Christmas wishes and patently bad decisions

The December holidays present a mixed bag for military academy families. For some, it’s a social media highlight reel of smiling faces and other Kodak moments. For others, it’s relatively uneventful, with some nice moments mixed with a few speed bumps. Then there are those that see their hopes for a joyful reunion turned upside down by things well beyond their control.

This year, it was probably more toward the middle.

With my LTJG underwater “somewhere,” most of my attention focused on my USAFA cadet cheerleader. In the days before she prepared to leave for the Military Bowl in Dallas, it became obvious that her travels would coincide with the impending winter storm poised to sweep the nation. 

I knew getting there would be no problem. But when I looked at the flight USAFA booked for her on December 23, I had my doubts. I’m an optimist by nature, but as I pored over multiple forecasts, landing in Detroit seemed like a long shot. This is where your military academy parent training kicks in – hope for the best, plan for the worst.

So I booked her two flights, one later on the 23rd to Columbus, Ohio. The worst of the storm appeared to be tracking a bit north, so I figured going south would afford a better chance for success. I also booked a flight to Cleveland on the 24th as it appeared the worst of the storm would have cleared well East by then. I booked both on Southwest (yes, I can hear your audible, “oh no” from here) figuring if we didn’t have to use them, I could bank the flight credits for later use.

She landed without incident and other than the fact that it was brutally cold (some said the coldest bowl game ever), all went well. Well, not really.

The flight to Detroit had been canceled before she even got dressed for the game. American rebooked her on a later flight to Detroit but now that the storm was on our doorstep, I felt confident that flight would fall through as well. It did. Oh-fer-2.

She called with the next set of options. One was another flight to Detroit by way of Phoenix. Again, the military academy parent training (and years of international travel experience) kicked in – eliminate failure points and a connecting flight introduced a handful into a situation with very little wiggle room. No, she opted for a flight to Cleveland.

The one thing my daughter asked about for Winter Break was going to an All Academies Ball, something we did for three years with her brother, and she and I did last year. The nearest parents’ group didn’t have one so I reached out to a USNA mom across the state who graciously made us their guest at the Northeast Ohio event. Another example of how academy families support each other.

That being said, I told her to expect to be taking the Southwest flight to Columbus later in the day. Now, for a bit of foreshadowing, let me remind you that American flies out of Dallas from DFW while Southwest flies out of Love Field, which I reminded her of multiple times.

The storm assaulted the midwest and, as expected, the flight to Cleveland got canceled. It turned out to be a “there but for the grace of God go I moment” because I would have taken the Ohio Turnpike out there to get her and it ended up being the site of a 50-car pileup that left four people dead

Now Oh-fer-3, I texted her to let her know Columbus was next up, reminding her she could sleep in since the flight was later and to go to Love Field instead of DFW. I had been tracking her plane for the last 24 hours. It would start the day in Connecticut, then hop from BWI to Pittsburgh to Dallas before heading to Columbus. You know what happened next, right? 

Yep, she was on auto-pilot and staggered onto the bus to DFW with her teammates early in the morning, texting me to let me know she was on her way. The text exchange was pretty straightforward and in hindsight kind of funny, and she managed to get a Lyft from DFW to Love Field without incident.

Back at home I was tracking her plane in one browser window, the conditions at Love Field in another, the conditions at Columbus in another, and the weather in three others.

My 6+ years as an academy parent reminded me to make contingencies. So I contacted a dear friend in Columbus to scout out the conditions. A retired Army colonel, he skipped right to the point – “we have an open bedroom ready for her. We’re 20 minutes from the airport and my four-wheel drive is ready to go. Give me the flight number.” I did, of course, and now had another backup plan.

The conditions in Northwest Ohio weren’t great, but as I looked out at the frigid landscape, I thought the roads looked quite passable. Once her plane finally left Pittsburgh, I took the leap of faith, loading the car with emergency supplies and heading out to collect her. Spoiler alert: While the end result was exactly what I hoped for, I regret not using the backup plan. I realize I could have put first responders in a bad situation. 

I sailed down I-75. The lanes were not only clear but dry and we were up to speed in no time. Heck, I thought, this is going to be a cinch. As I turned off the interstate to the first four-lane highway, conditions deteriorated slightly and I thought, well, I’ll still get there in plenty of time and quite easily. As the sun set and I went further into rural Ohio, I realized I had made a mistake. Patches of clear road (always only a single lane) were mixed with snow-covered swathes with brutal winds blowing snow across my path creating near-whiteout conditions. As I continued at a snail’s pace, I spotted drivers who hadn’t been quite as lucky and were spun out in the media or in a roadside ditch.

I’ve driven through some pretty rotten conditions, but this one was right at, or near, the top. I saw the flight had taken off, which was obviously a key piece to the puzzle. Now all I had to do was get there. As it turns out, we both arrived at about the same time. I looked at the Arrivals board, strewn with cancellations. Later, I would read about Southwest’s ongoing woes and come to realize just how much we beat the odds. 

We camped out in Columbus for the night and finally got in Christmas Eve. That night, after she had dumped her suitcase across her room and was all tucked in, I thought of my submariner, out there somewhere beneath the waves, spending Christmas who-knows-where. As is my habit, I checked my phone one more time before turning in and found Santa had delivered the perfect gift ahead of Christmas morning – an email from under the sea.

Although it was just a few lines, it was the most upbeat I’ve received to date. Before we exchanged presents Christmas morning, I told Catie about the email. She checked her phone and said, “Hey, he sent me one, too.” 

As academy parents learn, your definition of a perfect holiday changes from the moment they said “I do” on I Day, and I knew, at that moment, we were all together for Christmas.

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