If you can wait and not be tired by waiting …
“If” by Rudyard Kipling
The bus was late.
We shuffled foot to foot stamping off gusting snow. Forty or fifty of us huddled on the steps of the new medical school building discussing the approaching scientific meeting in New Orleans and how it compared to past meetings. The majority were involved in clinical research and planning to present one or more abstracts at the meeting.
The remainder—ten medical residents—intended to attend the same meeting, but in name only. For them it would be a long, expense-paid weekend in New Orleans sipping hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s, absorbing jazz at Preservation Hall, and trying to forget the brutality of their hundred-hour work weeks among the sick and the dying. They would go to a few talks, but their primary goal was to experience New Orleans. The fact that their expense vouchers would not cover the jazz was to them a minor inconvenience.
When I had gotten up that morning and seen the heavy snowfall, I had called my fellow postdoctoral fellow who worked in the lab with me and said, “Surely nobody’s gonna want to fly in this.”
“They won’t take off if it isn’t safe,” she had assured me. “Get your driveway scraped and get going. I don’t want to have to sit all day by somebody I don’t know.” But she wasn’t there yet.
The chartered bus trundled up, a big, long, black-windowed box on wheels. We sloshed forth, pitching bags below into the belly of the bus and queuing above into its cushiony seats in pairs. I took a seat by the window next to a virologist just behind the driver. The virologist offered me a bite of his doughnut that I refused. Our travel agent appeared in the front of the bus passing back a roll call checklist.
“Weren’t we supposed to leave at 10:15?” asked the hematologist behind us, anxiously studying his watch and calculating the time before our flight departure.
Some on the roll didn’t show and some not on the roll did, including my seatmate the virologist, who explained that he couldn’t drive comfortably with a foot of snow on the ground, more in the air, and freezing rain in the forecast.
We discussed our work, our families, and our dogs for the first half-hour as the bus putted along at 30 miles an hour with ice forming on the windshield beneath grating wipers. The virologist then read a scientific article before switching to the Washington Post, while I held open a copy of Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album.
I would read a paragraph and then stare out into the falling whiteness, finding relief in the clean gray of the winter trees. We passed a field in which a farmer had dropped small, rectangular bales of hay circling the pasture. One cow stood by each bale in the circle. The black cows looked speckled.
“I think we’ll reach the airport right at 1:30,” predicted the hematologist behind us.
The virologist stood up, leaned forward, and then sat back down. “We’re going about 45,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to make it. Even if we do, what plane would fly in this weather?”
“I’ll bet the planes are running late,” said the hematologist.
“I haven’t even seen a duck in the air,” I interjected.
“Ducks aren’t stupid,” the hematologist responded. “They wouldn’t go up in this stuff.”
Everyone began checking road signs for mileage and watching their watches as the usual two-hour drive stretched into four.
When we passed the first exit to Washington National Airport, a nephrologist across the aisle turned and mouthed the words silently, “Did he just miss the turn?”
We didn’t know, but we had a sinking feeling that we were not going to make it on time and that we might have another four-hour bus ride back home. I began to feel slightly sweaty despite the weather.
Suddenly another unannounced airport exit appeared on the right and we rolled down the ramp and up to the terminal with five minutes to spare before takeoff. The virologist was first off and running toward the ticket counter with me right behind. A woman working for our airline met us halfway to the counter and asked if we were in “the New Orleans group.”
She quickly iced our fears. Our plane couldn’t get in. The airport was closed. Snowplows were running. Moreover, the Atlanta airport where we were to switch planes was also closed by an ice storm. The woman asked whether we would like to wait and try to get through if the airport were to reopen, or if we wanted to rebook a flight for the next morning.
The residents wanted to push on while some of the older scientists preferred to return home. The virologist waited in line for a half hour trying to get rebooked but was unable to get connections that would allow arrival before his talk was scheduled.
So he, and eventually our whole group, elected to wait and see. The airline conducted us behind unmarked doors to a courtesy lounge with a well-stocked bar but no food. After a drink, we splintered into small groups in search of lunch.
When we returned about three o’clock, the group had reassembled and was occupying the down time sprawled around the lounge playing cards and reading. I pulled off my boots and had started pouring another drink when our female airline agent reappeared.
“We have a flight that some of you might be interested in taking on another airline,” she said.
“Does it go to Atlanta?” someone asked.
“No, it goes straight to New Orleans,” she replied.
Amid cries of excitement, someone else called out, “Is there room for all of us?”
“Yes,” she almost had to shout to be heard. “But it takes off in 10 minutes. We will have your baggage transferred to the plane. I’ll lead you over now as a group if you’re ready.”
A flurry of drink quaffing, shoe tying and bag grabbing ensued. Within five minutes we were on the march to another part of the terminal. The other airline had many “no-shows” and their few, ticketed passengers looked at us as if Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves had just arrived to share their flight. Many of us had loosened or removed our ties by that time and had begun to have a travel-weary look.
The previously ticketed passengers were seated first and then we were fitted into the remaining seats without regard to our preference or abhorrence for smoking. I happened to be among those allocated to the smoking section in the tail of the plane.
I sat between two tobacco lovers—a businessman and a housewife—wondering how I could endure the acrid fumes of their nervous combustion for the next two hours. I considered whether I could lock myself in a bathroom for most of the flight and gratefully read the still lit “NO SMOKING” sign as we wriggled out of our coats and buckled our seatbelts.
Doors closed and engines began to hum as the plane prepared to taxi. Just as suddenly, the engines stopped. The pilot announced that we had been “placed on hold because of an incident on the runway.” The stewardesses began serving drinks.
I pulled off my wool overshirt because it was beginning to warm up in the tail full of smokers who appeared ready to light up at a moment’s notice. I slurped a soft drink and wondered what manner of incident could close a runway. I was too tired to read Turgenev by that time, so I pulled out a more accessible, modern, and moderately obscene paperback that I had received as a Christmas gift and half ashamedly began turning its pages.
A hubbub of murmuring arose and then broke into individual voices coming back toward the tail. Someone said a plane had crashed. Other passengers began standing up and saying things like, “We shouldn’t try to take off.” I crawled over the businessman to my left and walked up the aisle to join some of our group who were huddling around Row 20 discussing options.
The pilot then announced that a jet had indeed crashed into the Potomac River and that the airport had been reclosed because helicopters were circling over that end of the runway trying to find and fish survivors out of the water. Cries of dismay broke out. We could see and hear the helicopters. Confusion reigned over the next few minutes before the pilot came back on the PA system and announced that our flight had been canceled and that the airport had been closed for the night.
We disembarked, waited in line to get our tickets back, and then waited again at a baggage carousel for our bags to return. After waiting in line at a phone booth, we discovered that all telephone lines were jammed. Some decided to try to rent a car while others just stood by their baggage looking confused.
Three of us chose to hike to the subway to avoid the massive traffic jam surrounding the airport, sometimes carrying, sometimes just sliding our suitcases over the deep snow. Boarding the subway, we heard an announcement that a Metro train had just crashed, blocking the subway line from that point forward. We rode to the station just short of the crash site where we tried to catch a taxi. There were no taxis at that station. So we dragged our bags through the snow to a hotel, but it was fully occupied. We managed to get a cab there, however, and drove to another hotel that had vacancies.
The phone lines were still intermittently jammed, but one of us got through and asked for the other two families to be notified that we were safe. With that accomplished, we watched the horrifying national evening television news reports about the plane and train crashes that we had by chance managed to stay a step behind. It seemed surreal watching up close footage of a helicopter hauling passengers out of the icy water after what we had seen in the distance.
Feeling stunned—almost like being inebriated without having drunk anything—we stumbled across a slippery, plowed street still filled ankle-deep with slushy snow to a Chinese restaurant and feasted on fried food and herbal tea to celebrate the fact that we were alive.
The next morning came quickly. A bad weather forecast scuttled any thought of continuing our journey. We took a walk in the snow, bought some presents for small friends, and decided to catch a bus back home.
The bus again started late (nothing like the luxurious charter bus, the bare-bones Greyhound’s diesel engine didn’t want to start in the cold) and it got later as it went along. By then, thick snow was again falling and I was content to peer out at the rolling snow-covered countryside and occasional clusters of sledding children shrieking gleefully.
An Indian and his family sat behind us droning pleasantly in Hindi. He smoked for most of the three hours we were together, but somehow I managed not to care. I even caught myself once enjoying the rich aroma of the very first puff of smoke after a cigarette was lit. The mildly vexing smoke and his deep, monotonic, seemingly hypnotic voice wove a soporific blanket around the back of my mind, warming and relaxing me so totally that I was asleep when we rolled into the tiny Charlottesville station after dark.
The bus was late.
* * * * *
On Wednesday, January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the Fourteenth Street Bridge over the Potomac River and fell into the river after taking off from Washington National Airport during a snowstorm: 70 of the 74 passengers and four of the five crew members died. In addition, seven vehicles on the bridge were crushed by the falling plane, killing four motorists and injuring others. Three Metro passengers were killed and 25 injured when a Metro train derailed. Barry Farr was on a plane trying to taxi when Air Florida Flight 90 crashed. He wrote “If You Can Wait” at that time, but, being busy, filed it in a drawer and moved on to more pressing matters. He found the manuscript 29 years after the crash.