By Kelly Piner
She glanced at her watch as the other passengers searched overhead bins, re-checked tickets, and ever-so-slowly shuffled off the plane. This was the trip of a lifetime, and she had no time to waste — a reunion and dream vacation with her 85-year-old father. She had so many memories of his kindness: the diner where he bought her a cup of coffee and made her feel like a grownup at age eight; the amusement park where she had her first roller coaster ride at twelve; then college, her freshman year, when he lugged her dorm furniture up three flights of stairs in ninety-degree heat. Now she could finally treat him and prove that someone other than her wealthy brother could show him a good time.
Judy Graves had saved for an entire year to pay for this week at a luxury condominium by the sea. Destin: white sand beaches and crystal blue waters. It had been more than three years since she had last seen her dad, and with his declining health, how much longer would he be able to make such a trip? His plane landed twenty minutes after hers, and she’d be at his gate, waiting to show him the time of his life.
She pushed past
families exchanging hugs and darted toward the baggage claim area, dragging her
carry-on luggage behind her as she zigzagged in and out of meandering tourists.
She stood with a hundred or so other passengers, all of them watching the
luggage carousel with the expectant looks of children waiting for the ice cream
truck. Finally a bell sounded and the bags—mostly black and nondescript—rolled around,
waiting to be grabbed by passengers who leaned in to check ID tags. Judy’s luggage, in sapphire blue, came out
last. She checked her watch once more; he would arrive in ten minutes.
She hauled her
suitcase over near the passenger exit door and waited. One by one, eager
vacationers filed through the exit door, some chatting on their cells, others
rushing toward the baggage claim area.
Sixty passengers in all must have come down the stairs, and then a pause
before the last traveler came out, a lone businessman who wandered away from
the gate in no particular hurry.
Judy strained her
neck to see farther down the corridor, expecting to see her father being
wheeled out by airline staff, but the hallway had grown quiet and empty. Five
minutes turned to ten with still no sign of him. Her brother had phoned from Virginia just
after seeing her father off, so she knew he hadn’t missed his flight. She held her hand over her heart to quiet its
pounding. Thinking that maybe the staff
had brought him out through a separate exit, she walked from one end of the small
airport to the other, until she had checked each door.
With still no sign
of him, she approached a ticket counter for help and waited in line behind a
party of five as the ticket agent typed endlessly into his keyboard.
Periodically, when some member of the group spoke, he stopped to peer over the
top of his glasses at them.
Judy struggled to
breathe as she scanned the near-empty airport.
Could he have missed his connection in Atlanta? He wasn’t used to such a
large airport as that. Could he have become so disoriented that he missed the
Some ten minutes
later, the party of five ambled away from the counter, dragging oversized
backpacks and beach bags behind them.
Judy rushed to the
counter. “My father didn’t arrive on his flight.” She slammed her purse down to
force her point.
“Name?” The agent
showed no sign of concern or surprise.
The agent tapped
away at the keys. “Flight number?”
Judy paused and
then said, “I don’t remember the flight, but it was the connection from
The agent gave her
a blank stare. “Connecting from which
“Richmond. Oh wait.” She dug around in her purse for the
itinerary. She tossed her wallet onto the counter, followed by her makeup bag
and a large hairbrush.
The agent spoke to
someone behind her in his deadpan voice. “Be right with you, sir.”
pounded louder. Didn’t anyone care that her father was missing? “Here it is,”
she said and handed the itinerary to the agent.
He stared at it
and typed some more, his expression unchanging.
missed his connection,” Judy said. “What
time does the next one arrive?”
connections from Atlanta today. Next connection is tomorrow at 11 am.”
“What? Oh no.” No outdoor dining at the top seafood
restaurant, followed by her father’s favorite Western video back at the condo?
“Are you sure?”
The agent peered
again over his glasses at her, and the man next in line cleared his throat.
“Be right with
you, sir,” the agent reminded the customer.
“Says right here that Mr. Graves boarded his flight in Atlanta.”
“Really? Well, where is he?” Judy sounded both hopeful
and frightened. “I ordered the
wheelchair service for him. Maybe they
brought him out another exit?”
“No, he should
have come out with the other passengers.
Look, I have to keep the line moving.
Why don’t you go to my supervisor’s officer next to baggage claim? He’ll
follow up for you. I don’t have any
Judy placed the
itinerary back in her purse and backed away.
She refused to speculate about what might have happened. But at the
supervisor’s office, another passenger already had him occupied. As Judy
waited, the passenger’s voice grew loud. From what Judy could make out, the man’s lost suitcase
contained valuable documents. His voice
rose in panic at the carelessness of the airline.
“I must get those
documents back,” he insisted to the supervisor.
“This is precisely
why we don’t recommend checking valuables,” the supervisor said, as if in
saying so, he had somehow absolved the airline of its responsibility.
“So this is my
fault?” the passenger shot back.
“I can assure you
we’re doing everything possible to locate your baggage.” He stood and motioned for
the angry man to leave his office. “We’ll telephone you when your bag is
bolted past Judy, his expression tight and angry.
supervisor called out.
A trickle of sweat
formed on her forehead as she entered his office. “My father didn’t arrive on his flight from
Atlanta. No one seems to know what’s
motioned to a chair. “Have a seat and let’s take a look. Your father’s name and flight?”
This time Judy had
the itinerary ready. “This just makes no
sense. The ticket agent said he made his connection, but where is he?”
“This sort of
thing happens all the time,” the supervisor said. “I’m sure there’s a logical
explanation.” He typed and typed.
Judy studied his
face for any sign of what he was thinking, but he remained as expressionless as
the other man. “Ah,” he said, at last. “I’ll be right back.”
Judy watched as he
strode through a door marked Airport
Personnel Only. She checked her
watch—4:40. Their first night shot, not
to mention probably half the next day as well, as her dad had obviously missed
his connection. She feared for his
safety, wandering around the Atlanta airport at his age. And where would he spend the night? She angrily brushed aside a tear. As soon as she returned home, she’d register
a complaint against the airline for its shoddy care of her dad. She’d have
someone’s job for this.
“Come with me,
ma’am.” An official-looking man in a suit stood next to the supervisor in the
doorway. “Sorry for all this confusion,” he said, “but
your father arrived safely. He’s over at
Judy followed the older
employee around to the baggage carousel and scanned the area. She still saw no
sign of her father or anyone in a wheelchair.
Then she noticed a side door marked Private,
and she fixed her eyes on the door, now more eager than ever to greet her
A bell sounded. “Here
comes the baggage.” The airline official pointed as a large black duffle bag
shot onto the carousel. “Tom,” he
shouted, and a husky young man came running.
The young man dragged
the bag off the luggage carousel and hoisted it onto an industrial scale in the
punched numbers into a nearby kiosk and handed Judy a receipt.
“What is this? This isn’t my father’s luggage. He has a red Samsonite.”
“Ma’am, this isn’t
your father’s suitcase. It’s your father. He passed away on the flight. We thought you knew.” He took her arm and pointed
toward a counter.
“Oh my God!” She
pulled her arm free. “What are you
talking about? He was fine just a few
hours ago. There has to be some mistake.”
“No mistake,” he
said. “You need to take this receipt
over to the baggage claim counter. So sorry for your loss.” He took her arm
again and pointed.
The man at the
baggage claim counter motioned to Judy, quickly, as if directing traffic away
from an accident. She moved toward him with a feeling of everything happening
in slow motion. She felt stuck in a nightmare. Maybe he’d tell her it was all a
He took the
receipt from her, and she retrieved a wad of tissue from her purse and buried
her face in it as he typed on his keyboard. After a moment he cleared his
throat. “It comes to 172 pounds. That’ll
be $152. We take cash and all major
“What? I don’t understand.” Judy held the tissues to her chin and gaped
“The first twenty
pounds of luggage is free, but we charge per pound from there. His body weighed in at 172 pounds which comes
to $152.” He sounded as if he were charging her for shipping a dining room
She still gripped
the wad of tissues.
And then another
passenger came up next to her, his voice as panicked as hers had been only a
few minutes earlier.
“Can I help you?”
the clerk asked.
“Yes, my elderly
mother was traveling alone from Boston and didn’t get off the plane with the
“Get right in line behind this lady. We take cash and all major credit cards.”
Search this site: