The third time my carry-on suitcase didn’t quite make it over the lip of the overhead luggage compartment and slammed down on my head, I blinked back tears. I had already been enroute 14 hours, rising at dawn on the east coast to make a flight from Dulles to LAX, where I’d waited out a seven-hour layover on a plastic chair by the gate before boarding this flight, which would be another 13 hours over the Pacific to Auckland, New Zealand. I no longer had the strength to hoist the bag over my head and was quickly losing my grip on not being a crazy person, the kind who sees no reason to put her shoes back on after clearing Security, or once, and I actually did this, hisses, “Get out of my way!” at a startled woman changing direction innocently but abruptly in front of me on a crowded concourse.
Passengers already seated watched me struggle with placid disinterest. I was getting hot and the line behind me was beginning to bulge when a handsome bald man in Ray-Bans reached around from behind me, lifted the suitcase as if it weighed nothing and deftly tucked it in the bin. “I was going to cry,” I told him, but what I meant was, “Will you marry me?”
“I could tell,” he said, and was gone.
People you meet while traveling are assigned to you by fate, like neighbors, but travel is a transient neighborhood which makes for fast alliances, quick disclosures. And unlike neighbors, those sharing your journey are willing to help not because of any chemistry, history, or potential payoff, but because it’s the right thing to do.
Like the time I flew to Bermuda because my midshipman fiancé was crewing on a Swan 44 in the Newport- Bermuda Race. Unfortunately, I landed while the fleet was still 100 miles offshore and the guesthouse where I’d be staying didn’t acknowledge my reservation. I was young. I’d paid in advance with cash at a shady travel agency in Norfolk. There were no vacancies anywhere.
The gentle guesthouse reservations clerk took pity on me. After making a call, he put me in a taxi and sent it to his “friend’s” house. The friend was a tall, inexplicably generous Bermudian who happened to hold the position of Running Back for the New York Giants. This world-class athlete owned a beautiful cliff-side home he often made available to team members. I explained my predicament as the taxi idled and he said I was welcomed to stay at his house—no need to compensate him. He’d bunk with his girlfriend in town. Looking back, I am still stunned by the magnitude of this man’s generosity. I remember being grateful, but was I grateful enough?
My fiancé’s yacht, Shadow, crossed the finish later that afternoon. We celebrated on the grassy lawn of the Royal Bermudian Yacht Club where tan yachtsmen sported shorts and knee socks, bejeweled women wore floral dresses the color of coral and the sea at noon. We spent a week in a beautiful residence where 122 wooden steps led down to a private beach.
Then there was the time I flew to Madrid in order to avoid spending my first married Christmas alone. My new husband had been deployed six weeks after we were married for the better part of a year and although the destroyer escort on which he served as Damage Control Officer was docking in Barcelona, he’d arranged to meet me in Madrid when my plane landed.
But he wasn’t there. And neither was the luggage in which I’d brought all the Christmas gifts from our families at home. In fact, the ship itself was missing. No one could tell me why the USS Pharris hadn’t docked because in reality, the ship had been delayed 72 hours by a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game with a Russian sub.
I hadn’t thought to make a backup plan, but a young Spaniard, with rumpled dark hair and a winsome smile, overheard my predicament. In short order he had me on the next flight to Barcelona with him, without my luggage, yet when I arrived my suitcase was sitting there waiting. Having gone through Customs without me it had been pried open and searched. Christmas wrapping and ribbon protruded in colorful abandon from the broken locks, but to my astonishment, everything was intact. I turned around to show my Spanish friend this miracle, but he was gone.
I’ve been told the universe always offers assistance in times of change (which I interpret as times of stress), and travel certainly qualifies. These are the people with whom you have the briefest encounters but remember for the longest time.
I never saw the man in Ray-Bans, the compassionate reservations clerk, the Running Back, or the empathetic Spaniard again, and the sense that I was too young and self-absorbed to take in the magnitude of their kindness weighs on me. Surely, I thanked them; please God, let me have thanked them, instinctively, wholeheartedly, but why don’t I remember expressing my appreciation? It makes me want to do so now.
But not just to them.
The driver who let me merge, the roommate who let me borrow her car, the stylist who fixed the haircut I gave myself, the stranger who got the lug nuts off so I could fix a flat tire—there are so many people traveling together for a brief time. Who’s sitting next to you?
I remember what I received, what I felt, but not what I gave in return, and this haunts me.
So, I can only tell you, how very grateful I was and how grateful I am, now and forever.
And offer help to every lost and weary pilgrim whose path crosses mine.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.