Sir Galahad in Disguise

Boarding the Delta plane to Florida gave me a sense of déjà vu, as the flight attendants greeted me with a cheery, “Welcome aboard.” I answered them in return and glanced into the cockpit. The captain and his first officer were preparing for takeoff, just as my late husband had done more than 30 years ago, when he was as a Delta co-pilot. I mentioned this to the flight attendant, as I visualized Bernie sitting there in the copilot’s chair. I told them my daughter, Lisa, had been a Delta flight attendant back in the 80’s.  They smiled and said, “No kidding!” I found my seat in Row 10, and settled in, wondering all the while if this young first officer was anything like my pilot.  Two hours later, after we landed, I found out all I needed to know about the young man, my Sir Galahad in disguise.  

I was on my way to a reunion in Jacksonville, Florida, with my four Palmer cousins whom I hadn’t seen in 15 years. I was writing a family memoir and wanted to share with them old photos and memorabilia which I inherited after our grandparents died. My cousins and I had stories to tell, and like a 10-year-old waiting for her birthday, the days couldn’t fly by fast enough for me.  

I became terribly distressed one morning, a month before my flight. My knee caused so much pain I couldn’t put any weight on my right leg. I knew it was arthritis, but why now? Why so excruciating, so debilitating? My trip expectations dimmed after that surprise, and I struggled to keep hope alive. After several tests and doctor visits, a shot of cortisone and 8 physical therapy sessions, the pain lessened. I decided I needn’t cancel the trip, after all, but soldier on using my cane for assurance. Then I thought of the passengers I’d seen using wheelchairs in airports. Why couldn’t I be one of them?  The next day, I called Delta and signed up. 

A week later, Bob, my Limo driver, toted my bulging suitcase to the big, black sedan sitting in my driveway. I wondered what my West Caldwell cul-de-sac neighbors thought of me as he opened the door and stood there as I poured myself into the plush back seat.  The sensation of being pampered isn’t one I’m used to, but I embraced it immediately as I began chatting with him.  Bob’s grey hair gave him a distinguished look. He told me he’d been driving professionally for a little over a year.  “It’s my retirement job,” he said, “and I’m enjoying it.” When I mentioned my wheelchair request, he eyed me through the mirror. “Don’t worry. One will be waiting for you at the Delta counter; it’ll have your name on it.” 

I sat back and scanned the scenery feeling reassured.  The drive held more meaning for me than I had imagined. It led me to recall who I was years ago, when I’d drive the hour from my former home in the Hamptons to JFK. Traveling by myself as an airline pass holder, was a “no-brainer” in those days. I’d pull into the Delta parking lot and take the crew bus to the terminal, and then hop a flight to visit friends in the Hinterland–my old haunts in Iowa and Missouri. Bernie was usually gone on a trip, and I was my own chauffeur. 

Bob was correct.  “They’ll have a wheelchair waiting for you”, he’d said, and there it was, at the check-in counter, in the hands of an attentive young man named Trey.  I was shocked to find there were 10 passengers in wheelchairs besides me waiting to be wheeled aboard our flight. Yikes! I hadn’t imagined it. What could have been a logistics problem, was handled with aplomb by the young attendants on the Newark Airport staff. I was impressed. 

A smooth trip ensued. The attendants were accommodating, and the time sped by. Two hours later we landed in Atlanta where several attendants struggled to push each rider to Delta’s check-in desk. This took some time. The helpers disappeared and there we sat, captives on wheels wondering what would happen next.  Nothing happened. Twenty minutes inched by. If I miss my connection, I might be stuck at some hotel here, with my overloaded bag and for how long?  Although the airport was Delta’s hub, I gave it a “D” compared to others I’d been to. Where were the attendants? Why had we been abandoned? Ten more minutes ticked byI grabbed my cane and walked back to the agent: “What are you going to do when I miss my connection?” I spouted. No reply…just a head shake. 

This is where Sir Galahad comes into the picture.  Not in armored leggings and breast plate, but wearing a Delta copilot’s uniform: a neat, white short-sleeve shirt with three black stripes on the shoulders, black pants and shoes, and a black hat with Delta’s prominent red and blue insignia.

He saw my plight and walked over to me. “Don ‘t worry,” he said, “I’ll take you.”

His name was Ken, and he seemed to know I had once been part of the Delta family. I surmised the flight attendant must have told him. He, like Bernie, had learned to fly in the air force.  We tossed about our favorite trips and shared the plight of the airline industry. “There are not enough pilots today,” he said.  “Where are they going to come from?”  I thought of how lucky Bernie was having his choice of five major airlines after he returned from Vietnam. I also thought of how lucky I was to have this pampered ride through Atlanta’s drab labyrinth of gates, trains and terminals. My pilot would have loved this story. 

As we spotted the line of passengers boarding my connecting flight, Ken asked if I needed to use the bathroom. “It will be more comfortable for you,” he said. I agreed and wondered how’d I could ever thank him for rescuing me. He then interrupted the line of passengers while slipping my boarding pass through to the agent. She stamped it and signaled her supervisor who shouted down the line of passengers crowding in the gangway. “Wheelchair coming, everyone moves to the right!” They all scooted over and peered at us as we passed, probably wondering who the heck I was to deserve such service.

I couldn’t think of anything to say to Ken that would express my deepest gratitude when we reached the cabin door.  I thanked him, but that didn’t seem adequate. He gave me a casual salute and I answered back in grandmotherly fashion, “I think I’ll just have to adopt you!” He laughed, as did the other people near us. After I found my seat and settled in, I leaned back with a happy heart, shut my eyes, and relived my good fortune.  My pilot always said that Delta thought of itself as a big family. I thought of Ken and how he and Bernie were doers of good deeds because they were good men. Several people told me after Bernie’s death how much they appreciated what he’d done for them behind the scenes. I’d never known.  As for Ken, I’ll relate the tale about my Sir Galahad to anyone who’ll listen.  My story of rescue needs to be shared, and there will be abundant joy in the telling.

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