Sometimes the story is the destination that you are traveling to. Other times, the story is in the journey getting you to the destination. This is one of those stories about the journey just to get somewhere.
On my first day after landing in my stopover city of Sydney, Nova Scotia I was walking around the city to orient myself to a new place. A police car pulled along side of me. “Can you come downtown to the station?”, he asked. “There’s a problem that we need your help with.”
I froze. Was there a problem with the way I entered the country? I didn’t exactly go through customs and immigration the way most travelers do. How could this policeman possibly know that? What kind of trouble could I possibly be in? And how did the local cops know that I was a passenger on a cargo jet and walked past customs and immigration alongside the two pilots with only a wink and a nod?
I was on my way to Newfoundland, where a friend would meet up with me in a few days. With two weeks of vacation from my job at Federal Express (now FedEx), I chose to jump-seat on a company jet, all the way from Atlanta to Memphis and then to Montreal, Quebec. From there, I took a commercial flight from Montreal to Deer Lake, Newfoundland, with a stopover in Sydney, Nova Scotia. I chose to lay over in Sydney for a few days until my friend could fly to Newfoundland.
Back in the day, FedEx employees had the benefit of “jump-seating” for personal travel. Each FedEx cargo jet had between 1 and 4 seats for employees to travel on. These were located inside of the cockpit. I had never before flown in a jet where I could look out windows in front of me. First I flew on a 727 Cargo Jet from Atlanta, GA to Memphis, TN, where the main FedEx Hub sorting facility was. After a couple of hours of waiting for all the packages to be sorted and loaded into their prospective planes, I boarded a Falcon Fan Jet to Montreal, Quebec. When FedEx was a startup company, most of the jets were Falcon Fan Jets, manufactured by the French company Dassault. Now that the company had grown, most of those were replaced by larger DC-10 and Boeing 727 jets, with containers for the cargo. My trip to Montreal, would be the last week that the company flew the Falcons, which had to be hand loaded.
For those of you interested in the history of the Falcon Fan Jet and its impact of the success of Federal Express (FedEx), here is a link to that story…
I sat on a small wooden bench in between the two pilots, Mike and Charlie. As the sun was rising and shining directly into our eyes, once we got to cruising altitude, Mike took a section of the morning paper and plastered them over the windshield to keep the sun out. The jet was on automatic pilot while the pilots were reading the morning paper. I didn’t want to disturb the pilots or accidentally touch anything, but I was pretty cramped in the jump seat. I also wondered about flying a jet without looking out the windows. I asked, “Is anybody paying attention to where we are in route?”
Charlie pulled back part of the newspaper. “Yep, that’s Cincinnati down there”, he remarked. Occasionally, an air traffic controller would bark out an order over the com and direct the pilots to alter their course heading. A quick turn of a dial, and the jet would bank and assume the new course heading.
The picture below is similar to what the cockpit looked like. The following photo is from Wikimedia commons of the cockpit of a Falcon Jet used by the Pakistani military. I had the same vantage point from my cramped jump seat.
We landed safely at Dorval International Airport and walked from the tarmac into a building. Since we were all dressed in our Federal Express uniforms, an airport official gave us a wink and a nod as we passed by. I never did get my passport stamped. It felt like I was getting away with something, even though I only had my camping equipment in my backpack.
From Dorval, I boarded a plane to Sydney, Nova Scotia. After checking into a local B & B, I decided to take a walk around the city and get a feel for the place. It was then that the policeman pulled up beside me and asked me to take a ride downtown with him.
I nervously asked what the problem was, thinking that they somehow knew I didn’t enter the country through the proper channels.
“We just need you to be in a lineup”, said the policeman.
“What happens if somebody mistakenly picks me out?”, I asked.
“Not likely. We caught the guy red-handed. We just need a few volunteers to make a lineup.”
There was no reason to say no, although I was still a little nervous. The officer opened the back door to the car, and I got in. Just a few minutes later, he pulled up next to another pedestrian and asked the same thing. The guy nervously got into the car, but wanted to keep his distance from me in the back seat. He must have thought that I was the guilty party.
We went down to the station and got in a lineup; five men abreast of each other. A lady walked in. She pointed to the guy standing next to me. He immediately lost it, screamed some obscenities and lunged at her. He had to be restrained. The rest of us were relieved. The constable thanked us and asked us each to sign our names and addresses into the ledger. When I did, the guy who was in the police car with me noticed I signed my hometown as Atlanta, Georgia.
“So, you’re here as a tourist!”, he exclaimed. “I was sure YOU were the guy they were looking for when I got into the car”, he said. We laughed. After exchanging some pleasantries, he invited me over to his house. I accepted. His name was Thomas. Sometimes, chance meetings like this turn out to be better than planned ones.
Thomas introduced me to his girlfriend, who lived with him in an old white house near one of the city parks. It was a warm weekend in May, and he was planning to go to the park to play football with his friends. We grabbed a quick bite to eat at his house and then headed over to the park. I was the only one playing football in hiking boots. A group of local girls watched from the sidelines. It was obvious that this was one of the first warm sunny days since last summer. The whiteness of their skin showed that their bodies had not been exposed to the sun for a very long Canadian winter. The glare from the sun shining off of their white bodies was enough for us to play with sun glasses on!
I thought that playing in boots would be a disadvantage, but it allowed me to make quick cuts on the slick grass and run for a couple of touchdowns. Also, I think that although the Canadian boys might have been great ice hockey players, they didn’t have much experience playing football. There weren’t even any Canadian league football teams anywhere east of Montreal. After playing for a couple of hours, we relaxed in the park. Thomas’ friendly dog seemed to eagerly accept Americans.
Afterwards, I headed back to the B &B. Thomas said to come on over tomorrow at about noon and we would hang out again.
After a good night’s sleep, it was time for breakfast, which was served from 7-10 AM at the B & B. It still wasn’t high season yet, so the inn was not at full capacity. I had the pleasure of having a good visit with the two sisters who were the owners of the establishment. One of them, Alice, commented that they felt bad that one of their guests just stayed in his room and never came out, not even for breakfast. They couldn’t communicate with him because he didn’t speak English. He had been at the inn for three days now and they were not sure he was getting any meals.
When I inquired as to where the guy was from, they stated that his passport was from Spain. When I told them that I used to live in Mexico and could speak Spanish, their eyes lit up. “Can you go knock on his door and invite him for breakfast?” they asked.
I went down the hall, with the two ladies accompanying me. We knocked on the door. A few seconds later, an older gentleman cracked the door halfway open. He looked at us quizzically.
As soon as I spoke to him in his native tongue, his countenance changed. He opened the door wide and smiled. I translated a conversation between the two ladies and himself. His name was Enrique and he was a fisherman from the north of Spain. Enrique was waiting for a ferry to take him to St. Pierre and Miquelon, a couple of French owned islands off the southern coast of Newfoundland, where he had a fishing job waiting for him. He had no idea that breakfast was included and he only had some bread and some liquor in his room. This was long before the cell phone era, so it must have been pretty lonely in there.
Alice had made a pot of coffee and offered it to Enrique, but he asked for instant instead. She brought a jar of granulated instant coffee over and watched while Enrique spooned 7 heaping teaspoons into the cup. When she went to pour the hot water into the cup, he raised his hand to have her stop. He only wanted about 1/4 cup of water. It ended up being the consistency of something almost as thick as pudding. When she asked if he takes anything else with his coffee, his answer was “Maybe a little bit of whiskey!” It certainly was a cultural experience for all of us….
Since Enrique had spent the last few days in isolation, I invited him to take a walk with me over to Thomas’ house.
It was the first time Enrique had any human contact since coming to Nova Scotia. He and Thomas’ dog quickly became best buddies. The dog reacted in the same friendly way to the Basque and Spanish languages that Enrique spoke to it as it did when we spoke English to it. Dogs have a keen sense of the emotions that humans feel, and he made Enrique’s loneliness fade away. Studies have shown that people with pets live 2 years longer on average than people who don’t have pets. While the rest of us did talk to him as I interpreted, Enrique was content to sit on the porch, play with the dog and be content that he could have human contact when he wanted to.
I’ve thought about that day many times over the years. Had I not jump-seated, or had the cop not stopped me for a lineup, Enrique would have spent all of his time in Sydney locked up in his room in isolation. Had Thomas not also come to the police lineup, or had I stayed in another B&B, the same thing would have happened. It took fate working on several levels to bring a smile to Enrique’s face, through the love of a stranger’s dog, through a foreigner speaking his language, and for locals opening up their hearts and home to him.
Had I been in a hurry to get to the destination, instead of being open to discovering the journey, I would have bypassed Sydney, Nova Scotia altogether. I would have missed out meeting Enrique, Thomas, Alice, Mike and Charlie, an RCMP officer, and many other fine folks. The experience of flying in the cockpit with the pilots would also have been missed. I sincerely hope that all of those people I met long ago realize that they gave me much more than I ever gave them. Because of all of them, Sydney, NS will always have a special place in my heart. You see, they taught a geographer that a place is much more than a landscape. A place gives meaning to us through the relationships that we build with the people in that place. And casual encounters may end up being anything but casual. They might make memories for a lifetime, as well as changing your perspectives.
Dear readers, wherever you plan on traveling to, I hope your embrace the journey as well as the destination!
For those of you who haven’t read about the trip to Newfoundland that came immediately after this story, here is the link Blow-Me-Down–NEWFOUNDLAND!
For another story of how a casual encounter may be life-changing, here is a link to a story about two people I met in Alaska and the Yukon for 5 minutes each that changed my life forever The consequences of casual, concise Klondike encounters