Between Flights: Faith and Blood Among Strangers.
After landing late and schlepping downtown to Kansas City Westin, woke up to a beautiful Saturday. A green fountain was my first clue that the huge courtyard between the hotel and the Hallmark Center had been transformed.
Whoa. We’d landed in the middle of Kansas City’s Irish Fest. Not in March–say, St. Patrick’s Day. Rather, in early September. You just never know what opportunity you’re going to find when you travel for the sake of the flight–or in my case, my job–instead of for the destination. Who knew there’d happen to be a huge and seemingly cool event at our doorstep.
My First Officer and I sized up the roped-off plaza: food, beer, bands, and a growing crowd. Way cool. But a $9 entrance fee?
Darn. We only had a few hours till we had to be back in the air. Definitely no beer tasting, and nine bucks for a few hours? My F/O shook his head. Not worth it.
Then I noticed the opportunity tent.
“C’mon,” I said. “We’re volunteers.” He looked at me dubiously. “Let’s go sign in. We can volunteer as well as anyone.” Scam, I’m sure he was thinking. Well, maybe a little.
“You go ahead,” he said, heading back inside. Shrug. I walked up to the volunteer sign-in table. “Jones,” I said, then waited.
A woman with a huge computer print-out didn’t even look at me, but scanned her list. “Are you the Jones with, uh, with, uh . . .”
“Yes I am.”
Still not looking up, she put a check mark by one of a dozen or so “Joneses” on her list. She handed me an extra large T-Shirt emblazoned with “Volunteer,” and said “Go over there and get your admission wristband.”
In a matter of minutes, I was inside the Irish Fest with a small guidebook (“Where’s the face painting?” Check the book–“Make a left by the stage”) and a couple of hours to browse around.
Although I had volunteer “coupons” for free pizza, I just had to buy one of the steaming brats grilling at various booths. Good music, good food, give a few directions here and there but largely, just enjoy the sunshine in the ever-growing crowd. So what’s the big deal? Opportunity taps you on the shoulder, give a little help, enjoy the big picture.
When I related this all to my F/O at altitude that evening, he seemed a little wistful. “Should’a joined you,” he concluded. And being the smartass that I am, I recall telling him, “That’s the problem with volunteerism these days: nobody wants to help. And you really miss out on a rewarding experience.”
He rolled his eyes. Yeah, quite a stretch. But you take the good and the bad as it comes–this was a windfall.
Fast forward to last Friday, May 14th. This time, fate had plopped us down in Norfolk on a beautiful sunshiny Spring day. We had fourteen hours scheduled off-duty, then would fly one leg back to DFW. Home for Friday night and for me, Saturday morning with Darling Bride and youngest daughter’s academic competition, plus a band session with Night Flight in the afternoon. Perfect plan.
Until fate stepped in to trash everything. Crew Tracking called me a couple hours prior to our departure time: “Sorry captain, but thunderstorms at DFW have forced us to cancel your inbound flight.” Great. Home tomorrow early, maybe?
Catch the tail end of my daughter’s academic competition, and maybe most of the band session? “And I know it sucks,” the Tracker said cautiously, “but we’re going to need your crew to stay there and fly home tomorrow night.”
Thank you, cruel fate. Everyone on the crew had plans and people counting on their arrival home that night, but it is what it is, and you do what you know you have to do.
Now with forty rather than fourteen hours off duty, we developed a contingency plan: free concert at the fountain on the harbor that evening; dinner afterward. Vendors were selling adult beverages in the park. After the first two at five bucks each, we modified the plan: F/O would go for his run then meet us there (great band playing), #2 flight attendant and I would walk a few blocks to a deli and pick up crew beverages to enjoy at the park. Others had brought coolers with drinks; no one seemed to mind.
Heavy get-out-of-town Friday rush hour was shaping up downtown as we walked the two blocks past the battleship Wisconsin moored near the heart of Norfolk. I heard the unmistakable boom of a traffic accident not ten yards from where we walked.
Under a green light, one car had stopped, and the car behind him had plowed into him from behind. The rear car stood with a crumpled front end in the middle of the intersection. Not a safe place.
I dodged across the traffic and approached the driver’s open window. Probably stunned; let’s get you out of this intersection.
She was not okay. Maybe no seat belt? Regardless, her forehead was gashed wide open and blood was everywhere. I actually didn’t know anyone could bleed so fast and so much. Open the door.
“Let’s get you out of here,” I said, pressing a cloth she’d found onto her forehead. “Walk with me–I’ll help you.” Through traffic, to the curb. Elizabeth, my #2 flight attendant directed passersby “Call 911.” Several dialed. I laid the woman down on a short brick wall, cradling her head with my arm, holding pressure on her gaping laceration. Not a good thing, I thought silently, to be drenched in the blood of a stranger, but you do what you have to do.
“Help is on the way,” I told her. “You’re going to be okay. We’re going to stay with you till help gets here.”
Elizabeth moved her wrecked car out of the intersection. The wall was near a bus stop and to be frank, a crowd of people waiting for the bus that were of the type who’d make me walk fast and not make eye contact. But not today. “Can someone find a first aid kit?” A man rushed off toward a store.
A tranny-looking woman dialed the victim’s husband’s number on her own phone. A man offered his rolled up shirt as a pad.
An Army nurse walked up and began to take vital signs. I shady-looking guy produced a scrap of paper and I told her, “Push the top button on my watch”–my hands were busy–and she took down the heart rate, her medical history, setting up the ambulance’s arrival.
It seemed like forever crouched on the hot pavement, holding her head, telling her by name that she’d be okay. One police car, then eventually three more arrived. Don’t move her head. A look at the gash–looked clean to the bone–more pressure. Have to stay this way till the ambulance gets here.
“You’re doing good, Jennifer. Deep breaths.”
At long last–maybe five minutes, but it seemed longer–the ambulance arrived. “You’re not going to like this,” an EMT said, “but we’re going to put a brace on your neck to immobilize it.” On cue, I slid my now red arm out from under her head and let the EMT crew hold pressure.
Jeez–stiff back. Hot pavement. Elizabeth put the woman’s purse on the gurney. “These guys are going to take good care of you,” I told her, squeezing her hand. “You’re going to be fine.”
Off she went; we waited while the police, who’d taken both of our driver’s licenses, finished their reports. Buzzkill.
Finally, the police thanked us and sent us on our way. I used the deli restroom to wash now dried blood off my arm.
“Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon blanc?” I asked. Didn’t really matter to me.
We made our way back to the park. Hooked up with the First Officer. Great band, beautiful night, lots of families and children, many running around in the fountain.
My daughter got third place in her competition; the band played without me. Fate? Opportunity?
You just have to take it as it comes, good or bad. But what I got out of it was twofold. First, the kindness of strangers in that moment of suspense between disaster and official response renews my faith in humanity. And second, I have the knowledge that in a stranger’s moment of hell, there was a calm voice and an arm to rest her head on.
Unlike my Irish Fest volunteer T-shirt, the reality won’t fade with time. And that’s what really matters.