SNAPSHOT: JOHN WAYNE
Dalton loves the way planes take off from John Wayne Airport. It’s a real trip. They call it a “modified noise abatement takeoff,” and it was specifically implemented to spare Newport Beach millionaires from having to deal with airport noise. Basically, the plane powers up on the runway with its brakes on, then accelerates at full force into a ridiculously steep takeoff, followed ten seconds later by a sudden leveling off and throttling down of the engines, which sounds, to the uninitiated, like engine failure, causing at least one person on every flight to gasp, or even scream in panic. The plane then coasts out over the back bay, Balboa Island, and the Newport Peninsula before the pilot pushes the engines back to full and resumes the climb-out.
“They oughta call it John Glenn instead of John Wayne,” Dalton once said—because taking off from there was the closest most people would ever get to blasting off into space.
Dalton and his younger sister are regular flyers, visiting their dad, who lives up in Portland, a few times a year—Christmas, Easter, most of the summer, and every other Thanksgiving. Today, however, it’s not just the two of them traveling north. Their mother is coming, too.
“If your dad won’t put me up, I’ll be happy to stay in a hotel,” she says.
“He won’t make you do that,” Dalton tells her, but she doesn’t seem too sure.
A few years back, Dalton’s mom had left him for a loser with nice pecs and a soul patch, who she subsequently kicked to the
curb a year later. Live and learn. Anyway, when the marriage went south, his dad went north.
“You understand this is not about your father and me getting back together,” she tells Dalton and his sister, but for kids of divorce, hope springs eternal.
Within minutes of the Tap-Out, his mom had gone online and bought three overpriced tickets on Alaska Air—one of the few airlines that flies nonstop to Portland on a plane that you didn’t have to get out and push.
“Last three tickets,” she told them triumphantly. “You’ve got an hour to pack. Carry-ons only.”
The trip to the airport is bumper-to-bumper. What should be a fifteen-minute ride takes almost an hour.
The parking situation at John Wayne is the first indication that there’s going to be turbulence up ahead. All but one parking structure says FULL. They get one of the last remaining spaces at the far end of the last lot. As they make their way to the terminal, Dalton notes all the cars circling, like it’s a huge game of musical chairs, with no chairs left.
The TSA checkpoint is a madhouse, which never happens here.
“A lot a people are going on vacation,” Dalton’s seven-year-old sister, Sarah, says.
“Yes, honey,” their mom responds absently.
“Where do you think they’re going?”
Their mom sighs, too stressed to continue humoring her, so Dalton looks at the boards, and takes up the slack. “Cabo San Lucas,” he says. “Denver, Dallas, Chicago . . .”
“My friend Gigi’s from Chicago.”
The security guy double takes on Dalton’s passport, because his hair is brown in the photo, but now it’s bleached blond.
“You sure this is you?”
“Last time I checked,” Dalton responds.
The humorless TSA guy lets them get into the slow-moving crawl to the metal detector, which has issues with his facial rings. Finally they make it through security with just five minutes until boarding starts. Mom is relieved.
“Okay,” she says. “We’re here. We haven’t lost anyone. No missing fingers or toes.”
“I’m thirsty,” Sarah says, but Dalton has already noticed that the concessions they passed all had NO WATER signs up.
“There’ll be something to drink on the plane,” their mother says.
Dalton thinks that might actually be true. After all, these planes all came from somewhere else. And he is getting a bit thirsty himself.
Then, just as they’re about to start boarding, the gate agent comes on the loudspeaker and makes an announcement.
“Unfortunately, we’re oversold on this flight,” she says. “We’re asking for volunteers with flexible travel plans who are willing to take a later flight.”
Sarah tugs her mother’s arm. “Mommy, volunteer!”
“Not this time, baby.”
Dalton grins. Dad always tells them to volunteer because they give away hundreds of dollars in travel vouchers, which is always worth the inconvenience. But not today. Today it’s all about getting out. Which is why they have trouble getting volunteers. The price of the vouchers goes from two hundred dollars to
three hundred to five hundred dollars, and still no one is willing to surrender their ticket.
Finally the gate agent gives up. She gets on the loudspeaker, calling the names of the last people to buy tickets. Dalton, Sarah, and their mother. Dalton feels a twisting in the pit of his stomach.
“I’m sorry,” says the gate agent, not sounding sorry at all, “but as the last to purchase, I’m obliged to reschedule you to a later flight.”
Dalton’s mom goes ballistic, and he can’t blame her. This is one time they need to fight the Powers That Be.
“No,” says their mom. “I don’t care what you say! My children and I are getting on that plane!”
“You’ll each receive a five-hundred-dollar travel voucher—that’s fifteen hundred dollars,” the agent says, trying to placate them. Their mom will not be bought.
“My children have court-ordered visitation with their father,” she yells. “If you take them off this flight, you’ll be breaking the law, and I’ll sue!” Of course, this isn’t their father’s time with them, but the agent doesn’t know that.
Even so, all the agent does is apologize, and look for later flights. “There’s a flight tonight at five-thirty. . . . Oh wait, no, that one is full, too. . . . Let’s see.” She continues to hack away at her computer. “Eight-twenty . . . no . . .”
Then Dalton turns to his sister and whispers, “Give her the eyes.”
Their mom had always told both Dalton and Sarah that their big blue eyes could melt anyone into a puddle. Not so much Dalton anymore. At an awkward seventeen, a bunch of
facial piercings, a biohazard neck tattoo, and what his father calls “weed-whacked hair,” the general public isn’t melted anymore. Only seventeen-year-old girls. But Sarah still has the magical melting effect on hardened adults. So he lifts her up for the agent to get a good look at her.
“Aw, you’re cute as a button,” she says. Then rips three new tickets from the printer. “Here you go—tomorrow morning at six-thirty. That’s the absolute best I can do.”
So they wait. They don’t leave, because the crowd just grows, and they know they’ll never get back through security. They spend the night sleeping in uncomfortable airport chairs, getting sips of water from anyone who’ll share with them, and there aren’t many.
Then, when morning comes, even with confirmed tickets, there’s no room on the six-thirty flight for them. Or the next one. Or the next one.
And they can’t get tickets to flights to other places.
And the airport gets so crowded that extra police are brought in to keep the peace.
And with traffic jams everywhere, trucks with jet fuel can’t get to the airport.
And Dalton, his mother, and sister have to face the fact that they won’t be blasting off anywhere.