Observations: Cheers to our new souls!

Published on: December 30, 2010

By Mitch Traphagen


December 31, 2001, was a turning point for making the New Year’s holiday one of my favorites. It was all due to making a human connection with a stranger in New York City’s Times Square. At right a group of New York’s finest pose for a photo. Everyone was happy to see 2001 come to an end.

My two favorite holidays have always been Christmas and Halloween. Christmas was by far my favorite for a number of reasons, from my faith to my family. I’ve always even enjoyed the few days of bitter cold and snow found in our annual pilgrimage to my mom’s house in Minnesota. Halloween had nothing to do with faith, of course, but I’ve always enjoyed the magic of it in children dressing up, knocking on doors and having people give them candy. The selflessness found in both holidays (giving gifts and giving candy) is something that strikes a chord with me.

But over the years New Year’s is rapidly moving to the top of my favorite holiday list. I believe that shift began in the first few moments of 2002. December 31 is my wife’s birthday. In the frightening and confusing aftermath of September 11, we decided to fly to New York City to celebrate her day with a few hundred thousand of our fellow Americans in Times Square.

In the final seconds of 2001, Michelle and I were in a huge crowd directly in front of a police line. No one knew what to expect and there is little doubt the entire force was on duty that night. As the ball lit up and the crowd erupted into cheers, a NYPD lieutenant standing in front of me offered his hand for a warm handshake. As we shook hands, he said with as much sincerity as I have ever heard, “Happy New Year.”  It was a moment I will never forget. The loud cheers faded away and all I heard was his voice — two strangers both happy that 2001 was over and looking forward to the promise offered by a new year.

Of course, I still love Christmas. I love my family and the opportunity to spend a few days with them warms the frozen plains of Minnesota. Also, in my own faith, it represents the promise of a new beginning for my soul, much like New Year’s offers the promise of a new beginning for my life. But the travel involved in simply getting to my family is often an ordeal that quicklymanages to snuff out the warm embers of the Christmas spirit. This year was no exception.

With airlines finding increased profitability in filling up planes by reducing the number of flights, finding a flight is challenging — particularly southbound flights from places like Minneapolis. To make things more interesting, Michelle and I were departing for different cities. She was returning home to Florida and I was flying to Myrtle Beach to return to the boat. We found flights that left only moments apart but they were very early in the morning, hers departed at 6:44 a.m., mine a few minutes later. The airlines sent emails telling us that flying would be difficult on the day after Christmas, not only due to the huge winter storm that hit the East Coast but also due to the long lines that could be expected with the increased security measures. The airlines suggested we arrive at the airport three hours early.

Our flights left from different terminals at the Minneapolis – St. Paul airport. Of course there was almost no one in the airport when we arrived a bit ahead of the recommended 3:30 a.m.
“Airport’s closed. Moose outside should have told you,” Michelle wrote in a text message sent from her terminal to let me know that the building was empty and not only were there no lines, there was no one even manning the security checkpoints. Her text was from one of our favorite lines from the movie Vacation, in which a jolly and rotund John Candy, playing a park security guard, tells a stressed and exasperated Chevy Chase that the Wally World theme park was closed for remodeling, after Chevy Chase and his movie family had endured a harrowing cross country trip to reach the park. “Park’s closed! Moose outside should have told ya!” Candy said with his trademark smile and chuckle. It was at that point that Chevy Chase pulled a gun on him.

Of course having no desire to become involuntary guests at Guantanamo Bay, we had no guns nor the inclination to pull them on anyone. Instead, Michelle hopped on a train to come over to my terminal where we snoozed for a few hours while the airport sprang to life.

The delays began almost immediately. The plane had to be de-iced before takeoff but, being Minnesota, they have that process down to a fine art. It took mere minutes but the line to take off gave us a late start. My airline offered me a flight that allowed for a 40-minute layover in Charlotte, North Carolina. Our late start cut that time to 30 minutes. Then the chaos began.

From the window of the airplane, Charlotte was a snow-covered winter wonderland. We landed and then began to taxi while I still had hopes of catching my connecting flight. And then we kept on taxiing. After some time, the pilot came on the PA system and said, “I guess you folks have noticed we’ve been taxiing for a while…” He went on to explain that with the few inches of snow on the ground, flights were delayed and we no longer had a gate. Worse, we didn’t even have a place to park so the plane was effectively just driving around the airport. Finally the plane did stop at some remote part of the tarmac and we sat there as my connecting flight departure time came and went. After nearly an hour, we finally reached the gate and anarchy was beginning to take hold inside the airport with people from delayed planes running to catch their flights. My flight was no longer listed on the departure board and when I arrived at the gate, the Jetway had already been pulled back. I was told to get in line for the customer service desk to find a different flight. It was an extremely long line filled with really crabby people.

Just then, a man walked up and pointed out to the gate agent that our plane was still just sitting there — all they had to do was roll the Jetway back and we could board. We were told that was impossible. Over time, more people scheduled to be on that flight joined us making for a sizable crowd. While we were still being told that it was impossible to move the Jetway back, the first man made up a sign saying, “PLEASE LET US BOARD” to the window of the gate, directly in the line of sight of our plane’s pilots. The crowd had grown to about 30 people all wanting to board the plane that was just feet away — and the gate agent started to get nervous.

It was then that Paul showed up. He was a handsome and competent man who looked a bit like a young Morgan Freeman. An employee of the airline, the well-tailored suit he wore clearly differentiated him from the stained, polyester uniform worn by the gate agent. Within minutes of Paul’s arrival, the Jetway moved back to the plane and we were allowed to board. Paul’s presence also had an interesting effect on the gate agent, who went from being an obstinate wall of resistance to being an accommodating and helpful airline employee bent on customer satisfaction.

We sat at the gate for another hour before taking off. I have no doubt the chaos in the airport continued unabated as the weather worsened. I am fairly certain that punches were thrown somewhere in that facility that day — so much for the whole Good-Will-Towards-Men thing.

Fortunately, New Year’s offers all of us a new beginning. For anyone who may have thrown a punch or two at a gate agent, there is comfort in the fact that the opening moments of 2011 will also open a clean slate. They can feel bad about it, but then take comfort with a resolution not to punch an airline employee in the New Year. In 1788, Robert Burns wrote the poem Auld Lang Syne which is a remembrance to days gone by, looking forward to a new beginning.

And so it is for all of us. The New Year is a do-over — it is a new beginning towards becoming who or what we want to be. It is a magical time of promise for a new and exciting future. English writer G.K. Chesterton once said, “The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul.”

Here’s to our new souls. Happy New Year!