The Great Atlantic Crossing: Part 2 – JFK International Airport

Stress-free travel with children - Connector Dubai

Flying with small children involves coping with their restlessness; their painful ears in the pressurized cabin, especially on landing; whining; crying; bathroom visits; nappy changes; smiling sweetly at the vexed stares of strangers who are anxious that they will have the misfortune to have your brood sitting near them; fretful complaining that they don’t want the chicken OR the beef (Michael); and sometimes a meal of your own, if it doesn’t get spilt on you by the toddler sitting on your 5-month pregnant belly.

But my epic journey with my littluns helped to take the edge off the fear of the unknown as we hurtled towards an unknown future in mid-November 2001.

Numbed by the efforts to assuage the squirming termites that were my beloved offspring, I travelled with my four and a half children on a Delta Airline flight to JFK Airport, days after Flight 587 crashed in Queens, leaving behind my 13-year marriage in tatters in Salt Lake City.

Once we’d settled into the six and a half hour flight and one child had already finished his snacks (Michael again), they quietened down and focused on the book, colouring-in and drawing that had been tucked into their backpacks for the journey and Shannon dozed off, allowing me to run through the plan: Land at JFK, meet the ground stewardess assigned to escort us, and our luggage, via customs to our next flight. Easy.

And that’s when it all went wrong. On arrival at Terminal 2, still basking in the glow of fellow passengers’ unexpectedly complimentary comments on how well-behaved my progeny had actually been (Damn straight they were – not teacher’s children for nothing!) and after the obligatory bathroom break… there was no anticipated angelic crew member in sight.

On my enquiry about the pre-arranged assistance, airport staff shrugged nonchalantly and left me standing there, surrounded by 4 midgets and 5 massive black suitcases with our worldly possessions and all our carry-on luggage . ‘Ok, I thought,’ looking despairingly at the forlorn faces of my beloved children, I’ve got this. At least the bags didn’t get lost.’

With eight-year-old Sean’s help, I (wo)manhandled the five big suitcases onto a massive trolley, and I think at that point I realized how difficult it was going to be to ensure he had a childhood and wasn’t constantly called upon to be ’the man of the house’ (although I shall be forever grateful for the times he held cupboard doors while I fixed the hinges and other household repair projects.)

Once we had piled the luggage, Pisa-like on the trolley (and it would be one of those that doesn’t roll easily, but crab-crawls along, we set off to try to determine where to go next. The Information kiosk was no help. The red-lipped, gum-chewing woman with a strong Jersey accent, pointed vaguely in the direction of the terminal doors and shrugged, when I asked her where the international flights left from, and the overhead guides only lit up flights leaving from that terminal.

Now let me explain something about JFK International: in 2001, there were 9 terminal buildings, all the size of massive shopping malls, and spread out over about 20 square kilometres – the airport land is so big it has its own zip code! And I had no idea how to reach my connecting flight. Because I’d expected an accompanying ground steward to help me, I had not studied a map of the place. All I knew was that Our Air Turkey flight was departing from another terminal. I stood at the exit of Terminal 2 and prayed. I turned left.

Kennedy JFK airport terminal map

The first thing I saw as the doors slid open was a patrolling, US National Guardsman in full battledress, with helmet and machine gun. He stared unsmilingly at us and strode on. The reality of post-9-11 America struck me then: these were no ordinary times to be travelling. But I had a battle of my own to fight – with a tilting trolley, anchored down by Michael and Shannon, who were thoroughly enjoying their ride at the bow of my listing luggage ship, foreshadowing the epic shots of Jack and Kate in The Titanic, me pushing awkwardly, and Sean and Caitlin jogging alongside. What a sight we must have looked as we pushed on, my trying-to be brave-but-really-frightened eyes scanning for signs of Turkish Airlines!

If you study the map of Kennedy Airport terminals, you will see that where I needed to go was Terminal 1, so my choice to turn left was almost certainly guided by my guardian angel – if I’d turned right, we’d probably still be wandering around the acres and acres of airport territory.

I entered Terminal 1 hoping against hope that I had guessed correctly and stopped dead. What played out in front of me was like nothing I had ever seen before. The massive departure hall was teeming with angry New Yorkers who did not spare the pregnant mother with small children a lashing with their vitriol, which was shocking for someone arriving from child-friendly Utah; neither did they move aside so we could pass, swearing volubly at us as we zig-zagged our way to an information board.

Security queues snaked everywhere in this vast, cavernous space– this was a time before clearly demarcated security queues and built-in checks. One security person stood in the middle of the hall and waved her metal detector over irate, impatient passengers.

At last I spotted an Air Turkey counter and breathed a prayer of thanks to my guardian angel, gratefully depositing our check-in bags with the ground hostess.

But there was a problem: our flight was about to leave and was actually waiting for us!. A tall, elegant, uniformed stewardess from the Turkish airline escorted us to the front of the endless anaconda of people, which spat out ‘Fuck yous’ at our interloping, completely unperturbed that they were cursing at children.

When we reached the hapless security woman with her prison-warder face, our charming guide left us. Hands plucked Shannon from my arms and moved the children in various directions as she waved her evil wand up and down my body, yelling at me to stand still, because I was spinning 360 degrees to keep sight of all my frightened lambs amidst the cacophony of profanity and echoing terminal chaos.

Escaping the clutches of security, we raced for our departure gate (We must have looked hilarious: various shades of red hair and one brown-haired little boy bobbing along, my portly maternity roundness trying to hold onto Shannon’s wriggling body. At some point, we must have gone through customs, but I have no memory of it.

We made it seconds before they closed the airplane doors and were hustled down the aisle to our seats as an entire planeload of horrified people looked on. Caitlin began to cry as we realized that they had not seated us together and she and Sean were forced to sit in the middle of a row behind me. I shushed them and strapped myself in, with Shannon sitting on top of Liam’s developing head, a situation he clearly didn’t like, as he kicked hard on my tightening stomach. Only 4-year-old Michael, next to me seemed oblivious to the drama, and chattered on about the ‘excitement’ of the departure hall, and when he was going to eat again and he needed to go to the loo…NOW.

Wait,’ I hissed.

As the airbus taxied out and took wing, I had no time to consider that I should be afraid of crashing on take-off like Flight 587 a couple of days before.

When the seatbelt sign flicked off, I turned around again to check on Sean and Caitlin and the whole row had been evacuated away from the tearful children. We settled in together and somewhere over the Atlantic, most of the children fell into an exhausted sleep.

I watched.

The Great Atlantic Crossing: Part 1

A post 9-11 adventure about air travel, written during the COVID-19 Lockdown.

In late 2001, I crossed the Atlantic alone with four small children and a five-month-old bump. We all survived. And that is my claim to fame.

Salt Lake City Airport

On 11 September 2001, while planes were flying into the World Trade Centre, I was vomiting.  The first I heard of what would become a global travel crisis was when my sister in Cape Town, called me in Draper, Utah, exclaiming, ‘What the hell is going on over there?!’

All I could think was: ‘How the hell does she know that I think I am pregnant?! Oh $@&* I think I am pregnant! But this marriage is all but over!’

The days and weeks were a blur of mourning with the mom at the elementary school who had a fireman-brother in New York who was missing, and watching her confidence that he would be found, crumble day by day, as hope died; of being touched by the patriotism of small town Americans, who instantly lined the streets with flags and even lemonade stalls of film and cartoon legend; of praying at mass in the school hall; of being glued to the television talking heads who speculated endlessly 24-7 about stranded aeroplanes and a coming war; of visiting the grocery store, on hyperalert to the perils of anthrax-poisoned fruit; of positive pregnancy tests and a failing marriage, while trying to keep my brood of youngsters busy (They were the only ones excited about their little sibling whose flutters began to be felt beneath my heart.); of the anxiety fuelled by rumours that the upcoming Winter Olympics in Park City would be bombed; of visiting a doctor only to hear that without medical insurance, my fifth caesarean would be performed by the on-call first year GP at the clinic in downtown Salt Lake City; of fear. And loneliness in a foreign country.

And then my sister-in-law saved us. She persuaded my father-in-law to fly the children and me home so I could receive proper medical care. I grabbed the opportunity, telling myself my husband would follow us as promised and that I could forgive him for all he’d done, if I just had some distance to deal with it. So, we booked our one-way trip, via New York and Istanbul on Air Turkey to Cape Town, a trip that would take nearly 29 hours of flying time, but took over three days including layovers.

And then On November 12, 2001, American Flight 587 crashed shortly after take-off from JFK Airport. The Airbus carved out a path of devastation into the neighbourhood of Belle Harbor, in Queens, New York City. All 260 people aboard the plane (251 passengers and 9 crew members) were killed, along with 5 people on the ground. Initial reports suggested it was a further act of terror and once more, panic spread thought the country.

Crash Site of Flight 587, Queens, New York, 2001

And two days later we headed for the airport in Salt Lake City en route to JFK International Airport. I was terrified.

Packing for 5 passengers leaving a country permanently took some doing. We had to take enough that we could start a life again back home, but as little as possible so I could handle it over two layovers, as well as have enough carry-on luggage to keep four children occupied and clean, not mention the toddler’s nappies and food. We took 5 large suitcases, two on-board bags and each child had a backpack crammed with in-flight games, a favourite toy, toothbrushes and snacks.

The check-in bags were packed with the ingenuity of refugees escaping a war-torn land, with Lego stuffed into boots and every cranny filled with what I could cram in; and like migrants fleeing the country, we dressed in layers so we could take more clothes. The rest of our precious belongings, I left behind packaged and ready to be sent on by the children’s father. He never did.

The sadness overwhelmed me as we ascended the escalator at the airport, after check-in. The older children were filled with the energetic excitement that comes with travel, and had given their father a quick hug before bounding onto the moving stairs, but as I glanced back at the only man I had ever loved, after he’d whispered his  assurance that he’d follow soon, I Knew. As he receded beneath me I knew that so had our union.

It was only when he’d faded from view and as we plodded down one of those endless airport corridors, me like a pack horse, laden with the solidly-full two carry-ons and not-quite-two-year-old Shannon in my arms, that Sean plucked at my arm and asked tremulously, ‘We will see Dad again soon, hey Mommy,’ that the enormity of what we were doing struck. I reassured him and Michael who had begun to cry, while Caitlin clung tearfully to my hand.

That was when I realised it was time for the big girl panties to be pulled up and for me to take charge.

We reached the boarding gate eventually and when our flight was called we stepped forward with everyone else. Handing the flight attendant our tickets and passports, I noticed some consternation cross her face as she asked us to step aside for a ‘random’ security check. We waited behind patiently and were escorted to a cordoned off area where the ‘non-specific’ choice of passengers lined up: a dark-skinned Middle-Eastern business man and a Muslim couple, she in full purdah…and us – with our five one-way tickets, in a name that could have sounded Arabic, paid in cash from Cape Town city with a strong Muslim presence, via a Muslim country, on Air Turkey.

Random, my arse! We’d been racially profiled, a fact that was made even more obvious by the stewards’ embarrassment and grovelling apology that they ‘didn’t realise that they were children,’ as they undertook  a thorough search of every child’s backpack – poking teddy bears and even squeezing out toothpaste, before hastily returning the things to their now-dishevelled bags, as the tears brimmed over. What appalled me more was the patient stoicism of my fellow detainees – they’d expected it.

And then we took off for JFK and a future unknown.