by Bill Monson

part I


Some trips are joyous excursions. Some seem haunted by misfortune. This is a story about one of the latter.

Every other year or so, my wife Polly and I go to London with a group led by a former Fresno State colleague. He and we are getting on in age, so we were determined to go this year before he (or we) could no longer manage the effort.

We booked early--then to our dismay came the rise in terror rating to orange followed by difficulties with British airlines that caused the cancellation of some flights. Still, we weren't going to allow terrorist threats to dictate our way of life, so we tried to put the bad omens out of mind.

However, two weeks before the trip, Polly was hit with a serious respiratory ailment. We weren't sure if it was flu or what. A specialist said it was asthma--but what caused the attack, he could not specify. It was touch and go as she responded to medication. We finally decided to go just 24 hours before the trip was scheduled.

In all the concern, I forgot the first rule of airline travel these days. Never wear suspenders. I didn't even get out of San Luis Obispo before I was pulled out of line and submitted to a complete search, including body pat-down. The furshluginer suspenders set off alarms and made me suspect. (Does that guy at the top of this column look like a terrorist to you?)

We finally got aboard our turbo prop puddle- jumper for the quick hop to San Francisco. Our luggage went on to Heathrow, but we had to hike half a mile from the domestic terminal to the international terminal with our carry-ons--and half the people- movers were out of action. Fortunately, we had plenty of time--because when we arrived at SFO security, I got pulled out of line again. This time, they made me open the front of my pants so they could see if the wand was beeping because of a metal zipper or if I was just glad to see them!

We trudged out to our gate and sat for forty minutes. I was not encouraged when one of our fellow passengers, wearing a turban and robes, retired to an alcove, spread a prayer rug on the floor, and began praying towards Mecca. Shortly thereafter, our plane's gate was changed, and I never saw the guy again. Hmmmm. After another hour's wait, we got aboard. We'd asked not to be seated next to the galley--but guess where Virgin Atlantic put us? If you sit next to the galley, you're the last to get served since all the carts go to the ends of the plane and work back. Result: we wound up with the second-choice dinner-- "southwestern chicken." (I think it was road-runner with spices.) Worst of all, we got little sleep on the short night over the great circle route across Canada as the crew noisily prepared breakfast and talked in the galley.

Between Iceland and Ireland, we hit some horrendous turbulence--the worst I've ever experienced on this route. Since airline seats are so small and the rows so close together, I took a real beating. I envied Polly her short legs. She had the aisle seat, I was in the middle, with a young woman--more of a girl-- at the window. She was headed for Rome and did not want to sleep, so she ate the potato chips and slurped the Big Gulp she brought aboard, made $8-per-minute phone calls across Canada, and played with her makeup most of the night. The seat mate from Hell.

Heathrow was the usual hour getting through the Customs line--but something new had been added. Due to terrorist threats, several parking lots have been closed. It took our chartered bus over an hour to get out of the airport. We averaged about fifty yards a minute; and by the time we got to London's West End, we'd lost two hours of our first day in town. Then, real disaster struck. Our room in the Mountbatten Hotel at Seven Dials in the West End was nice, but the bed had a large, leatherette, decorative baseboard all around it. While making a bathroom visit in the middle of our first night, I banged my left foot into the damned thing and broke a toe!

Calamity, thou art afoot!


There’s not much you can do for a broken toe except tape it to the toe next to it and hope it heals all right. That, and stay off it. So, when I broke my toe (#4 left foot) on our first night in London, my trip with wife Polly underwent considerable revision.

Out went a planned visit to the British Museum to see the Elgin Marbles, now the center of controversy in a plan to return them to Greece in hopes of that country’s support for a London Summer Olympics.

Out went a trip to the Tate Modern to check the drawings of artist Walter Sickert, whom American author Patricia Cornwell claims was Jack the Ripper.

Out went a trip to Brighton to view the Pavilion and Pier. Out went a visit to Greenwich. Out went museums and galleries and using the Underground.

Fortunately our hotel, the Mountbatten, was located within six blocks of most of the theatres where our travel group would see shows as well as Covent Garden and St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields where Polly and I would attend concerts. For longer jaunts, it would have to be buses and taxis.

The current top attraction in the West End is a splendiferous production of the 1987 updated Broadway version of Cole Porter’s "Anything Goes." Next in draw is the slick but slimy "Jerry Springer: the Opera," which is packing in a whole new generation of theatre-goers who delight in arias based on four-letter words. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s one-woman musical "Tell Me on a Sunday" is above average but is really a reworking of older material with undistinguished music and built-in structural flaws. Our group got a big kick out of the Fringe musical "Call Me Merman" which serves as a review of some great American show tunes.

American material also topped our dramatic viewing. The National Theatre presented Eugene O’Neill’s Oresteia trilogy "Mourning Becomes Electra" with Helen Mirren and Tim Piggott-Smith ­ a four-and- a-half-hour slog even with some cutting. Far more satisfying was a revival of Arthur Miller’s "The Price," whose intensity left us breathless.

The Donmer Warehouse offered a new version of Strindberg’s long one-act called "After Miss Julie"­ updated to a British country house on the night of Labour’s big 1945 win over Churchill. We got to grill the author Patrick Marber at a reception afterward; and he was as curious about our responses to the play as we were for his reasons for re-doing what already worked. He told us Mike Nichols and Julia Roberts are in London to shoot his play "Closer" as a movie.

Last and certainly least was "Sweet Panic," a turgid "stalker or is she?" drama featuring British screen actress Jane Horrocks, whose projection was not equal to the poor acoustics of the theatre and the weak staging by the author-director Stephen Poliakoff.

Polly and I also double-deckered on our own to Islington and Sadler’s Wells to see choreographer Matthew Bourne’s eccentric staging of "The Nutcracker," which seemed more inspired by Tim Burton’s film-making than Tchaikovsky’s music. The hundreds of kids in attendance seemed to love it anyway; and we rated it high on our list of memories.

We also took in string concerts at St. Martin’s- in-the-Fields (as well as lunch in the crypt cafe underneath) and at St. Paul’s, Covent Garden ­ the "Actors’ Church" (in front of which Eliza Doolittle sold flowers in "My Fair Lady.")

Polly had to pace herself because of her phlegmy lungs, but she still out-traveled and outshopped me as I daubed my toe with ibuprofen gel and read in our room. On about our eighth day, I was able to get out more--at least as far as the bookstores on Charing Cross ­ so I wasn’t entirely disappointed during the days.

There were good restaurants within limping distance, too, and we managed to eat Greek, Italian, Indian, French (and pub) during our stay. At the fancy Mezzanine Restaurant in the National Theatre, I saw actor Ralph Fiennes ("Schindler’s List") in the bar and got him to sign my program for "Mourning Becomes Electra" where he sat three rows in front of us.

The weather was typical London January ­ ten days of damp, drizzling gloom with two days of sunny, glorious, windy cold. Still, we only used our umbrellas twice and actually turned down the heat in our hotel room and slept under sheets.

All in all, we considered the visit as being on the plus side. But more misfortune lay just ahead.

Next: Emergency Over Greenland


Because of traffic problems (and terrorism), the mayor of London has made the heart of the city unfriendly to automobiles. There is a zone in which auto owners have to pay a stiff fee for using their automobiles. Tourist buses are also unwelcome, and traffic wardens are quick to pounce upon any of them loading or unloading outside a hotel. On the day we arrived, our bus got tagged with a ticket for two-hundred pounds; so as we left, we were forced to walk two blocks to a holding zone to board our bus.

Even departing at seven a.m. did not keep us out of heavy commuter traffic on our way to Heathrow. We'd set our luggage out at 5:45 for porters to carry to two small lorries in an alley behind the hotel. At Heathrow, we were reunited with our bags and toted them to check in. Because of my suspenders, I expected to be hauled out of line for personal inspection; but apparently the detectors are not so sensitive for outbound travelers, and I didn't raise a peep as I walked through the inspection gate. However, I knew I'd face a personal pat-down in San Francisco. Virgin Atlantic 019 was half an hour late taking off in drizzling rain and far from full­but as the luck of this trip would have it, ours was the only row in our part of the 747 which had all three seats filled­and guess who was in the middle?

After our first snack­a sandwich, soda and cookie­my wife Polly went hunting and found better seats with more leg room. I was looking forward to viewing "Seabiscuit" as my in-flight movie, but the cabin attendant came on the PA to say the tape was damaged. Polly and I settled for "Runaway Jury," whose dialogue unfortunately was drowned out by engine noise. I think I know what it was about­but don't quiz me. After the movie, we turned our TV screens to the Flight Progress channel (which had not worked on our eastbound flight) and occasionally checked our flight's location as we read.

Virgin Atlantic flies a great circle route from London to San Francisco. Over Greenland, the flight attendant made a tense appeal on the PA for a doctor. Half an hour later, over Davis Strait­an arm of the North Atlantic­the 747 swung south and then south-southeast. The pilot came on the PA to say why. We were being diverted by a medical emergency to St. John's, Newfoundland, two and a half hours SSE. St. John's may have over 83,000 residents, but its airport was snowy, cold and remote. We never even saw a city­ but an emergency medical team and ambulance were waiting. Even as they worked on the first case, a second developed three rows behind us. A young Sikh boy began to have difficulty breathing. The med team came back to deal with him; a second ambulance was called. Some people murmured about terrorists, but nobody else was ill. After an hour on the ground, we were refueled and de-iced and began to chase the last orange glow of twilight westward over Canada to the Dakotas, where we finally lost it.

Polly and I were scheduled to take a commuter flight to San Luis Obispo where a friend would pick us up at 6 p.m.; but our Virgin Atlantic captain informed us we would not even reach San Francisco until after 7. We tried to warn our friend by using the telephones conveniently placed at every seat­but of course they didn't work. Something about satellites, we were told.

The VA cabin crew did their best, bringing out more food and drink, but the passengers got grumpier and crankier. The little plane on the Progress Chart crept across the West, belying its listed ground speed of over 550 mph. Even the twinkling lights of San Francisco could not raise our spirits. We landed about 7 p.m. California time­five hours late, 15 hours out of London.

We trudged off the plane to the luggage carousels. Ours had two feeding ramps, but one of them immediately fouled and it was thirty minutes before a man came to free it­just long enough for Polly and me to miss the last connection to San Luis Obispo once we'd worked our way through Customs and the Department of Agriculture roadblocks and slogged from the International Terminal to Domestic. We booked the first flight out in the morning and limped back to Virgin Atlantic to confront them about overnight accommodations. Wonder of wonders, they acknowledged culpability for the luggage delay and arranged for us to be vanned to the Crowne Plaza in Burlingame for the night. They also gave us late dinner and breakfast.

I thought my luck had finally changed but the hotel restaurant served me the worst filet mignon I'd ever tried to chew, and not even an ardent apology by the restaurant manager could convince me my trip was not still cursed. But overnight, the Gods of Misfortune moved on. Breakfast was fine, my broken toe felt better, and we got to the airport in plenty of time for my personal pat-down at Security. (This time­for the first time­I was informed my shoes had steel inserts!) Our flight to San Luis Obispo was smooth and fast with only eight passengers in the turbo prop Brasilia. Pismo Beach was sunny though a bit cool. The $25 taxi tab from the airport was a pain, but I was happy to be home if nearly exhausted from jet lag and a daunting journey. I still wonder, though, what happened to those poor folks who went off in ambulances in snowy, cold Newfoundland.