Scheduled for Detroit

THIS is a tale about going to Detroit. Don't get me wrong: I like Detroit. It's just that it proved hard to get to - and even harder to leave. It all started with a midafternoon phone call to a police department up in Maine. By then it had been snowing for several hours. I told the officer I had to catch an early morning flight the next day from Boston to Detroit: Should I drive down now or wait a bit? He chuckled. ``Extremely hazardous,'' he said.

Life's little moral dilemmas never come when you expect them. Surely, I thought as I hung up, my appointment in Detroit could be rescheduled. After all, who could quarrel with ``extremely hazardous''? And I had plenty of work to keep me busy where I was. Besides, the wood stove was singularly inviting.

That's when I began to check my motives. And in the end, the drive down proved fine: Somehow the weather did not live down to expectations, and ``hazardous,'' in translation, came out as ``inconvenient.''

The real inconvenience came at the airport the next morning as a translation of the words ``Cancelled: see agent.'' ``We're routing everyone through Cleveland,'' said the woman at the desk. ``Sorry, but the Detroit plane never got here last night because of the snow.'' I mumbled something about a lunchtime appointment. ``The connecting flight from Cleveland,'' she said reassuringly, ``gets into Detroit at 11:30.''

It was snowing lightly in Cleveland as I watched for the connecting flight to arrive. Funny how you watch for such things - as though you, too, are part of the ground crew, and as though without your patient concern things just might not happen. Through the large window I was looking down on a man in a parka and ear-protectors out on the taxiway, ready to guide the huge, cumbersome plane up to the waiting jet-way door. Suddenly he trotted farther out on the taxiway and motioned vigorously with his red batons. Funny, I thought, he acts surprised. When I saw what he was directing, so was I: a tiny twin-propellered box, shaped like a two-quart cardboard milk carton tipped on edge with a ruler glued across the top for wings. Was that it? The agent left no doubt: Flight 2202 to Detroit Metro, he announced, would shortly be ready for boarding.

Reminding myself that, in all fairness, the agent in Boston had not mentioned what would be flying from Cleveland to Detroit, I boarded the plane, making a mental note to reconfirm my suspicions of all four-digit flight numbers. The flight attendant, in a trim suit and a cascade of curly brown hair, looked every inch the college senior - confident, outgoing, and calm. The pilot looked like her little brother. Funny, I thought, how flying can make you feel old. Settling into my seat, I skimmed over the safety-instruction card.

It earnestly explained that the strange hammering sound you might hear in mid-flight was nothing but icicles harmlessly striking the fuselage after the de-icing system had thrown them off the propellers. Harmlessly: That was a nice touch.

Finally the flight attendant could stand it no longer. ``Where are you all from?'' she asked as more passengers wedged in. Somebody mentioned the cancellation in Boston. ``Oh,'' she said, with a nice balance of cheerfulness and resignation. ``This morning we only had one passenger booked for this flight.''

Maybe all the ballast helped: It was a smooth and peaceful trip. I woke up as we were descending across Detroit, where it wasn't quite snowing. Then it was into a cab, off to the appointment, into another cab, and back to the airport. Funny, I thought, that now I can say I've been to Detroit.

Once inside the terminal again, I walked out to the gate for Flight 48. That's a small and promising number, I thought, even though it was already delayed. So I sat down for an hour of reading and writing. That's what I love about journalism. It's one of the world's few truly portable occupations, where every delay simply lets you get more work done. When our plane finally arrived, I was standing at the window next to a young man with a briefcase.

``Look at that thing,'' he said, ``it's absolutely huge!'' He was right: Its vast, black-tipped nose towered above us as, for the next 20 minutes, we watched the ground crew unload the containers of suitcases. They evidently needed our help: The plane had parked so close to a row of service trucks that the man driving the baggage train could hardly maneuver. By dint of a lot of arm waving and brisk walking about, however, they got the baggage off and us on.

``Bangor,'' said my seat companion when I asked where he was headed this evening. Having Maine in common, we fell into conversation. He was catching a Boston-Bangor connection, he explained, after an hour's layover in Boston. About the time we were scheduled to leave Detroit, he said, his wife would be leaving their home on the Atlantic coast for the 40-mile drive to the airport. ``It's been snowing up there,'' he explained, ``and we just moved from Houston, and she likes to take it slowly.''

Forty-five minutes later we were still on the plane talking - and still in Detroit. The annals of flight history, I'm sure, have recorded hundreds of reasons for delay. I trust ours was unique. The ground crew, it seemed, had misplaced the starting truck. Try as they would, they simply couldn't find it.

``They've what[!!'' burst out my companion. Over the loudspeakers the flight attendant continued his embarrassed explanation. Planes this big, he said, require a special power boost from a ground vehicle to start the engines. And that vehicle was ... well, to be honest, they'd lost it.

Outside my window it was snowing lightly. I pictured our friendly baggage-handlers shading their eyes and peering through the flurries, trying to remember where they'd left a vehicle that no doubt weighed several tons. It was 6:40 p.m. when they found it, and within minutes Flight 48 (scheduled departure time 4:35 p.m.) was winging toward Boston.

I trust my friend made it to Bangor: He had about 20 minutes to catch his flight. I passed the time working - the only sure cure, I've learned, for Traveler's Frustration. Funny, I realized later, but I quite enjoyed the day. As I strolled out to the car in the melting Boston evening, however, I reminded myself to be suspicions of two-digit flight numbers.

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