Sunday, 28 August 2016

Close calls and the Clash

People have asked me about my summer holiday. I don't think of steeple chases as being holidays. This year's Victoria visit ended in the same tempo as the previous five weeks, that is, manufactured calm stretched over panic.

Having packed on the afternoon of the day before my departure, I noticed an email alert from Air Canada, warning of severe thunderstorms forecast for Toronto and Hades -- my exact route home.  Sitting in Demeter's dining room, I was hit by an avalanche of flashbacks from August 2003.

That was the year the Resident Fan Boy returned to Hades before us, because we'd begun the trip visiting the RFB's cousins in Alberta.  So, on that fateful August morning,  I arrived at Victoria International airport, marshalling eleven-year-old elder daughter and seven-year-old younger daughter, and thinking for three.  The check-in agent offered to switch our tickets from a route through Toronto to a transfer at Vancouver to a direct flight to Ottawa, which would land us in Hades a full hour earlier.  I considered my Virgo husband, all set to meet us at the airport, and refused.

After the long flight to Toronto, I comforted myself and younger daughter with the prospect of seeing the RFB in an hour or so.  Our flight to Hades was scheduled to leave at 4:10 pm, and we boarded at 3:50 pm, so we didn't see the lights go out.

The first indication that we had a problem was when the pilot told us we were unable to disconnect from the boarding tunnel.  The next was when the flight attendants started handing out ice cream bars.  A lady with a cell phone across the aisle informed us that it was the whole American north-east, plus Ontario.  After over an hour, we were told to get out, reclaim our luggage, and re-book.  We descended the escalator into hell.  (My grandmother always said that hell would be like an airport.)

Crowds of flustered people pressed up against dimly-lit luggage carousels.  Backed-up toilets (electronic flushers).  Rows of locked luggage trolleys (electronic release mechanisms).  Piles of pet-carriers containing yelping and dehydrated animals.  Huge line-ups to pay phones, because in 2003, not that many people had cell phones.

I didn't know where to go first.  Where would I take the girls for the night?  How could I explain this to younger daughter, who was begging to be taken "home to Ottawa, to see Daddy"?

It became increasingly clear that our luggage was not going to appear, especially when the generator for the carousel broke down after a couple of hours.  A young man showed me how to use my credit card in the pay phone, and a lady, noticing younger daughter's distress, let me in the line ahead of her.  I called the RFB, but he was waiting for us at the airport in Ottawa, and our answering machine, being electric, didn't work.

Fortunately, I had my address book with me and desperately put a call through to friends in Etobicoke.  Unfortunately, their elder daughter was home.  A nice girl, but not that swift on the uptake:
"Oh hi!  We're having a black-out!"
"Yes, I know.  We're at the airport..."
"Yeah?  Where ya going?"
My heart sank.
"Nowhere.  The planes are grounded."
"Man!  I hadn't thought of that!"
I'll bet, I thought, glancing at the long line-up behind me.  I could hear her father asking who it was.  He was there in twenty minutes, even with no working traffic lights, by which time an announcement informed us that ticketed luggage would be forwarded to the appropriate airport.  This left us in the clothes in which we were standing, but with the books, tapes and toys in our carry-on luggage.  In those days before liquid restrictions, I also had cosmetics and saline solution for my contact lenses.

Younger daughter was beside herself. She clutched my hand from the rear seat of the van, nearly twisting my arm out of its socket.  However, as we entered the dimly-lit hall of our friends' condo building, she turned and asked:  "Are we into Toronto?"  (We had stayed here for a visit during March Break the year before.)  One bowl of melted strawberry short-cake ice cream, and she was much better!

Later, as my exhausted daughters slept, I opened the blinds, got back into bed, and gazed out at a pitch-black city, listening to CBC radio on the headphones of my Walkman, trying not to fret about how I would get the girls home.  The voices on the radio were describing how clear the stars were, but all I could see were clouds of mosquitoes just beyond the screens.

The next morning, I tried to reach the bus depot, and the phone was answered by an agent in Alberta. I tried to reach my travel agent and Air Canada -- nothing but voice mail and busy signals.  I finally phoned Via Rail, let it ring more than two minutes, then got through to book train tickets.  I learned the Resident Fan Boy had managed to book plane tickets.  I thought of the hell we'd left the night before - nothing in the news reports indicated that anything had changed - and decided to chance the train.

Our hosts, who had given up their bed to us, tried to convince us to stay, but I had the overwhelming feeling that I had to get younger daughter home somehow.  They relented and packed an enormous care package of cookies, fruit, peanut butter sandwiches, several cartons of apple juice, and bottles of water.  I wondered how on earth I'd manage to cart this along with our carry-on luggage.

At 11 am, Union Station in downtown Toronto was steamy and crowded.  The line-up at our gate turned out to be for the 9:30 am train.  They told me to expect the 12:35 train at 1:45.  Then 2 pm.  Then 2:30.  Elder daughter had assumed the task of checking the notice board, walking the length of the station and reporting back.

I rationed out food to the girls with each delay, buying myself time and giving silent and fervent thanks for the heavy bag of goodies as it became lighter and lighter. I used my new credit card skill to phone the RFB every couple of hours, as my hopes dwindled.  With each passing hour, I wondered desperately if I should find a bus to the airport.  Which would get us home quicker?  Staying here as the trains were steadily delayed, or setting up camp at the airport where, the radio told me, the computers had completely broken down?

"I have a Clash song playing in my head," I told a fellow mum, who was attempting to shepherd half a dozen teenagers back to Windsor. She grinned broadly and began to growl:  "Da-duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh DA!  Should I stay or should I go?"
"If I go, it could be trouble!"  I sang back.
"If I stay, it could be double!" We were both dancing now.  I think we embarrassed the teenagers.

At 3:30, they told us our train was cancelled, and that we would be hooked up with the next train to Ottawa. That's the closest I came to breaking down completely.

At 5 pm, I stumbled up the steps to the train platform and a guard said that this coach was for First Class. Maybe it was the sight of two bedraggled little girls that convinced him to allow us into the railcar -- air-conditioned, comfortable and spacious with, glory be, a food cart with reasonably fresh food.

The train took two hours to reach the Toronto city limits, ordinarily a twenty-minute trip, but rail switches had to be done by hand. Out the window, we saw Lake Ontario and lush fields with butterflies and dragonflies having no trouble keeping pace with the train.

During the seven-hour train ride (usually four hours), we did puzzles, listened to story tapes and the CBC, read books, ate, drank, and chatted with our neighbouring passengers, all from Toronto: an elderly lady determined to attend a wedding, and a mum and her two daughters who had decided to sweat the wait for a family visit to Carp -- I thought they were all very nice, but nuts, but didn't say so, of course!

Younger daughter dozed off, there was a blood-red moon on the horizon, and we stopped off-line to let a luxury American passenger train pass. We could see the fancy lamps in the sleeper cars.

The Resident Fan Boy was waiting for us at the station when we arrived after midnight, some forty hours after getting up to go to the Victoria airport. People jumped the tracks to head for the parking lot; the VIA employees wisely decided to overlook this. Younger daughter wrapped herself firmly around her dad, and we returned by taxi to our stuffy house. The power was back, but air-conditioning was forbidden.  The following day, Resident Fan Boy found our suitcases amongst the hundreds at the airport, because I'd tied gaily-coloured ribbons to the handles.  No one asked him for ID.

All this flashed through my skull in August 2016, prodding me to re-book my flight -- to a 6 am departure the next morning.  I said my goodbyes to Demeter before going to bed, rose at 2:45 am to finish last-minute packing and call a cab at 3:30 am to ensure arrival at Victoria airport at 4:30 am.  My cabbie grew up in Belleville, one of the towns we passed through on that slow train ride thirteen years ago.  He loves Victoria, has no desire to return to Ontario.

Sadly, neither did I.

Pat Bay Highway was like a country road at that hour and I arrived early.  The plane had been described as going to Ottawa, but had a stop in Toronto, descending through thunderheads.  I had to leave the plane, wait in the lobby and then queue with my ID and boarding pass to get back on.

The threatened thunderstorms never materialized.

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