The Time We Almost Missed Christmas

We shuffled up to the customer service counter winded, defeated, dejected. The O’Hare concourse was empty. Anybody who had a chance to get somewhere that night, Christmas Eve 2000, was either there already or on the way. Not us. We were trapped in the giant airport on the outskirts of Chicago, stranded between working that day’s Buccaneers-Packers game at Lambeau Field and getting home in time to wake up in our own beds on Christmas morning.

There were five of us. Four were with the Tribune: a beat writer, a columnist, a photographer and me. The fifth covered the Bucs for the Orlando paper. I was the only one who didn’t have at least one kid waiting for me back in Tampa, but the house was full of in-laws, including some toddler cousins. The Orlando writer was on his cell phone when we got to the customer service counter to sort it all out.

“No, sweetheart, I won’t be there tonight,” he murmured. “Molly. Molly. Don’t cry, sweetheart. Daddy will be home tomorrow. … Well, I don’t know what time. Don’t cry, Molly. Put Mommy on the phone, OK? Don’t cry, sweetheart. Daddy’s sorry.”

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When you’re a sportswriter, you don’t think about what you do as sacrifice. The night-time hours, the weekends, the holidays lost, the ridiculous travel schedule – it’s just what you have to do to get the story, to cover the beat, to keep the job. It still hurts to miss things, but the ones who choose the life must absorb that pain and wear it like a badge. Those who can’t cut it are frowned upon or mocked. Oh, you miss home? Waahhh. Work at a bank. It’s the same macho approach whether you are a man or a woman. Those who make the choice know that they are privileged to have the job, that literally thousands of people are out there waiting to take their place, and any sign of weakness might just be the chink in the armor that allows the tip of the spear to penetrate.

In other words? Quit your bitching.

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The football game went into overtime (foreshadowing!). Packers 17, Bucs 14. We filed our stories and photos and headed to the airport. The plane left Green Bay on time. There was snow, of course. But a little snow didn’t delay us in Green Bay.

The delay came in Appleton. Why we stopped there, I’m still not sure. Maybe it was for fuel. Maybe it was to pick up a passenger. Either way … what? We stopped in Appleton? It took about five minutes to fly from Green Bay to Appleton. Five minutes. We were up, we landed. It was supposed to be a 15-minute stop, for no reason I could discern.

Instead, it lasted about two hours.

What. The Hell.

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I remember looking out the airplane window while we sat on the ground in Appleton. It was dark and white, and snow drifts were piled against the terminal walls. It looked cold.

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We were assured that we would make our flight in Chicago. It might be tight, we were told, but we’d make it. We might have to sprint through O’Hare hurdling airport chairs like O.J. Simpson in a Hertz commercial, but we would make the flight. Our departure gate wasn’t that far from our arrival gate, we were told, so we would make it.

O'Hare Neon

This light sculpture is called Sky’s the Limit. It’s a neon walkway at O’Hare. We saw it only in passing on Christmas Eve 2000.

We landed with 20 minutes to spare. We grabbed our carry-ons and bolted up the ramp. We would make it. We sprinted up the concourse, found the connecting passageway to our departure terminal, ran at top speed down a hallway lit by flowing neon lights. We would make it. We found the right terminal, ran past the other gates, counted the numbers to ours. We would make it.

And I swear this happened next: We saw our gate 50 yards ahead, three attendants hovering around the desk and the ramp door. We kicked it up a gear, sprinting, shouldering our computer bags, a bunch of out of shape sportswriters desperate to get home for Christmas. In slow motion, one of the attendants reached for the handle to close the ramp door. We would not make it. In slow motion, the attendant’s head turned toward us as we yelled for her to wait wait wait wait we’re coming don’t shut it yet hold on we’re almost there stop stop stop stop stop!

We would not make it. The door shut just as we got there. Click.

I lost it. We all did. They knew we were coming. They saw us. They had been told we were on the way.

Click.

There was a floor-to-ceiling window right next to the door. There, at the other end of the ramp, was our airplane. The ramp began to move away from the side of the airplane. Then, while my fellow travelers tried to reason with the attendants, I actually did something I’ve only ever seen in movies and TV shows. I banged on the window and tried to get the pilot’s attention. I hammered on that glass and waved my arms and yelled as loud as I could. The pilot never so much as glanced in my direction. The ramp kept moving away from the plane.

Merry Freaking Christmas.

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At the customer service desk, the Orlando reporter tried to comfort his young daughter on the phone. The airline customer service guy gave us all $100 vouchers for pretty much any local hotel we wanted to stay at that night. He also told us that the O’Hare Hilton had a Christmas Eve special. It was connected to the airport, so we decided to stay there. Then we were all booked on a first class flight for the next morning. To Orlando. Because there were no direct flights to Tampa until late in the day. So we rented cars, too. To drive from Orlando International Airport to Tampa International Airport, so we could pick up our cars before we drove home to our families.

Merry Freaking Christmas.

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After we checked into the O’Hare Hilton, we met down in the hotel bar. There was a Christmas Eve bowl game on. I think it was Georgia and Virginia in some very, very minor bowl in Hawaii, of all places. I don’t even think they play it anymore. So, we gathered at a table in the empty bar and watched a college football game. We ate bar food and drank. We toasted Christmas.

Then an old man in a gray suit and fedora stumped into the bar with the aid of a brass-handled wooden cane. He sat at the table next to us and ordered a drink. He placed his hat on the table in front of him and leaned his cane against a chair. He nodded to us and sipped his drink while he watched Georgia-Virginia in a bar at the O’Hare Hilton on Christmas Eve.

We sat and talked and asked the old man to join us and watched the game until it was time to go to bed.

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I can only imagine what it would be like to still be one of those guys. The guys who spend Christmas Eve working in Green Bay and miss their connecting flight home to Tampa. I never had to call my boys and explain through their tears that I wouldn’t be there when they woke up on Christmas morning. For that, I am grateful.

My sportswriting career didn’t end on my terms. I was laid off in 2008, freelanced for 19 months, then landed a Monday through Friday job writing and editing in a cubicle for an Internet marketing agency. That’s what I do now. I don’t have to concern myself with inexplicable layovers in Appleton, Wis., or callous gate attendants or inattentive pilots or lonely old men in hotel bars on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t my choice for the sportswriting to end, and I do miss it every now and then. But I wouldn’t go back. Not to the way it was, anyway. I haven’t missed a Thanksgiving or a Fourth of July or a New Year’s or a Halloween or any holiday since 2007. Having weekends off is like having 52 two-day vacations every year.

Tuesday morning, I’ll see the light in my sons’ eyes when they come downstairs and dig into their stockings. I’ll be home for Christmas.

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After we landed in Orlando on Christmas day, 2000 – I highly recommend first class flights, by the way – I rode in a rental car with the photographer and the columnist. The photographer drove and we took I-4 in record time. At the Tampa airport, I got into my car and drove home. It was around 2 o’clock Christmas afternoon when I walked into my house. There were maybe 20 in-laws there. They had already eaten. I hugged my wife and ate some leftovers, then opened some presents.

It was nice.