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Carry On!

What my bag did on its summer vacation.

This is not the story I intended to write. The notes for that story have been lost in luggage limbo for 45 hours and counting. Then again, I never thought I'd get stuck in a flying sardine can with thirty Slurpee-slurping fellow travelers -- and no bathroom. But let me begin at the beginning.

Actually, there is no beginning to flying these days. There's all the early planning for just how close you can cut your arrival at the airport, with updates depending on the current terrorist-threat color-coding; the strategizing for what underwear will allow you through security; the pleading to try to change your ticket despite all the rules. So I'll simply start late Sunday afternoon, when I arrived at the Pittsburgh airport with a bag of newspapers to see me through any wait. "Weather" was coming, I'd heard -- as though there are ever times when there isn't any "weather."

"You have too many bags," said the TSA screener, eying my tote and the bag of newspapers. "Just one carry-on." I refrained from asking what business it was of hers -- aren't carry-ons a matter for the airline you're carrying on to, rather than the government? -- and assured her that I'd be dumping the papers in the trash long before I got on the plane. When that wasn't good enough, I transferred them to the tote -- a defiant move that was promptly met with the demand that I remove my plastic flip-flops so that I could walk barefoot through a suspicious puddle on my way to the scanner. Hmmm..."weather" already?

After the apparently requisite check of the underwire bra, I headed for my gate, where I read through every one of the newspapers in my bag, as well as the Teen People left on the chair next to me while the "weather" hit. Since lightning was striking within five miles of the airport, -- in fact, at one point it knocked out the radar -- the airport was officially prohibited from letting anyone out on the tarmac until it stopped, said a disembodied voice. I looked at the little regional American Airlines jet, two outside staircases and about a hundred very wet feet away, and watched as the hour got later -- and the chance of making my connection out of St. Louis got less likely. All around me, other passengers were making the same dismaying calculations.

So when the announcement came that the lightning alert had lifted, at least temporarily, we all sprinted and splashed through the puddles to board the plane, too excited to notice the "Do Not Use" sign on the single lavatory. Until the plane was on the runway. "The bathroom is broken," the flight attendant told a crowd that had been swilling beer and soda through a long delay. "The gate agent was supposed to mention that."

Talk about flying by the seat of your pants!

When the plane finally landed in St. Louis, hordes of bathroom seekers stampeded off the plane and into the now-empty airport. There wasn't a gate agent in sight -- maybe he'd been trampled. According to the first monitor I spotted, the only flight left that night was to Springfield, Missouri; my Denver flight was long gone. So I continued on until I found someone with an American ID badge, who told me to go to the check-in counters in the main terminal. (Memo to American Airlines: Wouldn't it be helpful to include an 800 number on your ticket envelope?)

Those counters were deserted, although I soon had plenty of company in front of them as other marooned travelers straggled up. We tracked down another American employee, who was very perturbed that we hadn't visited the agent at C-2 -- no matter that we'd come in on concourse D. If we wanted help, we'd have to go through security to C-2.

"They keep doing that," chuckled the friendly TSA rep who refused to let us through security. "I don't know why the airlines say what they say." Because the rules are that you can't go through security without a legitimate boarding pass, and you can't have a legitimate boarding pass if your plane left hours before.

Next stop: the only place we could find another living, breathing American employee -- in the baggage claim area. There a very long-suffering fellow named David told us he couldn't help us with reservations for the morning, but he could provide us with half-price coupons for a local hotel, along with the useful information that our luggage was locked up tight for the night. My last glimpse of David was as he disappeared under a swarm of Fort Lauderdale passengers who couldn't find their golf clubs.

I'm sure I would have loved the half-price hotel had I been there longer than four hours -- or even if mouthwash had been included in the in-room amenities. (Memo to hotels that cater to stranded passengers: If your gift shop closes early, wouldn't it be helpful to stock up on extra toothbrushes?) But its shuttle did arrive promptly at 5 a.m., getting me to the airport almost two hours before that United flight I was begging, begging to get on. And get on I did, after an hour of running back and forth between airline counters as I engaged in Kissinger-level negotiations; digging through the trash at American for the baggage-claim check that one agent had thrown away; and delivering that soggy claim check to United, desperate to make sure that my luggage packed with not just notes, but certain hygiene items, would be on, since the St. Louis airport's gift shops weren't open yet, either. And, oh, yes, after getting pulled aside for an intensive security check because it was very, very suspicious that I was attempting to board a flight with no luggage. Or maybe I just smelled criminal. (Memo to TSA: Are you sure you want your screeners to stand that close?)

By the time I arrived at Denver International Airport, I was ready to plant a big wet one on that giant picture of Mayor Wellington Webb that welcomes you to this city.

Welcomes you, but not your bags.

Still, the United employee who took my "delayed baggage report" was very pleasant, sorting through my now grimy documents and promising that the bag would be located soon. And when I later called the 800 number printed on my copy of that report (Memo to United: thanks!), the helpful automated voice that mysteriously figures out how to put together answers through grunts into a phone said that my suitcase would be delivered to my office between 2 and 6 p.m. on Monday, and that it was really not necessary to call again. So even as I thought longingly of my toothbrush and my notebooks and a change of clothes, I refrained from calling again...until 6:05 p.m. And again at 7 p.m. And again at 9 p.m., when a United customer rep said that a Denver delivery company had picked up my bag at noon that day. She'd have someone call.

And someone did, promising that the bag would be at the office at 8 a.m. Tuesday.

By then, I'd found a toothbrush and changed my clothes and was only missing my notebook...and some patience. At 10 a.m., I called the delivery company. (Memo to whoever talked to me Monday night: Thanks for coughing up the number.) It turned out my bag was on its way back to DIA, because it hadn't been properly tagged.

My underwired bosom heaved in despair. Please, I said, there's going to be a big blank hole in this paper.

But as it turns out, I was wrong, wasn't I?

As travel-horror stories go, I know this isn't a real contender -- although that vision of pee-filled passengers is a grabber. And it's not nearly enough to put me off flying. I love to fly. I love every bizarre moment of flying -- the groping security screeners, the $8 slices of pizza, the sleeping fellow next to you who flops his head over on your shoulder and starts drooling. Most of all, I love the idea that when you're flying, for a couple of hours someone else is in control.

Or not.

P.S.: My bag arrived at 1 p.m. Tuesday, festooned with a note from someone named David -- "This bag is in the delivery bin. I could not find the delivery tag or find it in the system" -- and an apology from United, mysteriously labeled "Quickly Tag."

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