Recently, I've taken trips to the West Coast, about a four-hour flight from Chicago. I now consider that too long. After three hours, I start jumping out of my skin.
Maybe it's because I hardly travel anymore. Or maybe it's because I no longer consider flying an adventure, like I did when I was younger.
The first time I flew for business, I was in my mid-twenties. A coworker had an emergency, and I was asked to go in their place, flying to Toronto the next day. I didn't have a passport, but my boss said my driver's license would suffice.
After the quick flight, I was standing in line, eyeing the customs officials who were seated behind a long, elevated desk. The guy in line in front of me was huge, resembling a pro wrestler. He told me he didn't have a passport, either. I watched intently as he presented his driver's license to the woman official. She asked for a passport, and he scoffed at her request.
First, her face changed (think Wicked Witch of the West). Then she read him the riot act for a while before having guards take him away.
Lesson: Respect the authorities.
My heart pounded as I approached the bench. I immediately apologized and confessed. Annoyed, she asked where I got the impression I could travel to another country without a passport.
"My boss," I said.
She glared at me before accepting my driver's license. After examining it she said "Well, bosses aren't always right, are they?" and let me through.
In the airport for the return flight, I saw a man drop to the floor right in front of me. A worker rushed over, and I heard him say "heart attack" into the walkie-talkie.
Shaken, I took a seat at a nearby bar. Two scraggly looking stoner types asked me what happened. Before I could answer, law enforcement officials approached them, asked for ID's and then took them away.
I found international travel exciting, and made sure management knew it.
A few years later, I started to travel to Europe. At the time, smoking was still allowed and that helped me endure the nine-hour flights. Eventually, smoking was banned and I learned to sleep through most of it.
After the ban on a flight home from London, I saw a group of Brits who looked like roadies from a '70s rock tour. They got caught smoking in the bathroom, after disabling the smoke detector. Federal agents cuffed them and took them away as soon as we landed.
Lesson: Don't break the law.
Once I was on the same flight as Yo Yo Ma, a famous classical musician. Anyway, there was a big scene in baggage claim when the airline told him they'd misplaced his cello. Although he was distraught, he never took it out on the airline reps.
They kept looking, and found it. I watched ol' Yo Yo hug them, tears running down his face.
Lesson: always be nice to the airline personnel.
While I was simply an observer of these incidents, I was the protagonist in my all-time favorite travel story.
I went to Belgium to train coworkers and find local vendors. The trip could take anywhere from two to six weeks, but the return flight was pre-booked for two. I knew within two days I would need the full six weeks, but I completely forgot to change the ticket.
I was trying to figure out a way to break the news to my boss when my colleague Franz had an idea.
"My sister works for a travel agency. If you change a date, all they do is hand-write the new date on a little blue sticker. I'll get one from her. If they catch you, you'll have to pay, but it's worth a shot."
Was falsifying an airline ticket date a felony?
I didn't think so, and I wasn't going to smuggle or disable the smoke alarm...
At the airport, I took a deep breath and approached the counter. I handed over my ticket, and the woman's eyes grew wide. She called over a coworker, and they spoke Flemish at 100 mph. I started to reach for my credit card.
"Sir, I'm sorry to inform you that this flight is overbooked. Please go to this gate at this time and we'll see if we can get you on," one said.
"OK," I said, barely containing a smile.
I arrived at the designated place and time, along with about 20 others, but there was no one behind the desk. Eventually, a woman arrived and announced that not only were there no more seats on this flight, but due to a strike there were no flights to any other cities to catch connecting flights.
Pandemonium ensued. I'll never forget two loud, obnoxious New York businessmen who ripped into her. Meanwhile, I calmly stood in the background, smiling.
She pointed at me, and indicated that I approach the desk.
"I appreciate your patience and understanding. Here is a voucher for a nice hotel on the Grand Place in Brussels, dinner included, transportation to the hotel and airport, a free upgrade to Business Class, and 12,000 Belgian Francs (about $400 US.) You fly out tomorrow morning."
Always be nice to the airline personnel.