Part II: Denver Bound! Sort of.

(Read Part I here.)

7:30pm  Flight 6296 to Denver finally boards.  Everything is déjà vu as we find our seats, stow our carry-ons, buckle up.  My seatmate and I greet each other with a second "hello."  If we have to do this a third time it will be very awkward indeed.

7:50pm  Take-off!  Movement!  The feeling of lifting off the ground and going somewhere!

8:00pm  My seatmate takes out a book to read.  I am intrigued by the title—something about the psychological effects of music.  When I inquire, Tom says he is a casual musician.  He plays guitar and mandolin in some local bands back in Pittsburgh.  Though he has always played rock, the last few years Tom's been exploring acoustic music: Celtic, Americana, even classical.  It is not often I get the pleasure of discussing the resurgence of American roots music; I put away my own book in favor of the conversation.

9:00pm  The captain announces we're landing... in Grand Junction?  There are thunderstorms in Denver and when we tried to land, we were diverted.  Denver is on the east side of the Rocky Mountains, Grand Junction on the west.  We have essentially taken two steps forward and one step back.

9:10pm  We land at the poky Grand Junction, Colorado airport, along with a couple other diverted planes.  Passengers are not allowed to deplane as we refuel and wait for weather to clear around Denver. 

9:20pm  Tom asks what I studied in college.  From past experience, I fear that when I say "Bible and Theology," he will either give an awkward "Oh.  I see," and immediately change the subject, or poke me with an elbow and say knowingly, "Oh, so you're a preacher!"  Nevertheless, I answer his question, and Tom's enthusiastic response astounds me: "That's perfect!  I've been wanting someone to explain the Bible to me."

Suddenly, I am not tired anymore.  I don't care if I never see Denver or feel circulation in the lower half of my body again.  This is the beginning of an hours-long off-and-on conversation with Tom about Bible history, church denominations and individual spirituality.  I am all too happy to share with him my trust in the death and resurrection of the God-man, Jesus Christ, to pay my sin debt, guarantee my home in heaven and give me joy and victory in the meanwhile.

Tom soaks it all up.  He, as it turns out, has placed his own faith in Christ for salvation, but he has never been encouraged to grow in his walk with God.  He has been attending a certain denomination since childhood that is heavy on tradition but light on Bible teaching.  "What I don't get," he shakes his head, "is why my priest never opens up a Bible and just reads from it, or tells us to read it.  I mean, isn't Christianity all about the Bible?"  Yes, it absolutely is, I affirm.  "Maybe..." he says slowly, "Maybe I need to look for another church."  I love it when the Holy Spirit makes a realization "click" for someone without my having to spell it out!  We talk about what to look for in a good church, about the centricity of accurate, practical and compassionate preaching of God's word.  He has a buddy, he tells me, who has told him the same things.  (Hurrah for Philadelphia-Christian-Guy who was faithful to speak truth in love to his friend!)  Praying: "Wow, Lord.  You have given me something much better than an on-time flight.  You have dropped right in my lap a chance to share my faith and encourage another believer.  You are good and all Your ways are good."

Coming up next: Part III, including more thwarted travel plans and the afore-promised and all-important bag of pretzels.


Part I: United We Wait

Most people have a horror story to tell about air travel.  Until a couple weeks ago, I had none.  But June 11 (and 12) took me through an outrageous string of events while trying to travel a mere 2 states away.  This is the first installment of my attempt to chronicle the bumps and blessings of that very long, very bizarre experience.

1:00pm  Kind friends drop me off at Salt Lake City International Airport.  I bid them a cheerful goodbye, blissfully ignorant of the tumultuous 32 hours ahead of me.

2:20pm  I board United flight 6296 to Denver.  Still planning to be in Wichita, Kansas by 7:30pm and at my folks' house by 10:00.

3:10pm  Still sitting at the gate.  The captain announces that the hydraulic is leaking into the engine and this aircraft is not air-worthy.  We 60-or-so passengers deplane and return to our gate in the airport.  Praying: "Father, thank You for protecting us from a mechanical breakdown in the air.  But, um, I'd really like to get home."  (If nothing else, I am a candid pray-er.)

3:15pm  I call my parents with the news, catching them just before leaving on the 2.5-hour drive to Wichita.  They have no cell phone.  They would have gone all the way to the airport before finding out I am still sitting in Salt Lake.  Praying: "Thank You for sparing Mom and Dad a wasted trip.  Now isn't there a Bible verse You could show them about the necessity of cell phones?"

3:25pm  I begin to wait in line for the customer service desk by the gate.  A Frenchman in an incongruous red plaid jacket is in front of me; he's trying to get to Europe for business.  A Denver guy is behind me.  He complains that he might be late to watching the Rockies trounce the Twins in Denver.  I try to act sympathetic even though I was raised a Minnesota fan.

4:00pm  Still waiting in line, and no closer to the desk.  Commenting on the relatively peaceful passengers, despite United's lack of action or answers, French Guy says, "People are so nice here.  In France, we would have had a revolution by now."  I tell him, "A revolution sounds good.  You lead us.  I've got tweezers, and we'll find somebody who smuggled in a fingernail clipper or two."  He declines and edges away from me.  Later I realize I could probably have been arrested if someone reported me for saying that.  Praying: "Thanks, God, for protecting me from my own stupidity."

4:30pm  I decide to try checking out of the secure area and getting help at the ticket counter.  When I arrive, the line seems slightly shorter there, so I stay.

5:15pm  This line is not moving, either.  Like not at all.  I read my book while standing.

6:05pm  I agonize over the decision whether to stay in this line or return to the original one at the gate.  I do not want to miss any announcements at the gate, so I go through security again and head back to the gate.  The TSA agent says, "Oh, weren't you through here a few hours ago...?"  I force a smile and nod.

6:15pm  United announces that they have "found another aircraft" for Flight 6296.  What, an airplane was hiding?  A jet had been overlooked like a misplaced penny?  Right-o.  There is no announcement of when the aircraft will arrive and when we will board.  It is 7:15 Central; I should be buckling up for a smooth landing in Wichita.

6:45pm  W-a-i-t-i-n-g.  Haven't eaten since noon, but nervous to leave the gate area and miss the flight when the plane finally arrives.  Praying: "Lord, I have no idea what's going on, but You're in control.  Open my eyes to opportunities to please You even though this pretty much stinks."  I knew He'd do it, but I'm still amazed at the extent.

Coming up next... Part II, including the opportunity God gave me, more bumps and blessings, and a bag of pretzels.


What Heroes Wear (or, The Death of Cynicism)

His name is Joseph Woodruff and he spends his days wearing a navy vest, standing behind a ticket counter for Frontier Airlines in Kansas City International Airport.  And he is my hero.

I was trying to get back to Utah on Monday.  The plan: parents drop me off in Kansas City on their way home from Minnesota to Kansas; fly to Salt Lake City after a short layover in Denver; be home and taking a long hot shower by 9:00 that evening.  It was going to be a quick, hassle-free trip.  Also, braces are fun and Obama cuts taxes.

My flight to Denver had been delayed.  I was going to miss my connection to Salt Lake City.  I would have to spend the night either in Kansas City or Denver, and hope to reach Utah some time the next day.  Or I could fly standby with no guarantee of ever getting home.  Joseph informed me of these unpleasant facts in a sympathetic tone.  None of these options would get me back in time for work the next morning.  Besides, I was travel-weary and frustrated and homesick.

Joseph read my mind.  "You just want to get home.  I'll tell you what, we're going to beat the system and get you there."  He tapped away on his keyboard.  He scribbled notes.  He made phone calls.  He muttered and grunted and scratched his head.  For forty minutes.

Once he glanced up and said, "Don't give up hope.  I'm determined to be your hero."  Hero?  Previous experience (which I shall relate elsewhere) with air travel personnel had rendered me a cynic.  But when he casually propped up a foot after making this statement, it was a black cowboy boot that stuck out under his uniform slacks.  That changed everything.  Everyone knows that heroes wear cowboy boots.  Hope was revived.

He tapped some more at his computer.  The sound had a lulling effect.  By now I had been standing in one spot for almost an hour; I was tired and my legs were stiff.  I imagined myself swooning across the stainless steel luggage scale.  Joseph Woodruff would reach out his tanned, notably ringless hands and catch me.  He would fan my face with a ticket stub and say, "Forget your flight.  I'll drive you to Utah.  We'll take my white truck with the horse trailer.  A palomino for each of us.  I've always wanted to see the West.  We'll read Tennyson by moonlight, the sky a diamond-studded velvet canvas stretching over the rugged mountaintop where we lie—"

Reality check.  It was a perfectly plausible scenario until that last word.  No man who wears cowboy boots knows the correct usage of "lie" versus "lay."  (If you are the exception to this rule, and single, and at least moderately wealthy, please contact me immediately.)

No swoons or palominos or impeccable verb conjugation took place after all.  But something even better did: after an hour, I walked away with a ticket to get home to Utah yet that night, via another airline.

I don't know how he did it, but he beat the system.  He broke all the unwritten laws of airline "customer service": he truly served a customer with patience, determination, humor and humanity, at the cost of his own company's profit.  I am a cynic no longer.  Joseph Woodruff, you are my hero.  I kneel to kiss the pointy toes of your cowboy boots.