Thursday, November 03, 2005

Heracles' Marathon to Olympus, Athena Awaits

For lack of fresh content, I offer an old, true, personal anecdote--a rerun, I guess, of the blog I would have written had the web existed. Warning: don't expect a happy ending.

Friday May 31, 1991: B-school summer break begins. My plan is to catch up with my fiancee, Nathalie, who has been backpacking around Europe. We haven't had phone access for 4 weeks but our plan is set: she is picking me up tomorrow morning at Athens airport, where we grab a bus to Brendizi and a ferry to Mykonos for two weeks in the Greek islands, and a weekend in Rome (before slutting myself out to a consulting firm for the summer). This is the vacation we've anticipated for years.

11:30 am

I arrive by cab at Boston Logan Airport, weighed down by my carry-ons and two full, heavy, non-rolling suitcases (one for Nathalie). No problem, only a few dozen yards to the check-in counter...

11:45 am

I'm checking in, quite proud of myself for being uncharacteristically early to my United 1:30pm flight to Athens (with a stop in Dulles Airport). As the United agent hands me back my passport, she asks, "oh, it's still valid right?"

"Of course" I say, with so much confidence that I volunteer the passport back for her to inspect herself.

"Oh, I'm sorry, your passport expired yesterday." That's right--it was exactly 10 years AND A DAY ago that this passport had been issued.

"What? Yesterday? Let me see that. Oh, no. Hehe, okay so what do I have to do here?"

"Well, I can check availability on flights for late next week if you think you can get an emergency replacement issued by then."

"Next week? No, no, no, I have to go today. You don't understand--my fiancee is there waiting for me, I can't reach her, and we have these ferry tickets--"

"Well I can tell you," she offers, in a genuinely helpful tone, "that you're not going on today's flight to Greece."

"But I HAVE to. Is there a supervisor I can talk to, or a passport office somewhere around here?" Apparently not, she insists, while starting to look at the next passenger in line. I can see I am about to lose her attention, so I get in one last question: "Are there any other flights to Athens today?"

"Let's see... the only other one today is an American Airlines flight that leaves here at 2:15pm. Next!"

I can only imagine how disappointed, worried (and eventually pissed) Nathalie will be when I don't get off that plane in Athens. I had promised this time to her, and we have non-refundable ferry tickets and hotel reservations. More importantly, I have all her clean clothes with me!

This is a major screw up. There is no way to talk my way onto that plane. My heart rate speeds up and nausea sweeps over me as I realize that I can't even call Nathalie to tell her (no cell phones back then). But I can't just sit around and count down the minutes to 2:15pm. I resolve that until both planes physically depart Boston, I'm going to exhaust every possible option of boarding one of those two flights.

So I lug all my baggage out to the taxi line.

12:06 pm

I get a taxicab and ask, "is there a passport office in the Tip O'Neill building downtown?"

"I suppose so," he responds, considering whether to resent the implication that all cab drivers must be immigrants intimately familiar with INS facilities.

"Please take me there as fast as you can."

"Sure. Why the rush? Are you planning on flying somewhere next week?"

"No, this afternoon at 2:15."

"Whoaa. You're never going to make THAT flight."

"Please, just drive as fast as you can."

12:20 pm

I spring from the cab (as much as one can spring while lugging 2 heavy suitcases and carry-ons) and wind my way through the Tip O'Neill building until I find the Passport office (of course, it's up two flights of stairs). I run in, and see before me a long, long line of people standing there with newspapers and snacks, apparently settled in for the wait. This looks bad.

"Excuse me, everyone! I'm sorry to bother you all but I HAVE to catch a flight today to Greece where my fiance is waiting for me, and so I desperately need a passport right away. Is there anyone here who would mind if I went to the front of the line?" Pathetic as I looked, everyone shrugged as if to say Okay, but you're dreaming if you think you're going to make it.

12:28 pm

"Please, I need to get a replacement passport immediately--my old passport expired only yesterday, and I have a flight this afternoon at 2:15, and my fiancee is waiting for me there, and I have no way to reach her, and..." I can see that the INS clerk standing before me thinks I'm quite an idiot.

"Well, you're not going to make that flight today. I can't just issue you a passport like that. An emergency passport takes 24 hours, and tomorrow's Saturday, so possibly on Tuesday."

"Oh, please, isn't there anything you can do?"

"Sir, even if I wanted to, you don't have a passport photo."

"Photo? Where do I get a photo?" I ask, looking around the room, as if.

12:32 pm

With a bit less spring in my step, I lug the baggage down the stairs, and wander the streets looking for passport photos.

12:41 pm

A locksmith two blocks from Government Center advertises Passport Photos in the window.

"Please, I need a passport photo RIGHT away."

"Sure, but what's the rush? When are you travelling?"

"Hopefully, this afternoon."

"And you don't have your passport? You're NEVER going to make THAT flight."

1:03 pm

Once again I ascend the stairs with all my baggage, clutching the ugliest Polaroid head shot I've ever seen of a sweaty, harried, soon-to-be-single-again traveller. Inside the passport office, the same people are still standing in line, right where I had left them.

"Excuse me, everyone--"

"Yeah, yeah, just go."

1:11 pm

"Here, maam, I have a passport photo now. Please, I really need to make that flight today."

"I'm sorry, but it does take one business day. Maybe you can take a Tuesday flight."

"Could you just PLEASE talk to your supervisors back there and see if there's any way you can make an exception?"

"Well, allright, have a seat. But don't expect much."

1:15 pm

I sit down and catch my breath. I watch the clock as each minute ticks by (to this day I remember every detail of that clock face).

1:20 pm

I know now that I have missed any chance of boarding my 1:30pm United flight, but I still harbor hope of buying a ticket on that 2:15 American flight. I wonder how I'm going to afford the full fare one-way ticket.

1:50 pm

Half an hour later, it isn't looking good...

1:56 pm

"David Cowan?"

I bounce up to the counter and see before me a shiny new US Passport! "THANK YOU!!"

I spill down the stairs with all my baggage, into the street, in search of a cab.

1:59 pm

I say to the cabbie, "Airport, as fast as you can!"

"What time's your flight?"


"You're never going to--"

"Yeah, yeah, just drive!"

2:12 pm

I rush into the American terminal (as much as one can rush lugging my own weight in summerwear and books) and make a dash for the gate, clumsily pushing through the security check point.

2:17 pm

I arrive at the gate. There is the plane, ALREADY PUSHING OFF, with the doors closed and no one around to hear my pleas.

I collapse upon my suitcase, defeat washing over me. All that's left to do is to wallow in self-loathing and pity.

But... but... wait a minute. My original 1:30 flight has a one-hour stop in Dulles, right? I check my itinerary and see that it is scheduled to leave Dulles at 4:05pm.

2:20 pm

I'm talking to the first airlines employee I can find. "Please, are there are any flights anywhere in this airport leaving right now for Dulles Airport?"

"Hmmm. Let's see. There's one at--no, that's tomorrow. Let's see. Let's see. There's a Delta commuter flight that leaves at 2:26, but you're never going to make--"

And there I am, literally sprinting out of the gate, off to Delta. I wobble with my suitcases down the long corridors to the very back suburbs of the airport where commuter flights gather.

2:25 pm

"Please, please I need to buy a ticket on the flight to Dulles." I'm waving my credit card around, and trying not to draw attention to the four bags I'm lugging.

"Sorry sir, that flight has already boarded."

"Oh, please, I really need to catch a connection out of Dulles--it's the last one to Greece today, and my fiancee is waiting for me there, and I can't reach her, and..."

I must look really awful by now, because mercy is the only explanation for what happens next... The agent grabs her radio and says "Flight 87, hold for one more passenger."

She swipes my card, and I run down two flights of stairs and outside to the tarmac. The pilot is surprised to see so much baggage showing up at the last minute for his tiny, 14-seater commuter aircraft.

2:52 pm

The flight attendant, hunching over so as not to bump her head, makes one trip down the aisle offering water.

"Excuse me," I say. "Is there any chance that you might be able to ask the pilot to fly faster? I'm trying to catch my flight to Greece."

Fly faster? she almost says, but when she looks into my eyes, she sees my desparation. "What time is your connection?" she asks instead.


She looks at her watch and shakes her head. "I'm sorry, but you're not going to make that flight."

"Right, but could you please just ask?"

She promises she will.

3:58 pm

Delta Express Flight 87 disgorges her passengers into Dulles Airport, 8 minutes early. I run to the terminal's docking station, where you wait for this bus-ish thing to transport you to your terminal.

4:00 pm

I board the bus-ish thing, and we depart.

4:04 pm
We dock at the international terminal. I run, run, run to Gate 33. My heart is pounding, my lungs are bursting, the nerves beneath the baggage shoulder straps screaming for relief.

4:05 pm

I see Gate 33 down the hall! The agent is just getting ready to close the door. "WAAAAAAAAAAAIIIIIIT!!!!"

She looks up, prepared to be annoyed, but realizes at once that I haven't just been hanging out too long in Duty Free. She props the door open, examines my ticket and shiny new passport, and welcomes me on board, suitcases and all. I made the flight!

Never in my life have I been so happy to get a middle seat. Hot, frazzled, drenched in sweat, heart still pounding, eyes watering, back aching, I just sit there and laugh out loud for a good 10 minutes.

I warned you not to expect a happy ending, but I didn't rule it out, either.


  1. Anonymous9:09 PM

    this was great and it had a happy ending too. I can imagine what you went through and proved that where there is a will there is a way. However, the same scenario may not play out successfully after 9/11.

  2. Anonymous1:57 AM

    One of the most enjoyable blog stories I've read for a while - its funny what we do when we are young! I wonder whether any of us would have the energy (or inclination) to push through those barriers in the same way now we are older?

  3. Anonymous8:25 AM

    terrific - i had the same sort of escapade in roissy (paris) a few months ago trying to get back to the usa on a ticket my moms bought for me on united air. I had to litterally, start crying, to get this old woman to let me board (see it wasn't my card (moms) and the card was in, the UNITED STATES, where mom was.. needless tosay - crying works. =)

  4. Anonymous4:58 PM

    Do you believe in God? I hope you do because you were able to accomplish all this because of hundreds of miracles and the genuine love of your fellow man.

  5. Elaine,

    I'm with you on the "love of your fellow man" part, but where exactly was the "miracle"? I see absolutely no reason to invoke supernatural elements to explain a a chain of rather unremarkable events.

    I fully appreciate (apparently more than you would) the kindness of the people in line, the passport clerk, the Delta gate agent, and (who knows?) perhaps the fast-flying pilot of Delta Flight 86. I also give myself a smidgeon of credit for steadfastness and quick thinking. As for the Lord, my only prayer would be: Next time find a more grateful subject to toy with.

  6. Anonymous11:53 AM

    David, you clearly are out of step with the times. Everything is a miracle nowadays. In fact, come to think of it, I farted yesterday without soiling my underwear -- irrefutable proof that a divine hand was at work!

    Shame on you, doubter!

  7. Anonymous2:16 PM

    Persistence and will.... very good.
    One man's will may change the world.

    Virgilio Costa

  8. Anonymous4:30 PM

    Fantastic story - funny I have done all those things including passport in a few hours (actually had to do it 2x -and it is in the Tip O'Neill blding in Boston now). I just never did it all at once!


  9. I'm looking forward for the story on your return back to US. :-)

    Enjoy your stay here!

    Panayotis (from Greece)

  10. Anonymous7:12 AM

    That was great! Thanks for sharing a reminder that no matter how many say you can't do it, you still have a shot until YOU say you can't do it!

  11. Anonymous7:26 AM

    What a beautiful story :)

    Well written, David.

  12. Anonymous2:27 PM

    Well done, you make all of us last minute boarders proud. An you tell a good story at that.

  13. Let's only hope that Nathalie would to the same for you...

  14. Anonymous3:51 PM

    did you get married?

  15. Indeed we did, and made 3 little people! (Nathalie is also featured in my july 13 and sept 27 blog posts.)

  16. excellent story!!! Greetings from Greece..

  17. Great story. You know you're not supposed to sit on an ancient monument though, right? Also, there's no bus from Athens airport to Brendisi. Brindisi is in Italy. You probably mean Piraeus.

  18. Anonymous3:07 PM

    It's funny what lenghths we will go through for the ones we love. The flip side to this coin boys, would we do it today? Not to sound like a DeBeers ad, but I hope I fight as hard for her today-

  19. A story to tell your grandchildren one day about the old days... Indeed I couldnt imagine something like that 15 years later...

  20. Anonymous12:28 AM

    Fantastic story. I know the feelings described. Thanks.

  21. Anonymous1:59 PM

    that was like an episode of "24."
    two thumbs up!

  22. Anonymous4:05 AM

    I tried the same thing at JFK in Dec 2001. KLM Flight to Amsterdam. And I was there half an hour before the flight departed. I begged the lady there, and everything.. No luck.

    had to wait 24 hours in that lobby (spent all my money in NY)

    But your story is really amazing.. :-)

  23. Anonymous1:33 AM

    U seemed to be writing with all guns (err! kbd) blazing. nice pics and u seem to know about India. i am from india
    Warning: Graphic images of violence
    I didnot sent u email because i have no such intention. HAA
    Happy New year 2006

  24. Aw, brilliant story!! See what faith can do? ;-)

  25. You write awesome stories! That was such a great one. I enjoy reading your blog.

  26. Great story. Be glad that you're not Canadian, today, trying to do the same thing. I had to renew my passport 2 years ago and, since I couldn't find my birth certificate, I had to get a new birth certificate (usual waiting time, 20 WEEKS) and then the new passport (usual waiting time 20 BUSINESS DAYS). I ended up getting a new birth certificate processed quickly by going through my local provincial legislator (apparently the way people have always gotten birth certificates quickly) and paying lots of money for my new passport to be done "express": in a week. It still took almost a month, from beginning to end, along with lots of phone calls, begging visits to government offices and general annoyance.

  27. As for the Lord, my only prayer would be: Next time find a more grateful subject to toy with.

    Oh, so it's G-d's fault you didn't check your passport's expiry date? Don't expect much, do you?

  28. That's beautiful.

    You can be sure I'll recite this one in the future to some unsuspecting new friend as a wonderfully exciting anecdote; of course, I won't skip out on the 'don't expect a happy ending line,' to be sure.

    About that miracles comment; I'm a christian, and I see no way one could say that G-d had to have a hand in that. It's somewhat ignorant, in fact, to say that. Just my two cents


  29. Awesome story! Reminds me of a flight I took out of Orlando to return to San Jose in 2001. I woke up late and there were like 40 minutes to departure time and a 30 minute drive to the airport. I bolted down from the hotel room (the Best Western I think) and the receptionist said "you can't make it" as I checked out. To make matters worse I missed the airport exit and had to take a detour on the way. Next the car rental guys told me I would "not make it" but still drove me (fast) to the terminal.

    They refused to check me in, but after a couple of calls on the wirless, relented, checked me in and opened the gate (the lady at the gate told me it was my lucky day). I got to the seat, plonked myself down and the flight took off as if on cue!

    And like you, I remember just sitting there grinning from ear to ear on an adrenaline high.

  30. I missed a flight from Zurich to Athens just this month, should have been there on the 18th May, put my coat on, touch my pocket where my passport SHOULD have been! Disaster. Amazingly I managed to get a replacement passport in a day from the British embassey (would have taken a week in the UK). Missed my class reunion with some very dear friends from LSE.

  31. Amazing...Just couldn't beleive!! I don't think such a thing can happen in India where you would've catched the same flight the next year........??

  32. Ehud Grunfeld7:25 PM


    I loved the story, and even more, your way of telling it.
    It also reminded me of the one below, which is incredibly touching (even for atheists):

    Ehud from Mowingo