A Short Adventure, But Oh, So Meaningful
Part One - Departure"Excuse me," said the guy at the entrance to the Delta Airlines check-in area, singling me out from the group. "What is your destination?" He looked worried, and something told me it wasn't just lack of confidence in his English abilities.
I decided to make it easier on him anyway. In Japanese, I replied, "I'm taking the direct flight to Portland."
Yes, a flight to Portland, and in May, to boot! That had never happened before, and it shouldn't really have been happening then, either. Circumstances were anything but ordinary. My Aunt Judy had passed away earlier in the month. I had heard the date of her memorial service less than a week before. Normally I have to book a flight home more than a month in advance if I'm to stand any chance of getting a seat. I knew I was battling impossible odds, but I decided to try for it anyway. I arranged for time off from Ye Olde Academy (who were VERY understanding) and went to my usual travel agency just two days before I needed to depart. Amazingly, they were able to book my flights without any trouble.
"There's no hurry," the travel agent had said. "There are still plenty of seats available on those flights."
Actually, that turned out to be the problem. There were too many seats left on that flight, most of them due to last-minute cancellations.
Switching to Japanese (but not relaxing much), the airport worker said, "I'm terribly sorry, but I'm afraid your flight has been cancelled. Please go to the check-in window over there and see what can be done."
I think I was still too high on the fact that I was flying Stateside for it really to sink in. It didn't really hit me until I got to the counter, and a very distraught-looking, young Delta Airlines clerk was once again saying to me (in very fluent English) that my direct flight to Portland was canceled. Canceled! CANCELED!?!?! "And that flight is only once a day," she was saying through my fog, "so we can't get it until tomorrow. You can't wait, can you?" I think I replied with a monosyllabic grunt.
So the clerk set to work. And I mean...she REALLY set to work. She was running all around the Delta Airlines check-in area like she was on the verge of spontaneous human combustion, talking to other clerks, picking up phones, apologizing to me and barely keeping her composure when her computer crashed, going around and trying other clerks' computers, and looking on the verge of tears as the list of bad news kept growing: "All flights to Seattle are overbooked. San Francisco, too. Los Angeles is out. Houston is out. Chicago is out. If you could just...wait...till...tomorrow..."
"I don't care if you fly me around the world the other direction for twenty hours," I said as gently as possible with a smile on. "Please, just get me there as soon as you can."
Finally the clerk's computer came back to life, and her face brightened a bit. Then, after she'd clicked around, it brightened even more. "There's one option here," she said, "but it doesn't leave until later this evening. We can get you into Portland Thursday evening instead of Thursday morning...about ten hours later than the direct flight..." She looked up at me. "...if we fly you through Honolulu."
I smiled wide. "That sounds good. I'll take it!"
So I got my revised itinerary, boarding pass, and a barrage of apologies (while I did my best to reassure the poor woman all was well, and I still had faith in Delta Airlines' service, because she really did look at the end of her rope), and headed out of the check-in area. The first item on the agenda was calling Stateside to let my parents know I'd be arriving a little late, so I found a good corner over in the airport mall and got out my smartphone. As it turned out, as I'd feared, my parents had already left; when I fly home, my parents usually stay a night at a motel near the airport so they can pick me up in the morning without having to worry about getting up extra early. Luckily, my sister was home, so I gave her the update and was assured she'd try to find a way to let them know.
That left me with about four hours to kill at New Tokyo International Airport. I debated heading out for a bit to do some shopping in Narita (a favorite haunt of mine), but I was worried I might wind up with extra baggage (such as a pedal or a mandolin), so I just bought a few magazines, went to the Tully's coffee shop overlooking the departure lobby, and relaxed with a grande-size cappuccino and National Geographic. I was feeling pretty relaxed by the time I boarded the very new-looking Airbus and headed into the hazy sky en route to Honolulu. I slept for almost the entire seven-hour flight...but that rough, hard-braking landing definitely woke me up!
Part Two - Hawaiian LayoverI couldn't help but notice the extreme irony of my unexpected Honolulu detour; the last time I had been in that airport had been almost exactly thirty years before. At that time, I'd been there on a tour with my college jazz band, and for me the trip had been a complete disaster. This time I was just confined to the airport for a few hours, but it didn't seem like it had changed...at least as far as I could remember. (I've tried very hard to remember as little of that trip from hell as possible.) I began to remember why I haven't felt any desire to visit Hawaii whatsoever since the mid '80s. Still...it is definitely a very beautiful place with a vibe all its own.
Since I was originally supposed to have been arriving in the morning in Portland (i.e. probably a little chilly), I was wearing a lightweight coat, button-up shirt, and jeans. Naturally, all the tropical travelers around me were in shorts, short sleeves, and sandals, and I drew stares. Ignoring them, I wandered like a lost soul in purgatory along the meandering (and poorly marked) route from the shuttle bus stop to the departure lobby. My connecting flight was with Alaska Airlines, but I arrived to find no one at the check-in counter and no sign of my gate number anywhere...including on my revised itinerary. After more wandering (and more stares...especially from very suspicious security guards) I found the Alaska Airlines baggage check-in and asked them for help. I had only my one carry-on bag, but they were still able to check me in and give me my gate number. However, I was informed that I'd been put on a stand-by list. I'd have to get my seat number from the counter at the gate...IF one was available.
Trapped in Honolulu Airport exactly thirty years after my last, punishing visit? That would be ironic!
I made my way through the eerily-deserted airport mall and got to my gate a little over two hours before departure. There were only a few people waiting there and no one at the counter. Figuring there was nothing to be gained from sitting and stewing there, I went back to the mall and grabbed a quick Reese's Peanut Butter Cup (a rare luxury in Japan) and some breath mints. Then I spotted a Starbucks and went in.
There were only two customers there including myself, but the Hawaiian staff were cheerfully bantering among themselves in their native tongue. That's not to say they weren't eager to chat in English; the woman at the register not only started talking with me as if I were an old friend, but started making fun of the other customer. (Apparently he'd demanded more milk in his coffee, half and half if possible, and they thought that was really silly.) Taking myself and my iced caramel macchiato to a table near the window, I took in the spectacular view. An impressively ominous bank of clouds was oozing over and down the mountains like a head on an overflowing beer glass. Below that, I could see part of Honolulu, and I recalled how beautiful it had been back in the '80s. I remembered the fabled beach resort of Waikiki...that ghastly clot of overcrowded, overpriced, superficial, pretty, plastic dementia that my bandmates had made the sole reason for their existence for the few days we'd been on that tragically soul-stripped island. That visit, cursed from the beginning, had laid bare a lot of facts about myself...and about the folly of an introvert trying to be part of the crowd...especially the wrong crowd...especially at the urging of people trying to "fix" me...but I digress. I think I whispered, "Still...it's so beautiful," to myself as I gathered myself up to leave.
The stainless steel chute where you dump your ice in most Starbucks (at least in Japan) was full of paper garbage. I asked one of the employees where I could dump my ice, and she looked at me like I was the biggest idiot in the world before saying, "You can...just dump de whole ting in de garbage, man!" So I did. I said thank you, but I just got a quizzical stare in return. I was almost first in line at the check-in counter at the gate, so getting a seat on the plane was no problem. Soon that little 737, filled to capacity, was airborne and on its way to Oregon.
Alaska Airlines is a budget airline, so food and booze cost extra. I splurged a bit on Washington wine and various munchies from both Oregon and Washington. I was a very happy camper.
Yep, Honolulu. Short, but better than last time. Still...it's so beautiful.
Part Three - Finally Home
The nice thing about arriving in Portland via a domestic flight with no checked luggage was that I was able to walk out of the plane, through the gate, and right into the lobby where my folks were waiting. My sister had alerted them to the change of plans, so they'd spent the day running around in Portland before picking me up. They were perfectly happy, and so was I. I also felt quite relaxed and rested.
At least I was until they warned me that it was getting dark, and they weren't good at driving in the dark. Especially since they had a new car. I won't go into detail about the drive to the coast (for various reasons) but suffice to say it was more of an adventure than it probably needed to be. We arrived at my parents' house somewhere around 10 p.m.. I hadn't had any dinner, but I contented myself with getting acquainted with their new cats before hitting the sack. I was pretty much exhausted.
The next day was Friday, the only free day I had to play with during the entire trip. Unfortunately, the weather remembered it was the Oregon Coast (i.e. rain), so my hoped-for hike or beach visit was out. Instead, I just chilled out through the morning, and in the afternoon I went shopping with my mother and sister before giving in and taking my father up on an interesting invitation.
When I visited there during winter vacation last year, my father invited me to sit in with a local acoustic circle. Once a week, at a community center in town, people get together for an open acoustic jam session. Anyone with an instrument or singing voice is welcome. My father has been a regular participant. I declined last year, partly because I wasn't sure I'd be up to it, and partly because...well...group. (Introvert.) This time I gave it a shot. There were four guys with acoustic guitars there including my dad, one old guy who occasionally plonked around on a piano, and one woman singing. I came in with my dad's other guitar (Guild!) and a tinwhistle, and took right to it. It was a blast! Each person took a turn choosing the song, and the others would just follow as best they could. I did a couple of well-known folk songs, a Beatles tune, a Neil Young number, and something I chose at random from my dad's fake book. It was serious fun. However, I couldn't help noticing that I was having trouble remembering the lyrics of songs I tend to perform on a regular basis.
In fact, I noticed that my memory of things in general from my life in Japan was oddly sluggish, as if that whole volume had been temporarily compressed and archived. I supposed there had to be a reason for it, so I just got on with it.
Part Four - The Reason for the Journey
My Aunt Judy was not a gentle person. Neither was she easy-going. She could be very difficult. However, if you could say one thing about her, it was that she was always very passionate. She did everything with an eagerness not often seen in people. Like most in that side of my family, she was also quite musical.
In fact, I will even go so far as to say that her talent on the piano, especially playing the genres of gospel, ragtime, and dixieland, had a huge influence on my own musicality. When I play jazz, I often hear the memory of her playing inside my head. That's something that will always be very important to me.
And of course, she is family. You can't put a price tag on that.
During all the time I was growing up, Aunt Judy and her family lived in the rural area in the vicinity of Turner, Oregon. It was a totally different world from the suburbs where I did most of my growing up, and I always looked forward to visiting there. Together with my two cousins who lived there, I experienced a lot of things I wouldn't have otherwise, including such things as riding a motorcycle on the country roads, driving a small tractor, milking a goat, and operating an old player piano (i.e. the type that play automatically using tunes encoded on rolls of paper). When my cousins eventually grew up and left the nest, and one of them had kids of her own, my aunt and uncle moved to the city of Salem to be closer to their grandkids. That was after I'd relocated to Japan, so my contact during that time was limited. However, the old memories of the days they lived near Turner are still very much a part of what I am, so it was only fitting that I be there to say goodbye.
And how fitting that the memorial service was at the newly rebuilt version of their old church in Turner!
I've long since become accustomed to Japanese funerals, and American ones are completely different. I remember how weird it all felt during my grandmother's memorial service a decade ago. This was more or less the same thing. It was all so laid back. Japanese funerals are flamboyant but grim affairs with lots of ritual and expense. This memorial service, like my grandmother's, involved such things as casual comments and even jokes from the minister, invitations for people to share their memories, singing hymns in a very laid-back manner, and an atmosphere that was more one of love, sentiment, fellowship, and even joy rather than the somber obligation and usherings into the afterlife that are common in Japan. It was a celebration of life rather than an observance of death. It was...very nice. It was also great seeing so many of my relatives from that side of my family. My mother's side was always a very close-knit group...something I always loved about them...and it was great to see that they still are, even though we've all but lost the generation that tied it all together.
Nobody expected me to be there. I hadn't expected me to be there. But I was very happy and thankful to be there...even if I made someone cry. (Sorry, Nancy!) ;-)
On the way back to the coast, we decided to have something a little special for dinner, so we made a little detour and another supermarket stop. Later, while the cooking was in process, my other aunt and uncle from that side of the family stopped by with a couple of new fake books for my dad...and an insistence that we should play. I gave in, got out the Guild guitar and tinwhistle again, and joined my dad for perhaps the first joint jam session we've EVER had at home. I didn't know half the songs we played, but did I let that stop me? :-)
By the way, Rogue mocha porter is awesome. So is Deschutes River Brewery's River Ale. So are my parents' new cats (but not for drinking).
Part Five - Back Again So Soon
That was the end of the trip. The next morning, we were making the journey back to Portland International Airport. Fortunately, the direct flight home and my flight reservation were both okay. Check-in, never fun, was made even more annoying by a demand that I show proof of my Japanese visa. (The clerk kept insisting that my permanent residence visa had expired, offering the approval date as "proof". I asked her why "permanent" residency would have an expiration date. She said, "Good point," and sent me on my way.) After a final, relaxing lunch with my parents and a very brief visit to the Made in Oregon shop for obligatory souvenirs, I got in line at the security gate...and encountered a guard whose obnoxious sense of humor made my wait even more needlessly long. When I finally arrived at my flight's gate, boarding was already in progress, so I simply walked onto the plane.
The 767-300 was half empty. I had a row of seats to myself, so I stretched out, snoozed when I could, and meditated when I couldn't. It was smooth flying until we started our descent into Japan, when we hit a weather front, and the plane started bucking like a bull on steroids. From there we kept rocking and rolling in entirely the wrong way clear up until touchdown on the runway...which was ironically smooth and easy. That description also applies to my trip through immigration and customs, when an ignorant, young employee insisted I wait in the wrong line, but when I asked a more experienced one who passed by, I got put in the correct line...which was NO line. From there, I just walked through, pausing briefly to submit forms along the way.
My parking bill was more than a hundred bucks at the current exchange rate. I think I parked in the wrong lot... Anyway, guess where I went after leaving the airport. That's right! YE OLDE ACADEMY!!!!!! I had to finish making a midterm exam, since I'd forgotten to work on it while in Oregon. A teacher's work is never done...