Friday, April 24, 2009

Misadventures- an Airshow in Alabama

Hi all-
As expected, I am so busy right now, and my wonderful older wiser brother has volunteered to share a recent experience with you. He lives in Alabama's capital (Montgomery) so he is most certainly not in a big city. BUT, I think you will appreciate his story. Haven't we all dealt with similar clusters?
His son is almost 3...

It was a dark and stormy night... wait, wrong story. The day was sunny; the temperature was perfect, in the high 70's; the wind whispered gently in the trees. Barely any clouds marred the calm blue sky. We began our jaunt around 9:00 a.m. along a breathtaking back highway which drifted leisurely around curves and over Appalachian foothills. Our destination? Tuscaloosa, Alabama. We were on a mission to satisfy our son's fascination with airplanes by taking him to see what was purported to be, according to the website, a fantastic air show. The only bad thing was I had lost my voice the night before and squeaked more than anything else. Oh well. I didn't feel too bad other than a scratchy throat so I figured the show should go on.

The lineup included headliners such as the Blue Angels and the Golden Knights, bolstered by a plethora of lesser known yet equally thrilling showmen. One of the most intriguing was a stunt show in which the finale was that the plane would land on top of a moving pickup truck; that act was the one which caught my eye - it went on around noon. I guess I am spoiled in that I have worked on numerous flightlines and have seen most modern Air Force and Navy aircraft up close. I need something like a guy landing a biplane on a truck to get my blood pumping.

Our GPS, nicknamed Nancy, led us directly along Highway 82 for about two hours before finally instructing us to, "Exit on right, then turn left." As we exited the highway, we saw the road to the left was blocked off by a police roadblock. To the right, we saw a field full of cars, a line for what was presumably the shuttle to the air show, and a long gaggle of people walking toward our left, in the direction Nancy indicated the airport was located. I should mention at this point that about five minutes prior to our exiting the highway we saw a traffic advisory sign overhead that instructed motorists to tune in to a particular radio frequency for "Air Show Parking Information". When we dutifully tuned the radio in, we could hear a very static-y announcer narrating the air show and nothing (that's right, folks: nothing) about parking information. At this point it looked like we were in good shape so we parked the car. I unpacked the baby's stroller, stacked the folding chairs under the stroller, placed the baby inside, and secured the car. My wife and I discussed whether we should go wait in the infernal line or walk. Figuring we should be pretty close based on the number of people walking, we struck out toward the airport. For reasons that will become clear later, the reader should be aware there were no signs or maps at this parking lot, and we took a short cut around the line for the shuttle to shave a couple minutes' walking. It turned out later there was no sidewalk along the road adjacent to the parking lot so considering traffic it may have been for the best.

We arrived just before 11:30 and had walked for around 25 minutes (that's about two miles if you're keeping score) when we reached a point where the road was blocked by Tuscaloosa's finest (I almost said that with a straight face). Despite the line of people walking toward the air show just beyond the barricade, we (along with a large number of equally irritated fellow walkers) were informed by a cop I think of fondly as "Officer Donut" - for purely physical reasons, I assure you - that no more foot traffic was being allowed through due to some sort of safety concern. I later learned the FAA directed a certain area of ground under the airspace used by the air show be closed for safety reasons. However, at this point, we had no such information. All we knew is we were stuck. We asked the officers whether there would be some sort of shuttle to take us the rest of the way if we weren't allowed to walk through, to which we received an affirmative answer. We waited for nearly an hour. The only pickup was made by a single short school bus, the kind which only holds about 15 people. By then, there were easily 200 or more people waiting to get through with no word on how long they would have to wait to get to the air show. Among the crowd were several bicyclists who were more than a bit perturbed to learn they could not bike through, either. We did see several other loaded school buses but they never came down as far as the roadblock. I would be charitable to state the natives were getting restless. Keep in mind everyone had walked about two miles from the parking lot to get here. Again, I bring to your attention that there was no, zero, none, negatory, signage of any sort to direct people to the air show. To top things off, I missed the one act I really wanted to see. Grr.

Finally, we had had enough. My wife had needed to pee since we were on the road, and had patiently held it since she (and I) thought we should be to the air show soon. Since we walked through a residential area, there was nowhere for her to go without truly roughing it; this was not a pleasant prospect with so many people around. We turned around and headed back. If I had been a cartoon you would have been able to see the smoke coming out of my ears. On the way back, we passed several roadblocks staffed by police who cheerfully allowed air show visitors to keep walking toward the loggerhead with no warning whatsoever. Many of these visitors had small children and were carrying portable chairs, etc. but not many had any sort of water/drinks to keep them hydrated. Although it wasn't a scorcher, it was warm enough in the sun to make you a bit parched after walking for a while. I will also never understand what makes people think flip flops are walking shoes. My wife and I agreed if we couldn't hitch a ride on a bus by the time we got back to the car, we would call it a day and head back. Sometimes things aren't meant to be.

About halfway back (that's three miles total by now), we managed to hitch a ride on a shuttle bus literally by throwing my thumb out. When the bus stopped (it was about half full) we told everyone in earshot about what was going on further down the road and encouraged them to hop on. I was trying to grab the chairs, the diaper bag, and the stroller when a nice gentleman (truly my one shining moment of the day) stopped and grabbed the stroller and helped me on the bus. It turns out he was an ex-marine artillery grunt, now a county cop somewhere near Talladega. He was stationed at Lejeune and 29 Palms while he was on active duty, then did some time in the reserves. And an altogether nice guy. Apparently they aren't all like my brother (grin). We had plenty of time to chat; the bus ride took us almost 45 minutes. We wound through and around what appeared to be the driver's daily pickup route. I wouldn't expect to know my way around, but I even heard people FROM Talladega saying they had no idea where they were. Finally we arrived. It was now about 1:20 p.m. It took us as long to get from the parking lot to the air show as it did to drive all the way from Montgomery! I digress. This was neither the first nor last WTF moment I would have this day.

I don't think my wife has ever been so thrilled to see a hot porta-potty in all her life. Naturally, the baby had to go pee-pee, too. He proudly identified ca-ca for me while he was going. Ugh. They were relatively clean, as porta-potties go, though. Thank the gods for small miracles. We walked back through the static displays and I took him onto the cargo bay of a weather-chasing C-130 from Keesler AFB, Mississippi. We were all a bit peckish by now so we headed back to the only two apparent food tents. One was selling sausages and hot dogs, the other, so-called mega-burgers. Mega burgers won out and we stood in line for about 20 minutes. I must admit, considering prices I have paid at other events, they were almost fair here (only 2 arms and one leg!). I do think they should reconsider their definition of "mega," however. We moseyed off to look at the static displays while we munched our not-so-mega-burgers and nachos. I think the baby had a bit of overload with all the planes parked everywhere. He usually only gets to see a couple parked on the ramp across the street from the commissary on base, not 30 or so up-close and personal. We managed to entertain ourselves for a bit while waiting for the Blue Angels, who were due to take off around 3:45. The baby got a blow-up F-18 (like the Blue Angels fly) so he mostly sat in his stroller making airplane noises and "flying" the plane as we went along. Every time we passed a stand of porta-potties, we had to go pee-pee again. I will be really glad when the novelty wears off. Hot ca-ca-filled porta-potties are not what I call a thrill! My wife must have gotten a good one on her turn to take him; she barely held her lunch back.

The show was set up in sort of a dog-leg to the right as we came in. When we rounded the corner we saw many more food tents, including a funnel cake tent we meant to stop at but never did get around to patronizing. There were enough that even though the crowd was bigger, the lines were much shorter - only a couple people at each window. I brought my ear defenders (aka Mickey Mouse Ears, aka big headset for muffling loud noises) from when I worked on the flightline. I knew from the baby playing with them at home that they would fit on the baby's head so the jet engines wouldn't be too loud for him when the Blue Angels performed. He wore them really well and looked really adorable. The comments I overheard were about half and half, "What a great idea' and, "Oh look, isn't he so cute with those on." He did seem to be having a good time but with the crowds and so much going on I think it was a lot for him. The one time he did take them off and the planes flew past, he asked to put them back on again. He wasn't scared of the noise; he just knew it was too loud.

About halfway into the Blue Angels' routine we decided to make a break for the exit. I stopped to ask a cop how to get back to 5th Street, the street we followed forever trying to get to the air show, so we could get back to the car. Despite the fact cops were all over the route (don't they have cool stuff like radios and roll calls? briefings?), he seemed surprised there was even parking over at the corner of 5th Street and Highway 82. Good grief. What kind of idiot put this thing together? After 10 minutes of mostly frustrating and repetitive conversation, I gleaned that we would have to basically walk all the way around from where we were at the front of the airport to the back side of the airport where we would find 5th Street and eventually reach our car. As we struck out, I saw a couple buses lines up. They had little placards taped to the doors with shuttle numbers to whatever their designated drop-off was. I found one of the drivers and explained my situation. I told him I was from out of town and where I needed to get back to. I told him I knew there was a shuttle drop-off at the parking lot but I didn't know what shuttle number I needed. He, like the cop, seemed amazed there was a parking lot where I described it. He then informed me that he couldn't just randomly drop people off all over the place and that he had a specific route. Duh. Really? I pointed at the radio in his hand and again asked him if there was a way to find out what bus I DID need to be on so I could get dropped off at the right place. After another five minutes of completely pointless and useless conversation, I walked away. I figured I probably shouldn't go to jail for killing an idiot just then. He couldn't seem to get that I wasn't trying to catch a ride with HIM, I only wanted to catch the RIGHT ride. It's true. Not everyone gets to grow up to be an astronaut. I don't think I would trust him to sell me fries with my burger. There were only about 8 shuttle buses to be seen. I had heard they estimated around 20,000 visitors for Saturday. Do the math.

We struck out on our journey back to the car with nothing but a hazy set of directions from a guy who I hope is a better cop than he is tour guide. It bolstered our courage that a large gaggle of pedestrians was headed in the same direction we were. After we made our way to the back of the airport (tack on another mile or so if you're still counting, plus the couple hours walking around and standing inside the air show - at least one, if not two more miles of walking) we were stopped by our friend Officer Doughnut. Really? I'm tired and ready to go home. I guess it's a good thing he didn't remember (or didn't hear) the wise-ass comments I had been making earlier at the first roadblock on the other side of the no-go zone. Anyway, I asked him what was going on, drawing every reserve of willpower to remember he was nothing but a clown in this big, poorly-run circus. As I mentioned earlier, the FAA had closed off the groundspace where the performance was being held. Turns out the blockade had been in place all day and was supposed to expire at 5:00. It was now about quarter-till. Officer Donut explained the original plan was to have visitors park in a big field at the airport, but the heavy rains we had all week turned it into a swamp so they had to come up with alternate parking. Huh. It's not like it rained for one day and they got more than expected. It rained for an entire WEEK. Plenty of time to go, "Holy crap! We need to figure out some sort of alternate parking arrangement!" I asked him whether there was some sort of alternate route but the only thing he could think of would be something like a 6-7 mile walk in his estimation. I decided to take my chances waiting for the roadblock.

Sure enough, at 5:00 the cops let people start going through. Many less-encumbered people had spotted a set of train tracks running parallel to the road and started walking along them. Apparently police jurisdiction started and ended with the road because they made no attempt to stop the people on the tracks even though they could be seen through the 10 feet of treeline. I would have followed suit but baby strollers and railroad tracks do not make good traveling companions. Fortunately we were on the right road and eventually made our way back to the car. Along the way we chatted with a guy pushing his son in a wheelchair. He told us Google maps estimated the route at about 3.25 miles from the parking lot to the air show. Had I known that going in, I would have tried to find another place to park. We passed the time on the hike to the car by watching the people who thought flip-flops were hiking shoes laboriously shuffle back to their cars in excruciating pain. I can only imagine the blisters. Dummies.

The baby slept the whole way back so he was in good shape when we got home around 8:00 that night. In fact, my wife and I fell asleep before he did. He jumped on my wife, waking her up, around 10:00 when we actually went to bed.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot the best part. I asked Officer Donut who was in charge of the air show so I might send them a strongly worded letter expressing my admiration of their talent in screwing up the shuttle and parking business so badly. His response? The Tuscaloosa Department of Transportation. Chew on that for a bit!

Have a great weekend!

1 comment:

  1. I think the same people planned most of the events we went to in England. :)


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