While rummaging through boxes looking for a death certificate, I found “A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to Gatwick Airport,” the memoir mentioned in my bio. It was the first story I had ever penned -- years before my first published piece. Written from the heart for my personal journal, the words poured onto the page from the keyboard of an IBM Selectric. I stopped to read it again and laughed until my sides hurt. I pay homage to this story – and my dear colleague Jorge Arciniega who nudged me to pursue my passion.
Magdalena and I had come to the end of our 14-day trip to London and Paris. Without question, we experienced a trip that was exciting, educational, and indeed, one that will always fill our memories. We were perfect traveling companions as both typical -- and not so typical -- tourists! The latter is what I am compelled to write about. Our trip was during the summer of 1984 and to this day, I can't help but laugh out loud when I remember our last day in London…
Before arriving in England, we spent one week in Paris with my good friend, Jeannie. She taught us how to conduct a comprehensive self-tour of a major city so that by the time we reached London, we were unintimidated and ready to explore. We started off by taking a bus tour around London. The next day we mapped out the sites we wanted to see most. Then, with our guidebook in hand, we set out on foot for the remainder of the week. We took the “tube” (London's subway) everywhere -- we were "pros"! We saw Westminster Abbey; Buckingham Palace; the Houses of Parliament; Big Ben; St. Paul's Cathedral; Piccadilly Circus; and, of course, shopped our hearts away at Harrods. Another highlight was a dream-come-true excursion on the romantic legendary Orient Express. As our week came to a close, we were tired, but proud of our accomplishments.
With one day left, it occurred to us that we had not even seen the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London.
Magdalena was determined not to leave without seeing this wondrous spectacle. That night, she devised a well-planned schedule that would allow us enough time to see the Crown Jewels Friday morning and arrive at Gatwick Airport in time to catch our 1:30 p.m. flight to Los Angeles.
What could go wrong?
We packed our bags before going to bed so that we would be ready in the morning to check out, visit the Crown Jewels, return to pick up our bags, and be on our way to the airport.
We had three pieces of luggage each: an overstuffed garment bag, a carry-on bag (or so it was when we left Los Angeles), and our canvas Harrods bag stuffed to capacity. At Harvey Nichols Department Store we bought two (but as we later discovered, cheap) luggage carts to haul our bags. We were proud at how we so cleverly packed our cases and secured them to our new carts. We even did a test run back and forth in our small room. Finally, I telephoned the automatic wake-up service to ring us at 7:00 a.m. the next morning.
The telephone rang on time the next day. We got ready and placed our bags in one corner of the room. We had an unhurried breakfast in the main dining room after which we caught the tube and arrived at the Tower of London by 9:30. Just as we had hoped, only a short queue had formed and there was hardly a wait.
There was plenty to see: fascinating exhibits of the armory worn and artillery used during the medieval period; cases displaying beautiful golden tureens, goblets, staffs; and, of course, the Crown Jewels.
To see the crowns and jewels worn by the royal families glistening right before our eyes was a breathtaking sight.
At 11:00 a.m., it was time for us to pick up our bags, catch the tube to Victoria Station, and finally, the Gatwick Express to the airport.
We picked up our bags without a hitch. But as we left the hotel, our ordeal began.
We headed for the subway station only a block away. Within minutes, Magdalena's luggage cart toppled over. No problem. We reloaded and we were off again. We barely made it to the other side of the street when Magdalena experienced topple number two. By this time, I was well ahead of her. A nice couple happened to be crossing the street and gave her a hand.
We finally entered the subway station and found ourselves faced with a descending staircase. One step at a time, we carefully pulled our baggage down the stairs. The two of us, each five foot in height and together weighing 200 hundred pounds, were looking more pitiful by the minute. But stoically, we made it on our own to the bottom of the stairs.
Just then, my cart gave up and my bags slid sideways onto the floor.
To make matters worse, someone saw this as an opportune time to snatch my brand new automatic umbrella. We reloaded and managed to make a somewhat smooth connection onto the tube.
We were quite tired by this time, and were able to rest a bit as we were not to get off for several stops. However, only two stops down, I noticed that Magdalena was standing quite close to the door, the position we would normally take while preparing to disembark. I thought to myself, "Surely she knows we don't get off until Victoria Station." But as we stopped at St. James, the automatic doors flung open and, with the other passengers, out went Magdalena -- baggage and all. At that very moment I called out to her, "We are supposed to get off at the next stop...!"
Before I could take another breath, I was flying out the door right behind her.
We finally made it to Victoria Station -- the end of the line --yet to be welcomed with another flight of stairs! We took a serious glance at each other and, without saying a word, knew that there was no way...
Seconds later, we were rescued by a mysterious gentleman whom I later recalled seeing on the subway. He was a handsomely dressed Robert Redford look-alike. He quietly offered to carry my baggage up the stairs. I knew my problem was solved. But what about Magdalena? As we stood there dazed, he picked up both carts and flew up the stairs! We raced after him, but barely had a chance to thank him before he was gone as quickly as he had appeared.
We decided he definitely had something to offer the 1984 Olympics.
At Victoria Station, passengers were queuing to buy tickets for the 12:45 p.m. Gatwick Express. We bought our tickets, boarded the train, stored our baggage and found seats for our 3O-minute ride. Finally, we had a few peaceful moments.
Before my tired muscles could relax, Magdalena broke the silence. Knowing that our flight was scheduled to depart at 1:30 p.m., she asked, "Do you think there might be another flight out today?" "I don't think so," I replied. We had good reason to be concerned. The train was scheduled to arrive at Gatwick Airport at 1:15 p.m. giving us only 15 minutes to gather our bags, find our airline terminal, check in and board the plane. Our last hope was that the plane might be delayed. Undaunted, Magdalena devised another foolproof plan. Notorious for catching planes just in time for takeoff, she saw this as a challenge. I was assigned the task of handling the tickets, passports and checking in. She was in charge of the baggage.
The clock struck 1:15. I was pressed against the door of the train ready to fly out the minute it opened. I left Magdalena behind, hoping she knew what she was doing because I was not so sure about myself.
As I ran through this unfamiliar airport, a miracle happened. I took a turn that led me straight to our airline ticket counter. There was no line! Trying to hide the beads of sweat from my forehead, I took a deep breath, coolly smiled and asked the person behind the counter, "Is it possible that the flight to Los Angeles is delayed?" I was probably the only one who was disappointed that the plane was on schedule. In fact, all passengers were on board -- except us. I explained why I was checking in for the two of us and that Magdalena would be right behind me with the luggage. At the same time, I was frantically looking in all directions hoping that she was not lost. Just then, I saw a porter passing me with a trolley full of our luggage. I called out,
"That's my luggage!"
Seconds later, Magdalena came whipping around the corner.
The ticket agent telephoned to the plane that the last two passengers had finally arrived. It was too late to check in our baggage. We had to take everything with us to the plane. As we prepared to leave, we were instructed to head straight for the plane, and further, "do not stop for anything!"
We grabbed our loaded trolley and raced down the corridors. Magdalena had so much speed on the trolley that I am certain she could have ridden it the entire way.
At the end of the third corridor, our race against time came to a screeching halt. When we arrived at the tram that would take us directly to the plane, a sign appeared that read: "No Trolley's Beyond This Point." This couldn't be true I thought. My knees were weak. But there was no time to waste. There was not even time to rummage through our bags to pull out our cheap luggage carts. I called to Magdalena, "Are we supposed to carry all this?!" She screamed back, "Just pick it up!" The saying, "Where there's a will, there's a way," was more than appropriate at that time. Exhausted and looking like two human luggage racks, we rode the tram to the plane.
We had laughed a lot together during our trip, but not this time. When we got off the tram, we had only 30 yards left before we could let go of what had become unbearable weight. Inch by inch, I crept towards the gateway and knew that if I stopped, I would collapse.
We finally reached the plane. As we boarded, we tried not to make a scene as the other passengers were already seated and relaxed. We proceeded to discreetly take our seats. But with one glance at each other, the silence was broken. There was not a dry eye between the two of us for the next 30 minutes.
How wonderful it felt to laugh again.