Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man: the rocky road to Bethlehem-part I

Sands Resort Casino-635

Friday, August 8: Regular readers of the Travelin’ Man Chronicles know that every so often, my best laid plans go awry. Every once in a great while, however, those plans are blown to smithereens and the result is an epic series of forked roads, think-on-your-feet decisions and wondrous coincidences. One such adventure unfolded today.

But before going into the details, allow me to lay the groundwork. This day’s prime objective was to arrive at the Sands Resort Casino in Bethlehem, Pa., where, the next day, I would work an NBC Sports Network telecast topped by the heavyweight match between Vyacheslav Glazkov and Derric Rossy. The original plan was the same I followed when I worked my first show in Bethlehem: drive to Pittsburgh International Airport, connect through Philadelphia, fly to Allentown’s Lehigh Valley International Airport and secure a rental car to drive to the casino. If all went well, I would arrive at the hotel sometime around 7:30.

The first few portions of the blueprint proceeded smoothly and, at times, even better than expected. I pulled out of the driveway at 11 a.m. under sunny skies and temperatures in the upper 70s and arrived at the airport 10 minutes earlier than my goal time of 1:30 p.m. My search for a parking spot yielded an excellent slot 12 spaces before the 13B sign, which meant that the walk from parking lot to terminal ended up being less than two minutes.

My first-class upgrade for the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia leg authorized entry into the “preferred access” line at the security checkpoint and since there was no one in that queue, I simply walked up to the TSA agent, presented my boarding pass and ID and proceeded to the screening area. Although the line moved quickly and passengers from the general boarding line were piling up behind me, I unpacked and repacked my belongings with enough speed to keep the line moving. That’s not easy when you require three trays – one for each of my laptops and the other for everything else.

Although I had a seat in the first-class cabin, it was perhaps the “worst” one can have – first row on the window. The reason that seat is bad is this: since it’s a “bulkhead” seat, one has to put all his belongings in the overhead bin instead of putting one item in the bin and one underneath the seat, because there is, by definition, no “underneath” that would pass regulatory muster. Worse yet, by the time I entered the aircraft, virtually all of the available storage space was taken. Luckily, with the help of a flight attendant, I managed to squeeze in both of my bags in the bins above row three, which meant that after landing, I’d have to shift to salmon mode and swim against the human tide to retrieve my belongings.

Then the trouble began.

Just before the plane rolled onto the runway, it stopped. A few moments later, the pilot got on the loudspeaker and announced that because of a ground stop order in Philadelphia, our plane would not be allowed to leave Pittsburgh for another 20 minutes. If my itinerary was accurate, that would shrink my connection window to 21 minutes and if that wasn’t bad enough, I learned I would have to catch a bus in terminal F in order to reach my gate. In my mind’s eye, even if all went perfectly from this point forward, I would arrive at my gate during the boarding process, a tenuous situation at best and a potentially disastrous one at worst.

Once I grasped my state of affairs, I informed the flight attendant of my extremely narrow window. She told me that while the schedule officially listed it as a 90-minute flight, the actual flying time was just 46 minutes, meaning that even with the delay we would be landing not just on time but actually three minutes early. “Good,” I thought. “I still have to hustle to get to the gate but now at least it’s doable.”

Once I deplaned in Philadelphia, I looked at the monitor and saw that my 5:49 p.m. flight to Allentown was pushed back to 7 p.m., which meant I didn’t have to hustle anymore. That changed a few minutes after that.

When I arrived at my gate, I approached the agent and asked him why the flight was delayed. He said the plane that was to be used had just been rolled into the area where maintenance would normally be performed. At that point, I brought up the possibility of securing a one-way rental car reservation and driving to the airport in Allentown.

“Based on what I just saw on the computer screen, you’d be ahead to do that,” he said. “There’s a possibility they could switch planes, change gates or cancel the flight. So if you want to save time, I’d get that car now.” But before I could start dialing my cell phone, two would-be passengers who overheard my conversation spoke up.

“If you’re getting that rental car, can I come along?” said one. “I’m from Allentown and if you get the car, I can drive you there.”

“That’s great,” I said. “I appreciate that.”

“I need to get to Allentown too,” said the other man. “I have a buddy who’s supposed to pick me up at the airport there. If you have room for me, I’d like to come along.”

“Sure,” I said. “The more the merrier.” So, just like that, we had an impromptu carpool as well as an adventure ahead of us.

The first order of business – after introducing ourselves, of course – was to secure a rental car in Philadelphia. While we waited for the Hertz bus to pick us up, the first man – Kevin McCarthy, senior national account manager for Ken’s Foods Inc. in Bethlehem – gave me the number of Hertz’s national office. The hope was that I would have a reservation in the system by the time I reached the counter.

Unfortunately, I was put on hold. Meanwhile, Kevin was on his phone with Hertz doing the same thing. As the three of us walked away from the gate, we learned we had made the correct choice by leaving, for it was announced that our flight to Allentown had just been canceled. I learned later that I was booked on the next flight but by then, we were long gone.

In a bit of comic timing, I finally connected with the Hertz representative just as the rental bus arrived. With cell phone in one hand, I somehow managed to lift my two bags with the other and lugged them onto the bus while still talking with the agent. Even worse for me, the surrounding noise made it difficult to hear what the agent was saying, so I had to have her repeat herself several times. Meanwhile, as the bus rolled toward its destination, Kevin turned to me and said, “I think we have a car.”

“Should I just cancel this call?” I asked.

“Not just yet,” Kevin replied. “Let’s wait until mine’s firmed up.”
When we arrived at the Hertz facility, Kevin took one look at the long line at the rental counter and determined a new course of action was needed – one that told me, as a person of faith, that our chance meeting at the gate was one guided by divine forces.

“I happen to have an Emerald Isle account with National and I see that their building is right over there,” Kevin said. “We can get a car much quicker with them.” Once we decided that this was our plan of action, I told the Hertz agent to leave my reservation as is and hung up.

However, the route to the National property wasn’t as easy as we would have liked. A locked fence prevented us from taking the most direct route so Kevin, me and the third man – Pierce Bentz, the owner of Home Sewing Center in Allentown – hustled around the property’s periphery until we finally reached an open area. Once we did, Kevin explained our situation to the National agent in the parking lot and because he was an Emerald Isle member, he secured a vehicle in less than five minutes’ time.

As we loaded our belongings in the trunk, we decided Kevin would drive Pierce and me to the Allentown airport, where I would pick up my rental car and drive to Bethlehem. Pierce, meanwhile, called his friend and alerted that person as to where and when to pick him up. So after a lot of scrambling, our respective worlds appeared to be back in order. Kevin said that based on typical traffic patterns, I’d arrive at the airport around 7:30 and at the hotel sometime between 8 and 8:30.
Not bad…not bad at all.

During the drive, I learned that Keith and Pierce each were arriving from trade conventions – Keith’s was in Phoenix while Pierce’s was in Nashville. We swapped stories about our respective lives, which turned out to be a fascinating process. For instance, Kevin thoroughly entertained us with a story that saw him attend the Indianapolis 500 during the late-1980s, thanks to a business associate. As an avid amateur photographer, he took his camera along. It turned out that he didn’t just have any ordinary ticket; he had one that allowed him to witness the race from the suite owned by Newman-Haas Racing, the brainchild of actor Paul Newman and longtime racer Carl Haas. Kevin didn’t get to meet the actor but he later learned that his pass also granted him access to pit road, from where he snapped several photos from Michael Andretti’s pit.

The drive also unearthed several interesting coincidences. First, Keith mentioned he had a desire to digitize his old photos but didn’t have the knowledge or the available equipment to follow through. It turned out Pierce knew someone who could help him with both issues, opening two doors that were previously closed. Also, Keith was affiliated with a youth sports team that needed uniforms and Pierce, being the owner of a sewing machine business, had intimate knowledge on how that task could be fulfilled.

Think about it: had we not been thrust together by unusual circumstances, it’s very likely that none of these issues would have ever surfaced. Sure, it might have happened had Kevin and Pierce sat next to each other on the plane but even then, they might not have spoken to each other because for many people, airplanes aren’t a natural setting for free-flowing conversation. Cars, on the other hand, are, especially when three strangers find themselves in a weird situation. I’ve learned over the years that long car trips are the perfect vehicle for expansive talks that unearth many previously unknown facts and this trip with Kevin and Pierce was just another example of that dynamic.

As Kevin predicted, we arrived at Allentown’s airport at 7:30. Pierce and I gave him cash for his trouble – as well as to finance a future dinner for him and his wife – after which we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.

My next mission was to secure my own rental car and drive to the hotel in Bethlehem. The line at the rental counter was two people long, so I had time to update CompuBox president Bob Canobbio and his son, Nic. The process was delayed somewhat when the reservation had a Prius assigned to me, which, based on past experience, I knew I couldn’t drive. Once another car, a gray 2014 Elantra, was secured, I was on my way.

The normally 12-minute drive was lengthened somewhat by several factors. First, my Magellan GPS caused me to go astray on one particular turn because the pink line that denotes the proper path indicated multiple roads. It turned out I took the “wrong” fork and thus had to make a legal U-turn. Second, I had some issues finding the hotel parking garage and, once I got there, spotting an empty space. Finally, once I achieved those objectives, I had to ask directions to the hotel registration desk because in order to get there, one had to first weave his way through a large casino area that lacked proper signage.

I arrived in my room at 8:40 and as it turned out, the live tennis match between Milos Raonic and Feliciano Lopez (which was in the midst of a second-set tie-break) went into a third and deciding set, which pushed back the start of ESPN2′s “Friday Night Fights” broadcast by nearly 30 minutes. I was happy to see that I would get my full fight fix.

For me, the highlight of the broadcast wasn’t the 17-second blowout by Zhang Zhilei – which may arguably be the worst single fight FNF has aired in the series’ 16-year history – but rather the second fight between super middleweights Jason Escalera and Norbert Nemesapati that yielded particularly fascinating stats. After the 18-year-old Romanian rocked Escalera with a combination in round one (a round that saw Nemesapati outland Escalera 43-25), Escalera turned the tables in round two by unleashing 115 punches and outlanding Nemesapati, 46-15. From then on, Escalera issued a dreadful pounding to the youngster before winning an appropriately lopsided decision.

After the show ended, I went downstairs to the Mo’ Burger outlet in the food court and purchased two hot dogs, French fries and a Diet Pepsi to go, returned to my room and caught up on all the news I had missed on this most adventurous Travelin’ Man day. And to think, just 10 hours earlier, when I sat at the terminal in Pittsburgh, I had wondered what the subject for this story would be.

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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 12 writing awards, including nine in the last four years and two first-place awards since 2011. 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 email the author at l.groves@frontier.com to arrange for autographed copies.

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