And so, as a Deaf-Blind traveler in the years before cellphones, and the year before 9/11, I managed to get around really good! I didn’t get lost, well, I did, but let’s deal with one story at a time!
It was the summer of 2000, the last summer of the millennium, and I was in Europe!
My trip included stops in: London, Paris, Berlin, Prague, North Italy, Rome, then back to Paris. Except for ten days in Paris with my best friend and future wife, I was traveling solo. I would decide the rules, no need to have discussions or yadda yadda where to eat, what to do… I was going here to there!
After, I think it was, 10 days in the huge city of London, I headed to Heathrow airport to catch a pond-jumper to Paris.
London was really beautiful, very chaotic, and mostly historic! On to Paris and new adventures! I should probably do some blogs on that!
While en route to the airport, I decided to board the plane with nothing but the clothes on my back, my wallet and a book. Oh, and my white cane! I thought; What the heck, it was only an hour long flight right! So, why would I need anything else?
Okay, I checked in, sending my backpack, with a smaller backpack zippered on it, onto the long black tongue, passing though the black rubbery teeth and down the black throat that is the luggage conveyor belt! Did I brush my teeth that morning? I can’t recall!
I took my ticket, thanked the lovely agent and went through security without a problem!
Because this was 19 years ago, I am speculating what I did next: I found the gate, sat down, read a few pages of Dean Koontz, while gnawing on some English toffee.
I was observant; watching, while reading, the gate and its staff. When I saw people queuing up, I knew it was it for me to also join the queue. When it was my turn to show the agent my ticket, she took it and probably said something like: “Hello, Mr. MacLean. You are seating in 12A. You have a window seat. Have a nice flight!” Being Deaf, I didn’t hear anything like that! I smiled, well, I hope I did, took my ticket and boarded the plane. I found 12A easily enough and sat down. BTW; 12A is probably a guess as this all happened 19 years ago.
So, I am sitting there, buckled up, reading Koontz… yeah yeah… I can feel the vibrations of the plane. I am excited about meeting my best friend in Paris, going about Paris with her. Having fun, exploring the city, growing our love for each other.
Then, suddenly, everything changes.
First, I feel the engines going off. That is the most vital experience, I can feel the jet throbbing, its a good vibration of things to come. And then it stops! Like the heart stops, my dreams ended!
Then I see people standing up, queuing to get off the plane. I am assuming that perhaps this plane had something wrong with it. So, I follow suit, close my book and join the queue. As I was queuing to get off the plane, I wrote down on some paper I found, probably my ticket, “What Happened?” and showed it to the overwhelmed flight attendant at end of the walkway. She was being assailed with other passengers demands for attention, for explanations, for information. This lovely flight attendant, who was all smiles and helpful on boarding turned brutish and snarky in the span of 15 minutes, did not write anything down, she was talking non-stop if I recall. She told me, beckoned, ordered me, to follow her. I suspect she thought that I could lipread!
She lead me, and I think a few others, to a first class lounge. She was talking to everyone who followed her. Of what she said? I have no idea!
But at the lounge, she did finally grab my paper and write something down. This I know, but what she wrote, I cannot recall! Was it “Queen Elizabeth has been assassinated, wait here!” or “Airline delayed, wait here!” or perhaps she wrote “Let’s go for dinner, wait here!!” ending it with two hearts instead of exclamation points.
Whatever she wrote, I was at the first class lounge with a bunch of other people; and two desk jockeys who were helping two queues of people. So I joined a queue, still no idea what was happening. When it was my turn to see the jockey, I showed her my ticket, probably indicating the “What happened?” question. This person was more composed that the flight attendant, who had since vanished! The jockey still didn’t answer and again was talking to me; I said I am Deaf, and she talks to me again, while looking at her computer monitor! Then she writes down something and passes it to me. Again, I can’t remember what she wrote but the essence was: “Flight Delayed, you can stay here, eat and drink whatever you wish. We will find a plane for you.” Most likely I accepted this as it was, and did not contest her. There was still a long line behind me!
So, I entered the first class lounge, had at least 5 big cans of beer and a few sandwiches!
I do recall going back to talk to the jockey several times, but I was a bit inebriated. And, I wondered around, staying close to the lounge.
No one answered my question: What happened?
Finally, a new desk jockey rushed over to find me on another tall boy of beer, I had lost count after 8, and beckoned me to follow her! Oh boy! Finally! I grabbed my book and tied my shoes, and raced after her. She put me on a plane! After I had buckled in, and was excitedly waiting, some man had to burst my bubble! He gestured me to follow. For a brief moment I thought of resisting, and remaining on the plane, but that notion was vanquished quickly! I just wanted to get to Paris and into the arms of my best friend!
Back in first class lounge, I had another beer, I think and thought I’d have a shower. Did you know you can have a shower in the first class lounge? But then I thought I better be out front so they could find me!
I had something for dinner and was complimenting another beer when a different person approached me, wrote down “Craig are you going to Paris?” I drunkenly nodded yes, and he gestured to follow him. I didn’t get my hopes up! But he was nice enough, and got me on a plane and next thing I knew I was airborne!
I had a quick word with God, thanking him. I then nodded off for a quick nap. It was the first time in 13 hours that I was relieved to finally be on my way to Paris!
Yes, you read that right! I was at Heathrow for 13 hours! And not once did anyone tell me what happened, why the planes were grounded!
Now, while I was marooned in first class lounge these things were happening outside:
- My best friend had arrived in Charles de Gaulle airport without a problem
- When my plane failed to arrive, she called my Mum in Vancouver to ask what was happening,
- My mum couldn’t answer that question, and called my aunt, who suggested she call Heathrow airport,
- My mum did call the airport, telling them to find me, and that I was Deaf-Blind.
- Eventually, my best friend decided to make her way from CDG airport to the hostel we had booked. She arrived there, and as the story goes, with tears in her eyes as she was lost!
- My mum went out and bought her first computer so she could email me to find out if everything was alright!
After I arrived in Paris, I went looking for my best friend, unaware that she was at the hostel. I found an agent at a kiosk who offered to help me get to the hostel. I remember that she called the place to ensure my best friend was there. After confirming that she was there, the agent talked to a cab who drove me to the hostel. This was between 12:30 and 2 AM, I cannot remember the time, but when arrived at the hostel, they let me in and my girlfriend gave me a big big hug!
Three days later, my luggage arrived!
What happened? Why were the flights out of Heathrow grounded? What I understand is that there was a problem with a printer or computer malfunctioned. That is what I always thought as happened. And I was right! I did find a article on this, you can read this BBC news clip here.
While it is true that I was traveling solo, I did inform the ticket agent at the gate that I was Deaf-Blind. I did self-identify and there was no problems. I just wish that they had better support for disabled travelers then, as they do now.
It was a bad experience, but I learned a few things: Always be prepared, True Love conquers all, and always smile even in the worst of situations!
I need to get off this computer as I can barely see straight now!