Exasperation is the Transit

I started to make my own variation on Dickinson’s “Exultation is the going / Of an inland soul to sea” during the last journal entry I wrote on the East Coast, at 1:45 am on the morning of the Fourth of July in my room at the Comfort Inn near the Providence airport. The best way I could phrase it was, “Exasperation is the transit / Of a sea-bourne soul back home.” I was not exasperated that Hurricane Arthur had disrupted my flights to and from Charlotte. I had half expected that. I was exasperated at the way I had learned about it.

 I had worried in advance about an evening flight from Charlotte that would arrive in Cincinnati after dark because the last two times I had scheduled a late flight into Cincinnati I had spent an extra night away from home. The first flight was from Memphis, where we were about to board the plane at 10 pm when the airline pulled the pilots right out of the cockpit and sent them to another plane. They were glum as they walked out of the boarding ramp, but they did not have to spend an unscheduled night in Memphis. The other surprise came on a direct flight from Washington DC to Cincinnati. We were actually on the tarmac and next in line to take off when we were ordered to return to the gate. This time there was a thunderstorm somewhere. We were told we would be at the gate a short time and would be cleared to fly out as soon as the storm passed. But when they instructed us to gather all our belongings, get off the plane, and stand by for a quick return, few of us expected us to be in the air again that night.

That flight was finally cancelled two hours later. By that time the phone number they gave us for finding a nearby overnight hotel was useless. So many other passengers from other cancelled flights were trying to call that same number that I was on hold from 10:10 to 10:40 before I was told by the person who finally answered that there was no longer a single hotel room available within a taxi ride of the airport. At that point I met up with a Catherine de Monteros, a graduate student from France, on her way to take some summer classes at the University of Cincinnati, who was similarly stranded. We were told that seats near the Dunkin’ Donuts at the Reagan Airport were the safest place to spend the night because there was security nearby. We were planning to do that until Catherine called a friend of her fiancé who lived in Washington and who, even though he had never met her, offered to put her up for the night. I then reluctantly called the good friends with whom I had been staying while doing a week of research in Washington and asked if I could make it one night more. I am glad I met Catherine.  We took the same plane to Cincinnati the next morning and I learned she is an equestrian.  I arranged for her to spend a morning riding horses with Danielle Wallace (no relaton), one of my Moby-Dick student artists, whose home and stable are near the airport in Northern Kentucky. .

Catherine and Danielle in Danielle's stable

Catherine and Danielle in Danielle’s stable

Those experiences in Memphis and Washington DC were part of what made me worried when I got to the USAirways check-in desk two and a half hours before my scheduled flight from Providence to Charlotte. If there was any alternate way to get to Cincinnati, or even Dayton, that would avoid the hurricane churning along the coast of North Carolina. I would definitely want to take it. The agent assured me, however, that there could not possibly be any problem with my scheduled flights either to or from Charlotte. “The hurricane is off the coast and Charlotte is inland, so there will be absolutely no problem at all.” Only somewhat reassured by her absolute confidence in both flights, but with no other alternative, I checked my one bag and found a nice writing table in good light near the airport Starbuck’s. I used my extra hour to resume my handwritten journal entries about our afternoon sail into New Bedford on the Morgan. Now nearly eight days later, I finally finished up the “Hauling Ass and Flying High” entry and was beginning “Momentous Men and Women” when it was time to go to the gate and begin the boarding process.

How surprised I was to find that the flight had been cancelled, just one minute before, because, duh, there were some serious thunderstorms between here and Charlotte. They gave us a little slip of paper with a phone number we could call for help in rebooking some flight for the next day. But that number was overloaded and unable to answer—as the recorded message told me when I finally got past the initial ring tone. The gate agents were doing their best to rebook my fellow passengers for this flight, but at least 30 of these were ahead of me in the line. There was no way I’d be spending this night in northern Kentucky after ten days away, during which my wife Joan had an important birthday. I did keep calling that number as I waited in line and finally did get a voice. I was grateful that the agent was able to reserve for me the last seat on a USAirways flight leaving Providence for Philadelphia at 11:30 in the morning, connecting with a flight scheduled to land in Cincinnati at 5:10 in the afternoon. If the weather cooperated. Which I doubted, as the storm will be coming up the Atlantic much closer to both Providence and Philadelphia than it was today.

Arrival and departure lanes for passengers and shuttle buses at Providence airport

Arrival and departure lanes for passengers and shuttle buses at Providence airport

Fortunately, I did get a room for the night at the Comfort Inn on Post Road near the Providence airport. The hotel had a shuttle bus they sent to the airport for me, but they did not mention that it was a red bus that identified itself as “Sheraton,” not “Comfort,” “Inn.” The driver for the Thrifty shuttle told me this after I had been waiting for twenty minutes, saying that the red Sheraton bus had just left. I called the Comfort Inn and told them what had happened and they said they would send the red shuttle in about ten minutes. When it was well over 20 minutes, the driver for the Airport Parking shuttle, who had seen me and another guy standing there for a long time, kindly volunteered to drive us there himself.

Things got better when I checked in. The room was fine and it had a nice writing desk. There was an excellent wood-fired brick-oven pizza restaurant nearby, and I was looking forward to entering the sections of the blog I’d written out longhand at the airport into a Word document I could print out after dinner. They had a printer right next to the one computer in the lobby, and it had worked fine when I tested it on the way out to dinner. What they did not have was any illumination within 30 feet of this tiny computer stand, and after dinner it was dark. I got my file up on the screen but I could not see my handwriting well enough to transcribe, even after I went up to the room and got the little flashlight I’d brought for use in the forecastle of the whale ship.

Comfort Inn off Post Road near Providence Airport

Comfort Inn off Post Road near Providence Airport

Back in the room I was able to enter part of that handwritten draft on the Microsoft Surface I’d borrowed from the University for this trip, but I was not able to print from it (which I like to do for security when working with borrowed equipment away from home). When I fell asleep at the keyboard at 10 pm, I decided to call it a night. I went right back to sleep after I woke up at 12:40. But when I woke up again at 1:44 I decided to break that hour-by-hour rhythm by writing about the day’s exasperation in my journal. I ended that entry at 2:54 am on the Fourth of July, hoping now to get back to sleep, but if not, taking comfort that this Comfort Inn opens its complimentary continental breakfast at 4:30 am, earlier than I’d ever noticed, but a convenience I hoped I would not be needing.  I did go to sleep then, and the trip home through Philadelphia had mostly pleasant surprises.

My seatmate to Philadelphia was on off-duty USAirways pilot. The sky to the south was ink black as we prepared to take off in mid-day and he half expected our flight would be cancelled as we were about to take off (“that’s when they usually let you know”). We did get off the ground, but with that lurching motion from side to side I had mentioned in passing in an earlier entry (more pronounced than anything we had experienced on the whale ship). This off-duty pilot was interested in sailing ships as well as airplanes, and he was also well acquainted with Moby-Dick. When I mentioned how impressed I had been by the low-key manner in which Captain Files had delegated so much authority to his mates, he was not at all surprised. He said there used to be quite a few domineering Ahab types in the airline industry who have now have been mostly weeded out. In part because in too many cases crashes had been traced to their arrogance and inability to work with others. The hearty collaborative spirit that I had admired on the Morgan is apparently now more and more the norm in the airline industry, too. His wife keeps a file on past disasters caused by these airborne Ahab types, and he was going to ask her to send a few to me by email. I would love to see them.

 I had more time to make my connection in Philadelphia than when flying to Providence eleven days earlier. This time I had a long walk, rather than a shuttle bus, between terminals. When I got to the gate I found the flight had been delayed for an unspecified mechanical problem; they did not know for how long. Wandering down the concourse, I heard one of the national news broadcasts over one of the airport TV monitors mention something about serious flooding in New Bedford. Now that I have finally learned how to use an iPhone as well as a GoPro, I called Christina right away to see how things were. I was shocked when she told me that the edge of the Hurricane that passed through New Bedford had knocked out the power in the Whaling Museum, probably through a lightning strike. She thought things would be ok, but a lightning strike had been totally unexpected. This news gave added poignance to the photo that had accompanied a second story in the July 3 issue of the Standard-Times that I’d brought with me from New Bedford.  The building under the sailors in the spars is the Whaling Museum, topped by its sperm-whale weather vane.

Sailors preparing the ship for the storm, with the cupola of the Whaling Museum, soon to become a lightning rod, directly behind them. New Bedford Standard-Times, July 3, 2014

Sailors preparing the ship for the storm, with the cupola of the Whaling Museum, soon to become a lightning rod, directly behind them. New Bedford Standard-Times, July 3, 2014

The delay of the flight to Cincinnati lasted about an hour and a half. We were all making the best of it. Without this delay I would not have met two young female Ph.D. candidates from Galludet University in Washington, DC. One was a student of “signing” for the hearing impaired and we talked a little about that guy who had faked it at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa. They were on a way to a four-day music festival in New Orleans for which they had paid top dollar. Delays resulting from the hurricane had now cost them their first two days. But they were just looking forward to the fun that remained. They had decided not to even look at the list of artists to see which ones they had missed. I have no doubt that they did make the best of it.

I did not think much about it at the time, but I guess there is something symbolic in being in Philadelphia on the Fourth of July, even if it is only to wait for a plane at the airport. My current scholarly project is a book on Frederick Douglass in Cincinnati in the 1850s. One of its local heroes is William Brisbane, a Cincinnati abolitionist who had been a slaveholder in South Carolina before renouncing slavery, selling his slaves, buying them back so he could emancipate them, and moving to Cincinnati in 1838, where he tried to make a living as a Baptist preacher, medical doctor, and author of anti-slavery books and novellas while working tirelessly as an anti-slavery activist. In 1846, a few months after moving his young family to Philadelphia to edit an anti-slavery paper there, Brisbane wrote this journal entry on Saturday, July 4:

“”To celebrate our National Independence whilst three millions of our countrymen are in abject slavery is an idea too monstrous to characterize in language, and at this time too when the war with Mexico is going on, that grew out of the abominable measures for the strengthening of the slave power! O, how hypocritical! Well may the heavens be hung in ‘black’ over this misnamed city of Brotherly Love!!!!!!”

Living for several years in and near Philadelphia, Brisbane preached in its black Baptist churches as often as he did in its white Baptist ones. I have no doubt that he would have enjoyed the conversation with the young Galludet graduate students as much as I did.

Sometimes it takes a long view to measure the progress we have made. On the Fourth of July 1846, the Charles W. Morgan, whose abolitionist namesake owner was originally from Philadelphia, was in the second year of its second voyage out into the South Seas.

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