A friend was talking the other day about one of those lucky days when he narrowly averted a disaster. It reminded me of an incident that happen to me nearly five years ago.
We were living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. My wife taught at a private school which had an exchange program with another private school across the country in Portland, Oregon. Each year during two subsequent months, the schools would send selected 5th graders on a trip to the other school for 8 days. The students would “buddy-up” with a student from the host school and stay with them at their home. The traveling adult chaperones would be housed at the homes of host teachers. Each day a field trip was planned to expose the visiting students to the sights and customs of the area where their counterparts lived. It was a fantastic learning experience for all concerned.
In April, the Oregon kids visited us and had a great time making new friends and seeing the area. In May, it was time for our host kids to return the visit. Only my wife and one other teacher had volunteered for the trip that year and a minimum of three was necessary. They were going to take 14 of the current 5th graders to Portland. In a weak moment I volunteered to fill in, even though I had no ties to the school. I was semi-retired and so it was easy to get the time off. I figured I would be the male authority figure for the boys, while my wife and the other teacher could tend to the needs of the girls. I hadn’t been to Oregon and saw it as a chance to see that part of the country.
We had to make a connection at Dallas with only 50 minutes between flights. When our plane arrived at the gate we were gathering our things and starting to depart the plane when a friendly older couple that had been sitting near us asked about our group, who were all wearing matching T-shirts. We explained, told them where we were going and they wished us well. While deboarding we told the excited students that we had to go to another terminal gate and what tram stop that would be, but above all we said, “stay together!”
As we approached the tram the doors were still open, but we realized it was crowded and about to depart. We shouted to the kids “wait, we’ll take the next one.” Too late. One of the girls had jumped on the tram as the doors were closing and off she went. This innocent adolescent who had been entrusted to us by her parents was now interposed among strangers. We looked at each other with ghastly white faces. The three of us were all thinking the same thing. “We’re not even half-way there and we’ve lost a child.” The settlers on the Oregon Trail had done better than this. An 11-year old girl, who had never been outside North Carolina before, was now riding the rails unaccompanied in the Dallas airport. For a moment I wondered to myself, was this incident going to be immortalized in song like “Charlie on the MTA?” Soon though, I was trying to think which lawyer I was going to hire to defend me in the criminal negligence case that was sure to follow.
We had no idea if she had even heard us say which stop and gate was ours, let alone if she could find it. If you’ve been to the Dallas airport, you know that tram goes around in circles, much like our collective minds were doing, making multiple stops at each terminal. We had to decide: should we stay here and see if she comes back to this stop? Should we go ahead, get the other kids to the next gate and then start our search? Should we split up? Should I disappear and take on a whole new identity? We decided to go ahead with everyone on the next tram. I hopped off and back on quickly at each stop along the way to see if she had gotten off there. No sign of her anywhere.
Finally, we arrived at our stop. As the doors opened, there, standing serenely composed in front of us, was our maverick. Standing beside her, with a caring hand on her shoulder, was the couple from the plane. They had already boarded the earlier tram, saw her excitedly jump on and remembering our prior conversation with them, took her under their wing. They got her to the correct stop and waited with her until we arrived. With profound relief we thanked them profusely, but in a flash they were gone. No time for introductions or pleasantries, they had to board that departing tram quickly or risk missing their own flight at a different terminal. We have no idea to this day who they were. We went on to have a wonderful trip.
There is a moral to this story. That is, there are times in our lives when, in spite of our best efforts to screw things up, serendipity intervenes. Way to go, serendipity.
EXTRA CREDIT: Can you pick out the one who strayed?