Lifeboat at 40,000 feet

About 15 years ago we took my husband’s family to Italy for two weeks. We had our three kids, his parents, brother, sister, brother-in-law, and niece and nephew. This was the first time I used the internet to book a vacation and I was terrified at every stop that things would not be what we were expecting. It wasn’t. It was better.

The trip was made much more complicated by the fact that my mother-in-law was extremely ill. In fact, we were unsure as to whether she could join us on this adventure right up until the day we left. She did come, and while I had arranged special transport, wheelchairs and doctors on standby in every city, she did just fine and enjoyed every moment.

My mother-in-law had suggested that in advance of the trip, each of the five kids do a project on a particular place that we would be visiting. Then, the night before, they would do their presentation so we would know what we were going to see. It was awesome.

The first week was hustle and bustle – four days in Rome, one with an Art/History major who took us on a private tour that was incredible. I had been to Rome before but she made it come alive in an interesting and engaging way. The restaurants were all marvelous (why is it that even the snack bar in the train station there is better than most restaurants everywhere else?). After a late dinner, we would walk home through the Campo de’Fiori and stop for a gelato under the stars.

Kids in Rom

We then travelled south, by luxury private coach, to Sorrento, through the countryside to Pompeii, and then on down to Naples. At Naples we took an overnight ferry to Sicily where we slowed the pace down by staying in the same two villas every night and taking only day trips.

It was March and the ocean was freezing but, being Canadian, our kids went swimming. My husband was accosted by German tourists who, seeing our kids swimming happily, stripped down and entered the icy water. “Verrückte Kanadier!” they screamed. Crazy indeed.

By the way, if you ever travel to Sicily, I can’t recommend highly enough the incredible Sabrina Lo Piano who arranged everything for us – with great skills and charm.

Everything on the trip went smoothly, right up until the very end. Our flight from Rome to Toronto was mid-Atlantic when something happened. If you fly often, you are able to determine very quickly when there is a sound that just shouldn’t be. Like when an engine blows up. The loud bang, the shudder and correction of the plane would have been hint enough, but we also had the visual of bits of burning metal going past the windows.

My husband and I looked at each other for a long second, saying nothing and saying it all. Then we gathered up the kids – who had been all hanging out together – and put each child with an adult. “Okay, let’s put our shoes back on and do up our seat belts for a while. Let’s put this pillow on our laps”.

The plane was very calm – some people were praying softly and the flight attendants were walking, albeit at about 60 mph, from place to place securing overhead bins and gathering loose items. The Captain came on and said “Ladies and Gentlemen we’re experiencing a little trouble (!!) with one of our engines so we’re going to have to take her down and have a look.” Of course, this was said with a slow, comforting, Southern drawl – why do all pilots sound like Chuck Yeager?

Now here’s the thing. I turned around to my mother and father-in-law. They were completely calm, and she said to me “Les, don’t worry about us.” For them, as well as us, it was all about keeping the kids safe. I swear to you their demeanor felt like, if we had been on a lifeboat, they would have swum away to give us more space.

As we were still over the ocean, we had to fly without the engine for a couple of hours. We finally put down at an Air Force base in Goose Bay Labrador. We could see the fire trucks and ambulances all along the runway as we landed – safely. Since there was no customs facility on the base, we had a long wait while they figured out what to do with us.

The base had been about to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a big party. They, so kindly, turned over to us the space and all the food that they had laid on. They set up banks of telephones so that we could call our worried families. (The incident had made the local news in Toronto so people were concerned).

The airline advised that a new plane would be sent from Toronto, but couldn’t arrive until morning. We made the kids beds on the floor, but I was desperate to find a proper bed from my mother-in-law. The airline people couldn’t let anyone leave the mess hall, as they hadn’t cleared customs. When we spoke to the Warrant Officer he said he would take my in-laws over to the Base Commander’s quarters so they could get a good night’s sleep. When I said the airline people won’t let them leave he asked “Do the airline people have a gun? Because I do.”

A few years later, when the events of September 11th forced dozens of planes to divert to Gander, and Goose Bay, I remembered the incredible kindness and generosity of the people that night and was knew that, however awful the situation, the inherent kindness of these strangers would make a bad situation that much better.


4 thoughts on “Lifeboat at 40,000 feet

  1. Dear Leslie, I am reading your story with passion, I didn’t know about the plain and the “trouble”,,very scare, your mother-in low..I remember her after 15 years,,so gentle, kind, how many years! in my career I have seen and known many persons, but Hobson Family,,it was special, the kids at the end of the Sicily Tour organized for me a “musical” I keep the song as a jewel : standing in the big living room near the fireplace on a step,,,so sweet, so spontainous,,,we were emotioned,,,do you remember? they song a famous song only changing words and making feel me very important,! they were artist!
    they were swimming and may be scuba-diving,,then great dinner all toghether in the big villa,,,,beautiful time! there is never a second identical story, so now the comment is mine, I am happy to know you, gratefull to met your splendid Family, the hope is that may be…I will have a tour with a French group in September to Canada, is not confirmed but would be a dream for me
    visit your beautifull Country, love-love -love!

  2. Leslie, thank you for sharing this great story. I know most of your family mentioned here and I know it is a special bunch of humans! I remember going to Rome with Blaine and how he went shopping for something special for you. And what a shopping trip that was. I’m sure he will remember it also, if you mention it to him.
    This story shows how you always make friends where you are, anyplace in the world.
    I am hopeful that the people of Gander know how much good they have done for folks stranded, and how much they have done for raising awareness of the many wonderful people in Newfoundland. Your story should help spread that message.
    Luvya, Don Hovis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s