SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
January 5, 2014

Hot in the Airport, Part I

 

There were eight of them. That’s what I was able to gather from what the airport security people shuffling around the gate were whispering to each other. Eight old ladies. Not retirees, not elderly women, but old ladies—all of them overweight, all of them cranky and demanding, and all of them in wheelchairs. Worst of all, they were all expecting to get on the same small commuter jet to Nashville. Those eight wheelchairs were gathered in a loose ring around the check-in desk at the same gate where I was waiting to catch a commuter jet to Green Bay to see my family. The Nashville flight was scheduled to leave twenty minutes before mine. It was unclear why these old ladies were headed to Nashville (maybe no one told them Mel Tillis was dead), and even more unclear how exactly they were going to get all eight wheelchairs onto the plane, but there you go.

            Traveling to Wisconsin in December is always a tricky business, but that day especially so, with snowstorms tearing through most of the country. At gates all around us flights to Ohio, Missouri, North Carolina, Oregon, most everywhere it seemed, were being cancelled; Tensions throughout the terminal were running high as everyone held their breath waiting for the next announcement. I’d spent twenty-four hours in O’Hare a few years back, and wasn’t much relishing the idea of doing it again.

            “Attention passengers,” the man at the check-in desk announced over the PA. “We are sorry to report flight 5237 to Nashville has been cancelled.” A muted, resigned groan rose from the small crowd. “To make arrangements for another flight, please see any of our agents at any of the help desks throughout the terminal. And if you’ve checked any bags here at the gate you may pick them up at baggage claim two downstairs.”

            About a dozen people who didn’t seem too surprised at this point grabbed their collapsible carry-on hand trucks (or whatever the hell those things are) and quietly drifted away from the gate to figure out what was next. The only people who didn’t leave were the eight old ladies. They didn’t react at all. They barely moved. Then very slowly, almost imperceptibly—this is when things got scary—I heard the clink of metal and the soft squeak of rubber tires on linoleum as those eight wheelchairs, as if synchronized by a single mind, moved into position blocking access not only to the check-in desk, but also to the doorway I’d need to pass through to board my flight if by some miracle it wasn’t canceled. There was something menacing about it. This wasn’t going to end well. I wasn’t sure what they had in mind, and neither were the security personnel, who began to panic. They split up, moving from wheelchair to wheelchair, asking each lady if she’d checked any baggage there at the gate, and if so what it looked like so they could retrieve it for them.

            “It was two bags,” one lady told a security officer. “And we need them.”

            “What color were they?”

            “They were checked,” the lady said. “And brown.”

            “Checked and brown? No problem—I’ll go get them for you.” The guard scampered away as the ladies resumed their blockade.

            I, meanwhile, leaned against the pillar awaiting the next announcement and plotting how I might get around and between those fucking wheelchairs to get on board should the time come. I’d crawl over them if I had to, and from the looks of things that might be necessary.

            Ten minutes later the guard who’d gone searching for the two bags returned breathless and empty-handed. You could tell by his voice he was frightened. “I’m sorry,” he said to the lady who’d given him the description. “I couldn’t find them.”

            “Well they’ve got to be down there. We need those bags. We’ll stay here all night if we have to.”

            This time it was the American Airlines staff who groaned quietly. “You said they were checkered and brown?” the guard confirmed.

            “No!” the lady snapped as two of the wheelchairs moved in behind the guard to block his escape. I didn’t know what was going on here, what they had in mind, but it promised to be good. Especially if the bags in question, as I suspected, were filled with automatic weapons. “I said they were brown. And we checked them downstairs.”

            “Oh,” the guard said. “In that case they’ll be taken care of. This was just for bags you checked up here.”

            “But we need those bags. We’re going to be here all night.”

            Another lady, meanwhile, shouted up to one of the check-in clerks. “And we want rooms at the Hilton! Get us rooms at the Hilton!”

            The clerk leaned over the desk to see the woman who was making the demands. “I’m sorry ma’am,” she said. “I’ve tried the Hilton. We’ve had a number of cancellations today, and I’m afraid they’re booked.”

            There was an instant of frozen silence before the old lady said, “Well I think you just better try again.”

            There was nothing out and out sinister or threatening about any of their demands. What was spooky about it was how very quiet they were. They weren’t going anywhere. Something else was afoot here. What I was witnessing, I realized, was a slowly evolving hostage situation. Maybe they’d been on their way to Nashville to whack someone. I was right about those bags, and why they needed them. If I tried to make a run (or in my case a hobble and tap) for it, I knew one of those ladies would pull a semi-automatic from beneath the folds in her belly and shoot me in the back. I stayed where I was against the pillar, more than anything because I wanted to see what happened.

            The other clerk at the desk grabbed the microphone. “Those passengers awaiting flight 4621 to Green Bay, we will now begin boarding.”

            “Shit!” I said a bit too loudly. I wanted to see how this all ended up. Still, I needed to get on that plane. Not knowing what I might run into, I began shuffling in the general direction of the door where I could hear other passengers lining up. If the old woman who’d been blocking the door was still there, this could become very ugly very quickly. Then someone took my arm.

            “Here,” he said, and I recognized the voice of one of the clerks. “I’m gonna take you around this way and get you on board.”

            “Oh,” I said, a little disappointed. “Thank you.”

            We made an end run around the wheelchair barricade and through the door onto the jetway. Once we were in the clear I whispered to the man leading me, “those old ladies are up to no good. They’re starting to scare the hell out of me.”

            “They scare the hell out of me too,” he replied.

            That was all we said about it. He got me on the plane, dropped me in my seat, and headed back up to the gate to face the brewing hell that awaited him. By the time he got back, I imagined, those eight wheelchairs had probably been linked together into some kind of towering Transformers robot crushing everything in its path as the old ladies picked off security guards and fleeing passengers.

            Well, I threaded the needle in more ways than one that day and made it home safely. That night I watched the news, but didn’t hear a word about a bloody hostage situation at O’Hare. My guess was they probably called in SWAT and the Navy SEALS, but kept it out of the news because it wouldn’t look good to have police and military snipers taking out a group of eight old ladies who just wanted to go to Nashville.

 

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