The surge of holiday traffic would have taxed the congested Atlanta airport under the best of circumstances. But, as Christmas neared some ten years ago, nature had added an ice storm that stranded thousands of travelers.
Outside, the great jet engines were silent. With depressing regularity loudspeakers would blare out, in robot tones, that the airline regretted Flight 421 had been delayed again. Even the coffee urns were running out under the heavy demand.
As the midnight hour tolled, weary pilgrims clustered around ticket counters, conferring anxiously with agents whose cheeriness had long since evaporated; they, too, longed to be home. Others gathered at the newsstands to thumb silently through paperback books. A few managed to doze, contorted into human pretzels, in uncomfortable seats.
If there was a common bond among this diverse throng, it was loneliness. But airport decorum required that each traveler maintain his invisible barrier against all the others. Better to be lonely than to be involved, which inevitably meant listening to complaints, and heaven knows everyone had enough complaints of his own already.
Just beneath the surface, in fact, lurked a competitive hostility. After all, there were more passengers than seats; when an occasional plane managed to break out, more travelers stayed behind than made it aboard. "Standby,""Reservati on Confirmed," "First Class Passenger" were words that settled priorities and bespoke money, power, influence, foresight—or lack thereof.
Gate 67 was a microcosm of the whole cavernous airport. Scarcely more than a glassed-in cubicle, it was jammed with travelers hoping to fly to New Orleans, Dallas and points west. More than once, the harried agent posted a departure time, only to announce later yet another delay. The crowd swelled until there was standing room only. Dignity were cast aside; well-dressed people sat on the floor.
Except for the fortunate few traveling in pairs, there was little conversation. A salesman stared absently into space, as if resigned. A young mother cradled an infant to her breast, gently rocking in a vain effort to soothe the soft whimpering.
And there was a man in a finely tailored suit who somehow seemed impervious to the collective suffering. There was a certain indifference about his manner. He was absorbed in some arcane paperwork. Figuring the year-end corporate profits, perhaps. A nerve-frayed traveler sitting nearby, observing this busy man, might have indulged in a cynical fantasy: "His clothes are different, but he can't disguise his nature. It's Ebenezer Scrooge?'
Suddenly, the sullen silence was broken by a commotion. A young man in uniform, no more than 19 years old, was in animated conversation with the desk agent. The boy held a low-priority ticket. But he must, he pleaded, get to New Orleans, so that he could take the bus on to the obscure Louisiana village he called home.
The agent wearily told him the prospects were poor for the next 24 hours, maybe longer.
The boy grew frantic. He was soon to be sent to Vietnam. If he did not make this flight, he might never again spend Christmas at home.
Even the businessman looked up from his cryptic computations to show a guarded interest. The agent clearly was moved, even a bit embarrassed. But he could offer only sympathy, not hope. The boy hovered about the departure desk, casting wild and anxious looks around the crowded room, as if seeking but one friendly face.
Finally the agent hoarsely announced that the flight was ready for boarding. The Pilgrims heaved themselves up, gathered their belongings, and shuffled down the small corridor to the waiting craft. Twenty, 30, 100—until there was no more scats. The agent turned to the frantic young man and shrugged. For one uneasy moment, it appeared that the boy might actually try to force his way aboard.
Inexplicably, the businessman had lingered behind. Now he stepped forward. "I have a confirmed ticket," he quietly told the agent. "I'd like to give my seat to this young man."
The agent stared incredulously; then he motioned to the soldier. Unable to speak, the tears streaming down his face, the boy in olive drab shook hands with the man in gray flannel, who simply murmured, "Good luck. Have a fine Christmas. Good luck."
As the plane door closed and the engines began their rising whine, the businessman turned away, clutching his briefcase, and trudged toward the all-night coffee bar.
No more than a few among the thousands stranded there at the Atlanta airport witnessed the drama at Gate 67. But for these, the sullenness, the frustration, the hostility, all dissolved.
The lights of the departing plane blinked, starlike, as the craft moved off into the darkness. The infant slept silently now on the breast of the young mother. Perhaps another flight would be leaving before many more hours; but those who saw were less impatient. The glow lingered, gently and pervasively, in that small glass-and-plastic stable at Gate 67.