The Road to Walla Walla

The woman ahead of me would like to use the elevator. And the woman behind the counter nods without making eye contact. Yes, she may. Odd, the requests here at Alaska Airlines gate C2. Mine seems more straightforward, a tag for my wheelchair. But even this produces an odd response. Not necessary, the agent tells me. This man will help you. The latter turns out to be a not very friendly West African guy. Neither of us understand our roles. But actually, much later it does occur to me that I foolishly ticked a box on the Alaska Airlines website indicating ‘wheelchair assistance.’ Which, I thought, meant loading my wheelchair and not destroying it. But apparently suggests that I must be accompanied by a human during the process. Which is superfluous, but here it is, unfolding. And never mind. We wander down the length of Gate C, with its subordinate C3 and C4…all the way to C9. A C zone, no particular gate in evidence. Just a series of desks where passengers queue, and, yes, only one lift, in which I descend to what is very much the ground. Actually, the tarmac. The uneven fringes of which are marked with temporary stanchions and plastic tape, guiding everyone to one among the fleet of propeller planes. This all seems very homely, not to mention exciting. Real aviation. Like the final scene of ‘Casablanca.’ Or Palm Springs Airport in my youth, DC-6s belching blue smoke from their pistons.

That it is not my youth becomes clear as I begin the ascent of the small steps. The latter fold out of the plane and are compact and clever and end abruptly, giving me nowhere to grab when I make it just inside the door. A flight attendant offers her hand. A couple of seats down the aisle a man stands and asks the attendant if I would like his seat. He is inches away from me. Why this question is not addressed to me…well, this matter could occupy several doctoral dissertations. Now in my fifth decade of disability, I still do not understand it. The man limping down the aisle looks compos mentis and…I don’t know. Is he afraid that conversation will distract me, causing me to lose balance? No, one can attribute too much to the process. He just doesn’t enter my reality, somehow. And he is abundantly good-natured, well-intentioned, doubtless. Which is why, rather than scolding him, or even glaring, I make it a point, to look up in mid-limp and say ‘thank you very much, but no, I will take my assigned seat.’ Which should be the end of it. But isn’t. The man makes a show of looking incredulous. Baffled, he opens his arms to those around…flight attendant, passengers…with a what’s-wrong-with-this-guy expression. I half feel like explaining that he is seated on the aisle, and I want a window seat…because the view promises to be splendid. But honestly, this impulse galls me. There is no need to explain. Let him think what he wants. Noting that ‘think’ is probably overstating it.

The Bombardier plane roars, but only briefly, noise dropping as we rise over Seattle, moving at a pleasantly slow pace toward the snowy Cascades to the east. The whole scene now swallowed in cloud, which is disappointing as the day is being swallowed by night, albeit slowly. Within minutes we are above the clouds, skimming their tops. And I wonder if the pilot has chosen to do this, being just over the fluffy stratus, the sense of speed tangible as we skim along. And now we are beyond the mountains and the mists and the twilight reveals Eastern Washington in May. I recognize the convergence of the Snake River and the Columbia River. We drop lower and lower. Ahead I recognize the aerial distinction that marks Walla Walla. A blaze of yellow lights denoting the state penitentiary. But in the foreground everything is wheatfields. They are dark and even at this hour darkly green, and across them, a string of lights which we are paralleling, then banking to meet…the runway. This has been a real trip.

Graduation at Whitman College turns out to be a cozy affair. All my fears…glaring sun and me without a hat…soon evaporate. The backdrop is an old brick building, a canopy of leafy maple trees shades the audience. And my nephew and 400 of his closest friends troop by to get their diplomas at a fairly brisk pace. Everyone is roused by the speaker, Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and a labor rights rabble-rouser. Who is most welcome here, it turns out, in this small liberal college. Very liberal by American standards. And Schlosser reminds everyone of the inequalities of national wealth distribution, the dire conditions of people working just a few miles away in Pascoe, Washington. And I find it heartening that everyone applauds him so loudly. Including lots of gray-haired people like me. The world is not without hope, I feel, when the thing is all over. And somehow on the grassy expanse beyond the graduation site, a marvelous lunch has appeared, caterers having the whole thing marvelously under control…not to mention rich with the bounty of Walla Walla’s farmlands. Strawberries, real ones, red with flavor. Marvelous asparagus. Homemade hummus and salads and fresh lemonade and the day is yet young.

I am not, I am reminded, when it is time to ascend the steps to the plane for Seattle. But actually it is easier now. I’m entering through the rear of the plane, and these are airport steps, rolled into place by the ground crew. Wider and providing more of a grip, and damned if my seat doesn’t prove to be just inside the back door. I plop down. A couple taking their seats three rows ahead wave to me. We had chatted picking up cappuccinos en route to the graduation. It’s all very small and homey, Whitman College. And now it is over.

Except that it isn’t. I run into more people from the graduation circulating through Seattle Airport. I am circulating in search of dinner, except that it is not time for dinner. Also, I am aware of having pushed the caloric limit to its upper extremes over the last couple of days. There’s a surprising amount of good cuisine in and around Walla Walla. So I settle on a package of smoked almonds. This will do. I hand the packet to the flight attendant as I board, for such is the reality of having only one arm in operation. I make my way down the aisle, a much longer aisle, of course, on this Boeing 737. I don’t get far, however. The flight attendant has news. A woman has given up her seat. She is sitting in the front. And now it gets better. She is sitting in first class. For a nanosecond, reality vies with thoughts of do I deserve this, and so on. But this is fleeting. Thank you, I say. Thank you very much. I head back toward first class.

Which is, as they say, a first-class experience. Naturally, because this is the way of things, seated next to me is the development officer from Whitman College. Who else? The woman is heading to the Bay Area on a fund-raising mission. Yes, I tell the flight attendant, I will have the cheese plate. No, nothing to drink, I add, bladder issues being what they are. Five minutes later I change my mind and order some red wine. Which is very good, this northwestern airline priding itself in local wines. The cheese is also very good. Doubtless local. If the word ‘local’ can be applied to anything happening at 35,000 feet. Never mind. Somehow, the giddy turn of events, the cheese, does make me extremely gaseous. Which is okay on a plane, noise levels and air circulation being what they are. But for the typical quadriplegic, issues of neurological control being ever present, it is hard to say what is going on with my gastrointestinal system, and I am growing more and more anxious. An effect compounded when we are put in a holding pattern and fly around the Bay Area in tiresome loops for half an hour. Never mind. Never, never mind.

Every airline has its oddity. In the case of Alaska Airlines, theirs has to do with plugs. Mine, in particular. I’m traveling with a portable power wheelchair. The thing disassembles for easy stowage. In the trunk of my brother’s car, for example. Not my favorite wheelchair, the thing is a mass of compromises. It has power, but lightweight and short-range batteries. It has a comfortable, but nonadjustable, seat. Because the metal frame folds, it also flexes. And for better or worse, all of the chair’s plugs are exposed. Which in the case of Alaska Airlines proves overwhelmingly tempting. They can’t help themselves. At every stop along the way from Seattle Airport to Walla Walla and so on, the airline crews feel obliged to unplug all that can be unplugged in my wheelchair. And now arriving at San Francisco, they have at least been consistent. Being a first-class guy now, I am hustled off the plane in short order. The wheelchair arrives quickly, too. All is well, except that having marked the wrong box on the Alaska Airlines website, a small crew of helpers is here to greet me. None of them knows what to do with the wheelchair and its lack of connection. In fact, the chair they have pushed up to the airplane door does not roll. How they have gotten it here eludes me. And now that I am sitting in it, the thing is immovable. Furthermore, there are more than 100 passengers who want to exit the airplane. And they would really like to have the cripple sitting inert in his powerless wheelchair out of the way. In this, I concur.

Travel itself, particularly the sobering fact of being crippled and aging and alone and on the road, sobers me. I am more inclined to speak up, even to take charge, as conditions demand. Anyone who knows me will agree that this is a stunningly good thing. So I tell the three Asian immigrants here to assist me with my wheelchair that the circuitry is unplugged. Among the three of them, they muster enough English to explain that they don’t know what to do about this. Fine, fine, I say, having the presence of mind to get two things going at the same time. First, to disengage the clutches so that they can pull the freewheeling chair out of the way and, second, to get one of the pilots out here for assistance.

Technical guys are all technical guys. It doesn’t matter if you repair forklifts or assemble integrated circuits. You’ve got a logical brain and can figure out what plugs into what. The copilot is no exception. Because I am seated in the chair and cannot see what he’s doing behind me, it all depends on communication. What is unplugged, I ask him? Everything, he replies. Of course, this is the Alaska way of things, and I am not surprised and I am not fazed. Miraculously, it all comes to me, how the plugs are labeled. Left into left. Right into right. Red into red. The copilot suggests that I am now in action. I flip on the switch and start up the jetway, which involves just enough humps and bumps to bounce me…to a stop just shy of the boarding lounge.

I am unable to turn around, the chair being dead. But I yell, yell rather loudly for help. The copilot reappears, fortunately. I am making something of a scene. I ask him if the red plugs have snapped together with a noticeable sound. No. He plugs away, this time making them pop into place. This, I believe, will do it. In any case, I am barreling toward baggage claim. For it is late, and I am old, but not too old to reverse course and demand what I am due: my crutch.

They are all there still, the three cripple-helping Asians, the two flight attendants in the doorway, and now the cripple himself. Could I have my crutch? Something about this doesn’t register. Crutch. Walking stick. Cane. I use all these words, strung together probably too tightly…out of impatience or exuberance, I cannot say. A similar spirit prevails in the baggage area. I find myself staring dumbly at a rotating luggage display, all the models hailing from Charlotte, someone tells me. I roll north and south, finally hitting upon the Alaska carousel. I race my lone black bag with the wheelchair, catching up with it at the bend, the place where the conveyor belt turns and the Alaska Airlines baggage representative stands. Would she grab it please? Thank you, and now there is the matter of what to do with it. Foolishly, I have sent the three Asians away. Retaining one of them for baggage portage would have been wise. Too late now. The Alaska woman hooks the bag over the back of the wheelchair. The bag is heavy, containing an authentic bottle of Walla Walla wine for Jane. So heavy that the bag drags on the right rear tire. She tries hanging it on the left. Now the wheelchair goes in leftward circles. In the end, I balance the thing on my lap, one bag strap over my paralyzed wrist. Precarious, but what isn’t?

Well, some things more than others. Which is what I decide about the SuperShuttle as the driver pulls away. I remind him to secure my wheelchair. His van has a system of clamps to prevent heavy rolling objects like mine from breaking free and causing havoc. Once he is done I point out the obvious. I need a seatbelt myself. It is broken, he tells me. What is broken? The seatbelt. No, I tell him, this cannot be, for he cannot drive passengers in California without a seatbelt. I add the ‘California’ bit, to make a subtle point. He is not from California, but from some Slavic country. Which is neither here nor there, but we are here, not there, and this must be dealt with. Which, I say, is fairly easily done, for there is a seatbelt attached to my wheelchair, and if he would just pull over to the side of the airport roadway and sort this out…. He does this. Somehow this little-used seatbelt on the wheelchair has gotten tangled. Who did this, he asks? Who put this wheelchair together? He’s getting annoyed, impatient. Only moments before I watched him type a message for the SuperShuttle dispatcher into his dashboard computer, ‘why you no bordong me?’ Here’s short of boardings, that is the point. And I am short of patience. Get the seatbelt thing fixed, one way or the other, I tell him. He threatens to leave me right there in my wheelchair beside the road. I am about to take him up on this threat, backing mine up with a promise to write the airport commission, SuperShuttle, and God, if I can find the address.

Somehow he snaps the seatbelt out of its hiding place. I’m strapped in, and we are off. There is little said on the way to Menlo Park. The other passengers are not happy, I can tell. That is unfortunate. I am in no mood. I am staring straight ahead, right between the bucket seats of the SuperShuttle van. This is where wheelchairs sit. Between here and the windshield there is nothing but open space. A sudden braking could send me flying. Into the dashboard if I was lucky, straight through the glass if I was not. This is a time to speak up, to raise my voice, to raise hell, if necessary. There are such times. And when I get with the program, I feel less powerless, less despairing, more of everything.

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