The return from the 2015 National Home Brewers Convention.

The National Home Brewers Conference (NHC) was held this year in San Diego California. All be told, it was a smashing hit. Entertaining speakers for the seminars. Beer served in class for your body to absorb, while you mind absorbs useful brewing techniques.

The night was awash with every type of beer, cider and mead available. Served in responsible amounts from never ending kegs. Truly, for home brewers, it was a event of an lifetime. Sadly, all good things must come to an end.

My flight to the NHC was relaxing and uneventful. The ride back home however was a unmitigated disaster. The plane left on time and the sky's were clear as a softly poured Pilsner. My window seat gave me a wonderful view of the wing and a riveting view of the rivets. The flight was as smooth as the last few dregs of a Belgian Triple.

As we approached Chicago the pilot warned us that we would encounter some turbulent weather. Just before touchdown we saw drops of rain streaking across the windows. After landing and taxing towards our gate the storm hit with a fury. The plane stopped dead on the tarmac just as a butterfly is pinned in a collection display box. The lighting struck all around us. My heart sank. My temper rose and the rain went sideways.

The employees that service the plane could not do anything because of the frequent lightning and strong winds. I thought this would all soon blow over? My short 42 minute flight home wasn't scheduled for hours. After 20 minutes of incessant rain we saw hope rather than lightning. The pilot announced that we had no gate to disembark at because all flights were canceled and nothing was moving in or out.

The gates were full until some plane disembarked and vacated the area. Another 20 minutes passed and the pilot chirped “We can't get the ramp lined up properly so you will have to jump the last little bit.” I jumped gladly and strolled into the ensuing fracas. With all flights in and out canceled twice as many (pissed off) people were running around as if their heads were chopped off!

We all know what to do when everything goes according to plan. But when fly's get in the ointment, everyone goes brain dead. I am no exception. As an infrequent flier. I wasn't sure if a canceled plane meant you had to retrieve your bags or not? Why would they put your baggage on the next plane out, if you were canceled?

I checked the baggage carousel and my luggage was nowhere to be seen as well as any airlines agent. I saw a long line of queuing passengers. Before falling into line I watched it move to get an approximate speed of each transaction. There was no movements unless you count the flailing arm gyrations of the bemoaned passengers.

As I was moving away I overheard someone say that they just started another line on the other side of the wall. The line is almost empty? I rushed over only to see two lines of about fifteen people each. That was enough incentive to take my place in queue. Forty five minutes later I was second in line. At the desk was a man and his wife who was sitting in a wheelchair. He was arguing with the airlines representative. The irate man in front of me in queue was heckling and bad mouthing the airlines employee to move it along as the couple used 20 minutes to argue a losing case.

It seemed strange to me that a man who needs the help from the airlines official would call the employee out just before his turn. The thought must have eventually occurred to him for when his turn came up. He spent the first 5 minutes (of my time) apologizing to the employee.

When my turn came I asked if I could just get my luggage and get the hell out of here? He said, yes. But it would take between five and six hours to retrieve the bag from the belly of the beast? The other alternative is to leave the bag alone and have it delivered to my home? I accepted that and arranged for it because I new that I was not going to fly out of here and pulling a bag around wherever I go would be laborers.

At this point I was dripping with sweat and preparing to “stink up the place” if I didn't get a change of clothes soon. I looked for a way home. Every hotel room was taken in a thirty mile radius by hockey fans for the Stanley cup and the quick witted stranded passengers who scooped the remaining rooms up rather than frantically flail about as I did.

I went out into the rain to jump on the courtesy vans that took you to their car rental lots. “No cars available” they all said before I could get my words out. Drat! I tried to hail a cab. No soap, they all waved me away and I didn't speak enough Pakistani to ask them “how much?” anyway.

A woman called me aside and said I had to call them first. They would only then, acknowledge me. She forgot the number but it was displayed just inside the terminal door.

Back in the terminal as I looked for the cabbies number I saw that the CTA or (Chicago Transit Authority) subway could take me downtown near Union Station to get on an Amtrak train to Milwaukee. A cab ride would have probably been prohibitively expensive anyway? The CTA was $5. Done deal!

I hurried along with my backpack filled with my laptop, assorted cords, chargers, connecting cords and a movie camera. As my steps became slower with fatigue the backpack became heavier and heavier. I sweated my way to the CTA Subway under O'Hare International Airport.

I thought that this day has been an ordeal. Little did I know that this was the easy part of my strange journey!

Purchasing a ticket I gladly boarded the subway train. I sat amongst some seedy looking characters. One especially homeless looking loser was staring suspiciously at me. Every time I looked up he was eyeing me. To my relief, I discovered that what I saw, was my own reflection in the window.

Some of the riders were holding a phone or some other media device watching the hockey championship game. More than one scream punctuated the dismal silence as the Black Hawks scored or stopped an impending score. Watching the game and not me, gave me some confidence that I might make the distance between the subway station and the Amtrak station without being robbed or beaten. Everyone in town was watching the game.

As we followed the trains route. The stations along the way were mechanically called off clearly and loudly before each stop. I expected no mishaps in exiting my train at Clinton station. Then, a less clear and mumbled live announcement stated something about “Flooded tracks” and the train having to stop before the normal ending. Panic set in and I wondered if I was to be dumped off in a sordid part of town. Luckily for me, the flooded tracks were beyond my exit. I exhaled “Phew!”

At Clinton station I exited the train and headed up the 3 flights of stairs. Above ground, a women that had proceeded me up the stairs paused for a second. I asked her “which way is North? I need to find the Amtrak station.” No response? She walked in the direction that I assumed was North and I maintained my distance following behind her. I thought “If a beggar, bum or thief accosted us, while they are robbing her. I could run away to safety?” In the three city blocks we walked only one panhandler asked me for money. Pointing to the woman I said. “She carries our money” and hurried away.

I arrived at Amtrak's Union Station expecting to spend the night waiting for the 6:10 a.m. train to Milwaukee. I scouted the area to find where everything was and to purchases a ticket. The ticket windows were all closed but I saw a ticket seller was locking up and hurriedly leaving. “What time do you open in the morning?” I asked. “6 a.m.” he responded. Great! I have ten minutes to buy a ticket and get on a train!

My cell phones (yes, I was carrying two) were getting low on battery and my laptop was totally dead. I had to find an outlet to charge them so I could find a bus from Milwaukee to home. Union Station was built in 1925. You think they would have built in more power outlets for cell phones and laptop computers?

I found a bar in union station that had a crowd of people watching the Stanley cup finals. Outside the bar were chairs and tables but no outlets to charge anything. In an alcove were some snack machines and a coke machine. I pulled my clipboard from my backpack. I use a clipboard to hold my flight information, tickets and hotel information, anything pertinent to my trip. Not that it mattered now.

I pulled a piece of scrap paper from the clipboard and wrote “Out of Order” on it. I secured the paper to the front of the Coke machine and pulled the plug. Hey, Desperate times make desperate people. I charged the laptop and phones and watched the Hockey game through the bar window. The Blackhawks won the Stanley cup and the city went wild. The celebration went on all night and into the wee hours of the morning.

Only half charged but antsy to move on. I plugged the Coke machine back in and removed the sign. Stashing the sign in my backpack (Just in case?) I needed it again. I walked around the station just to get my bearings and to wile away the hours. I found the tracks where my 6:10 train to Milwaukee would be waiting for me. All I had to do was spend the night guarding my worldly belongings and keeping alive.

After a long walk I went back to my bar to finish charging. I was about to unplug the Coke machine when a lady said “ Don't bother doing that again. I will share my outlet.” She had a table next to the wall with an outlet beautifully placed just under the table top. One socket was mine. I thanked her, pulled up a chair and she said “ My incoming train was late and I missed my outgoing train. I am waiting for the next train out in the morning.

We didn't talk. She slept with her face in her arms on the table. I was trying to find a bus from Milwaukee to home. The Wi-Fi was poor, slow and occasionally disconnecting me. It was about 1 am and it was getting refreshingly quit.

Suddenly a cop shouted “What are you doing in here? We close at 1 am. You have to get out!” What? Close? Huh? The place was empty and apparently the girl and I were the only two people in the whole station? “ Where am I going to go?” I said. The cop said “anywhere, just not here, Get out!” It's 1 am and I am being dumped out onto the streets of downtown Chicago! “I thought this place was open all night?” I pleaded. “Not since 9/11” she said. “Where can I go?” I asked. “I think there is a all night dinner 3 blocks from here, across the bridge” was her reply.

The girl and I were ushered out the door and headed in the direction pointed to by the cop. I walked behind the girl. I figured if someone was going to rob us? Well, you know the story. We walked along the streets seeing two vagrants lying in a stores doorway (spooning). They were sleeping trying to make it through the night. Now I was one of them except I had $150 in cash and credit cards. I took a fifty dollar bill and stuck in my sock just in case?

We found a diner. Assuming it was the one the cop mentioned? We found others there too. Sitting patiently with pull along suitcases', bags and small items looking somewhat out of place and nervous. I recognized a few of them from my laps around the train station. They were likewise kicked out in the street.

I talked to them and found them in the same situation as we. Safety in numbers I thought? At 2 am we found that the “all night” dinner closed? A policeman was sitting at the counter eating doughnuts and said that a few blocks down the street was a real all night diner. As a group, we, the disheveled homeless travelers. Pulled our bags, suitcases and backpacks down the street to a Greek owned Mexican taco shop.

The place was fairly busy for 2 am. Scattered about were an odd assortment of people who lived and worked on the edge of the night. As we entered, we funneled near a wall in an area where the ownership was unlikely to see us. Some ordered food because of hunger or to show some signs of being a customer. We laid out the empty plates and French fry bags to look like we were still eating. Justifying our squatters rights.

After we moved past some initial misgivings and exchanged pleasantries We talked the night away. Taking turns telling travel horror stories and joking of our plight half worrying we would be discovered and get thrown out again into the wet and frightful darkness. We had the feeling of being somewhat safer together. Any misgivings were put aside. Twenty-four hours without a shower or change of clothes made us smell like the homeless. Helping us blend in with the locals.

Blackhawk fans were streaming in all night. Wearing team jerseys and sporting a grin from ear to ear. High fiveing strangers in a rare show of brotherhood and solidarity. I enjoyed that because the cooks were keeping busy and not bothering us. As each order was placed a number was given to the customer. When your order was ready they yelled out the number like a old lady shouting BINGO at a church fund raiser. They kept waking us up but we could hardly complain.

At 4:30 a.m. we walked en masse to the train station. Carrying all our worldly possessions. For all intensive purposes we looked like a bunch of vagrants heading to a homeless convention. We huddled outside the doors of the station adding new members who strolled in from the darkness. What their stories are I couldn’t tell, but they looked haggard and distraught.

The sign on the door said they open at five a.m. but they opened the doors for us early. Probably because we gave the place an appearance of a homeless shelter and we would attract transients? We felt better once inside but that did not change the smell. I was going to buy a cup of coffee but I was afraid that someone would drop a dirty coin in my cup?

I went down to the ticket office that opened at six a.m.. The line was already long and I only had ten minutes to buy a ticket to Milwaukee and get to the platform. They had a dozen windows to sell train tickets and “how long does it take to sell a ticket anyway?” Well, only three windows opened and it appeared that it is a requirement to explain to the ticket seller why you ended up here? At 6:05 I bolted the line and headed for track 15. I jumped on the Milwaukee bound train and tried to blend in with the daily commuters.

Eventually a train employee came around punching tickets. I had none and stated that to the ticket taker. She said that she would find the conductor and I could pay him cash. I pulled the $50 bill from my sock and waited. He never showed up? As the train slowed into the Milwaukee station I jumped out and (acting casual) sauntered into the daylight. Normally a honest person. I felt I had it coming to me. Luck, at last, looked my way.

I was standing on the sidewalk outside the terminal trying to call my son in law Todd and lo and behold Todd walked up and asked “If I wanted a ride home?” Hell yes! “Damn straight Jack” Todd drove me to his house in West Bend forty miles From the train station in Milwaukee

I was handed off to my daughter Paula and she drove me fifty five miles to Oshkosh. So of course I had to tell the story twice. Oddly, they both drove with the windows open?

When we arrived in Oshkosh I was handed off again to my wife Mary who had driven seventy six miles to rescue me. I was beginning to feel like a baton being handed off at the Olympics. A three way hand off of the person who was once a passenger but now was reduced to luggage!

When I walked through the door of my home. I knelt down a kissed the floor. I slept there and never got up. When I awoke I had fibers of carpet stuck to the dried saliva. (that part was a lie but sounded reasonable?)

Later that day my luggage was home delivered and I am due a rebate on my “Un-flew flight”. On the bright side I lost 3 pounds due to worry and walking. So the journey was one for the record books and a night to remember.

Bob Stempski



Kicked out

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