Weathering the Storm by Robyn Boswell
The start to the day should have been a warning for what was to come! After an international competition in Ann Arbor, USA, I’d been invited to travel to Orlando with four 13 year olds, their teacher and their parents before we flew home to New Zealand. A tornado alert in Detroit meant that the airport had suspended operations until the all clear. Consequently, by the time we arrived, the airport was seething with people trying to sort out disrupted travel plans. We had three scheduled flights to get us to Orlando and in our naivety we expected an on-board meal on at least one of these, something that we were used to at home at the time. We gathered in the gate lounge without even a glance at the myriad food outlets we passed on the way.
A very late departure left us with a very tight schedule if we were to make all our flights for the rest of the day. At each airport we only had time to deplane and run as fast as we could to the gate for our next flight. There was no time to stop as the delectable smells of airport food stalls wafted our way. My stomach began to growl.
On our last flight, for some unknown reason, I was upgraded to first class although the few rows of seats at the front of the plane didn’t seem to be much different to those in ‘cattle class’ at the back as far as I could tell. It did, however, entitle me to a very small bag of pretzels. Having not eaten since breakfast time and having had to cope with the overwhelming immensity of American airports, even the few mouthfuls of salty crunchiness tasted ambrosial.
As we approached Orlando we flew through clouds and bounced uncomfortably all over the sky. Never the most confident of flyers, I found myself clinging onto my seat and longing for the feel of solid ground. Maybe a window seat wasn’t the best choice after all. Suddenly, a huge flash of lightning streaked down the side of the plane, so close that I could hear it hissing like a malevolent serpent. I suspect that even those of us not given to praying may have uttered a few silent invocations.
We finally bumped our way into Orlando Airport, stomachs rumbling, nerves in tatters and lightning and thunder still rending the air. We were on the last, delayed, flight of the day, so late that everything was closed and we could only gaze longingly at the food stalls behind their shuttered screens. At the baggage carousel we waited in vain for some movement. Finally we were told that the baggage handlers wouldn’t unload the plane because a handler had been struck by lightning and killed a week before. We were told we couldn’t do anything but wait for the bags, but beyond that bit of advice no one wanted to help us. With the kids drooping from hunger and exhaustion and increasing irritability in the rest of our group, we searched for a solution. Eventually we found someone who appeared to be a porter, handed over quite a sum of money to him and hoped he would come through with his promise to deliver our cases to our hotel.
We finally made it to the hotel, luggageless, just before 11pm with four very tired and overwhelmed kids and nine tetchy adults. We rushed to the restaurant en masse, but it was just closing, there was no room service and they weren’t in the slightest bit interested in helping 13 frazzled travellers. The only advice they could give us was that if we walked down the road a bit there were some 24-hour food outlets. Out the door, we spotted them immediately; the great glowing golden arches. Like flies to a honeypot we set off down the street, spurred on by hunger despite the weather. The thunder was still rumbling its way off into the distance, but the rain was easing. We’d heard that the tallest person was most likely to be hit by lightning so we formed a strange procession as we sort of crouch-walked down the road, each vying not to be the tallest in the group.
Suddenly the person in the lead yelled “Here’s a shortcut” and headed off down a path through some bushes. We obediently followed him until we realised that we’d ended up on a riverbank and someone observed that there are alligators in rivers in Florida. We shot back up that path twice as fast as we’d gone down.
Finally we made it to the temple of the golden arches many, many hours after our last meal. Even McDonald’s looked like gourmet food after our adventures of the day. Incredibly, though, as we reached the door, the parents who were with us suddenly announced “We don’t approve of our children eating McDonald’s”. My friend, who was their teacher, and I took one look at them, then at each other and realised we were about to say something that would jeopardise the rest of the trip, so we turned our backs on them and took ourselves in the door to what seemed like one of the best meals ever. The rest of the group continued on down the road until they found more ‘suitable food’. That little interchange set the tone for the rest of the trip which was ‘interesting’ to say the least and one of the reasons why most of my many trips to the US since have been by myself.
The next morning the weather dawned dry and sunny, with not even a dark line on the horizon. The storm, however, had left its mark – the barrier on the side of the road where we’d made our mad dash for food reflected a legacy of the storm. It sported a huge scorch mark right alongside where we had been walking.