Stuck on the Tarmac

By William Moyers

January 11, 2014 5 min read

There's both a moral to this story and a point relevant to the general themes I write about each week. I'm not quite sure what they are. But the story is too good not to share, so here it is. By the last paragraph, I'll figure out what it all means.

Homeward bound after a New Year's family vacation in Mexico, bad weather and inefficient airport operations grounded our flight. At first, it seemed to be an inconvenient delay of an hour or so. Then the captain announced a no-go, only after we'd loaded up the plane, stowed our bags in the overhead bins, buckled into our seats and taxied away from the gate. "Our apologies, but this plane isn't going anywhere until tomorrow," the captain announced. Groans and an expletive or two rumbled through the cabin, but mostly the passengers practiced the art of powerlessness and took it in stride.

Except for the family across the aisle from mine. The family had been fruitlessly trying to get home for three days and do so with a severely disabled son, Jake, confined to a wheelchair and unable to walk or speak. They were low on his medications and down to two meals of specially prepared food. Worse, they faced a new obstacle; our plane didn't return to the gate with its sheltered passenger boarding bridge. Instead, we were offloaded down one of those stepladder-like stairways right out of aviation's 1950s era and onto a rainy, windswept tarmac a long way from the terminal. The airport employees seemed completely unconcerned by the plight of this family with the disabled son. His wheelchair was stowed in the cargo bay.

Earlier, I'd seen the family in the terminal before boarding. The gate agent had asked whether I was willing to move my three grown children to the back of the plane to accommodate them. I wasn't, mainly because I didn't want to separate my own family. Plus, I'd paid a premium price for 4 inches of extra legroom. From the moment I said no, I felt guilty, made worse because other passengers did give up their seats across the aisle, putting us at arm's length away from the family with the disabled son. I closed my eyes and tried to pretend I couldn't see them. But guilt is never blind.

Now we were all stuck in the same predicament of a canceled flight, only I don't have a disabled child. Instantly, I recognized my moment to make right my wrong and, with it, get redemption, which is the antidote to my human imperfections. Only I couldn't do it all by myself. Jake needed my family, too.

Thomas is my strapping 19-year-old, who has worked with disabled campers in Vermont the past two summers. He gently scooped up the young man in his big arms and, with remarkable agility, navigated the narrow aisle and then slowly took the slippery metal steps down to the tarmac and into the bus. Once at the terminal, my eldest son, Henry, assumed the duty of cradling Jake off the bus and into an airport wheelchair. "We'll stick with you," I told the family, but the controlled chaos inside the terminal split us up into taxis, which took us to a faraway hotel for a restless night and away from them.

Yet there they were before dawn the next day with the rest of us. Now the hurdle was to get back on board via the same route because the airport staff made no effort to meet the reality of the young man's physical problems. Now it was my turn to take the lead. I lifted Jake in my arms. His eyes locked onto mine, and though I am not sure what he wanted me to know, I'm certain that in that moment, we were one in the climb up the slippery stairway. My boys and their sister, Nancy, went ahead, hauling the extra carry-on bags.

I nearly tripped over my own tears. With every step, I realized how fortunate I am that my children are healthy, that they have grown up to do for others what others cannot do for themselves. At the halfway point on the stairway, I recalled that a long time ago, I felt sorry for myself because my illness, addiction, wouldn't let go. Recovery gives me a freedom Jake never will know because his disability has no simple solution like mine. And by the time I finished my climb, breathless and with a newly strained back muscle, and lowered Jake into his seat in row 14, a surge of emotion told me something special had just happened. More than I could get my head around, until right now.

My life today isn't about circumstances. It is about what I do with those circumstances. Thanks for being there for me, Jake.

William Moyers is the vice president of public affairs and community relations for the Hazelden Foundation and the author of "Broken," his best-selling memoirs, and "Now What? An Insider's Guide to Addiction and Recovery." Please send your questions to William Moyers at [email protected] To find out more about William Moyers and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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