Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man: Santa Ynez, Part I

Thursday, February 16: Every adventure has a trade-off. For this trip, at least in terms of scheduling, the good part comes today because my first flight doesn’t leave until 5:20 p.m., which afforded me a good night’s sleep and the chance to clear my “to-do” list before leaving for the airport. Still, a lengthy and demanding travel day awaited me:

  • Drive two-and-a-half hours from my home in West Virginia to Pittsburgh International Airport.
  • Fly nearly five hours from Pittsburgh to Phoenix.
  • Catch a connecting flight to Santa Barbara, which, if it landed on schedule, gave me a 30-minute window to reach my gate before boarding.
  • Drive a rental car from Santa Barbara to the crew hotel in Buellton, an approximately one-hour trip.

If all went well, it would require the lion’s share of my waking hours to reach my final destination but at least it would be a low-pressure and not-too-demanding task physically.

The flip side is on the return trip – and it’s a bear. In order to return home in time to supervise my multiple Saturday night boxing show recordings – six shows in all – I booked a 6:30 a.m. flight out of Santa Barbara. When one adds in the drive from the hotel and the need to arrive at the airport at least 90 minutes before boarding, I would essentially be operating on no sleep. Complicating matters is the fact that I’m incapable of falling asleep on planes; I can only close my eyes and rest while being fully aware of my surroundings. That could be a tricky proposition considering the long drive home. So I either have to learn to get some shut-eye while flying in a hollow metal tube at 600 miles per hour or guzzle down as much caffeine as humanly possible to stay alert. But that’s a bridge to cross later; for now I’ll have to deal with now.

I awoke at 8:00 a.m. sharp to fog, drizzle and a chill in the air – in other words a typical mid-February day in West Virginia. I finished my pre-trip tasks with dispatch and drove out of my driveway a few minutes after noon. By then the rain had stopped and the drive to Pittsburgh was more routine than usual because there weren’t the customary construction delays.

Whatever time I saved there was more than made up once I reached the security line, which was as long as I’ve ever seen. Even with more TSA workers checking boarding passes than had been the case in recent years it still took me 45 minutes to snake my way through the line. At least I got in my share of calisthenics as I constantly bent down to pick up my bags to move a foot or two forward, set them down to rest my reddened “Velcro Hands,” then repeated the process until I finally reached the agent in charge of checking boarding passes.

Once I passed that test, I discovered that the mechanics of disassembling and reassembling myself and my bags was nowhere near as fluent as it once had been. Like a boxer encased in ring rust, I had to think through every move instead of relying on muscle memory. As I stumbled from step to step I felt the self-imposed pressure and mild embarrassment of delaying the people behind me. And this is from someone who wasn’t getting hit. Just imagine the consequences this hesitance would have inside the squared circle. But — as I often do — I digress.

Once I cleared security I stopped at the newly opened Subway in Terminal B to grab a six-inch turkey breast sub, a small bag of Fritos and a Diet Coke while browsing the October 1972 issue of World Boxing that I removed from the “vault” that is my magazine collection.

The cover story was “Why Ali Will Never Be as Great Again!” by former heavyweight champion – and soon-to-be opponent for the second time – Floyd Patterson. Given his gentlemanly reputation, Patterson was surprisingly critical of Ali. Firstly, he insisted on referring to Ali as “Clay” as retaliation for Ali dubbing him “The Rabbit.” Second, Patterson opined that the prime Ali moved so much not because it was an expression of his superlative athletic ability but because he was deathly afraid of pain. Third, he questioned Ali’s fighting heart by citing his willingness to quit in the corner during the first Liston fight – a fight he was dominating. Patterson also pointed out that the speed of Ali’s legs – not his hands – was what made him special.

“In the first part of our fight, before my disc went, my punching speed was a lot faster than his,” Patterson wrote.

Finally, Patterson believed the three-and-a-half year exile forever robbed Ali of his bounce and because of that he would never be the same fighter. While Patterson was wrong to criticize Ali’s courage – after all, he had just endured 15 rounds of hell against Joe Frazier the first time around – he was correct about the state of Ali’s legs. Once Ali discovered he could take a punch better than arguably any heavyweight who has yet lived he scrapped the float for the rope-a-dope. That tactic allowed him to win many late-career battles but in terms of his long-term health he lost the war.

Once I boarded the Phoenix flight a mother with her husband and young son approached me. It seemed that the airline had not seated them together and she asked if I would give up my aisle seat for her son.

There was a catch: I would have to move across the aisle into a middle seat – the bane of travelers. For those who don’t understand why, allow me to use a boxing analogy.

Remember when Joe Frazier told Marvin Hagler that he had three strikes against him – you’re black, you’re a southpaw and you’re good? That’s what the middle seat is for passengers. Strike One: You can’t look out the window. Strike Two: You can’t walk around the cabin or stretch your legs without first disturbing someone. Strike Three: The quarters are tight and there’s no respite. You often have to navigate around your seatmates’ elbows to find a spot to rest your arms and you have to take extra care when you’re consuming food or beverages. Add to all that the nearly five-hour flight that was about to begin. The mother – and subsequently the flight attendant – was fully aware of what they were asking of me.

My response was instantaneous: “Sure.”

To me, it was the only right answer. First, who was I to keep a family from sitting together? I was traveling alone and thus I had flexibility they didn’t. Second, it wasn’t as if I was going to arrive in Phoenix any faster in seat 22C than 22E. Finally, it made me feel good that they felt good.

Still, the flight attendant told me I was one of the rare ones and to show her appreciation I received full cans of soda instead of the usual one plastic cup and the can of Pringles that ordinarily costs $3 was given free of charge. While some would say this was a modest reward, I say it was a kindness that didn’t have to be extended. Besides, it wasn’t so bad; I spent the vast majority of my time reading a book nearly as thick as my own 738-page “Tales from the Vault” (which is, by the way, still available on Amazon).

We landed in Phoenix at the promised 8:05 p.m. arrival time – though the pilot said over the intercom we had landed 15 minutes early. Hmm. We had to wait on the runway five minutes because our gate was occupied and it took even longer for my fellow passengers to unload their baggage and exit the plane. Sometimes I wonder if some travelers, as slowly as they move, have a latent sloth gene.

When I flew to Phoenix last month as part of the Indio trip, my gate was less than 300 feet from where I entered the terminal. This time – with less than 10 minutes to reach the gate for my connecting flight before it was to begin boarding – I had to navigate two concourses. Thank goodness I’ve maintained my walking regimen for the past three years, for I needed every bit of that hard-earned speed to propel me.

It turned out I made it with time to spare because the plane was late in arriving to its appointed gate and the required pre-fight routines ultimately delayed our departure 40 minutes. Such are the fortunes of modern aviation.

Unlike the Pittsburgh-to-Phoenix flight, which included some troublesome turbulence in the latter stages, the Phoenix-to-Santa Barbara leg was as smooth as Jose Napoles’ style. For those who don’t know who Napoles was, all you need to know about the longtime welterweight king of the 1970s is that his nickname – Mantequilla – was Spanish for “butter.” For further proof, look him up on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean.

Though I experienced some minor troubles during the drive to Buellton – troubles I will reveal in detail in Part II – the story had a happy ending. I arrived at the hotel shortly after 11:15 p.m. local time and I was famished. Before I could indulge in a late-night snack I worked through some Internet connectivity issues on my laptop so I could tell everyone concerned I had arrived safe and sound. By the time I finished eating it was nearly 2 a.m. – 5 a.m. local body clock time – before I finally turned out the lights on a lengthy but eventful day for this Travelin’ Man.



Photo of airplane takeoff / iStockphoto.com-Marchcattle

Photo of airport gates sign / iStockphoto.com-halbergman

Photo of airline passengers / iStockphoto.com-ironrodart

Lee Groves can be emailed at l.groves@frontier.com. Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won five writing awards, and an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. and the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author to arrange for autographed copies.

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