Midwest Voices

July 11, 2014

Zoltan Krompecher: Air travel is its own adventure, especially with family

In the world of air travel, a caste system stronger than Samsonite exists where the “haves” enjoy free refills while have-nots subsist on pretzels.

Summer means family trips and memories. Airports generate fascinating stories — places where workers clean up the detritus left behind by anxious travelers.

My family’s recent outing proved most memorable. To save money, I reserved tickets years in advance on aircraft resembling a cross between crop duster and hot air balloon.

I also emptied our children’s college funds (baggage fare). The rest is a blur.

My daughter, Annie, packed as if on safari. I reminded her, “We cannot take the Harry Potter book collection. You must decide between passport, toothbrush, or shoes.”

Of course, I was joking. She could take two items, if she wore three layers of clothing. My transportation-to-the-airport-plan involved groveling to my neighbor and slipping him a Benjamin, after apologizing for forgetting his name, for a 4 a.m. ride to the airport.

At curbside check-in the attendant made small talk while taking our bags. It was a half-genuine effort, but I felt some humanity would disappear if I didn’t tip, so I did.

Before braving security, I struggled to free our tickets stuck to a piece of gum deep inside my pocket while instructing our children to remove everything but underwear and socks. I almost threw my keys and wallet in the trash to avoid being patted down. Going through Checkpoint Charlie in the mid-1980s seemed easier.

After security, we resembled contestants on “The Amazing Race,” running to a terminal that seemed 26.2 miles away. I half expected water stands along the route, while calling back to our children — saddled with backpacks — to keep up or risk being left behind.

Remembering my days traveling in uniform, we did pause to buy coffee for soldiers while wishing them well on their own journeys. At the gate, I thought we might qualify for an upgrade as gold members, but then the “gatekeeper” announced boarding for plutonium-star-sapphire, followed by sapphire-platinum and cubic-zirconium-star-sapphire.

“Gold” members boarded just before “aluminum” members who sat in cargo. And then it was time to draw that thin piece of fabric — the Blue Curtain —across the aisle to separate first class fliers from the rest of humanity. In the world of air travel, a caste system stronger than Samsonite exists where the “haves” enjoy free refills while have-nots subsist on pretzels.

In coach, a flight attendant used the Jaws of Life to squeeze one person's carry-on luggage, the size of a VW Beetle, into the overhead bin minutes before takeoff.

Once airborne, I learned a new yoga position when the man in front of me unceremoniously put his seat in full recline to the point where I kissed my knees while resting my forehead in his toupee.

Despite it all, touching down at our respective destinations made everything worthwhile. All in all, travelers understand how gentle smiles are small fees for good conversation.

The arrival gate is where the magic happens and when we deposit pleasant moments in our memory banks because there is no premium on watching grandparents hug grandchildren or people reunite following long absences.

Life is about the people we meet, lives we touch and gatherings that help us locate ourselves in the busyness of the world.

Behind each smile, or tear, is a story we have all experienced. Sometimes, traveling can be the best part of a trip.

Lt. Col. Zoltan Krompecher is a Green Beret serving in the Army, formerly based at Fort Leavenworth. He and his family now live in Alabama. Reach him at oped@kcstar.com.

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