…if you have 10 hours to spare

From the minute my sister booked a flight for us to Chicago, I started complaining, which is totally foreign to my sunny nature.

"Baltimore? We're flying out of Baltimore?" I railed. "That makes the trip two hours longer."

"You said, `Get the cheapest flight,'" she reminded me. The tickets cost $142, or $120 less than out of Harrisburg.

"It's non-stop, isn't it?" I asked.

"Yeh, non-stop to Cleveland. Then non-stop to Chicago."

"Oh, great!"

"There's only an hour layover."

"Double great. This two-hour trip is going to take five hours."

"No, six-and-a-half. Everyone says we have to leave home by 6:30 a.m. to get to the airport on time during morning rush."

Grumble, mumble, moan.

Here I am 20 minutes from our own international airport and I'm taking a safari to BWI because I can't get a deal here.

So I continued to complain for two weeks.

On the morning of the flight, we overslept. So add the pressure of getting to BWI in rush hour to the fact that we didn't beat the crowd to I-83.

And I couldn't seem to get out the front door. I misplaced my sunglasses, couldn't find my house keys, hadn't filled the cats' water bowls.

My sister decided I just didn't want to go to Chicago, but the real truth was I didn't want to go via Baltimore and Cleveland.

Having read the tickets, I also knew they didn't have to let us check in if we weren't there a half-hour before the flight.

We missed that deadline by five minutes. But they accepted our tickets and we boarded … pronto to arrive in Cleveland on time without a hitch.

Hey, Cleveland's not so bad, I thought, as we headed to our next flight gate.

Once there, we found a bunch of suits in the seats lining the waiting room. They all had laptops out, allegedly doing important business. Personally, I think they were playing solitaire.

They didn't show a sign of closing down their computers, although it was near boarding time. So I looked at the flight monitor only to find the Chicago flight was delayed because of a storm.

So there we were: Stuck in Cleveland.

All insides of airports look alike. Worse yet, they're even look-a-likes when you meander outside.

My sister listened to a businessman gripe about a 2:30 meeting at Chicago airport that he was going to miss - to talk about something that could have been handled over the phone.

And I sat around eating overpriced junk food that gave me a bellyache and probably added a half-inch to my hips.

By the time we boarded the plane for Chicago, I figured the length of the trip door-to-door was up to nine hours.

But the pilot was the ultimate optimist with a lead foot on the fuel pedal. We no sooner hit the seats than he pulled out and headed for the runway, saying he would make up lost time.

The flight is 55 minutes, but he shot through the clouds in a race-like thrust. We'd have peeled rubber if the road had been asphalt instead of air.

My fingers turned white gripping the chair arms; my mouth became dry with fear and my ears bubbled up.

After about 30 minutes, he suddenly slowed down and mumbled something. Trying to pop my ears and reclaim my bouncing stomach, I frantically asked, "What did he say?"

As if on cue, he repeated, "I've been told to slow down, folks. We can't land yet."

We flew around the circumference of Indiana three times. Then this hot dog zipped down to the ground as I pumped imaginary brakes to help him stop the 737.

Mercy. I silently begged for mercy. And, finally, there was some. The plane ground to a halt.

This little trip to Chicago ate up 10 hours. Tack on two more and I could have driven instead of hovering over Indiana like a migrating bird that had lost its internal compass.

I could have even taken Amtrak and made it in the same time.

Or maybe not. My daughter Sherry took Amtrak to Florida Monday.

She, too, went out of Baltimore with sons aged 1 and 10. The trip was supposed to take 16 hours plus two for car travel. But the train was delayed four hours.

"The kids were great," says my son-in-law after he returned from sending his family off. But when pushed, he admitted, "Sitting in the railroad station with them for four hours gets wearing."

More delays occurred. Instead of arriving at the scheduled 7 a.m. the next day, she got to Jacksonville around 4 p.m.

So much for mass transit taking the crankiness and worry out of travel.

Just show me how the crow flies. I'm ready to follow.

At least I won't get stuck in Cleveland … unless I want to.