This being the Twenty-first Century, the one that the Mickey Mouse Club had said he, and some others, would lead, Thomas had bought his tickets to San Diego online. This isn’t relevant to anything, but I thought you might like to know. It also makes the next sentence possible. Why he needed more than one ticket was something he could never adequately explain. Perhaps it was a typographical error.
Whenever Thomas thought about it being the Twenty-first Century he was always slightly let down. As the picture of Mickey flashed across the screen along with pictures of the Mousekateers tap dancing and jumping around in pantomime horses for Wild West Day, the announcer had been so emphatic. This show was for the leaders of the Twenty-first Century. Now that he was actually mired in the bloody thing he was finding out that he was anything but a leader. At least not a leader of centuries. He did lead several committees, but the thrill of ruling that mimeographed handouts were no longer approved for graduate classes soon wears off. Still, one committee was getting him three days at Pacific Beach, and that was ample compensation for whatever the topic of the conference was.
The next Monday at 4:30 in the morning Thomas was standing on the sidewalk. He could have driven to the airport, but then he would have had to wait out in the hinterlands of the economy parking lot at 4:30 in the morning for the shuttle to the terminal instead of in front of his home waiting for the WeDrive Shuttle. This way, at least, he could use a bathroom if he needed, and might actually be a bit closer to the airport. It was at times like this he wished he smoked because it would give him something to do.
After about ten minutes a van turned the corner onto his street and parked. Thomas started dragging his suitcase toward it, but then a slightly overweight blonde woman jumped out of the passenger door and ran half way down the next block. At the same time a paunchy man jumped out of the driver’s side and ran down the other side of the street. Then they turned around and started trotting back toward Thomas and their van throwing newspapers in the general direction of various front doors. The blond woman had a fairly strong arm and Thomas had to duck the paper she threw at him as she passed. The man had fewer papers to get rid of and jumped into the van when he got back to it, and then drove to the next corner where he picked up the blond woman.
Thomas’s first plane trip had, in ways totally unlike this morning, also involved quite a bit of waiting. It was in the mid 60s after his freshman year. A young lady with improbably auburn hair he had met in a freshman literature class had sent him a note suggesting he come visit for a few days. Having a New Jersey postmark that was about thirty minutes from Manhattan made the note a done deal. Her improbably auburn hair and pert, perky…smile that made you think…things had nothing to do with it. His intentions were completely honorable. Completely. His hopes were an entirely different matter.
Early the next Friday morning one of Thomas’s roommates, having been subjected to techniques Thomas had learned from an older sister, found himself parking his car at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and helping Thomas carry his suitcase into the terminal. Once inside they scanned the boards and found the next flight to Newark, New Jersey, that being the airport most easily accessed by the young lady with the…smile. Stepping briskly up to the ticket counter Thomas purchased a one-way, student standby ticket to Newark, collected it and the change from his $20 bill, and said good-bye to his suitcase. In later years, when in a nostalgic mood, he often spoke fondly of that suitcase and the fairly new Rooster tie that had been in it. He was, however, less kind to the argyle socks, and seemed to hold them partly responsible.
The plane took off exactly on time, leaving Thomas inside the terminal watching it. He had been bumped off the flight by a couple of servicemen. Thomas’s roommate had stuck around to watch the planes (this was the mid-60s and people still did that kind of thing), and after Thomas found out that his ticket was good on any flight to Newark on any airline, and his luggage, which had made the cut, would be waiting for him when he got there, they (Thomas and his roommate, not the airlines or luggage) got some coffee and a roll and waited for the next flight.
Now-a-days, of course, if you tried to use your United ticket to get on a Southwest flight they would look at you with much the same expression used when looking at a rabid mongoose; and then they would have airport security interview you for a few hours while they tried to guess how many Arabic words you recognized. This, however, was, as I keep saying, the mid-60s and the airlines had not yet been deregulated which meant that they had to charge the same amount for tickets going to the same place. This meant they didn’t give a wet mongoose, rabid or not, whose ticket you had because more than likely someone else was riding on your original airline with some other airline’s ticket and the bookkeepers would sort it all out later.
It also meant that the airlines had to compete by giving excellent service and being on time, which I’m sure you’ll agree is no way to run a business. It would be years before they were deregulated and could more efficiently and economically charge seventeen different prices for seats on the same overbooked flights, which would be delayed because the pilot wanted to linger over his coffee.
It seems that three sailors and an off duty stewardess also had reasons to go to Newark, and Thomas and his roommate watched that plane climb into the sky from the relative comfort of the terminal. The next flight from Metro to Newark was at 7:20 that evening. There were, however, several (meaning, according to the dictionary, at least three) flights leaving early that afternoon from Willow Run Airport, and in those amazingly inefficient, regulated days his ticket was equally good there.
Thomas’s roommate obligingly drove him the to Willow Run, and then suddenly remembered he had other things in life he needed to do and left Thomas wondering why there was such a run on Newark, New Jersey. He had just heard of the place when the young lady with the improbably auburn hair and pert…smile told him to fly there, and now suddenly everyone and his/her/their sister had to go to Newark for a fun filled summer holiday. (When he finally got to Newark he decided ‘fun filled summer holiday’ was probably not on their list of reasons.)
He almost got onto the first of the Willow Run flights, but just as he was about to make the phone call signaling he was taking off, a pilot who needed to get to Newark so he could fly some other plane back to Detroit got the seat. Finally, after three hours at Detroit Metro and another two hours hanging about the Red and Blue Concourses at Willow Run Thomas was able to place a person to person collect phone call to himself which was the signal that barring accident, or an invasion by a tardy Marine, he would be landing in Newark in a little over an hour which would give his friend and her…smile ample time to get there and be waiting eagerly at the gate. It had taken several hours, but he had saved twenty dollars, which was about half a week’s wages.
The first thing that struck him about air travel was that the atmosphere was just a bit thick. This doesn’t mean he had suddenly become aware of the density of air at about 1000 feet above sea level even though it was quite humid that afternoon. It meant he had been seated in the smoking section. During the mid-60's, which I'm sure even the least attentive reader will by now have figured out is the time period of this flash back, the smoking section was separated from the non-smoking section by ten inches of empty space and a wall of moral outrage. Moral outrage may be very good at some things—none come to mind at the moment, but I'm sure there is something they're good at—but it is a lousy air purifier; and the air in the non-smoking section would have set off even the most stubborn smoke alarm if the plane had had them. Which it didn't. Not even in the bathroom.
The second thing that struck him was a piece of make-up that had flaked off of the stewardess. This was the middle of the Twentieth Century and the airline’s management were damn well going to keep their female employees looking like the tart next door, except a bit more plastic, and serving refreshments.
Thomas fastened his seat belt, sat back and looked around. This was going to be good. He was going to an exciting place to meet up with an exciting young lady and his intentions were to do exciting things in an honorable way. You could break him on the wheel and roast his joints over a mound of blazing coals and that would be his story. As usual his hopes kept their own council and divulged their plans to no one—especially Thomas.
Back in the present, which will be the past when you read this but, just the same, still has not happened to Thomas yet, or at least it will have just happened when you read it, but until then it hasn’t occurred in the version of Thomas’s universe you know. In the version of Thomas’s universe I know Thomas and a young lady with improbably auburn hair are doing things guaranteed to get a stern lecture from Sister Rose; but I’m not going to tell you or Thomas about that. As far as Thomas knows it is just a very…interesting dream he thinks he might have had, and he has enough problems without my muddling up an already shaky metaphysical construct.
Anyway, meanwhile back on the sidewalk, Thomas checked his watch and tried to look nonchalant as a police car slowly cruised passed.
The police car turned the corner at the end of the block and stopped. Perhaps because he had been raised in a small town where everybody took great pride in knowing what everybody else was doing at every moment, and where the Puritan ethic made you permanently Guilty by virtue of having existed, Thomas always got nervous in the presence of the police. And at the moment he was sure they were calling in his description to find out if there had been any reports of a middle-aged man in a business suit doing something he shouldn’t have. In reality, if not actuality, that particular police car stopped at that particular corner every morning at about this particular time because the young lady in #18 of the apartment building around the corner from Thomas's home was not very particular about closing her blinds.
Finally, much to Thomas’s relief, the WeDrive Shuttle turned the corner, stopped in front of him, backed up about thirty feet, came back to Thomas, stopped briefly and then drove halfway up the block, stopped and honked its horn. Thomas dragged his bag to the rear door of the van, and when it started to pull away he yelled and just managed to pound on the door before it got out of range. Then he had to jump out of the way as it backed up suddenly.
The driver waved at Thomas and got out of the van. Thomas waited until the driver was actually behind the van before stepping off the curb again.
“There you are. I was just about to call you in as a no show.”
Judging that logic and reason would never win this argument Thomas just replied, “Sorry about that. I was probably pretty hard to see under that street light,” and got into the van trying to avoid something suspiciously sticky on the edge of the seat which he fairly sure was not pecan roll. As they drove around the corner Thomas happened to glance at the window of a particular apartment, which just happened to be #18, and remembered why he had always liked that particular shade of red hair.