He flew, but time didn'tBy ROBERT N. JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 29, 2002
Eighteen minutes after our scheduled takeoff from Chicago's O'Hare Airport, the captain of my United flight tells his passengers that we are "probably No. 5 in line now. Not quite what Orville Wright had in mind when he made his first flight 99 years ago today."
I manage a smile but then wonder if Orville and Wilbur ever "had in mind" what it would be like spending 29 hours, 15 minutes coming home on some version of their motorized glider. I know I had never imagined it. But once I realized it was going to happen, I took notes:
TUESDAY, DEC. 17, SINGAPORE
4:30 a.m. An accented voice on the phone tells me it is my wakeup call. But was I asleep? I've been awake, with my usual pretrip jitters, off and on since 2:15.
After hanging up the phone, I realize I'm tangled in sweat-soaked sheets: Maybe it is more than the usual nerves -- more like anxiety about the trip to return home 12 days after leaving for stops in Hong Kong and then Singapore.
5:15 a.m. Both of those Asian destinations are 13 hours ahead of Florida's Eastern Standard Time. While it is 5:15 Tuesday morning as I leave my hotel in Singapore, it is just 4:15 Monday afternoon in the Tampa Bay area. As I did on the flights to Hong Kong, I am about to experience some serious time travel.
Having cleared my checked bags through one of the new SUV-sized X-ray machines and my small carry-on bag and laptop computer through security, I sit down at my departure gate in an area whose cleanliness would mock that of a hospital. Singapore is like this, I have observed.
On the other hand, money spent on tidying up apparently has been taken from the decorating budget. Martha Stewart would need a whole issue of her magazine to make this place comfy.
7:20 a.m. My first plane of the day is a 747-400. With quite a few empty seats -- including the middle one in my row! -- it pushes back from the gate 10 minutes early.
7:35 a.m. Despite that head start, the plane leaves the runway five minutes late. I figure we can make that up during the scheduled six-hour, 15-minute flight to Tokyo, which is 3,331 miles away, the overhead TV monitor informs us.
Just after leaving the ground, one of the flight attendants uses the PA system to suggest that we turn our watches to Tokyo time, one hour later. How can 3,331 miles' distance be just one time zone different?
I check in the United magazine's route map diagrams and see that not all time zones are created equal.
8:05 a.m. Breakfast is served: scrambled eggs in a tough crepe, chicken sausage, a dollop of something crusty that is listed on the menu as sauteed spinach, a small Danish pastry, sliced fruit, coffee and a couple of ounces of pretend orange juice.
The first movie has already started, the forgettable comedy Like Mike. As I will observe on my three flights and roughly 20 hours in the air, United's financial problems have not come from wasting money on the video programs. At least, not what is being dished up in coach class.
There are 12 audio channels listed, though a couple never seem to be playing when I switch to them.
Although Dolly Parton and I are friends -- well, at least she pleasantly answered my questions when I found her scouting a cable movie site in Nashville a couple of years ago -- I tire of her warbling on the country music channel.
None of the Western or Asian pop channels interest me, it is too early for the classical and easy listening tracks, which are good for going-to-sleep-by.
But I can get down with the channel playing contemporary versions of classic Disney tunes -- I love that Iiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room!
10 a.m. The flight attendant apologizes for not having a copy of the International Herald Tribune to offer me, but she returns soon with a pristine copy of the Asian Wall Street Journal. However, she instructs me to give it back when I am finished "because the passengers haven't seen it yet."
"Who hasn't seen it yet?" I want to ask, but being among the great unwashed whose row numbers were not individually called for boarding, I just tell her thanks.
That proves fortuitous, because no sooner have I scanned the front page of the WSJ than the attendant returns, triumphantly, with a copy of the Herald Tribune, so we trade newspapers.
The International Herald Tribune is a joint creation of the Washington Post and the New York Times, with the vast majority of each day's edition being articles by reporters from one or the other of those papers. I always take delight in seeing the bylines of former St. Petersburg Times colleagues.
11:15 a.m. Allowing for the change of time zones, it is now five hours since I left my hotel in Singapore, and I have read the entire Herald Tribune. Much of the issue is Asian business news -- this edition was been printed in Singapore -- but because I am leaving the region, the coverage seems excessive.
Further, there are no bylines this day by former colleagues and just four sentences on the Buccaneers' unexpectedly narrow victory over the Lions the previous Sunday. I deem this bad news judgment for the edition. Maybe the lack of sleep is getting to me.
Try the jazz channel, which I would never listen to at home -- clearly a compromise as I try to pass the time.
Glance up at the TV screen: Why is it showing a heavyset woman milking a goat?
I reach for the only book I have in my carry-on bags -- regrettably, two other paperbacks are making the trip in the checked luggage.
With me is an 87th Precinct mystery by Ed McBain. I know I must ration my reading, at least until I reach the Chicago airport, so I request a bourbon and Evian from the flight attendant, for medicinal purposes: to sleep, perchance to dream.
1:05 p.m. No sleep, no dreams. It is lunchtime, or snack time, or sometime.
Not pretending to put on airs now in the food service, flight attendants hand out boxes that hold a roll, a pear, a tiny bag of M&Ms, and a small plastic cup of amber liquid whose label reports it is "made with concentrated apple juice." Maybe, but the phrase that comes to mind is, "We'll need a sample, sir, and you can leave the cup on that tray on the counter."
The video screen has been showing a seemingly endless tape of hidden camera practical jokes. Doesn't anyone ever take a swing at the gagmeisters who do this? I guess that wouldn't be quite so amusing for the home viewer, because this production is titled Just for Laughs. A Canadian company gets the credit or, in my view, the blame.
I see by the monitor that we are at 37,000 feet altitude. The rest of the information is in Japanese, except for the numbers, and those are alternately in metric and in what is officially known as the U.S. Customary System: feet or miles. The monitor also flashes the route map showing that Flight 882 is west of Fukuoka, Japan, which is, in turn, west of Tokyo.
According to my itinerary ticket, I shouldn't need to care about this because I am on a plane from Singapore to Chicago. But as the video screen and captain had announced when Flight 882 took off nearly five hours ago, we are headed to Tokyo. As it turns out, we are not just going to top off the tank.
2:14 p.m. Even at 13,000 feet, the white caps on the Pacific Ocean are enormous; the captain warns us of turbulence as we descend. But we are down to 4,010 feet before I feel the buffeting, which seems mild.
2:25 p.m. Below I see a baseball diamond, a running track, large buildings and strings of high-tension lines that seem to be daring Godzilla to bring it on.
TUESDAY, DEC. 17, NARITA, JAPAN
2:28 p.m. Wheels touch down, rather smoothly. The hundreds of passengers empty the overhead bins and disembark at Tokyo International Airport, which is in Narita, about 41 miles northeast of the capital.
3:34 p.m. Getting off the plane is a welcome change from the flight. I stroll about the arrivals area, as clean and slightly more interesting visually than the Singapore departure lounge.
I walk the equivalent of a couple of city blocks to check out the duty-free shop. It is surprising in both its diminutive size -- think of a Radio Shack with cosmetics instead of cable TV gizmos -- and its high prices. My wife's favorite perfume is actually more expensive here than on eBay.
In a convenience store, I consider buying another paperback for the long ride home, but the English-language selection is small and unappealing. Having shouldered the 11.5-pound laptop all over the arrivals area, I head for Gate 27 and the departure lounge for Flight 882.
Can this be right? There are six chairs in the narrow corridor that is the waiting area. Six seats for the 347 passengers Flight 882 can carry.
There is still more than two hours until the plane departs, so I sit down on one of the six hard seats. The others fill quickly. I notice a couple of teenagers lying on the floor against a wall, nestled like spoons, heads on their backpacks. A young man is lying on the floor a few yards closer to the gate's door.
4:20 p.m.: Realizing that I probably will sleep on this next trip segment, I take from my shoulder bag a sleep mask, earplugs and my evening meal medication. I put it in a Ziploc bag, which I put inside my shirt.
This is for convenience: My exit row seat is by a door, and so there is not a seat in front of me. I have no seatback pocket in which to put the plastic bag, nor a seat under which I can stow the shoulder bag.
I also get out of the shoulder bag a package of cheese crackers and a bottle of water. Slowly, I nibble.
I pass the time by estimating the value of my purchases in Hong Kong and Singapore, calculating the different exchange rates to U.S. dollars. Then I guesstimate that even taking my time, I have only another four hours' reading in my paperback but have 171/2 hours before landing at Tampa International. On the flight from Tokyo to Chicago, I tell myself, I will definitely have to watch at least one of the movies.
4:47 p.m.: In twos and threes, the flight crew passes by on their way to the plane. One attendant is pulling a roll-aboard that has attached to it another, slightly smaller bag, and she is carrying two plastic bags each the size of a pillow case. She passes under the message, in lights, that "Carry-on is limited to one piece."
5:59 p.m.: Flight 882 pushes back from the gate; conversations around me disclose that people are headed for holiday gatherings in Washington, D.C., and Nova Scotia.
During the standard safety announcement, I yawn -- an excellent omen for my traveling comfort.
The video monitor says it is 6,265 miles to Chicago, which the flight computer calculates we will cover in 11 hours, one minute. Nonstop.
6:25 p.m.: Wheels up from Tokyo International. I have 175 pages left in my book.
8:43 p.m.: The dinner plastic has been cleared and I am chuckling at My Big Fat Greek Wedding while my row mates sleep.
11:35 p.m. I have been asleep, unfortunately missing most of Wedding, and scrunch back into my seat after a trip to the bathroom. Just as I pull the sleep mask into place and snuggle into the blanket, I hear Chatty Kathy, the head of the flight attendants and a woman apparently at home with the PA system, make the announcement I have never before heard:
"Ladies and gentlemen, do we have a doctor on board? If we have a medical doctor, please identify yourself by touching your attendant call button."
I never find out what response she got.
WEDNESDAY, DEC. 18, TOKYO TIME
1:40 a.m.: I'm awake, as it turns out for the rest of the trip. The movies are over, for a while, and the video monitor says we have traveled 4,432 miles from Tokyo.
Just three hours, 38 minutes to go to Chicago, where the time is 10:40 a.m. yesterday, Tuesday. I celebrate our approach to America's Pacific Coast by turning my watch back.
I still have 141 pages left to go.
TUESDAY, DEC. 17, STRAIT OF JUAN DE FUCA
11:08 a.m. Chicago time: Land! I ease the closed window shade up, and beneath the brilliant sunlight I see the westernmost tip of Washington state. The video monitor shows we will soon pass over Everett, less than 50 miles north of Seattle.
1:30 p.m.: Brunch -- pasta or a salsa-filled omelet -- is served as we pass over Pipestone National Monument, a few miles inside Minnesota's southwestern border with South Dakota.
Our ETA is 61 minutes, and I have two pages left in the book. I feel all right, but I am tired -- tired of sitting, tired of the audio tracks, tired of seeing a lame NBC show recounting golf's Ryder Cup, which had been decided 79 days earlier, tired of seeing an infomercial with former Secretary of State Alexander Haig shilling for some financial service, tired of the man behind me coughing loudly.
2 p.m.: Thick clouds block any view of the ground, but Chatty Kathy announces that we are 35 minutes from Chicago O'Hare. For the first time, I notice Flight 882 is slowing.
It is 22 hours, 40 minutes since I left my hotel in Singapore. It is four hours, 50 minutes before I am scheduled to land at Tampa International.
2:35 p.m. Wheels down. I am back in the States for the first time in 12 days.
Although the jumbo jet, with its 10-across seating back in coach, empties fairly quickly and I pass through Immigration immediately, it takes another 25 minutes or so to get my two bags from the carousel.
I head for Customs, knowing that I have declared the value of my overseas purchases to be $34 more than the $400 duty-free limit. I don't worry about the possible duty charge of just $1.36, but I wonder how long it might take to do the paperwork -- after all those hours in the air and in airports in Asia, I now have just 47 minutes before the connecting flight to Tampa leaves, I still will need to recheck my two bags, and I am three terminals away from the gate.
No duty charged and bags rechecked, I take an escalator to the intra-terminal train. I make it through security at my departure terminal, take a couple more escalators and moving sidewalks, then hurry past six gates to mine.
The gate agent says I have six minutes before boarding begins, enough time to cross the corridor and get a soft drink. As it turns out, I have more than six minutes, because my group is the fourth called to board.
I approach the agent with my boarding pass and for the 16th time on this trip, I take out my passport for identification. How did my beard turn so white in just five years, I wonder.
My seat is not only spacious but, for just the second time in six flights, there is no one sitting in the middle seat.
4:15 p.m. We taxi to the runway, 25 hours to the minute since I left the hotel half a world away. Then Flight 1128 stops, waiting as other planes also head out during this busy time of day.
4:33 p.m. Eighteen minutes after our scheduled departure, the pilot makes his Orville Wright announcement. I smile, and I yawn.
The captain advises that he is patching Channel 9 of our audio options into the air traffic control tower's frequency, so that we can stay up-to-the-minute with him on our progress. One of those planes I hear getting clearance to take off before is United Flight 882, now headed to complete its long, long day at New York's La Guardia Airport.
7:35 p.m. Tampa Bay time: A cup of coffee and the animated film Lilo & Stitch have kept me awake during the flight home. Judging by the laughter from the man sitting in front of me, it was not just jet lag punchiness that made the film seem amusing to me.
7:48 p.m. Wheels down. Hi, Raymond James Stadium.
8:35 p.m. The United baggage service clerk has given me a printed receipt with a toll-free number on it to call if a courier does not deliver to me sometime tomorrow the one suitcase that had made it from Singapore with me but had not successfully navigated O'Hare with its smaller sibling for the flight to Tampa.
8:49 p.m. Standard size roll-aboard or not, the shuttle driver from the rental car lot where I left my Honda makes no effort to pick up my suitcase and put it aboard the van. With a carry-on hanging off each shoulder, I heft the roll-aboard up the steps of his van.
9:27 p.m. After a stop at the McDonald's drive-through, I arrive home.
My stomach and head arrive the next day, not long after the other suitcase does.
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