I could run off a list of things I am thankful for on Thanksgiving Day but God hears my gratitude for the life He’s given me on a regular basis. I’m of course thankful for my life, my health at my age, a loving wife who truly cares for me, the crazy kids she’s brought to our marriage and the home she’s made for me, the work God has given me here in El Salvador, and much more. I am a contented man.
I was awesomely blessed with a sum of money that enabled me to fly to see my son Ari in Wyoming three months after a seizure while driving put him in the hospital with brain damage. That my eight-day trip encompassed Thanksgiving Day was no accident. His mom suggested it so I could surprise our 34-year old son and my five grandchildren. That was the fun part.
I flew to Denver via Miami and rented a car to drive to Casper. Terri, my ex-wife asked me not to come too early so the kids could get on their school buses. If I showed up with them home, they wouldn’t want to go. I interrupted the five-hour drive with a stop at Denny’s to nurse some American breakfast food then laid over at a roadside parking area for a couple of hours. Arriving in Casper shortly after sunup, I drove through the city admiring some of the improvements since my last visit in 2009. I quietly parked the Thrifty Car Rental Chrysler 200 and walked up the wooden steps to the door. It was nippy. In the low 40s and I was relishing cool air and no mosquitoes.
I opened the door and saw Terri sitting in her recliner and my beautiful granddaughter Aries (14) on a sofa. As soon as she realized who stood before her she jumped over a chair and into my arms straddling me with her legs. She hit my nose so hard with her head I thought I was going to have a nosebleed. I’ll never forget her first words, “I thought I would never see you again.”
Hearing a commotion, Isis (now 13) ran downstairs and shouted, “Grandpa!” She gave me another loving hug. But not until Aries got too heavy for these old arms and took to her feet. It was then I realized that she’s only a couple of inches shorter than I am.
Isis is home schooled. Aries made it to the bus when it came but not before showing the driver the little hairy Chihuahua named Pato who sleeps with her.
In the afternoon, I got more lovin’s from Sierra (13) when she came home from school. I surprised Preston (15) outside the tae-kwan-do dojo where he works after school. Finally, little Jacob (11) was thrilled to see his grandpa at his dojo.
It was three more days of secrecy before Ari came down from Gillette with his fiancée, Sara, and her four children, Sean, Caleb, Nathan, and Kimberly.
Between shocking my grandkids I had the chance to do some shopping at Wal-Mart for things I can’t buy here and need gracious friends in the U.S. to send to me. I picked up a pair of Wrangler black jeans. Mine are faded. I also got 2 pair of Wrangler pants. I bought a white dress shirt and a red and black striped tie. I really had no decent clothes for church. I picked up a couple of bulk packages of Fruit of the Loom underwear and white socks, two large, fluffy bath towels (the ones I have from here don’t absorb and are too small for an average-sized gringo), 13 white handkerchiefs, refill brushes for my Philips Sonicare, a 2-pack of DayQuil/NyQuil, children’s cough syrup, vitamins for me, Margarita, and the kids, printer ink, a bike lock, a jar of sweet relish, two boxes of matzos, 1 pint each of sour cream and cottage cheese, watches for the kids, a necklace for Margarita, a Johnson & Johnson First Aid Kit and extra band-aids, lens cleaner, a new razor and cartridges, clothes line, a good salt and pepper shaker set, and a Bernz-o-Matic torch. More on the torch later. I also treated myself to a package of York Peppermint Patties and a Mounds bar. To round out my sartorial purchases, I bought my first pair of leather shoes in several years, a neat western-style wallet, and a new sombrero to replace my worn, torn, frayed and holey old one.
During the week I met a man from Terri and Bill’s First Southern Baptist Church who wanted to learn about Central America with a mind to settle here when he retires. He’s an ordained pastor who can’t preach because he’s been divorced. We became good friends. I helped him and Bill change the lights in the church and he taught the senior’s Sunday school class.
On Saturday night we went to the Casper Christmas parade. What a change from the rinky-dink parades we have in El Refugio. There were floats from organizations and clubs, police cars and fire trucks, motorcycles and hot rods, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Santa Claus and lots of free candy, cookies, and other gifts. It was like coming home.
On Sunday only Terri and I made it to church. We all suffered some degree of stomach problem after Thanksgiving dinner. I’m not accusing the cook of anything but… I enjoyed the one-hour service.
In the evening we returned to help set up and adorn the Christmas tree and the sanctuary. Before we left it began to snow. The snow was just supposed to be light flurries and not a problem for driving. But when I got up at 2:30 am to prepare for the five-hour drive back to Denver we found at least three of inches of snow on the ground and on my car. I was virtually packed so I warmed up the vehicle while brushing the snow off the roof, trunk, windows and hood. I felt like I’d never left Milltown. Terri packed me a breakfast sandwich, a can of V-8 juice, and a bottle of water to eat before I boarded the flight to Dallas/Ft. Worth. We said our good-byes and I promised to let her know when I got home.
As I drove along the development’s streets leading to the state highway, I felt confident that I’d make it to the rental agency on time to avoid any penalties. But once I got onto I-25 my confidence began to quaver. There was virtually no traffic. A vague track in the snow blended with the color of the pavement so that it was difficult to distinguish safe from danger. In the vastness of the central plains no light showed other than that of my low-beam headlights. I was forced to slow down to 35 mph when I finally caught up to another brave or foolish soul. No way would I dare attempt to pass. I remembered too well trying to pass a semi in broad daylight on a snowy Interstate in Utah. I wound up in the other direction on the median after taking out a reflector post that dented the side of my pickup. When my fellow traveller finally exited I still feared accelerating.
As the snowfall became more dense and the roadway more hazardous, I noticed a string of semis in the parking area next to the highway. I wanted to opt for the safety of the rest stop but I had a time limit. I fishtailed once or twice near Wheatland and noticed a light at the bottom of my dashboard. I dared not stop to see what it indicated for fear of losing concentration on turning into the skid while decelerating and not braking. It might have had something to do with anti-lock brakes. I haven’t been following auto technology since I haven’t driven in years and don’t intend to ever own another four-wheeled vehicle.
As I approached Cheyenne there were clear spots on the highway. To my left I could see a lighter shade of gray as the day was beginning. I saw that I wasn’t that much off my schedule and that if it was clear to the south I just might make it. I had the Mounds bar in my new back pack but I wasn’t about to try to remove it from its pocket or stop for a break to get it.
Passing through Cheyenne, a city now a bit more familiar to me, the sky was brighter but cloudy and the roadway was clear and dry. There was a little more traffic as people were heading to work after a long weekend. I was able to make good time with the speed limit of 75 mph. I checked each mileage sign as I passed it with the clock and slowly I felt more comfortable. I retraced the previous Monday’s route looking for the Peña Blvd. sign. It said “Second Right” with one arrow pointing down and a yellow arrow angled to the right. It confused me and I jumped off one exit too soon. I realized that while I was still on the ramp but figured I’d just continue through the intersection and get back on I-70. But some brilliant civil engineer designed the connectors and overpasses in such a way that I had to ride further east on I-70 to cross over it, ride west to find an on ramp, drove a while more before I could cross back to find an east-bound on ramp and proceed to that second right to Peña Blvd. I’d lost another 15 minutes.
My next task was to find the gas station I remembered passing as I’d left the car rental area. It was still quite away up the road. When I saw it I knew I was near my destination with about 15 minutes to spare. I had bought gas in Casper at $3.08 per gallon. Here it was $3.95. I’d never spent so much on a mid-sized car but took the inflation like a good American…from El Salvador where my vehicle is a bicycle. I dropped the car off and ran into the office to pay my bill. The guy didn’t have $3.36 change from the two $100 bills I’d brought from home to pay for the car. We went around a couple of times before he accepted the debit card from my local bank that the guy who signed me out wouldn’t accept because only Margarita’s name (and only part of that) appears on the card.
Once that was settled I jumped on the waiting shuttle for the long ride to Denver International Airport. I found the check-in and took some flak from the agent who saw my Rutgers jacket and rode me for our loss to Pittsburg. Then I had a mile-long hike in the mile-high city’s airport looking for my gate. Security was a bitch.
Monday morning was travel day for business folks and visitors as well. It took forever to get to the first checkpoint. First, the agent confiscated my bottle of water and V-8. Then she decided to run my backpack through a second time. When I finally got my shoes back on, my belt in my pants and my change in my pocket I had to run like hell to get to my gate. They were just starting to board because the plane was late getting in from Dallas. Thank God for small favors. I found myself seated next to an interesting gentleman who opened up a bag of mixed fruit while I opened my sandwich of fresh ham, eggs, and cheese on an Italian roll. It ticked me off to have to wait until the complimentary drinks were served before I could wash it down. But life was good. I’d had a wonderful week and I was on the way home.
The flight to Dallas/Ft. Worth was a short one. I added to my video footage through the plane’s window. At DFW I had plenty of time so I stopped at McDonald’s for a chocolate shake. One more extravagance before I get back to Poverty Pocket, Central America. The shake was thick and topped with cream and a cherry. It took me quite a while to suck it all up as I read the Max Brand western I’d picked up at Good Will in Casper. That was a bad move. My stomach hadn’t completely settled from Thanksgiving and I could feel the pressure of gas building up. I felt sorry for my next seat mate.
I sort of lucked out to have a young woman from the People’s Republic of China next to me and a young man from their rather large group in the aisle seat. Shanshan Zhang and I didn’t speak until the flight attendant brought the Immigration and Customs forms. Her English was decent but like my Spanish, not for all occasions. I was happy to help her and she asked questions about life in El Salvador. I responded by teasing her about how everything we have is made in China. I did thank her country for all they do for us in the way of providing heavy equipment and engineering skills as we build our infrastructure in exchange for favorable trading pacts.
When we arrived at San Salvador, I was happy to be able to pass through Immigration and Customs as a bona fide resident of El Salvador. I even made the Immigration agent laugh with my joke about there not being too many gringo illegals trying to sneak into El Salvador.
Upon exiting the building, my thought was to activate my cell phone and call Miguel Ángel who would be waiting on the highway in his mini-van. There is no parking or waiting area at San Salvador International Airport. I headed toward the barricade that separates the people awaiting arrivals from the passengers. Suddenly, I saw Adriana running toward me. I dropped my suitcase to catch her in my arms and receive the most loving of hugs from my precious daughter. When I’d milked the moment as long as I could, I saw Margarita, María, her sister-in-law Abi, and Luís waiting to greet me. While we all hugged, Margarita called Miguel Ángel and we awaited his arrival.
The plan was to stop in Olocuilta for pupusas. I had eaten on the plane and my stomach was singing an unhappy tune so when we arrived, I opted for a bottle of Pepsi while they all pigged out.
When we finally got back on the road, Adriana asked to sit up front on my lap. That worked for me although the cab of the mini-van was quite cramped. It just felt good that she wanted to be with me after a week apart. She soon fell asleep in my arms. I couldn’t move my legs and I had to force my left arm to hold her from Miguel Ángel’s steering arm. His other arm was still occupied with the cell phone. This continued to make me nervous even though he was barely crawling on the dark highway.
It seemed hours before we got home. I just wanted to feel my own bed under my very tired body that had been driving and flying for 21 hours. But the kids wanted to see their gifts. Kids first, I thought. When I opened the large suitcase on the sofa, I was surprised to see two notices from TSA informing me that my bag had been inspected and that hazardous material had been removed. I was even more surprised to see reddish-orange stains on a new towel, two of my new Wrangler pants, most of the 13 white handkerchiefs, and my Rutgers ball cap. We removed the soiled objects for the next day’s wash. The kids got their gifts and we went to bed.
The next day I sorted my Wal-Mart receipts and went over the ton of items I’d bought. I discovered the hazardous item was the propane torch. It took me two days to begin investigating the reason for my missing and damaged items.
I went on-line and sought the proper form for baggage problems with American Airlines. I filled it out but was stymied when their java wouldn’t accept my 8-digit phone number. TSA’s format was more reasonable. But I wrote letters to them both plus one to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation’s Airline Consumer’s Division.
I was surprised to receive a very quick response from TSA. The agent asked a couple of questions and I shot them back to him. It didn’t take long before he’d contacted someone at DFW Airport and returned with the information that American had removed the torch as changes in pressure could cause the torch to explode in the hold. OK. I’m out $24.97 and can’t do the work I wanted to do. Then he wrote that the investigators claimed they did not touch the Two-Pack of NyQuil and DayQuil. Pressure change must have caused the leakage from the latter bottle.
But I was home. I was happy to be here although I missed my grandkids immensely. My family was happy I was back and they liked their gifts. My family in Casper was happy that I came. I saw my son and he was fine. I didn’t get to enjoy the snow, but it was quite an adventure.