alternative access to my road. There was an accumulation of about 8 inches of snow already on the ground. It was all uphill from the turn. Running on gas vapors by then, only half way up the first hill, wheels spinning, sliding back and forth, the car would not move another inch forward. I gave up, rolled downward to the side of the road.
Still wearing the wet, sagging wool sweater, open toed sandals, no socks, I trudged uphill the rest of the way, the last 2 miles. My feet and hands were frozen. It was very cold, the wind fierce, whipping up the new fallen snow, swirling white in the air, into my eyes, stinging my face. The cold wind hurt my ears. I tried walking backwards so the wind would not be blasting me in the face. I tried covering my ears with my hands but needed my arms for balance on the slippery hill.
Everyone knows that necessity is the mother of invention. I had to do something to protect myself. I remembered that right before I boarded the plane in London, for comfort on the long flight, I removed my lacy, champagne colored brassiere and put it into the back pocket of my blue jeans. Being amply endowed, size 38DDD, I tied that brassiere, under wires and all, over my head tying it under my chin, covering my ears with the large cups. I thanked God because nobody saw me.
Talk about the return trip from hell! It’s funny…now…