The Great Atlantic Crossing: Part 3 …When 10 hours feels like Eternity…

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I don’t remember much of my family’s flight across the Atlantic, or even much of the final leg to Cape Town, despite the ambitious title of this trilogy of blog posts. Mercifully the children slept for a good portion of the eleven-hour flight to Istanbul. It was the layover that turned out to be akin to the Tenth Circle of Hell: an endless shopping mall to wander around without sleep (or money to spend) for all parents who were ever irritated by sleep deprivation caused in the past by their tiny mites… and the sinner here wanders around with five children she cannot chance losing… oh and there is no Zara in this portion of Hell! Funny term that, ’layover.’ It suggests that waiting passengers get to lie down. Not a chance in Atatürk International Airport in November 2001, where my children and I were marooned for more than ten hours on our way home from the USA to Cape Town (or any modern airport I expect:
Not my child
! Not so my squirming spawn. (As hard as that phrase is to say fast; so hard were they to entertain over this time.) A stopover is only of value if you can stop. For the record, children under nine do not stop. They are physically incapable of just being. They must do. They want to run climb jump eat (all the time, especially if they cannot do) argue with you squabble with each other (the latter two even more so when they are tired and just don’t know it); they want to explore touch roll (boys must roll) and speak (and if you do not respond, they’ll swiftly denounce you with an exasperated. Mom! Stop just saying “Hmmmn”’ when you attempt to deflect their babbling conversation.) The only one who slept was almost-two-year-old Shannon – on the grubby carpet of a vacant playroom – we didn’t care about the dirt by then! This ‘playroom’ was a place of play in name only: it had a few arcade games, all of which needed tokens or Turkish lira, and was not really to suited to littluns or their weary mom. In those days, the transit lounge had not made its way into airport culture. They were bored, my poor babes, so while Shannon snored, I let the boys playfight in the empty expanse. (And when that stopped being playing I used a couple of precious coins to make one of those ride-on animals move– I think it was a bear.) The worst thing about that room (and we spent a good deal of time there on our ‘stops’ in between tours of the facility) was that it did not have a door. I dared not fall asleep for fear of one child wandering off, or being snatched if I dozed off. So I resorted to moving as much as my pregnant belly would allow me, doing a few unenthusiastic jumps to amuse the cheeky squirts, who thought this bowling ball with legs was hilarious, but I was so tired just from being pregnant that it was incredibly hard to stay awake, and I dared not do too much because when we walked around I was already carrying so much heavy luggage in the 2 carry-on bags (like massive weights in each hand, plus the baby bag, sometimes one cut painfully into my arm as I shouldered it so I could carry Shannon as well on our slow (as slow as I could make it) trails around the airport concourse. I was conscious of the need to keep the child growing inside me safe too. I would have given my eye teeth for a trolley; yet despite countless circuits of the terminal, they were not to be had for love or money – or teeth.
Atatürk Airport was quite a hip place to be in those days and full of attractive couples, sartorially elegant in their jeans and leather jackets and their sophisticated sunglasses perched stylishly atop gleaming long, dark ponytails. What I remember most about them though was that they all smoked. The place reeked of cigarettes. We had come from the crisp mountain air of Morman Utah and before that a South Africa cleaned up by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma when she was Minister of Health, in the second clever move she made after divorcing her husband: banning smoking in public places. (Little did she know that Vape Nation would emerge to further plunge us back into the dungeon of civilization.) I had long since given up on the delights of tobacco and the odour of those strong Turkish cigarettes was overpowering. The smell clung to our clothes and hair like a bad reputation. And my asthmatic eldest child began to cough and cough. It didn’t help that the place the nippers enjoyed the most was in the food court where most of the beautiful people lounged: a little fast food outlet with a ball pond. That ball pond is the single most happy common memory of those long hours of waiting, despite the pungent smell of smoke. After making each meal we ate at the diner last as long as we could, the children all piled into the ball pond, and I could wedge myself and the suitcases at the entrance so they couldn’t leave. To be honest I nodded off a couple of times there, only to jerk away guiltily and glance around in a panic, trying to make sure they were all accounted for. But there is only so much ball throwing and ball surfing that any child can take, and so we’d pack up and trudge around the centre for a while again. There should be a memorial somewhere there, called The Trench of Col after the track we walked. After several lifetimes, we spent as long as possible, washing and changing in the bathroom, to the horror of Sean, who, at eight, was mortified to be in a ladies’ loo. But no way was he going into the gents alone, so he had to park his manly embarrassment and just suck it up. Eventually everyone was dressed in what would hopefully be deemed not-too-waif-like for our arrival at home. I zipped up the baby bag, amazed at Murphy’s Law of the Travelling Togbag, which states that the same number of items repacked into a bag, never fit in, and we began the trek to the final departure gate. Then the impish Shannon, chuckled, ‘Ooh, ooh!’ … It was unfortunately a great deal more ‘eeuw’ than ‘ooh,’ so back we schlepped and unpacked the bag again to change her again. The last flight in our odyssey began around two am local time. This time the flight was nightmarish. Sean’s asthma grew worse and worse and I worried he’d need hospitalization when we landed. He gasped for breath for much of the 10 hours to Cape Town and I cursed every one of those beautiful people and their Peter Stuyvesant lifestyle.
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But when we stepped off the plane in Cape Town, he was able to take great gulps of South-Easter and then the kindly customs official’s wrinkled brown face crinkled up even more, as he stamped Sean’s passport, and said: ‘Happy birthday, son. Welcome home.’ And we were. Home. ****************************************************************************************** Postscript: ‘Whatever happened to that little mite I was carrying inside me?’ you may ask. Well that child conceived just before the crisis of 9-11, is nearly eighteen now. And once again the world is in turmoil; this time because of a faceless microbe, COVID-19. Once again, Liam is poised on the edge of becoming, in his final year at school, and once again his world is uncertain. But this time I am different. This time I have the memoryof that moment when we stepped onto the tarmac at Cape Town International Airport and thought: ‘We. Can. Do Anything.’ We shall overcome.

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.