Thunder Bay Back Home
This is a long story about traveling abroad. I hope you like to read, and I hope you like the story – peewee.
Part One – “Where Is It?”
Around the middle of the year 2000, I was called by the company I work for to perform some computer training at a site in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. You know you’re heading north from South Carolina when you have to fly to Minneapolis to “start” the trip. After that, it’s a wing-flapping mini-plane over Lake Superior to finish passage.
Thunder Bay is aptly named, being the city with the most days of thunder per year on average than any other city on earth. The weather is usually very turbulent even on most clear days.
But this time, the flight was nice. The Thunder Bay airport is about the size of a 7-11 store, and there was my bag at the head of the ten-foot conveyor. I grabbed it and went straight to the Canadian customs guy standing there at his podium about another ten feet away.
He asked me what I was doing there. “I’m coming to train some guys at the mill on some computer stuff,” I answered. In so many words, he essentially said, “Have a nice stay,” and I was on my way to the rental car counter. Remember this customs guy – he will be back in this story later.
At the rental car counter, I pulled out my business card. I asked the lady, “Are you familiar with this company? We have a mill near here somewhere.”
Real slowly, she said, “Yep.”
I asked, “Do you know where the mill is? Can you give me directions on how to get there from here?”
Real slowly, she said, “Yep, come over here.” She walked me a few feet down the rental car counter to a place where we could both see out the window. She pointed and said, “It’s right THERE.”
There is was the mill right across the road, as big as New Jersey. Now the rental car lady was patronizing me, being in the service business as she was. She said real slowly, “When you leave the airport parking lot, go STRAIGHT.” She even said “straight” slowly. She was dealing with another ignorant American tourist, and being mighty nice about it.
“Thank you m’am.” Boy, was I embarrassed.
Part Two – “You’re Not Gonna Believe This…”
On the very first day of my service at the mill, I got the dreaded phone call from my brother in South Carolina. Our dear beloved father’s health had suddenly taken its last turn for the worse. I had to return to Carolina immediately. Not knowing if my father would still be alive when I got home, I booked emergency passage out of Thunder Bay.
The first flight went from Thunder Bay to Toronto. I don’t know how it is now, but in 2000 all the luggage in Toronto going to the US was thrown into a massive pile near customs. Find your bag and take it with you through customs. Lemme see, my bag is uhhhhhh… black. And I’m in a terrible hurry. What a nightmare.
So, I miraculously found my bag and made it to the cattle-stall line in customs. Seemingly an hour later it was my turn to talk to customs. The customs thing in Toronto (at that time, at least) was just like the checkout at a K-Mart. There were lots of booths with lit up numbers. I think it was the guy at booth 17 who called, “Next?” and there I went.
He asked when I arrived in Canada. I said, “Yesterday.” He looked at my paperwork and asked why I was leaving so soon and I told him my dad was dying. He closed my passport with a somber look and said, “I’m so sorry. Please hurry.”
There was one more guy to get by. He checks your boarding pass and asks some questions not regarding your paperwork. This guy looked Hawaiian, or maybe Samoan. Even though he was looking at my boarding pass he asked where I was going (like maybe I wouldn’t know). I said Charlotte. He asked me if Charlotte was home and I said almost, about 45 miles away. He leaned back like he was ready to tell a story and said, “You’re not gonna believe this….”
I faked a real quizzical look and said, “WHAT????”
He said, “I used to live in Charlotte. Yep, I used to work there.”
Totally unlike my normal self, I told him that was a fascinating fact, but I was attending to an emergency and I really should be moving along if everything was okay for me to do so. He turned me loose.
Remember the Samoan guy - he will show up later in this story. And the customs booths in Toronto will, too.
I made it home long after dark and my dad passed away the next day. From all of the upset of Dad’s passing, that’s all I can remember of that trip home. I would, however, go back to Thunder Bay once more in a couple weeks to do the job I never got started on the first time.
Part Three – “Look at That Waterspout”
Charlotte to Minneapolis. A nice flight on this day, though bumpy at the end. The bumpiness was an indicator of things to come.
At Minneapolis, board the wing-flapping prop plane for the trip across Lake Superior to Thunder Bay. It’s a one-by-one seating arrangement where everybody gets a window seat, like it or not. The plane holds 16 passengers if it’s booked solid, and on this day it was. The man who takes your baggage on the tarmac is also the pilot. It’s windy. Very windy.
On this day, ladies and gentlemen, this was the proverbial Flight From Hell. It was, though, a live test of aircraft integrity and pilot ability. Why the wings weren’t ripped off that airplane, I’ll never understand. We got into a storm and hit downdrafts where the plane would drop maybe two hundred feet in a second or two. I had bruises on my hips from the seatbelt. We were all flailing around in our seats since there was nothing to hold onto with our hands.
Every time we hit a downdraft, a lady in the back of the cabin would scream at the top of her lungs. It was LOUD in such tight confines. The first time she screamed, I thought the flight attendant did it. I looked forward to the bulkhead where the flight attendant was strapped for the ride. Though she looked terrified, she obviously wasn’t doing the screaming.
There were two guys seated across from me who were in the airplane business. I couldn’t discern if they worked for an aircraft manufacturer or an airline or what, but airplanes were all they talked about in specific technical detail throughout the flight. When we were still out over Lake Superior near Thunder Bay, one of them hollered to the other, “Hey Dave, look over there. Look at that waterspout!” Dave looked out the window and exclaimed, ”Cool!” We were flying through a bloody tornado, and these guys were actually enjoying the ride.
All I could think was this was the end. If we hit one of those violent downdrafts over the runway, we’ll all be pizza. Overcooked at that.
Somehow, we made it to the miniature airport. I never wanted to kiss asphalt so much in my life. All the folks in Thunder Bay were talking about that storm the next day, how bad it was. And I was on a worn-out airplane little airplane that flew through it.
Part Four – “Sit Over There”
Glad to be alive, I wobbled into the "terminal." There was by bag, first on the ten-foot conveyor again. I went to the customs guy ten feet away and he asked what I was doing there. I said, “I’m coming to train some guys at the mill on some computer stuff.”
Remember that? That’s exactly what I said three weeks earlier. This time, the customs guy pointed to a chair and said, “You go sit over there.” Hmmm. So I went and sat down.
He questioned and released every other passenger on the plane and then turned to me – “Come in the office.” So we walked five feet into the six-foot office and he began to interrogate me. When I convinced him I was a friendly and not an enemy, he declared I would have to have a work visa to stay in Canada for five days. It would take a while to do the paperwork.
Fine. I’m just glad to be alive after that flight, and I have nowhere to be until in the morning. He typed on his computer and submitted the forms to somewhere and said it would take a while for the response to come back. In the meantime, I was essentially under arrest waiting for the outcome.
I told him I was glad to be alive. And I thanked him profusely for being so judicious as to get me the paperwork that I needed if in fact I needed it. But I had to ask…”The last time I was through here to do the same job, I didn’t have to have a visa.”
He blurted, “You SHOULD have. Who was on the customs desk that day?”
Here it comes - I said, “YOU were.”
He became flustered. “I DO have a brother who works here.”
I said, “You gotta be twins.”
“What day was that?”
I showed him on a calendar he had on the wall. “That day, same flight, same time. It was you.”
He shut up, and never said another conversational word. About 15 minutes later my five-day Canadian work visa came creeping out of the fax machine in the six-foot office inside the minature airplane terminal. And I was on my way, with the un-needed work visa in hand. Remember that work visa. It’ll come back into this story later on.
I found everyone in thunder Bay to be more than cordial. They are all friendly and fun people to be around. Even the customs guy at the airport was cheerful the first time. I don't know what was up with him the second time.
I completed my week of work at the mill in Thunder Bay and started home, the last leg of this most eventful journey.
Part Five – “NEXT!!??!!
Once again, the path out of Thunder Bay led to the Toronto airport. Once aloft, the jet pilot was bragging about tailwinds. He said we could break a new record for the flight, given the current conditions. He kept coming on the intercom to say we could arrive in Toronto as much as 30 minutes early.
And we did. The pilot set the Air Canada jet down in Toronto about 40 minutes early and taxied the thing at about 60 miles an hour. I’ve been on quite a few flights but I’ve never been on a plane that taxied so fast. We’re talking a hurry.
When we got next to the Toronto terminal, the pilot brought the jet to a screeching halt on the tarmac. All the gates were full of airplanes. We were so early, we had to wait for a gate to come open. And so we did...for about 45 minutes. So much for getting there early. Will somebody please do the math for me.
On to the giant pile of baggage bound for the US. Let’s see…my bag is black. Somehow, I found it again.
On to customs, the K-Mart checkout. As I neared the head of the line, I noticed a situation developing. There was a lady at booth 12 who had a couple of really little kids, rug rats. The lady was wearing a floor-length dress. The kids were running circles around their mom and tugging on her dress and screaming bloody murder all the while Mom was trying to testify to the customs guy at Booth 12. The guy in Booth 12 was straining to hear what the lady was telling him.
The guy running Booth 13 was not taking it lightly. He was stamping paperwork and glaring at the lady and her kids at Booth 12. He obviously just wanted to get rid of the customer he had in front of him. He hard-stamped the last form and waved the customer away, sort of a “Get out of my face” thing.
He then lost his cool. He screamed over at Booth 12, “LADY!!!!!!!! If you don’t do something about those kids, I’m gonna go CRAZY!!!!!”
He screamed it. The hundreds of people in line went silent. Whoa.
With bloodshot eyes, he then turned toward the line and screamed, “NEXT!!!!!!!!”
Do you know who was next in line? Me.
Where's Your Work Visa??!!!
There I went to window 13, the customs agent with the bloodshot eyes, bulged-out arteries, and the (at least temporarily) bad outlook on life. I put my passport and gate pass up onto the counter. I was trembling like Dorothy when she first faced the Wizard of Oz.
Oz said, "WHAT WAS YOUR BUSINESS IN CANADA???"
"I....I...I...was training some guys on some computer stuff...."
"WHERE IS YOUR WORK VISA???"
Holy Jehosefat...I've actually GOT one! What a windfall! I dug it out of my wallet, unfolded it, and laid it on the counter. Boy, was I still trembling.... Oz didn't want to touch the visa.
"OH, so you COPIED IT!!!! WHERE is the ORIGINAL?????"
"I don't know Sir, this one came out of a fax machine in Thunder Bay...I don't know where the original is, not even now."
"YOU COPIED IT!!"
"No, Sir, I swear I did not. This is the only one that was ever given to me in Thunder Bay..."
From my recollection, at that point Oz hit my paperwork with a rubber stamp hard enough to break the desk and said, "GET OUTTA MY FACE!!!"
Which I gladly did as quickly as possible. I gathered my belongings and made my way toward the "Gate Greeter." Do you know who he was? He was the same Samoan guy I spoke with a couple of weeks earlier.
He asked me, "Where ya going?"
I said, "Charlotte."
He said, "You're not gonna believe this, but..."
I interrupted him. I said, "Let me guess - you used to live in Charlotte."
If you could have only seen the look of astonishment on this guy's face...he gasped, "How in the world did you know that?"
If I wasn't so shaken from dealing with the Customs Agent From Hell, I would certainly have done better at that very moment. I could have said something like, "You just have the Charlotte karma about you," or something like that. For those few seconds, that guy was totally in my shopping cart.
Instead I told the truth - "Because you told me that two weeks ago when I came through here.
The Samoan laughed and bid me adios, have a safe trip.
And that's the end of the story.