When I navigated the ramp to the Westside Parkway, the Kern County Country Countdown was on the radio, and I had to make approximately 280 miles in three hours.
It was September of 1996. I had no cell phone. I actually had to use a map—a map printed on a piece of paper – to figure how to get to I-5, and back to San Francisco.
I had spent the last 48 hours at a writer’s conference in Bakersfield. I love writer’s conferences. Writing is a solitary pursuit: There’s no break room at the office. Heck, there’s no office. Conferences are a chance to meet like-minded colleagues with whom to commiserate, as well as an effective way to make contacts.
It happened that this conference went from Friday morning to dinnertime Sunday. I was leaving Sunday morning, though, because that afternoon my husband and I were having a birthday party for our two older children: Will, turning 7, and Sonia, turning 5, since their birthdays are only three days apart (September 5th and September 8th). We guessed it would be the last year we’d be able to get away with those joint parties, before they went their separate developmental ways.
I’ll mention here that my son is autistic.
I had arranged everything well in advance: cake and helium-filled balloons scheduled to be delivered; food provided by the Concordia Club (a social club we belonged to where the kids could swim on weekends); party favor bags packed, and carefully, if politically incorrectly, divided into Power Rangers for the boys, and Sailor Moon for the girls.
Oh, and by the way, I had a third baby: Elena, who was five months old. So we can say that I was balancing career and motherhood with the best of them, which means I was doing a mediocre job at both.
Still, I had planned my trip sensibly. I had a flight leaving at 10:30 that would get me to SFO at 11:45, which was more than enough time to get to the party at 2:00 pm.
Bakersfield is about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. The airport is small, with runways only long enough to handle private planes and small commercial jets. Only a few airlines operate there, including United Express, which is the regional branch of United, running Embraer jets on short-haul flights. It’s been a little over 23 years, but my guess is I was booked on either an Embraer 175, or ERJ145, planes that seat 50 passengers.
I was waiting at the gate with some tens of other travelers when I heard the announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, this flight is overbooked. If you’d like to give up your seat for a meal voucher and a $5 coupon for merchandise at Buck Owen’s Crystal Palace, please see….”
I snorted derisively — granted, there is no other way to snort. My ex-brother-in-law loved to volunteer to give up his seat; he’d haggle with the airline to get more compensation. Not only am I less bargain-minded, but the next flight to SFO didn’t depart until 4:40, which would be after the party officially ended. I mumbled to the man sitting next to me, “No way am I giving up my seat. It’s my kids’ birthday party.”
He kept reading his paper. I went back to my book. When the gate agent made the announcement a second time, I ignored it again.
Shortly before takeoff time, the gate agent led us out of the terminal. (The Bakersfield airport didn’t suffer from an overabundance of personnel; I think the janitor was in the men’s room at that moment, changing into a pilot’s uniform.) There must have been 50 of us, though I didn’t do a headcount. She took us only a short way from the doors, though, before she commanded us to stop.
We were lined up in front of a concrete wall. The gate agent was about my age: 40ish, with dirty blonde hair. But her white blouse and navy slacks, that had seemed so nondescript when we were inside, now hinted at something military. Altogether, I had the sense of facing a firing squad.
“I need a volunteer,” she said. The word “volunteer” no longer sounded like anything voluntary.
No one spoke. No one moved.
But then, strangely, she motioned to us to follow her, and we marched across the tarmac and climbed airstairs to the plane. I took an aisle seat, figuring that, however the gate agent had solved the problem, it was no longer mine.
But a few minutes later, she re-boarded. She came to where I was sitting. “Ms. Levin, will you come with me.”
I knew what was happening. I said, no, I would not.
She turned to the front of the plane. “Call security.”
The word “security” made me picture burly men in more strikingly militaristic garb, possibly armed. It scared me enough that I followed her up the aisle. Then I turned and faced the other 49 passengers. “I’m trying to get home to my son’s birthday party. He’s autistic. Please, please, will someone take my place?”
No one made eye contact.
“Please,” I repeated.
Apparently, something very interesting was happening outside the plane, because 49 people continued to stare out the windows.
We wonder so often, how do these things happen? You are frightened. You are in trouble. You are begging for help. No one gives a shit. In my case, no one said, “I’m going to visit my dying grandmother,” or “My sister’s wedding is tonight.”
“Come on,” the gate agent said.
I followed the gate agent back into the terminal, sobbing all the way.
I called home. Jackie, a woman who helped us with the kids sometimes, answered the phone.
“I—I—” I broke down crying. Finally, I choked out an explanation of why I wouldn’t be there. “Next-next-next flight is at four-four-forty.”
“Ah, God love you,” she said. Jackie is Irish. “Such a shame. Too far to drive, sure it is?”
Wait. It had never occurred to me that driving was an option. “I don’t know,” I said.
I was still hiccupping sobs as I approached the Avis counter. “How—how long—long a drive…”
Four hours, up highway 5.
When I went to the United Express counter to get my suitcase back (they had taken it off the plane along with me, since luggage can’t fly without an accompanying passenger), the gate agent who had threatened to haul me off the plane was suddenly my new best friend.
“What a good idea!” she said, as if about to hand me a lollipop as a reward.
Twenty minutes later I was on the road. I did 90 all the way; there was almost no traffic. 1996, remember? The Kern County Country Countdown turned into gospel music. Then there was more gospel music. This was Sunday, after all. When I finally heard not Jesus, but Karl Marx, being praised, I knew I had picked up Berkeley station KPFA.
The drive gave me time to ponder whether I’d brought this on myself. Why hadn’t I allowed for the possibility of a problem with the flight? What if there had been a mechanical issue? It wasn’t just the plane that was overbooked — it was me!
I arrived at the Concordia Club about 3:00, just as my husband and our friend Chris were about to cut into the cake. Elena was asleep in a car seat next to the table. People applauded briefly, but the cake was the star. While the guests, children and parents, ate, I made the round of tables, and the day melted into the thousands of days that made up that phase of my life, a decade of field trips, sore throats, and intensive therapies for Will.
What memories that William and Sonia have of this incident sound more like the result of my telling the story, rather than actual memories. I doubt that if I had stayed in Bakersfield, and spent the afternoon at Buck Owen’s Crystal Palace after all, that Will would have spiraled into regression or that Sonia would be holding a grudge. It didn’t seem that way at the time, though.
Avis charged me extra for dropping the car off at a place other than where I’d picked it up.
My husband followed up with United, though without much enthusiasm. It was over, I’d arrived, what were we going to do? Sue for emotional distress? That would have been exactly the kind of frivolous, opportunistic lawsuit that I detest: Is the coffee too hot? Did I witness an accident from three blocks away? JACKPOT! But he did follow up, because pushed him to. First, by telephone, they told him that I was taken off the flight because I had the cheapest ticket (which I doubt). Later, by letter, they said that once the passengers had boarded, they discovered the that plane was overweight. (I’m 5’5” and weigh 120 lbs.) (Okay, 5’4 ½” and 125.) I can sort of laugh about that now.
But never mind United. We all saw the video of their security team literally dragging a paying customer down the aisle of a jet. If my own trouble had occurred 10 years later, the passengers would have had their flip phones out to film the pleading mother. No one would have taken my place, but I could have gone viral! Then I would have received volumes of email blaming my son’s autism on vaccines, along with a few recommending that I eliminate gluten from his diet.
We know that United is corporate America, not at its worst, but at its most typical.
What chills me, 23 years later, is the image of those rows of passengers, looking away. And wondering what I would have done, had I been in their seats.
Donna Levin is the author of four novels, all of which are available from Chickadee Prince Books. Her latest novel, He Could Be Another Bill Gates, is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or at the bookstore right across the street from your home. Please take a look.
Design by Steven S. Drachman, from a photo by Azees math / unsplash