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I awoke to the undeniably severe sounds of a massive expressway collision. Cars, flying at dangerous speeds, swerving, honking, then, a deafening screech, and crash. The sound of metal grinding metal, ripping and tearing apart cars, their mangled frames, all that remain, until more unsuspecting commuters crest the hill, going far too fast to stop in time, repeat the violent process. Honking, screeching, grinding, honking, screeching, honking…. To my relief, it turns out that these teeth gritting cacophonies were only just the repeated sirens of my alarm clock.
With my TIMEX Super Loud Alarm Clock, there was no median between peaceful sleep and utterly alert consciousness. Although I awoke each morning a little jerky from that siren of an alarm, it accomplished its job efficiently and on this particular morning, that was all I could have hoped for.
Today was a very important day. Even though it began with the routinely monochrome processes of showering, brushing my teeth, and getting dressed, it was sure to end somewhere fascinating. Only a short time after I had awoken in bed, I was on my way to Tulsa International Airport, where in two hours from now, I would depart with a group of enthusiastic individuals on a series of plane rides that I would surely never forget.
My mom’s Honda Pilot pulled up to the curb of the United Airlines ticket counter, and I proceeded to get out of the car, and open up the back end to get my luggage out. As I was unloading the contents of my life, all neatly packaged in a suitcase, I heard my mom call to me from the front driver’s seat, “James….” she barked in a perturbed tone, “Forgetting something?”. I closed the back end of the car and went back over to the front passenger seat where I had been sitting. There lay my passport.
I remembered that my mom had said to keep track of my things and, whatever I do, don’t lose my passport. I grinned then grabbed the little navy booklet, putting it in my bag. I’m sure by this point my mom was thoroughly worried about me making it in a foreign country without herself to keep track of everything, but to be technical, I didn’t really lose my passport. I mean, I would have noticed the minute that I had to check my baggage.
Anyway, I kissed my mom goodbye and met up with the other students I would be traveling with, including our chaperone, Miss Zerbe. Zerbe, as I call her, is a rotund, red-haired, cheerful woman whose demeanor is similar to my mother’s; she is great to be around, until something goes wrong. When you notice this beginning to happen, get away, fast! I feel like Zerbe’s personality is that of a kid’s, who continued to go along with life, but never grew up. She’s not too motherly, never having kids, yet she knows how to treat them in a fun yet authoritative way. It’s hard to explain. I guess she’s like a wise teenager. She’s a kid at heart, but has experienced a lot of life, and most of the time, knows best.
Okay, so I’ve woken up at the crack of dawn, jam packed the contents of my life into a box on wheels, and now all I want to do is board my flight to Chicago and sleep for the next two hours. There’s only one thing standing in my way…. security. You’d think that airport personnel could find a more efficient way to search people but you would be sorely mistaken. First, everyone gets corralled into a uniform, single-file line, much like the formation a kindergarten class makes upon departing the classroom for recess. Then, one by one, the TSA officials (you can tell by the thrifty gold badges they wear) check your ID, passport, and plane tickets. Now, all you’ve got to do is take off your shoes and unload anything metal on your body. Walking through the metal-detecting gates is a guessing game. Will you set off the alarm and have to walk back and try again, or will you pass? It’s almost a matter of luck.
I have always thought that it would be fascinating to sit behind one of those machines and see what each seemingly innocent traveler might be carrying. From a man’s lingerie to an old lady’s booze, being a TSA security baggage checker would be an experience. Just think about it, what would your response be to a traveler, when you mistook their KY massaging gel for explosives? “I’m sorry ma’am, now that I have discovered that your messaging gel is in fact not a bomb, I’ll slyly put it back in your bag, so as to not embarrass you even more in front of all of these strangers.”
After I took off all of my metal, I held my breath and walked through those gates. No alarm. I felt a sigh of relief and proceeded to resituate my belongings. Minutes after security, Zerbe, the group, and myself were all sitting in the plane, waiting for takeoff. As children wait in line to go down the slide, our plane patiently sat on the tarmac for minutes upon minutes waiting for its spot on the runway. Finally, with my seatbelt “securely fastened”, and my seat and tray table in the “upright” position, the plane received its “OK” to takeoff.
Just a few short hours later, we arrived in Chicago. As it usually is at O’Hare, the goal of reaching your gate and making your connecting was a race against time. Three concourses, fifty-six gates, seven moving walkways and twenty-two minutes later, we made it to the gate with even three minutes to spare.
This particular transatlantic flight from Chicago was completely booked. All 42 rows would be filled. As the plane cleared for boarding, Zerbe handed everyone their passes. “C’mon window…” I said to myself, “C’mon window…” The ticket read: Seat E, Row 42. My heart sank. I got that feeling you experience when you know something has gone terribly wrong. I was in the final row, in the middle seat, in the middle aisle. In other words, I had the worst seat on the plane. “Okay, James, stay positive”, I said, “At least I’m even going overseas. I mean, this flight is only gonna be around eight hours. No biggy?”, I questioned. After finding my way to my seat, things went from bad, to worse. Sitting just to the right of me was a young toddler. To the right of him, was who seemed to be his grandmother. The two were an odd pair that had obviously never flown before and it was somewhat entertaining to watch them try and follow along to the safety instructions before takeoff. Also, they didn’t speak English. My first guess would be that the two spoke German, however I was apparently wrong when the German speaking flight attendant had no luck in communicating with them. The simple act of adjusting the direction of the air vents or turning on and off the reading lights became a humorous game of charades between the flight attendants and the grandmother. I would eventually find out that the pair spoke Bulgarian.
Shortly after takeoff, a flight attendant gave me a form to fill out so I could receive fifty free dollars of credit toward a United Airlines flight. This was due to the fact that the TVs behind each seat headrest were broken. Although I appreciated the gesture (which had to have been company policy), being able to watch a movie would have been far more valuable than any fifty dollar voucher.
With no movies, the only thing left to do for the remaining seven hours was to sleep. Each time I was on the verge of unconsciousness, a playful kick would rock my world back to reality. It was the damn toddler, smiling back at me like he knew that there was nothing I could do about him kicking me. That’s just it; there was nothing I could do.
As the twilight sky surrounding our cold, metal jet evolved into full-on night, most of the passengers around me began to fall asleep. All was quiet except for the roar of the jet engines. I quietly unfastened my seatbelt and took two steps back until I reached the tail of the plane. In between the row of toilet stalls was an exit hatch, which had a small round window to see out of. I had a menacing toddler and a travel voucher, but no window. I thought to myself, “This will have to do.”
As I peered through the exit hatch window, I witnessed one of the most extraordinary sights in my lifetime. Puffy white clouds formed a mountain range in the sky, with peaks and dips, all along the horizon. Below the clouds, an ocean, calm as a puddle, reflected the moonlight and mirrored the billowing formations in the sky. While stars dotted the infinite ceiling, just above the cotton candy horizon laid a full moon, white as snow, and big, very big. The moon illuminated the cloud tops and glazed the ocean surface with brilliant intensity. The entire scene was breathless and I thought for the first time since this trip had begun, I had really seen something worth seeing.
I had to get a picture. Camera in hand, I captured this moment in time. To make sure, I then hit the green “playback” button and glanced at the small screen on the side of my camera. My flash had simply reflected off of the window pane and the photo was a blinding glare. While others were asleep in their comfy seats, or lost in an in-flight film, I sat by that tiny window and soaked up ever last bit of moonlit paradise that I could.
I never tried to take another picture of the scene. I’d leave this moment with just a memory, and save my camera for the even greater things that lay ahead. After all, I was only halfway there.