Only Islanders — all Islanders everywhere — can truly know the ordeal of coming and going from their sheltered grounds to the mainland with its big-box stores, opera houses and airports.
If a contest exists to measure the misery quotient of such a trip from Island to city and back again, I’d like to enter my recent ordeal as a perfect example of the worst of all time.
Like so many other Vineyarders, I treasure my coming winter getaway as an antidote to the off-season blues that sometimes chisel their way into our souls, the season when they turn off the Christmas lights and businesses shut down, including some like our old standby Seasons, suddenly forever.
My trip to California had been planned in the fall. I chose American Airlines because they are among a handful of carriers that ship dogs. My 33-pound Boston terrier would travel in the belly of the plane at a cost of $350 round trip. I’d flown with him before, so I knew the compartment was a special climate-controlled unit for pets. (At that price, you might suppose that doggy cocktails and hamburgers would be served once the captain had turned off the overhead light.)
I was lucky in the outward bound trip. My Oak Bluffs friend Jim Bishop had business in Boston, so he delivered me and my dog from our front doorstep on Penacook avenue all the way to the American Airlines double-glass sliding doors at Logan Airport.
Huxley wore his red plaid sweater. He looked like a canine version of Maurice Chevalier singing “Sank ‘eaven for leetle dogs!” People said hello to him, stopped to pet him and to comment on his cuteness. As an Oak Bluffs town dog, he was already well aware of his high adorable quotient; he looked bored.
When the woman behind the airline counter said, “Is that a Boston terrier?” I received it as yet another compliment. But no. When I answered in the affirmative, she declared Boston terriers, along with all other flat-faced dogs such as pugs and boxers, were forbidden to fly. New rule. She held up a flier of all the banned breeds, a close approximation of the old outlaw posters tacked up in municipal buildings.
New rule, yes, but my dog reservation had been consolidated over the phone. No one, not even a robo-voice had apprised me of this new situation. Yet here we were, all set to fly to Los Angeles on flight number 143, due to depart in two and a half hours.
The counter lady could not be budged, so I asked to speak to her supervisor. He too, would not be moved and applied himself to computer keys to twiddle me into a new flight. “Just find someone to take care of your dog,” he said, as if I might turn to the people in line behind me and call out, “Anybody want a dog? Sweater included.”
I stood between two spheres of my own little world. Far behind me, many icy highway miles away and across a frozen sound was a locked-tight apartment, refrigerator empty, lights off, my bicycle brought all the way up the stairs and stored in the living room. Ahead of me — and where my hopes and dreams had dwelled for months — was my son who would be collecting me at the airport, my sister and mother in the desert, and all the high desert mountain trails my sister and I had planned to hike with our dogs — the cousins, we called them.
I began to weep for both spheres, especially the one now wrenched out of my cold New England hands. “But don’t you see?” I said to the man, tears flowing down my cheeks, “I’ll have to go all the way back to Martha’s Vineyard!”
To a mainlander’s ear this must have sounded like: “I’ll have to return to the indoor pool at the Ritz Carlton!”
Yet no one goes backwards with travel plans. Our brains can’t wrap around an idea so counterintuitive. In those movies where forlorn guys get stranded at Christmastime in airports in snowstorms, they never once consider turning back. No, they rent cars and hitchhike with tipsy truckers and get dragged by snow plows — anything to keep moving forward, ever onward to that special place where loved ones await.
And yet I was forced to turn back. Still squeezing out the odd tear, I took a taxi to South Station and bought a bus ticket to Woods Hole.
When the 4 p.m. bus pulled in, the driver, new to the route, bluntly refused to take my dog on board. Not below in his crate. Not aboard on the bus.
“Don’t you see?” I cried, “If we can’t board this bus, we can’t get home!”
He relented. At the start of the ride, Huxley stood at my feet, shivering. He could not, would not sit or lie down. He’d been targeted all day with disgust, and his mama had been brought to the brink of despair. I picked him up, he slept in my lap, his head on the suitcase on the adjoining seat. If the driver objected to this, I would point out that not a millimeter of the dog, not a single hair, touched any part of the bus.
In Woods Hole, I left Huxley’s carrier crate on a blue plastic bench, affixing a “free” sign to it. Someone could use it.
And then came the depressing, half-deserted ferry ride home, another taxi to my apartment with the bike in the living room, the thermostat set to 57.
We live in a country where tens of millions of people adore their pets. And yet all the rules and regulations are set up to make our animals verboten at every turn. Why is this? What kind of a strange land do we live in?
Huxley and I are now back on Island, having a grand old time in this past weekend’s blizzard. And I found a dog sitter for my newly revised trip.
Once more I will slog my way to Boston to travel to the West Coast, unless the airline decides to ban journalists who squawk too much in their op-ed columns.
See you all, dear friends and Islanders, in the spring.