NS March 25th, 2009
The strangest day of my life began at Heathrow airport.
Well, actually, it all started in Germany where I was spending the summer on a working student visa, employed by the US Army at their base in Wiesbaden, but I’ll go into that another time. All you need to know is that I had arrived in Wiesbaden in early June and was now in London in mid-August in my second-to-last day before heading back to the States. I’d left the bulk of my luggage on the base and taken a smaller bag to London where I was spending as much time as possible with my new British boyfriend (the man you now know as The Noble Husband).
On my last night there, I went to a party. I stayed up until the wee, wee hours and in my inebriated state, forgot to set the alarm. I think I was supposed to be at the airport for about midday but didn’t even wake up until after then. Most normal people, upon waking to see that they’re going to miss their flight, would freak out. I didn’t though. I just snuggled back down into bed with a shrug; too hungover, tearful and reluctant to part from TNH to care. I had only turned 19 about six weeks earlier and in my deluded, teenage mind I thought I could just show up at the airport later and get the next flight. So I took my time showering, packing my bag and saying goodbye to TNH. I was utterly heartbroken to be leaving him, not knowing when I would see him again. We’d had the most incredible, intense summer together, traveling all over Europe and falling in love; I didn’t want the adventure to end. Little did I know that the biggest adventure of that summer was about to unfold before me, on my journey to get back home.
I arrived at Heathrow in the late afternoon, well past the departure time of my original flight to Frankfurt. Wiesbaden was a half hour away from Frankfurt by train so the plan was to fly to Frankfurt where a former colleague of TNH’s was going to pick me up, take me to the base to collect the rest of my luggage and let me stay the night at his place, and then put me on a train back to the airport the following morning for my flight to Louisville via Washington D.C. It was all planned out. Unfortunately, my party-hard night in London mucked all that up and set off a chain of events which spiralled out of my control little by little, starting at the check-in desk.
I breezed confidently up to the ticket desk and informed the agent that I’d had a car breakdown on my way in (a blatant lie) and needed to get the next flight. He informed me that there was one more flight to Frankfurt that evening but as my ticket was non-refundable, I’d have to pay. The ticket cost £150. I didn’t have anywhere near enough in cash and, being barely 19, had no credit cards. It was only 1998 after all — it would be a couple years yet before they started giving first year university students unlimited access to plastic.
I tried phoning TNH to ask him what to do but his mobile was switched off and he was back in bed nursing his hangover still, no doubt. I began to realise with a growing sense of panic that if I didn’t get on this flight, I would miss the Frankfurt – D.C. leg of my journey the following day. Since that ticket was undoubtedly non-refundable as well, I knew that my parents would be less than thrilled at having to bail me out to buy another. I went back up to the ticket agent (let’s call him John) and tried again.
“Isn’t there any way you can bill me? I swear I’ll pay as soon as I get back but I have no access to more money right now.”
In desperation, I emptied the contents of my entire wallet onto his desk, coins and all. This was pre-Euro and so about five different currencies came spilling out: Deutsche marks, British pounds, US dollars, Czech crowns and Dutch guilders. I was fighting back tears at this point and was edging dangerously close to a nervous breakdown. I think John sensed this and kindness kicked in as he helpfully tallied up what I had into pounds to see if it was enough. I was still £50 or so short. I let loose a strangled cry and my knees started to buckle. I turned to John with the same panicked, searching look that a stag undoubtedly gives the hunter when it realises it is trapped and lined up in the gun’s sights. John was obviously a vegetarian, bleeding heart liberal, pansy boy who would never hurt a fly, let alone a deer (thank god!), because he didn’t find the strength to pull the trigger. Instead, he leaned forward and said, “Okay, you’re on the flight. Now go, and don’t miss it this time!” with a smile. I could’ve kissed and hugged John McAirlineAgent but had to just smile broadly and thank him profusely.
I finally boarded the plane and arrived in Frankfurt a couple hours later. I was so ready for a nice, warm bed and some food and drink. Of course, it was quite late by that point, approaching ten o’clock, and my original flight was supposed to have gotten in at about four. Obviously, the man who was supposed to meet me there and let me stay at his place (TNH’s colleague) was long gone and I had no way to contact him. I had a number for him but he wasn’t at home and I couldn’t exactly leave a number where I could be reached either. Not only was this pre-credit card days but pre-mobile days. In other words, the Mesozoic Age. Besides, I’m sure he was just giddy at having spent hours at the airport earlier, waiting for a girl who never showed, so even if he had been at home I doubt he would’ve done much to help me.
It was too late to go back to the base to collect my luggage and my flight to D.C. the next day was quite early so I should’ve stayed put at the airport. I should have slept there where it was safe and warm and with access to toilets and phones and resources to get money wired to me. But for some reason, my 19-year-old brain decided it would be a MARVELOUS idea if I went back to Wiesbaden anyway, to somehow get someone to let me onto the base to get my bags and perhaps find someone I knew to loan me some cash and give me a place to crash, all between the hours of 10pm and 7am. Yes, I really was that stupidly optimistic. You know where this is going, right?
I realised that I didn’t have a single penny on me, not enough to buy a bottle of water or a candy bar, and certainly not enough to buy a train ticket from Frankfurt to Wiesbaden. I thought forlornly back to the moment where I emptied my entire wallet onto John the Benevolent’s desk and wished I’d been smart enough to save back at least a few marks to buy some food with. Not one to dwell on mistakes, however, I resigned myself to fare evading and got on the train with fingers crossed that they wouldn’t check tickets. About halfway through and here comes the bloody guard, checking tickets. Damn! I stealthily slid out of my seat and into the toilet where I sat with my feet braced against the door and with my bag pressed up against my chest. A knock followed by some shouting in German soon followed and I knew that the guard was asking me to come out and show my ticket. I ignored it and just squeezed my bag tighter, hoping he would go away. A few minutes later, the train glided into Wiesbaden station and I had to get off or be carried onto the next, unknown town. I took a deep breath, flung the door open and jumped off the train as soon as it came to a stop. I walked up the platform quickly and with my head down, hoping I wouldn’t be caught. I heard a whistle behind me and knew I’d had no such luck. The thought of spending the night in a German prison where I didn’t understand hardly anything being said to me, missing my flight back to the States and having to tell my parents what happened and begging them to bail me out somehow sounded as appealing as eating chunky, green, month-old milk. So I did the only thing I knew to do — I ran.
To be continued…