Over a 9,000-mile round trip, he doesn’t worry about who is in charge of the travelers’ safety
By George Valadie
The last time I wrote in this space, I was commenting on the challenges and resulting stress for those who need to travel by air these days.
Though it’s probably warranted on occasion, there was no intent to finger point or lay blame, I was just pointing out the obvious. It’s a much more challenging experience than it used to be—for all concerned.
Happily, though, and I should have made this point for sure, the planes do indeed get where they’re going and usually safely. I hope there are countless prayers of thanks offered for that.
According to folks who track that sort of thing, we currently experience only one commercial crash for every 16.7 million flights. I wish I hit golf balls with that sort of success rate. I hit that many, just not that well.
I’m not superstitious at all, but when it comes to flying—which I’ve been doing more recently—I didn’t want to jinx anything either, since I was recently blessed to get to travel to Ireland with our oldest daughter.
And we flew. We could have gone by boat, but we didn’t have that kind of time, and our odds were a lot worse. (Turns out there were 6,000-plus U.S. boat crashes in 2022 alone.) So, we took to the air. And prayed we wouldn’t be that “one commercial crash” statistics are written about.
Our entire family had begun talking about making this trip several years ago. That was when the University of Notre Dame, my alma mater, released this year’s football schedule. And it included a late-August matchup against the team from the Navy—with the game to be played in Dublin.
What usually happens with our family is someone suggests a possible vacation destination, and all of us enthusiastically embrace the idea. For a while. Until later.
Until kids and work and finances and conflicting schedules all thud together in one big collision. And that’s usually when the trip in question joins the long list of others we’ve added to the catalog of “places we hope to go someday.”
This particular journey caught some traction, though. And plans started to get real.
Meg and Jeremy joined with another couple and turned it into a golf and game and pub outing. Sarah and Keith had to bail since she’s expecting another little Irish fan to join our clan in December.
Katy’s husband couldn’t get off work, but she still wanted to go, so Nancy signed off on me being our oldest daughter’s escort. She would have preferred I was hers, but she had to cancel, too, due to some recent foot surgery. So—permission granted, as long as Katy promised she wouldn’t let me drive while we were over there.
So off we all went.
Ever heard of Gander, Newfoundland, in Canada? It’s remembered for hosting 7,000 air passengers for six days when 38 planes were diverted there on 9/11.
Twenty-two years later, they also gave refuge to Meg’s Dublin traveling party, which was diverted there when—just before their flight turned right to cross the Atlantic—they suddenly needed to land since the pilot had announced they had “noticed some smoke.” Smoke which as it turned out came from a fire on board. “Please prepare for landing, but you’ll likely notice some emergency vehicles on the ground chasing us when our wheels hit the ground. Please depart the plane quickly.”
It was midnight in Gander, and the flight there had been on no one’s itinerary anywhere. With all airport personnel at home and in bed, none of the 200-plus passengers could clear customs. As a result, all were required to spend the night locked in a hallway.
This particular airline does not go to Gander, ever. So, they have no extra planes, no personnel on location, no technology, no way to follow routine protocols. That’s when you get intercom messages like the one they got: “It’s a different plane, but would everyone please try to sit sorta where you were before? We cannot check anyone’s boarding passes, so please look around and let us know if anyone you were sitting by is not there. We don’t want to lose anyone.”
They arrived a day late but thankful to have gotten there.
Our experience didn’t have any smoke or flames, but it was similarly delayed. Before we ever left Atlanta, some circumstance caused a switch in aircraft. Our announcement sounded like this, “Due to some unforeseen issues, we have had to downgrade equipment.”
I think they need to find a better way to describe switching to a smaller jet.
But the downgraded equipment had 15 fewer seats requiring 15 volunteers to step forward who were willing to take a later flight to our connecting destination: Paris.
Once there, we already knew we would have but 45 minutes to catch our next plane to Dublin. It began to look doubtful since once they located the volunteers, they then had to locate their luggage.
“Attention, ladies and gentlemen, we’re sorry for the delay, but we just found the volunteers’ last bit of luggage, and we’ll be departing shortly.”
That was followed soon thereafter with, “Attention, ladies and gentlemen. We were wrong. We didn’t find the luggage, but we’re still looking. We think we’re getting closer. Hopefully, we’ll be departing shortly.”
We landed in Paris at 8:10 a.m., missing our 8 a.m. flight to Dublin. “No, I’m sorry, they just took off.”
“When’s the next one?”
“8 p.m. We can get you on that one.”
So off we went for an unexpected day trip exploring the City of Light. The Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Louvre Museum, the Eiffel Tower. Twenty thousand steps, three cabs, two train rides, and we were back and ready to move on.
Turns out not all delays are bad.
Ireland was every bit as incredible as we had always heard it would be. The city and the country. Views I have only dreamt of seeing. Wandering the land of my forefathers.
But if getting there is hard, driving there is hell.
Right-hand everything, roundabouts that go the wrong way, mixed with winding, ultra-narrow roads lined by stone walls older than our country. We quickly learned Google Maps always sends you the most direct route, not caring at all about what or whom we might hit along the way.
Like many, my stomach doesn’t do winding very well, so after two days of touring I told Katy I just had to drive. Being 4,000 miles away from my wife, she conceded.
And it was absolutely exhausting. I haven’t focused that closely on driving a car since I was 16 and trying to convince my mom I deserved a license.
“Dad, after the last two days of me driving and not killing us, I felt I had earned the two drinks I had at dinner. It was hard.
“But today, after only one hour of riding with you, I’ve already earned those two drinks!”
It would be funny if I hadn’t hit someone—literally. I hit a pedestrian. I was trying to avoid the oncoming traffic in a small village when I veered too far left, and my passenger-side mirror clipped a woman walking along the sidewalk. If I’d been going faster than three miles per hour, it could have easily been the disaster I thought it was.
I and my heart stopped, she stared, rubbed her elbow, and then casually waved us on. As if it wasn’t the first time she’d been hit by a crazy American. My heart restarted, and off we went to find Katy that third drink she had earned.
By the time we arrived back home, we had flown 9,000 miles, in six different planes, criss-crossed an ocean twice, and ridden in three cabs, two trains, and a hotel shuttle. And I never once worried about who was guarding our safety.
Except for those moments when I had asked to be in charge.
Perhaps we should give our lives over to God a lot more than we do. He does a pretty good job!
Dear God—The planet is huge, the customs and food and words are all different—except for the laughter. It’s the same in every language. May we remember we’re all family. Amen.
George Valadie is a parishioner at St. Stephen Church in Chattanooga.