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2000-12-07 - 23:19:18

Leaving town

I had a surreal visit with a college friend today, a meeting to catch up after two years of only sporadic e-mail correspondence. I met him at Notre Dame's Moreau Seminary, a 1950s dorm community nestled on the snowy shore of St. Joseph's Lake this December afternoon. The seminary, complete with dining hall, library, weight room, gym and laundry, houses religious and religious candidates as they spend five years living, studying and praying together in preparation of their ordainment.

It was surreal in that here was a guy I'd known from his first day at Notre Dame, a tall, lanky, Kansan with bright red hair. Over the years we had meals together, partied and drank together and talked -- one-on-one and in groups -- about all that guys will talk about, including subjects I've never discussed other than those times in those dorm rooms with Greg and his roommates and our neighbors.

But here he was on the beginning of a long journey to service, dedication and poverty: the life of a Catholic priest. Someday he will be Father Greg; one day a few years ago we were guzzling beers and talking sex.

That's some dedictation, and probably a long, hard-thought decision that went into choosing the life of a priest. He'll spend this year as if in grad school -- only living in a less conventional dorm and studying mainly philosophy and theology. Starting in August is a year-long retreat in Colorado Springs, where, as Greg says, "We live a lot like monks. There's a lot of quiet time." Then a return to South Bend and three more years before ordination.

It's a noble calling, certainly.

After lunch and a walk through the seminary, I had to leave to return to Jess's dorm and get ready to fly home. The snow that began Wednesday at 5 p.m. continued through the night to varying degrees, and the ground now lay beneath six inches. The roads were just starting to become clear. For some reason, it takes half a day of snowfall to bring out the plows and sand trucks in South Bend. That's always annoyed me.

Jess drops me off at South Bend airport and I see that all the flights to Chicago -- on United and American -- are delayed, and most are getting cancelled as the weather does not break.

So United puts me on a Northwest flight through Detroit getting into Newark at 7 p.m., an hour before I would've gotten home on United. But the plane we're taking from South Bend to Detroit is a little late; then when it lands, they tell us that Detroit has just closed to incoming flights while they clear the runways. They push our 3:15 flight back to 4 p.m., but my connection to Newark is at 5:05. I ask the attendant if there are any other flights to Newark: one, leaving at 6:50.

Just before 4 p.m., they put us on the plane, hoping that Detroit will open up soon. So we're going to sit there for 20 minutes to see if it opens up; if not, they'll let us get off.

I look at a perfect snowflake pressed against the window as I wait on the grounded Northwest plane awaiting clearance from Detroit. The snow comes a little steadier now in South Bend and the hold on flights has been released by Detroit -- ours should come soon. We begin de-icing and fifteen minutes later, we're set to go. The snowflake is gone now, melted to water on the window, but more have collected, clumped together in an intricate latticework. Snow has slowly begun to collect onthe wings but will soon be banished by the approaching de-icing truck.

My view is soon clouded in a mist of warm pink liquid.

We finally take off and I glance out at the muted white landscape in the gloomy late-afternoon grayness over the wing, and it quickly disolves into the hazy white clouds over Indiana, depriving me of any birds-eye views of Notre Dame.

Approaching Detroit -- well, the aiport somewhere west of the city -- the western suburbs appear like pictures accompanying Christmas tales -- the view Santa Claus has on Christmas Eve must be similar. Car lights along the highways, street lamps casting amber circles on the snow-covered ground.

It's snowing harder in Detroit than South Bend when we land. I check the monitors inside and see that the 5:05 flight has left (pretty much on time), so my last chance is the 6:50 flight. No problem, except that Detroit Metropolitan Airport is one of the circles of hell. Actually, it contains several of them, and none of them are connected. So I have to get on a shuttle bus to go from the terminal I landed in to the one with the departing flight. I do so, and get to the gate and am able to check in for the flight to Newark.

The plane that will be traveling to Newark has just left Grand Rapids, and will be a little late, so they push our departure back to 7:15. At least it's not the flight to Des Moines -- not only is it going to Des Moines, but it's pushed back from 6:55 to 8:18.

I go grab a beer at a nearby bar, then have another and a bag of Doritos -- now with more nacho chees. Can they get any cheesier?

A little before 7 p.m., I head back to the gate to wait for boarding. A woman runs by, coming off the flight from Grand Rapids and trying to catch her connection. A bouncing baby in a backpack carrier smiles and giggles along the ride, perhaps the happiest he's ever been.

When they begin boarding, they tell us that it's a 100% full flight and each person will be allowed only one carry on, and that anyone with more than one should go to the desk to get it checked. Nobody does, but people get on with more than one carry on. I don't get it -- put the damn rolling suitcase underneath. They never need anything from it during the flight anyway, and they'll get it back at the door after landing. Argh.

The young woman next to me and I begin talking, and I mention that I've been visiting my sister for her birthday.

"When's her birthday?" the woman asks.

"Today," I answer. "She's 22."

"So's mine," she says, and I wish her a happy one. Then she asks me to guess how old she is. I hesitate, almost answering 20, then ask for a hint.

"Well, I have a 6-year-old son ... and I used to be in my 20s."

She turned 30 today. And didn't look old enough to drink. And she was proud of it.

After everyone has shoved their large bags into small overhead compartments, we're ready to push back from the gate, and it's about 7:30. But they tell us that there's a long line for de-icing, which at Detroit is done on a de-icing pad, where there are a bunch of trucks to de-ice several planes at once. At Newark, and a lot of other airports I can imagine, they de-ice at the gate. So we have to wait in line for de-icing, and after that it's no telling how long we'll have to wait in line for takeoff.

We finally reach the de-icing pad, and once we get through that, we actually take off pretty quickly -- almost two hours later, to applause from the passengers. So we took off about 9:05 and got in ten after ten.

And I was tired.

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