Many years ago the author Thomas Wolfe (the one from North Carolina, not to be confused with Richmond-native and St. Christopher’s alum Tom Wolfe, the founder of New Journalism and known for his white suits) wrote a novel with the title, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Wolfe meant that figuratively, but for a good part of Wednesday it felt like that might be true for us literally.
Every summer about this time I’ll talk to a parent of a just-graduated senior who is about to head off to college. “We thought it would be really hard,” the parent will say, “but after this summer, he’s ready—and we’re ready.” We felt the same way about the end of our trip. It has been an amazing experience, but we were ready to come home.
We were scheduled to take a shuttle to London’s Heathrow Airport at 7:05 a.m. (or 2:05 a.m. Eastern time) to catch a 10:30 flight. The day started somewhat anxiously when our shuttle driver was fifteen minutes late due to heavy traffic on the M4 headed into London, then stopped for gas on the way to the airport, but we were at Heathrow by 8. We went through passport control and security with ease, and had nearly an hour to kill before taking off.
Things were not nearly as smooth once we arrived at JFK. J.D. had flown through there on Sunday and gone through customs and security without a hiccup, but we weren’t as fortunate. Our plane was delayed slightly by heavy air traffic in the New York metropolitan area, so we were maybe fifteen minutes late landing, but we weren’t concerned because we had nearly two hours until our 2:55 flight to Richmond.
Two hours wasn’t enough. Upon landing in New York for an international flight, you have to first get your passport checked by an immigration officer. U.S. and Canadian citizens and those from other countries who have previously been in the U.S. go into a separate line and can scan passports at a kiosk, then get into line to go through immigration. I’m guessing that our timing was poor because early afternoon is when many international flights start to arrive, and the lines were long and ponderous. Once we got through immigration, we had to get our bags and get in another long line to go through customs.
That entire process took nearly 90 minutes, and we still had to recheck our bags, catch a bus to a different terminal, and go through security. The Delta agents rechecking our bags told us that we were unlikely to catch our flight, but to hurry and we might make it. Of course when you are in a hurry every impediment becomes more annoying, so it might be my imagination, but it seemed like the rest of the passengers in the airport were in slow motion, taking their sweet time.
In any case, we missed the flight by two minutes. We had a slim chance heading into security, but Shelley was put into a line that breezed through while I had to go through the slow line. I texted her to go without me, that I would catch a later flight, but she waited. Had she known what awaited us, she may have had second thoughts.
Missing the flight meant that the trip ended in ironic fashion. Whereas we arrived in Italy but our bags didn’t, on the return trip our bags made it to Richmond without us.
We went to the Delta counter to try to get on the next flight. At first the agent talked about getting us to Richmond by way of Detroit, but eventually she found and booked us on a flight scheduled to leave at 7:25 p.m.
Going into the trip my biggest worry was how my knees would hold up in places like Rome and Paris, and they had done remarkably well, but the combination of having done a lot of walking in London with all the standing in line we had done at JFK meant that I was in agony. There were very few available seats in the terminal, so we found a restaurant to kill some time and get off our feet. While there we saw that our flight was now delayed until 8:55. While at the restaurant I also saw a familiar face, Emily Mauck, the daughter of St. Christopher’s admissions director Cary Mauck. She was returning from having climbed Mt. Kilomanjaro, and had also missed the 3 p.m. flight.
The next three hours were about hurrying up and waiting. The terminal was less crowded and it was easier to find seats, but that was small consolation when we would have given anything to get on the plane and go. We kept watching the departures board, and the time of our flight changed five times, including three times in a ten-minute span, from 8:55 to 8:34 to 9:29 to 9:17 to 8:57 to 9:03, and we were holding our breath hoping it wouldn’t be cancelled.
About 8:30 we heard an announcement from Gate C64 that the next five flights taking off from that gate were Washington Reagan, Washington Dulles, Baltimore, Richmond, and Nantucket. Delta sends multiple flights through that gate at the same time, and when our flight was finally called we were with the passengers going to Nantucket. They waltzed down the right side of the hallway and got on the plane, while we stood in another line. Finally we were loaded onto two buses, and I wondered if they were going to bus us to Richmond, but we were eventually delivered to a plane, a plane that eventually took off and landed in Richmond. Once we were on the plane the cockpit made an announcement that the delay had been caused by an incident in Richmond earlier in the day that supposedly closed the airport, but I never saw anything on the news.
So we’re home, dealing with jetlag and sickness (I came down with a massive cold). Our JFK adventure means that we can now say that we spent time in Rome, Paris, London, and New York. If New York means JFK, I’d just as soon skip it next time.