Every so often, we mortals are given a fresh reminder of a fundamental fact – Mother Nature can be a loathsome hag when she wants to be.
As regular readers of the Travelin’ Man Chronicles know, the logistical gods have had plenty of fun with me over the past seven-plus years. During that time I’ve experienced unannounced gate changes, broken down rental cars, cases of mistaken identity, hours-long waits on the runway, an accidental border crossing into Mexico without a passport, hotel room snafus, missed connections and canceled flights, among other things. But no other circumstance has wreaked more havoc with me than winter weather.
If I didn’t know that before, I certainly knew it after my latest adventure. This past week I traveled to Detroit to work the CompuBox keys at a card topped by Ishe Smith winning the IBF junior middleweight title from Cornelius Bundrage by a split decision that should have been unanimous. I experienced more than my share of issues getting from Point A to Point B because the line between them changed shapes a few times – all because of a meteorological phenomenon known as “Winter Storm Q” that battered the U.S. Midwest on the ground and annihilated countless itineraries in the air. Mine, of course, was one of them and here’s how “Q” ended up getting the best of me – at least for a while.
Thursday, Feb. 21: As a kid, winter meant sleigh rides, snowball fights, hot chocolate chasers and – praise be – days off from the social hell known as school. But as I ascended toward adulthood, my feelings toward the months of October through February descended (An aside: The only reason I include October and November on my list is because they remind me that December, January and February are just around the corner. I suppose if I lived in the Southern Hemisphere I’d feel the same way about March through August, but because I don’t, I don’t.)
All those fond childhood memories were replaced by too-short, too-gray days, commutes on roads riddled with black ice and unplowed snow, plenty of rounds with the shovel, snow brush and ice scraper and shivering during late-night fuel-ups at various gas stations.
One of my first trips as a full-time member of CompuBox took me to Salem, New Hampshire, which was promptly buried by 18 inches of snow thanks to a nor’easter. Moreover, my worst-ever Travelin’ Man adventure (Key West in January 2008) was caused in great part by winter storms. Their after-effects destroyed my itinerary three times, caused an overnight stay in at a hotel near Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., nearly derailed my final connection from Miami to Key West on fight day due to overbooking issues created by the storms up north and, because the window from one task to the next was so short I couldn’t catch even a catnap, I ended up staying awake 62 consecutive hours, which brought on a mild case of shingles.
So imagine my anxiety when – shortly after arising at 8:30 a.m. – I turned on the Weather Channel and saw wall-to-wall coverage of “Winter Storm Q” as it ravaged the Interstate 70 corridor of the U.S. Midwest. Here’s why I was anxious:
The site of this week’s Travelin’ Man journey was Detroit, Michigan. Because nobody knew of any direct flights from Pittsburgh to Detroit I asked for a Pittsburgh-to-Dulles/Dulles to Detroit itinerary and, of course, “Q” was projected to hit Detroit right about the time my D.C.-to-Detroit leg was to begin. My call time at the venue was set for 3 p.m. Friday and the Hag’s deeds threatened to complicate, if not obliterate, that mandate.
Based on past experiences with storms like “Q,” many bad scenarios flashed through my mind. For example, if “Q’s” snow bomb hit too hard, potentially all flights bound for Detroit on Friday would be canceled. After all, “Q” had already shut down Kansas City’s airport. I briefly thought about driving directly to Detroit, but that wasn’t a viable option time-wise or logistically because I risked driving into a snow-covered quagmire. Plus, I was only one of 20 people associated with the show scheduled to fly into Detroit this day – a little less than 25 percent of the crew. If a significant chunk of that total couldn’t get into the “Motor City,” the production would be adversely, if not fatally, affected.
To improve my chances of reaching my destination – and to avoid having to get up at 4 a.m. to catch a mid-morning flight – I booked a hotel room located 15 minutes from Pittsburgh International Airport. When I made my reservations Tuesday afternoon, I made sure to spell my last name twice because “Groves” is a difficult name to understand over the phone. Assuming I was successful, I spent the next couple of days getting to a place work-wise where I could afford to take a three-day break.
You know what they say about the word “assume?” That truism played itself out when I arrived at my hotel shortly after 4:30 p.m. Here’s how the conversation roughly went:
She: “Are you checking in?”
Me: “Yes I am,”
She: “Name please?”
Me: “Groves – G-R-O-V-E-S.”
She: “I’m sorry, but I don’t see you here.”
Me: “That’s weird. I made my reservations on Tuesday.”
She: “Did you call the hotel or the central reservations office?”
Me: “I called the hotel directly. Is this the hotel located at (I give the address)?”
She: “Yes it is.”
Me: “And is your phone number (I recite the number)?”
She: “Yes it is. Were you given a confirmation number?”
Me: “I’m not sure…I’ll go out to the car and see (I had written the hotel information in my spiral notebook at the time of the reservation so I could subsequently program the Magellan GPS device). I’ll be right back.”
Me: (After returning from the car) “No, they didn’t give me a confirmation number.”
She: “The reason why I ask is that although I can get you a room for tonight I don’t want you to be double-charged.”
Me: “I understand…and thanks for that.”
She: “By the way, could you have been booked under another name?”
Me: “It’s possible.”
She: “Because I have a reservation here under the last name ‘Gross.’”
Me: “That’s probably it. That’s a common mishearing of my last name. I don’t know how the person could have screwed it up because I spelled my last name at least twice while making the reservation.”
She: “Incompetence seems to be the rule these days. Does your credit card read (she recites the numerals)?”
Me: “Yes they do.”
She: “Mystery solved.”
I wish I had a dollar for every time my last name was misconstrued, either over the phone or on pieces of junk mail. It happens almost as often as I hear the following two queries:
Question: “So, you’re from Friendly, West Virginia. Is everyone friendly there?”
Answer: “Most of us are, but there are a few black sheep. Unfortunately for you, I’m one of them.”
Question: “So, you’re from Friendly, West Virginia. How close is that to Richmond?”
Answer: “I don’t know…where’s Richmond?”
After settling into my room, I asked the check-in clerk the location of the nearest Subway so I could get a late-afternoon snack/future late-night meal. She told me there was an outlet located directly across from Robert Morris University a couple of miles down the road. Once again she was correct and soon I had my culinary bounty in tow.
I settled in for a quiet evening of writing and watching TV. The plan for Friday was pretty straightforward – get up at 7 a.m., leave the hotel by 7:45, arrive at the airport by 8 and hopefully board my Pittsburgh-to-D.C. flight at 9:45. If all went well – a big if given “Q’s” presence – I would land in Detroit at 2:07 p.m., after which I would drive directly to the fight venue, the Masonic Temple at 500 Temple Street, to conduct and hopefully complete my tasks. That was the plan, but would the Hag allow me to follow it unmolested?
Of course she wouldn’t.
Friday, Feb. 22: Following seven hours of off-and-on sleep, I arose at 6:30 a.m. After completing the usual morning routines I checked the status of my first flight (still on time) and the weather conditions in Detroit (snow tapering off late morning, 2 to 3 inches expected). “So far, so good,” I thought.
Although I was flying United – an airline I use rarely – I was pleasantly surprised to see the words “Premier Access” on my boarding pass. Good thing, because though the lines at the terminal were longer than usual such was not the case at the “preferred access” queue.
As I unloaded my belongings into the trays I checked my pockets once, twice, three times, just to make sure everything was removed. But when I walked under the metal detector I heard beeping and saw a red light illuminate.
“Excuse me, sir,” the TSA agent said. “Could you step aside please?”
“Sure,” I replied. “But I’m a little confused. My pockets were empty and yet the alarm went off. Why?”
“The detector randomly picks passengers so we can conduct additional screenings,” he said. “It shouldn’t take long.”
It didn’t. The “additional screening” was one in which my hands were tested for residue. Finding none, I was allowed to proceed. Too bad I didn’t have the same random luck during the Powerball drawing late last year.
After again checking the flight monitor (still on time) I glanced at the map that chronicled the progress of incoming and outgoing planes as well as the current weather radar.
Bad news: It was snowing in Detroit.
Good news: The light blue area representing snowfall appeared to be an hour or two from drifting to the East, meaning my D.C. to Detroit leg may indeed leave at its advertised time.
Worse news: While the D.C.-to-Detroit leg might have departed as scheduled, my Pittsburgh-to-D.C. trip never happened.
The plane was supposed to depart at 10:10 a.m. but it wasn’t until we had been on the plane 30 minutes before we were told the reason for the delay. Freezing rain apparently had jammed the latch that opened the luggage cargo door at the bottom of the aircraft and because of that the door couldn’t be properly shut. Because nobody wanted a bunch of luggage falling from the sky, the crew was waiting for a maintenance team to arrive – something that obviously didn’t happen quickly. Only after the latch passed muster, we were told, we would push back and leave town.
Only thing was, we didn’t.
A few minutes later the flight attendant informed us we would leave the gate – but only after the plane was de-iced. We also were promised an update regarding the status of connecting flights, whose windows by now were shrinking toward the danger zone.
That update never came because another surprise was in store. The pilot said the mechanical issues had multiplied to the point that the quickest option was for us to de-plane and board another aircraft waiting for us at another concourse.
However, we couldn’t leave this plane for another 20 minutes. Why? The weather conditions prevented the jet bridge from properly lining up with the plane’s main exit door, so to start the ball rolling toward rectifying that problem, the dozens that had already congregated in the aisles had to re-seat themselves and re-fasten their seat belts so the plane could inch itself into proper alignment.
Just when you thought you had seen everything as a traveler, the gods always come up with something new. Wonders never cease.
Because our new gate was a fair distance away – and because I knew a line would quickly form at the gate agent’s station for flight re-bookings – I broke into a power walk in the hopes of getting a good spot in line and minimizing my wait.
Despite snagging the number-three spot in the queue, I need not have bothered about shortening my waiting time. The couple directly in front of me had re-booking issues so complex that it took more than 25 minutes to fix them all. Worse yet, the guy who was standing directly behind me was a complainer and he didn’t care that his barbs about the gate agent’s job performance were within her earshot. I tried to shush him but he chose to continue apace.
When it was my turn I was pleasantly surprised – in spite of my searches several weeks earlier there was a direct flight from Pittsburgh to Detroit on Delta that would get me into town around 3:30. However, since said flight wasn’t scheduled to leave for another 90 minutes — and because the gate agent needed to take care of those passengers needing to board the replacement aircraft bound for Dulles – I was asked to wait by the side until those passengers were accommodated. That sounded fair to me.
“Just remind me to take care of you,” she said. Don’t worry, I would.
Another 30 minutes passed before my new itinerary was presented to me.
“All I know is that your gate is in the ‘D’ concourse,” she said. “And I suggest you get there now.”
Your command is my wish; I just wanted to get out of town. It isn’t often that I visit three different concourses in the same airport due to gate changes, but there’s a first time for everything.
I glanced at the monitor to ascertain my gate and it was here that I learned the Delta flight’s departure was pushed back from 1:30 to 2:30. Good thing, because the line at that gate agent’s station was a dozen people long. Finally, at 1:45 p.m., I had my boarding pass in hand. Given the events thus far, it was fitting I was assigned a seat in Row 13.
My original mandate was to be at the fight venue at 3 p.m. But now, if all went as planned, I would be there between 4:30 and 5 p.m. With my timeline somewhat clarified, I called one of our contact people in Detroit to let them know what was going on, and, after explaining everything, I was told my new arrival time was perfectly fine.
Once I boarded the Delta aircraft, the troubles – if not the snow — that had plagued this day suddenly melted away. The flight departed shortly after 3 and touched down less than 40 turbulence-free minutes later. For the first time in my many travels, my seatmate came from a town whose population was even smaller than Friendly, West Virginia’s 130 (Aladdin, Wyoming, population 11 at the time of her childhood). The drive to the Masonic Temple was blessedly uneventful and once I walked inside, the unique interior struck an admiring chord.
The ring was placed on an elevated stage at the center of the room and was encircled by seats on three sides. Unlike most shows where the broadcast team and CompuBox crew look up into the ring, this configuration allowed us to see the action as if we were staring directly at the next-to-highest ring rope. There were few bad seats in the house and our vantage point was even better, both aesthetically and in terms of executing our counting duties.
My responsibilities at the venue took about an hour to complete, after which I drove back to the crew hotel. Finding the proper parking garage was a bit challenging and securing a space within it was even more so because most of the unoccupied spaces in the first five floors were reserved for one reason or another. Finally, after finding an unspoken-for spot relatively close to an elevator I made note of my space’s sixth-floor location on the garage ticket, walked to the hotel next door and checked in.
Famished, I ordered room service and settled in for a relaxing night at the fights. ESPN2 aired Roman Morales’ fifth-round TKO over Jesus Hernandez and IBF junior welterweight titlist Lamont Peterson’s impressive stoppage of Kendall Holt while ShoBox’s telecast saw Tureano Johnson out-point Willie Fortune and Alejandro Perez do the same to the previously unbeaten Art Hovhannisyan despite taking a low-blow point penalty.
The stresses of the day, combined with the large portions that comprised my room service meal, allowed me to drift into a slumber that lasted for most of the next nine hours.
The Hag might have won the early rounds but Providence ended up winning on points.
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including four in the last two years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is 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 at email@example.com arrange for autographed copies.