I realised after I’d posted yesterday that I’d missed out perhaps the most powerful intrusion of the War On Terror (TM) into my life, the liquid explosives plot of August 2006 which happened the same week I flew to Chicago. It also happens to be the funniest, in a maudlin kind of way.
It was 14th August 2006, three days since three men attempted to smuggle liquid explosives onto airliners. Flights were cancelled, and whilst everything was now in theory back to normal, the backlog of flights and the lengthy security checks means the reality couldn’t be further from that. Check-in times were extended, which for a flight which left before 8am now meant a 4am checkin time, which meant a National Express coach at 12.10am.
I have certainly said before now that Friends Don’t Let Friends Take the National Express, a mantra I stick to so strongly that I once drove to Heathrow (a round trip of 250-odd miles) to pick up an American friend to spare her that fate. This attitude was forged that night, principally because it was a perfect illustration of Trains Good, Coaches Bad. Trains are long. This gives trains the crucial advatage that should you find yourself near someone or something noisy/scary/unpleasant, you can pretty much rely on being able to stand up, wander along and pick a new place to sit. Trains have also worked out that whilst toilets are useful and neccesary things, they are best positioned between carriages where you can ignore them until such time as you wish to use one. The humble coach, however, has no such luxury. No-one should have to witness the terror of a toddler who is convinced the bus toilet is going to swallow him up, or the stuggles of his mother trying to convince him otherwise, or indeed the smell that results because she is crouching in the doorway trying to reassure him and thus cannot close said door. Sleep? Nothing could have seemed more distant and unattainable. I arrived at Heathrow in the middle of the night, bleary-eyed and promising never to travel on one of these infernal vehicles ever again.
That morning, Heathrow was like a warzone; policemen with machine guns, kids wrapped in space blankets, families who had been stranded for three days trying to get home, backpackers camped out on their rolled-out foam mats by check-in desks. I had my shoes sniffed for explosives, we checked in all our hand luggage and carried passport and boarding pass in a clear plastic bag. No inflight movies, nothing to read, no-one really in a talking mood either, strangely enough. There was an exception to that rule in the shape of a tall, 50-something, extravagantly camp American Airlines steward with a DeVito-esque Noo Yoik accent who wandered down the aisle of the 767 exclaiming, “Would ya like the calzone or the folded pizza?” The children, of course, were seriously considering this non-choice. Every so often an adult with a working knowledge of what a calzone was would make eye contact with him, and he would return their gaze with an imploring look that said “Please don’t ruin this for them, we could all use a laugh this morning.” He was right about that.
As the first flight to O’Hare that day, we managed to get take-off and landing slots. I learned later that the next two were cancelled. I came very close to joining the ranks of the space-blanketed, kipping on a bench and living off fried chicken in Terminal 3 to await a seat.
Border control at O’Hare were jumpy, perhaps understandably, and lone male travellers aren’t exactly their favourite thing anyway, but after a brief, intense set of rapid-fire questions about whether or not I could prove I had a return ticket (difficult without my luggage, but I eventually found a print-out of my Travelocity receipt; what might have happened if I hadn’t bothered putting that in my see-through plastic bag we will never know), I was admitted to the Land of the Free, Home of the Preternaturally Suspicious.
By that afternoon I was, admittedly in a somewhat jetlagged state, looking out over Lake Michigan from a tiny beach by the north shore suburb of Winnetka IL. Lucky doesn’t begin to cover it.
The experience was instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever had a track break on an electric trainset, except that in the real world trains are heavy and have significant momentum. Thus, deprived of current they don’t skid to a sudden, plasticky halt but rather slide on for half a mile, slowly but inevitably losing speed. Everything bar the fire escape signs suddenly and simultaneously went out, and slowly, deliberately, the whine of the engine dipped and eventually ceased. After an ominous silence, the first of a succession of interruptions began. The hilarious announcements from the man on the tannoy (who probably had a ridiculous job title, but it’s slipped my mind) who seemed to know remarkably little about the man who was apparently trying to “recycle” the engine, let alone whether such a process was wise or likely to succeed. The banter between the passengers was fascinating, and delightfully American in its world-weary but essentially optimistic humour. The English train traveller would have been swearing under his breath at some unseen authority figure responsible for all such disasters, whereas the Americans started sharing anecdotes and advice, calling ahead to their relatives or cracking jokes. At one point we seemed destined to be shunted onto another train in what sounded like a spectacularly dangerous line-up-the-trains-and-jump-across manoeuvre, but then, miraculously, it sprang to life again and we were off, our 45-minute stay in that particular stretch of Rhode Island over with. (more…)
…and so it proved, and not just because I would end it 5 time zones to the west of where I began it.
Even the date is exciting today. It’s been on the horizon for so long I feared it might never arrive. On the 1027 EMT service to St Pancras, travelling First Class; this is the way to do it. A whole other world.
Still here. Technical difficulties. What a day for it! Doing my best not to panic, but contingency plans are forming.
After the initial hiccup, all seems to be well now.
The tone of mild dread apparent in the above was because the train was not moving. It was a farcical scene, passengers stood on the platform wondering when the doors were going to open, then giving up and filing through the single set of doors that did open. Once we’d walked the length of the train to get back to our seats, we waited while 10:27 came and went and nothing happened. Somehow, it wasn’t reassuring; just like your temperamental Windows 95 machine (remember those days!), the answer is to turn it off and turn it back on again. Trains can be rebooted apparently, and eventually this seemed to have the desired effect. (more…)
The following is collated and edited correspondence both with my American friends and with friends and relatives at home, emails hurriedly typed in internet cafes in cities, or on borrowed laptops in friends’ houses, journal entries from the time. I have added commentary with the benefit of hindsight, and intercut some of the photographs I took along the way.
The journal in question was a black leather journal cover embossed with a Frank Lloyd Wright design, a present from my mother a couple of years previous, holding 7×5 refills ordered from Barnes & Noble in the USA because Europe doesn’t do 7×5 notebooks. (more…)