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East Coast Trip Report

We visited the Washington DC area for the second consecutive summer, but this year we spent very little time in DC.  Eve and the boys got an early start with activities like college visits, the US Open and a Washington Nationals tournament. I joined a week into their vacation and we immediately went out to Cambridge Maryland on the Eastern Shore where I discovered that I have some very macho snake killing skills.

After a few days we headed south toward Virginia excited about the chance to cross the Chesapeake Bay along a 17-mile bridge that twice in the journey converts to a tunnel and dives under water. Sadly there are no windows in the tunnel.

Our destination was Williamsburg. I first visited Williamsburg in June 1971 and despite and have been back a few times since and it is still one of my favorite places to be. As the photos attest, it's fun to step back in history and thankfully the heat and humidity was bearable. The following day we went to the Busch Gardens amusement park where at least one roller coaster got the best of me. Next we headed north to Charlotte where we visited Monticello and the University of Virginia.

Despite many trips to the area, this was my first trip to Jefferson's home. It was definitely a highlight in every way and yet it's the low light that seems to stick out in my memory. As we stood in Thomas Jefferson's bedroom looking out over his expansive hilltop grounds the tour guide finished describing Jefferson's architectural contributions. Apparently he was one of the first to use skylights. The tour guide asked if there were any questions, and one of our fine citizens who was looking at Jefferson's desk asked a question that has stuck with me.

Visitor: "Why are their candleholders attached to the chair?"

Guide: "So that the light would be close to whatever he was working on."

Visitor: "What do you mean, didn't he have electricity?"

Guide: "No, electricity really didn't reach homes until the 20th century."

Visitor: "Really, that's fascinating."

After visiting Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, most of us returned home and left Kevin to his summer program at St. Albans School's School of Public Service.

Again it's the low lights that stick out and sadly the most memorable portion of the trip was the red eye flight I took from San Francisco to Washington DC. I was scheduled to leave on a flight Friday at 10:30pm. About 5pm or so I went to check on line to make sure everything was on time. The United web site, however, was down. So, I called to speak to a real person, who told me that all the computers were down and they had no information about any flights. I would later learn that the computer glitch shut down all flights across the country.

"Should I even go to the airport?" I asked. "I'm sorry sir, but we have no guidance for you on that matter."

Right.  Well about 8:45pm I hopped in the cab with little hope of an on-time departure at 10:30pm. When I arrived at the airport I discovered that with no computers there were no boarding passes. With no boarding passes there was no getting through security. Thus, the United lobby looked like a scene from Soylent Green. The place was packed with people who had been piling in since 5pm with no place to go. Every square foot of space appeared to be occupied and amazingly I saw no United personnel to offer advice.

I eventually found a small square of carpet to sit on and struck up a conversation with a neighboring squatter who was trying to get home. He had been there four hours already and carefully detailed his strategies to me. He had back up reservations at various times of night and into the next morning. I had no plan.

It was about that time that I heard an announcement on the loud speaker, "United is currently experiencing computer problems. Our technology team is actively working on the problem and as soon as we have an update we will update this announcement." That told me nothing I didn't already know.

As I talked to my neighbor, I casually mentioned that I printed out a boarding pass early that morning. His eyes went wide. Apparently that was the golden ticket. He told me how I could walk to another section (easier said than done) and manually check my bag and pass through security. By contrast, the other side of security was spacious with real seats and relatively unpopulated, plus it was actually designed to hold people waiting for a plane. I thanked him for his help and tried not to feel to guilty about abandoning him. As I hit security there was a loud cheer as the computers slowly were coming came back to life.

Over my shoulder I could hear the crush of people as they descended on the computers. Thankfully I missed the press of people and wandered into a deserted gate area and found large swathe of space. The flight board told me that my 10:15pm flight was now scheduled for 1:00am. The loud speaker told me that the computers were still down but promised an update as soon as it was available. Ok, I guess this was all to be expected at this point.

At 1:00am there was no plane. At 1:10am I got a text message from United advising me that my flight was delayed and that the new scheduled departure time was 1:00am. Hmmm. At 1:30am the new departure time was scheduled for 2:30am. By this time I was fading quickly. There was enough room for me to lie down on a couch and I struggled to sleep in a noisy airport. Just as I dozed off I was awaken by, "United is currently experiencing computer problems. Our technology team is actively working on the problem and as soon as we have an update we will update this announcement."

Sleep was difficult and I was suddenly worried that I might sleep through my flight. I hadn't. I wondered if anyone would wake me if I was sleeping the gate area? I figured that someone would be kind enough to wake me, but despite this self-comfort I couldn't fall asleep again.

At 2:30am a plane arrived. At 2:45am I got a text message from United telling me that my flight had been rescheduled to 2:30am. At 2:50 the flight crew walked on the plane. At 2:55am the same flight crew walked back off the plane and left the gate area. At 3:00am the gate agent announced that we were going on a different plane at a different gate. There was a mad rush of walking zombies for the new gate. As I arrived at the new gate I realized that I hadn't bothered to wake any of the people fast asleep in the old gate area. I felt bad. At 3:15am we boarded. At 3:30am the pilot said, "unfortunately there are very few people to gas up airplanes at this time of night so we will be delayed while we wait our turn. At 3:45am I got a text message from United announcing that the flight would leave at 3:00am. At 4am we left. At noon local time we arrived in DC. As I turned on my phone I got a text message from United telling me that the flight had been rescheduled to 3:30am.

See all the photos here.


July 2, 2011

© Greg Harris, 2011

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