This is Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, and I am pretty good & sick. Deep calliope cough. Some fever. It changes perspective in an interesting way: every detail seems equally important and overwhelming, down to the most random bits of color or conversation.
“No matter how high we fly,” said a lady in a seat nearby, laughing to her companion, “Or how far we go — we always come back home again to you.”
Now that, clearly, is part of a prayer.
Is she carrying a Church Slavonic prayer book too? Because I am sure that statement is in there someplace. Maybe the Morning Office? I flip a few pages, but can’t find her prayer anywhere. Why not? Am I losing my mind?
Crash! What is that racket?
Oh. Crushed ice, lots of it, cascading out of a machine into drink cups at Starbuck’s as a clear avalanche of noise. But look, nobody else can hear it! They just rush right by with their wheeled luggage cards. And the blue LED light at this here cell phone recharging station — is anybody else dazzled by that? It’s brighter than bright, it floats right out in air and into my nerves. I have to turn away from it just to concentrate on the window on my phone (charged 72%, 74%, 75%…).
Back to these Slavonic prayers.
But now there’s something’s wrong with the Cyrillic alphabet in the text. I can only focus on one word at a time; they’re not linking up to form meaningful sentences. And that’s not praying. Is it? Even though the words are beautiful all on their own and one at a time (небесный, слава, серафим; heavenly, glory, Seraphim). Maybe that is prayer after all. Who knows?
Back in New Mexico, my concerned and caring hosts tried to warn me. “Careful — don’t go walking out there today. We’ve got a 20 mile-an-hour wind.” Really? How bad can that be? I never get hay fever any more. So off I went walking.
Yeahbut this air is not full of hay. It’s powdered manure from grassless shadeless cattle stockyards all around town, and veal calves in metal sheds the size of a phone booth as far as the eye can see, all baking in the sun after three years of drought. A century ago, this area was a Paradise, with abundant water springs and magnificent topsoil. But mankind and his land stewardship changed all that. Now the land is red dust that snakes in waves across the road and piles up through closed windows on people’s desks at work. We took one short delightful drive (windows closed, AC off) through splendid scenery to a fantastic ethnic restaurant down the highway. But on the way back a fuzzy feeling crept into my lungs, with a cough that feels like hot coals. Last night there were high-speed sleigh bells in my ears, and gibberish in my own voice kept waking me up.
That’s the travel lesson. When the local people warn you, do what they say.
Early this morning we said goodbye. My kind Host drove me to Lubbock Airport for my 16-hour trip. That was a 2 hour drive under open full-glory sun. I was thrilled by the view, longing to stop and romp around with my camera: antelope sagebrush barbed wire prairie dog antelope sagebrush barbed wire prairie dog. But to save on air and keep from coughing I only sat still, answering my Host in little monosyllabic murmurings. Host purchased parking just so he could leave the car and stand at the gate to see me past Security; how nice is that? Then he did something especially endearing and unique: gave me a hug with our heads over each other’s left shoulders, then he gave me a whole second hug with our heads over each other’s right shoulders! That’s not an American thing. Maybe he learned it from his studies and work in Africa? I was so touched by it, that on impulse I turned to give him a peck on the cheek. Unfortunately after two hours of trying to not cough inside Host Car, I suddenly wrenched a huge cough and sneeze in his face, like a surfacing sperm whale. I was appalled. But he just said “OH!! Are you all right??” and patted my shoulders. Then he stood on tiptoe peering through the gates until I made it through security, then while I walked backwards waving he waved and waved until I was out of sight.
2 hours down, 14 hours to go to my own airport.
This presented a little problem. Do flight attendants allow coughing people on planes? Maybe not. On East European trains during that whole bird flu scene, people with colds were dumped off bag & baggage in Khabarovsk or wherever. So what if that happens, say, up ahead in Dallas? Then I’d have to book a flight back to Lubbock and ask my lovely hosts to come pick me up again (driving 2 hours each way) until I’m better. But then they might get sick too! And it’s a no-refund ticket; to book a whole new flight home is $700 but my emergency credit card has a $500 limit.
No, can’t let anybody see me cough.
For moral support I concentrate on women older than me, some in their nineties, who traveled the U.S. or the world with one or two dresses and a Bible and little or no money at all. Mother Gavrilia Papayannis, Peace Pilgrim, Catherine Doherty, Doris Haddock. Corrie ten Boom was almost my age, and she had flu and pneumonia and pleurisy when they arrested her. Then after Ravensbruck she traveled to 60 countries without asking for shelter or food or a dime. So there’s nothing to complain about. It’s a friendly airport. Just don’t cough.
Lubbock Airport turned fine. I got a good scare when my cell phone jumped ahead an hour. How did it do that? But then a cheerful volunteer in a big Stetson hat explained to me that traveling east from New Mexico gains an hour, and most cell phones will automatically correct for that. “Next time you drive to or from New Mexico,” she pointed out, “You keep an eye on the cell phone; depending on which cell tower you are passing, the time will keep flicking back and forth by one hour. Around here, we call that entertainment.” On the little plane, our presiding flight attendant was a gracious African-American gentleman with graying hair, serving drinks with unbelievably fast multi-tasking skills. “Yes, yes — comin’ up,” he informed us. “I am juggling away with this cart to entertain y-all.” All through the flight you could tell where he was, by the appreciative laughter among the passengers; not a one could resist bantering with him. He even stopped and lectured one young man ordering a drink. “Now I will tell you what alcohol to avoid on a flight,” he advised. “Stay away from those mixed cocktails, like Cosmopolitans. That is all high sugar. Do NOT mix alcohol and sugar on a flight. Drink it neat and straight in moderation, or do not drink at all.” The other passengers murmur their agreement. “And, always buy high quality,” one of the older men tells the young one. “Decent vodka will run you sixty a bottle or it is not worth your while.” The sheepish young man admits that at school they go for the vodka in the five dollar bottles instead. “Five dollars!! Why, for real value just take your five and buy you some turpentine.”
Dallas means a 3 hour stopover.
It’s freezing in here. It was freezing in the car too and back at the house, even though the weather is so warm and sunny. So in my sweatshirt with hoodie pulled up I’m rocking back and forth to warm up. I gave up on following Slavonic, but now I can’t even keep the prayers straight on this pocket rosary either. There’s a Pilgrim’s Progress right in my knapsack, a nice annotated one with the Scripture references and notes, but today even that will be over my head. So I settle on the Jesus Prayer, matching it to a little French tune about the bells of Paris, and then it runs along all by itself.
I fall asleep, and wake up as my head topples over toward my lap. My phone battery is charged to 92%.
“Young Lady?” says a smiling man in a Stetson hat. He’s part of the volunteer brigade staffing booths all over the airport. “Is your phone charging up all right for you?” Half an hour ago he helped me find this recharge terminal, and now he’s clearly just passing by to check up on me. We have a nice chat, until — presto, cell phone’s at 100%. He walks me to my gate. I give him a big smile and nod and wave, and he heads back to his station.
Better get some water. Dehydration was a big problem all week, no matter how much I drank. At the newstand I look around for room-temperature water. There isn’t any. I finally choose 2 icy liters from the cooler. The cashier is a young lady from… Somalia? I stop short, totally thrown off by how beautiful she is. That is, her looks are pleasantly ordinary, like any of us, even a little tired and careworn. But she has some kind of radiance that makes my eyes mist over. I just want to stay close and look at her. But getting a grip I just say “Hello!” and bring the bottles to the cash register. She sees me coming and lights up. Just beams. She lines up my receipt and change. Then we stand there staring in each other’s eyes a minute. After handling the cold bottles, my joints are having trouble picking up the change from the counter. Before we say goodbye she takes my knapsack and puts everything away and ties it up, and puts the change in my palm, closing my hands and patting them.
There are no empty seats.
I stand blinking for a while, and then gathering my courage head toward one seat with just a handbag on it, to see whether that seat is reserved for anyone.
“Why howdy,” says a smiling lady with a crown of braided hair and a long spring dress. She immediately moves her handbag to make room for me. “Let’s have ourselves a seat so we can jump out of it again soon as they call us to board! Betty Dietz from Abilene. How are you doing? Visiting family?” I smile and whisper a howdy back and give her my name.
“You are a schoolteacher, aren’t you?” she asks.
“You’re absolutely right,” I croak back. “I was.”
“And what did you teach?”
“Oh.” She thinks that over a minute with a kindly reflective nod.
The man across from us is actually not wearing a Stetson hat. He is wearing boots and full desert camouflage. Dallas Airport is full of men in camouflage with no luggage at all. I would have thought that military men would travel with a lot of banter and joking around. But not this wave of them. They move very fast in quiet groups, and they sit very close together wasting not a fidget of energy and looking down with faraway eyes. This man has a chiseled sunburned hardened look; it’s a little intimidating until he speaks up. “I can not get over these Texas bluebonnets in bloom,” he says out loud, to anyone listening. “Why, to come back home and see them coming right up.” His voice breaks, and he drops his head with his hands on his knees. All the passengers in earshot drop what they’re doing to turn to him and chime right in. Yes, isn’t it something wonderful? Those bluebonnets! A pretty sight.
A very petite neighbor with a neat hairbun turns to me. “Young Lady? Do you mind saving this seat for me? Here I’ve put my old hat on it to mark the spot. I don’t think that anybody will be lookin’ to take my old hat!” I promise to put up a good fight in case anybody tries.
Another lady strikes up a conversation with Mrs. Betty Dietz. “So my sister-in-law says to me, ‘Until the politics at church simmer down, I am not setting my foot in the door for worship a-t’all.'” Mrs. Dietz and the other passengers are all smiles at that. “Haven’t we all said that!” says one woman. “Haven’t we all done that,” says another. “Church politics? Simmer down? She may be waiting quite a while,” says one of the men.
Another man is talking to a high school student.
“What do you mean!” he exclaims. “18 years old and have never left home or gone up in a plane?” The 18 year old laughs, a little bashful. “No Sir. We did go to Michigan once. Took 30 hours by bus. But this flying — I am a little nervous.” Every passenger in earshot turns to him, joining right in. “Why, you will be amazed at the ease and convenience of air travel. You are going to be just FINE.” The first man agrees. “YOU will be fine. ME, I just hope it ain’t your day to die.” They all enjoy a good laugh.
Uh-oh. The lady who left her ol’ hat is standing way off in the terminal aisle looking lost and afraid. I grab her hat and leap up, waving it in the air. She looks relieved and comes right on over. “Thank goodness. I got so turned around; this same old place looks like a whole new place to me! Thank you, Young Lady.”
At the airport information booth, a beautiful young Mexican girl with long flowing hair takes the mike and makes a public service announcement. In earnest precise words she announces that it is not good to sell your town’s water rights to factory farms, to let stockyards deplete the aquifer for miles around. I wake up with a start, gripping my luggage and turning to look at the info booth; it’s staffed by the same cheerful Stetson team that was there five minutes ago when I fell asleep.
Mrs. Dietz gives me a sympathetic look. “You feeling all right? First time flying for you too?” Little does she know that if I can’t fool the flight attendants I may not be flying at all. “Just fine,” I tell her, with a big smile.
Finally we are boarding.
And — what fantastic luck! The seat neighbor they give me is coughing non-stop all the way to Seattle. It’s like my own set of desert camouflage. Nobody is going to notice me at all. “Sorry,” he says. “Got over flu over a week ago. They say it’s not contagious at this point, but it certainly sounds dramatic.” He is also kind enough to open my next water bottle for me.
We taxi down the runway.
The 18-year-old across the aisle says “Gosh! Flying is just like a drag race!” And at the point of liftoff he’s peering out saying “Aw, crazy. Man. This is just crazy. Look at the ground pulling away like that. People look like ants. This is nuts!” His seat neighbor from the terminal congratulates him on his first flight, and adds a warning. “Now remember: once we touch down, the real danger of air travel is only beginning.”
“It is?” says the student, giving him a wary look.
“Yes. That is when you start driving in your car.”
Home airport at last.
But wait, where’s my shuttle? Isn’t it supposed to be at this terminal? What if I miss it and have to spend the night here? In a panic I dial Shuttle Express, but it takes a minute to stop coughing long enough to say “Help! Help! I can’t find the shuttle stop!”
The endlessly patient dispatch operators talk me out of my panic and direct my hacking croaky voice to the correct parking garage for the ride home.
At 12:30 a.m. New Mexico time I stagger in the door of my studio, drop my stuff, set up my blankie corner, wash up — and see my copy of Corrie ten Boom in the bathroom. How can it be sitting there? I don’t remember taking it out before the trip at all. It’s open to the page where she’s under arrest in the police station and her father recites Psalm 91. I put the book down and have a little cry and go lie down. Ah.
But it’s not over.
I sit up in a hurry when a strange man steps in through my studio wall. He’s trim and neat, wearing a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He has a deep suntan, black hornrim glasses, black hair slicked over from a side part. Right away I know who he is, though we’ve never met and he died many years ago. He’s the founding medical doctor of the New Mexico town where I’ve been staying (I even stayed in the house that he built himself). Now he’s returning the visit. In a brisk no-nonsense way he lectures me about what I should have done first thing, arriving in New Mexico, to keep from getting sick. Get a bottle of straight vodka ($60 a bottle, he reminds me, or don’t buy it at all). Take some sotol plant, the kind growing all over the landscape. Steep it in the alcohol to make a tincture, and add the local plants: yucca, sage, prickly pear, on and on. Take 5 drops a day in a glass of water. I can’t hear his voice, but can read his lips and see him point to all the desert plants and red dust springing up out of the carpet. He finishes his consultation, wipes his hands on a towel, and strides off through the wall to visit his next case. I lie there listening to my heart pound, thinking Wow. A doctor who makes house calls.
Four days later I’m still in bed, consuming hot lemon-honey-cayenne water, still moved to tears by the local people during the week’s adventure. The trip calls to mind Thor Heyerdahl’s account of sailing bright phosphorescent seas of plankton in the Kon-Tiki: some network of goodness from person to person just lifted me up and bore me along. I didn’t travel alone at all.
Now, about the politics of the people of West Texas I have heard some terrible things spoken, especially by the people of New Mexico West Texas. But for a traveler short of breath and mildly hallucinating, the people could not have been more jovial or kind. May it bless them back many times over.