It was early April that year and I was excited. I was going back to Asia for the third time, to see the cherry blossoms in bloom and hop from base to base telling jokes through most of South Korea and Japan. My itinerary was complicated, and the first leg in particular left very little space for a mistake. In a perfect world I was supposed to fly from Houston to Detroit, Detroit to Tokyo, and finally from Tokyo to Busan, South Korea.
But that’s in a perfect world.
In Real Land where I live, the problems started as soon as I boarded in Texas. They waited until the cabin door was closed to inform us that there was a minor computer issue. “It should only take a few minutes to correct,” the pilot’s voice crackled out over the intercom.
A baby cried somewhere in front of me. Sweet Jesus. Already? The mother fed it a bottle and rocked it to sleep. A few minutes slowly became sixty. I had a window seat, and that window was already beginning to fog up from the lack of air circulation. It’s been an hour, I thought. It can’t take that much longer. I’m a borderline claustrophobic person by nature and being stuck in the back of a long metal tube on the inside of a row wasn’t helping. The massive woman in the aisle seat was the size of an adolescent rhinoceros so getting out and walking around was going to be a challenge. At least I’m not in the middle though, I told myself.
That seat belonged to a man in his forties who, while having said nothing to support my theory, appeared to carry himself with a holier-than-thou attitude. I immediately didn’t like him. Some people have a cocky look on their face by nature. Maybe it was the way his facial bones were structured or how his eye brows arched, but he looked like someone who thought they should have a butler. “Simmer down,” I wanted to say. “You’re back here in coach with the rest of us.”
An hour and a half.
The speaker rattled again, this time with worse news. “This is your Captain again. Umm… we’re going to try to get this computer restarted one more time… umm… and if that doesn’t work we’re going to have to bring a crew on board to replace it. Just sit tight though. It shouldn’t be much longer,” the Captain lied.
Time was crawling. Shit. I remembered I only had a three hour layover in Detroit before my flight to Japan. This was going to cut things way too close. I pulled my notebook out of my backpack and tried to write to distract myself. The man in the middle was starting to get nosy. He pushed his glasses up with his finger and then tried to covertly read what I was writing with his peripheral vision. A blindfolded, stillborn chimpanzee would have known what he was doing. I adjusted my writing to compensate. Flipping over to a fresh page, I started a new paragraph:
“If you don’t stop reading this I will stab you in the ear with my pen and hide your body under the large woman to your left. They will never find you, do you understand me? Yes, I am talking to you. Don’t look away now, motherfucker. And when I’m through with you, and I get off this godforsaken plane, I will hunt your children down and eat them. You read that right. I will eat your children. On bread. Like a PoBoy.”
My layover time had officially been chiseled away. Unless we made into in the air in five minutes I was going to miss my next flight. I took a deep breath when I heard the intercom buzz. “Captain Adams here one more time. Just wanted to update you folks on our status. It looks like they have the problem under control. We apologize for keeping you on the plane this long, but it should only be a few more minutes. Sit tight.”
“Lying cocksucker!” someone yelled from the back. We all laughed, but there was no heart in it.
The beluga whale at the end of our row wasn’t doing so well. People that size don’t like to move a lot but they don’t like to be trapped either. The armrests were not being kind to her hips in an irresistible force/immovable object sort of way. The manner in which she seemed to have gotten stuck in her seat reminded me of a video I once saw where a double-decker bus failed to make it underneath an overpass.
Three and a half hours.
All I could focus on was the fact that I had to get to Detroit. I had to. The baby was crying again, now awake from its nap. Middle Man was fidgeting uncontrollably next to me but he avoided making eye contact. The sack of mattresses next to him was snoring, though she was wide awake. Her breaths came in erratic gusts, each one sounding more laborious than the last. More crying sounds cut through the thick air. It was miserable. I hope this plane blows up, I thought to myself.
Four and a half hours.
We were all beaten. Even the flight attendants had given up any semblance of professionalism. Ties loosened and sweat dripping, they dragged a beat up water cart down the center aisle. “Just say something if you want some more water,” one of them muttered. “I can’t help you otherwise.”
My flight to Tokyo had now been in the air for almost two hours. “Good news,” the Captain interrupted. “We’ve resolved the problem and are cleared for takeoff.”
One hundred and seventy-nine people sighed in relief; the fat lady just kept trying to breathe, period.
* * *
Eventually I made it through Detroit and into Tokyo, trudging into Narita Airport around 11:30 at night. The airline informed me that while the last flight into Busan had already taken off, they would happily fly me to Seoul for the night. “We get for you hotel, and drive person will arrive to transport you,” the lady behind the counter said in broken English. “Here ticket. Go enjoy. Have happy day.”
I didn’t know that the entire country of Korea goes to bed well before midnight. I learned that fact upon arriving at Incheon Airport in Seoul. Apparently they’re like Monchichis in that regard; at ten o’clock, someone takes the jewels out of their bellies and they fall asleep. The airport was huge, and totally empty. I was Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky if, too tired to run through Times Square, he had skipped directly to the screaming-at-the-sky-and-spinning-in-a-circle part. How could the airport be empty? Where was my driver? I still had to get a hold of someone in Busan and let them know that I wasn’t going to make it, but the only contact information I had was for a man mysteriously named “Mr. O”. I had that, and a phone number with a thousand digits.
What I did not have was any Korean won and the Currency Exchange had long since closed. Delirious, I stumbled down the massive hallway and tried to make sense of the logograms that surrounded me. My exhausted mind translated them based on what they appeared to be: picnic table, telephone pole, tree house. I was getting nowhere.
One lone, lethargic sentry waited by the exit near an eerily silent baggage claim. He led me to a phone and then left me alone to report my story to Mr. O’s voicemail, because Mr. O, like all of Korea, was sleeping. I had been traveling for nearly thirty hours. Where was my ride to the hotel? A voice echoed my thought even as it occurred.
“Hotel?” I heard someone say.
I was certain that I was imagining things because there was no one there. “Hotel?” the voice said again, and then a four foot tall Korean appeared from behind what had appeared to be an abandoned counter.
“Yes,” I said. “Please.” I didn’t even care if he was the right guy or not. I just wanted to stand under a hot shower and maybe take a nap.
“Come. We go fast,” he grinned.
“Yes,” I replied. “Fast is good.”
He led me to a van, threw my bag in the passenger side, and then clambered into the driver’s seat. I slid open the side door and crawled into my own seat in the back, fully prepared to doze off until we reached our destination. I heard the ignition fire up as my eyes closed, and then I snapped them back open again when Korean rap exploded from the speakers. The van tires squealed, kicking up dust, and we shot forward in the dark outskirts of Seoul at the speed of sound.
He could barely see over the steering wheel. I pulled myself forward against the G force to see how fast we were going, forgetting that the speedometer was showing kilometers. I heard some mechanical part fall off the van and I spun around to watch it disappear in the darkness. The man laughed at the sound and then sped up even more. Through the windshield I could barely make out the road ahead as it flew toward us. Among the other deficiencies, we apparently only had one headlight as well, like the Wallflowers. The tail lights of another car appeared ahead, but only for a moment. He bump drafted them, cut the wheel sharply, and whizzed past, throwing his hands in the air like Bastion on Falcor’s back in The Neverending Story. “Mansae!” he yelled.
Terrified, I moved to the center of the bench seat and put on all three seatbelts.
I crawled out of the van when we arrived at the hotel, shaking but relieved and ecstatic to still be counted amongst the living. Before I could tip the man or even thank him, he pushed my bag out after me, yelled something else in Korean, and then rocketed off into the night.
“Have happy day,” I chuckled.
I’ll never know exactly how fast we actually went. I know we covered what I estimated to be 1100 miles in about eighteen minutes, and I couldn’t help but wonder where this guy had been when I needed to get from Houston to Detroit thirty hours earlier.