Surprise!

February 28, 2014


Last Friday, February 21, I had a surprise birthday party for my wife. I planned it for about 8 weeks, had invitations sent and party favors bought. I had an agenda for the night, I had invitedĀ  all her pals, and I planned the evening down to the minute. She had been telling me for months that I never do fun stuff for her, we never do anything, etc, etc, etc. It was hard for me not to spill the beans, but I didn’t. Everything was set and the big day arrived. I had the perfect plan.

Except, of course, for my travel.

My idea: fly to Chicago on the morning of the 21st, rent a car at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, drive up to Long Grove, Illinois, and perform, then drive back to the airport, fly home and set up for the bash. The day went nothing like that, of course. Here is what happened.

My flight departed on time from Terminal A (“terminal” being an operative I should always pay attention to when flying) but we were delayed out of Philadelphia for Air Traffic Control. We landed 45 minutes late in Chicago, but no problem: I have reached a point in my life where companies like Hertz Rental Car offer options for travelers like me: a driver comes to the baggage claim area where I am waiting, drops the car off, and I speed north on the Tri-State Tollway unhindered by traffic (AMAZING!). I get to Long Grove and the school where I’m doing 2 assemblies, but the gracious hosts allow me to do ONE for the entire school instead – saving me at least an hour – and I get back in my rental headed toward the airport.

PERFECT!

Until my iPhone buzzes. I look at it: “FLIGHT CANCELED.” My return to Philly has been canceled because the airport is fogged in. I call my partner, Tim. He starts looking for alternate flights – we’ve been doing this all winter as my flights and travel schedules get ruined weekly by the weather.

By the time I get to O’Hare Airport, not only is my flight canceled, but everything else going east is canceled. It’s my worst nightmare. I call the wife’s BFF, Carla, a teacher: “Can you set up for the party? I won’t be there until after 5pm.” That’s an ambitious and optimistic time to give her, but I didn’t want to tell her the truth: “I MIGHT NOT MAKE IT TO THE PARTY!”

Carla gets the info, where the favors are, what to buy, how to decorate the rooms. She’s no stranger to the family and our house, has her own key, so there really isn’t much to go over. When I get off the phone with her Tim calls: “I’ve got flights going out of Midway Airport. How fast can you get there?” MIDWAY! YES!

surpriseI call Hertz on the car phone, change my return from O’Hare to Midway and begin the 30-mile drive from one airport to the other. It’s one of those quidnuncs that happen every once-in-a-while: NO TRAFFIC. I get to Chicago’s smaller airport in less than 40 minutes, a Hertz rep drives me to the Southwest Airlines gate – I get my boarding pass for a 12:25pm flight to Philly – and my iPhone buzzes: “Flight delay.” The flight has been delayed 3 hours. No problem. I can still make the party.

Tim calls: “There is a flight to Newark at 2pm on Southwest out of Gate B15. Can you get there?” I run through the airport – I see the gate! They’re boarding! I race up to the counter. A non-interested gate agent gives me a sleepy-eyed look with an unspoken-but-clear directive, “Do not mess with me.” I’m a little out of breath but smiling. “Can you get me on the waitlist for this flight?” She stares at me for a moment. “Sure. You’re number 33. There are 2 seats left. Wait over there.” She points at a group of other east coast-bound travelers. Uh-oh.

Tim calls. “Did you make it?” I laugh. He doesn’t wait for a response. “There is a flight to Baltimore leaving in 45 minutes. Try for that.” I go to the gate. It’s the same thing – sure, I can get on a wait list but it’s already way over-booked. I head back to my original Philly gate.

We are given a boarding time of 4:00pm. Which is what happens. The bad weather has made flights late, but it gives a tailwind to planes headed east, so it’s only 90 minutes or less of flying time. If we take off before 4:30 maybe I can make it before my wife shows up for the surprise…

I’m in contact with Carla. I tell her not to go to the house until after 5pm. Friends are taking Marsia, my wife, to dinner at 5. Carla shows up at 5:10, and parks in the drive next to the house. As she’s unloading another car pulls up in front of our place. In horror she sees Marsia walk out the front door – NO! She’s supposed to be gone! Carla throws her back against the garage door, hiding from the sightline so my wife can’t see her, hoping she doesn’t look back toward the driveway. She doesn’t. The car pulls away. Carla goes in the house and begins to set up.

It’s now 4:38pm in Chicago, and I’m sitting on the runway at Midway Airport, ready to depart. We begin the takeoff protocols, flight attendants commanding everyone to stay seated, the pilot says, “prepare for takeoff” and we jet down the runway.

Halfway along the engines cut out, the plane slows down, everyone in the main cabin lets out an “oh no!” and we slowly taxi back toward our gate. “A yellow warning light came on,” says the pilot. “We’ll have to check it out.”

I call Carla – it’s almost 6pm at our house. Guests will arrive in 55 minutes.

She’s not panicking, but she’s overwhelmed. “What am I gonna do to entertain everyone til you get here?” I explain what my new plan is: Have everyone shout surprise when Marsia walks in and serve the cake and ice cream. Wait… cake?

THE CAKE IS IN MY CAR, PARKED AT THE AIRPORT!

AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!

Carla goes to buy a cake.

The pilot comes on the mic. “Heh, heh, heh… well, it’s a funny thing,” he says, “but we had a false alarm. Prepare to take off!” We go airborne at 5:00pm Central Time. 45 minutes later guests are arriving at my front door, while I’m somewhere over Ohio.

I land at 7:15pm Eastern. I call Carla. “Everyone is here,” she says. “Where is your wife?”

I call the women who have taken her to dinner, especially her friend/boss Carroll. No answer. I text: “WHERE R U?” No reply. I am in my car! It’s 7:22pm. I’m racing out of the parking lot and… EVERY SINGLE PARKING PAYMENT LANE IS BACKED UP THREE CARS DEEP! NO!

I don’t have time. I’m inching forward. I have to go.

A lane comes open. I have a choice to make: stay where I am for 15 more minutes or get in the next lane and pay for parking. To do that I will have to go over a large cement bunker. It’s sure to damage to my car. There is no way around it, if I want to beat another car or two or three and get to the party I will have to drive thru the bunker which will cause major damage to my beloved Nissan Quest.

It takes less than 5 seconds to process that info. I grind through the cement bunker, denting two doors and leaving long scratches ingrained in the side of my van.

I am driving. It is 7:35pm. I call Carla. “WHERE IS MY WIFE?” She says, “That’s your problem! We’re waiting!”

At 7:53pm I am driving on my street, looking for a place to park because the neighborhood is jammed with party-goers – MINE – having parked everywhere (gee, I wonder what Marsia will think when she sees all these cars?). I park just as a small foreign-made automobile pulls up in front of my house. I have the cake – I am hiding behind a car. A little woman gets out of the car and is headed toward my front door, silhouetted in the lighting along the walkway that leads to my house. It’s not my wife. It’s a late arriving partier.

I walk in the house. It’s 7:58. Everyone is in the family room, some 25 guests. I put the cake on the dining room table, my iPhone buzzes. “She’s here! See you in a minute!”

I am standing in the kitchen. The front door opens. Marsia sees me – I’m not supposed to be there. She looks at me. “Honey?” She’s concerned. Something must have happened. The guests are all talking in the family room. She gives me a look that says, “Now what have you done?”

I tell her, “You’re not going to believe this.” She walks in to the kitchen. “Look who’s here.”

SURPRISE!

We had a great time. Question for you: was it worth the $8,000 of damage to my car? I have my own answer. What’s yours?

Publicly I need to thank Carla Mcilmail, Kerry Mentzer and Ken Sadler for the inspiration and the help with the evening. Especially Carla, who saved the night.