My Apollo 13 Moment #WomensMarch
In 1970, the crew of Apollo 13 set off on a glorious mission to walk the moon only to suffer one mishap after another on their near disastrous quest to get back home. I can relate. After weeks of planning and anticipating my trip to the Women’s March on Washington I ended up on a couch in Pennsylvania with the flu as my friends boarded a bus without me. Like Jim Lovell, I saw the moon but I couldn’t touch it.
On November 8, I found the election results a tad upsetting [read: devastating to the point of emotional and spiritual paralysis]. I spent about a week floundering between catatonia and blinding rage until I made the decision to participate in the Women’s March. I am a historian of United States women’s history so attending such a gathering would be both personally and professionally renewing. I conspired with my friend Laura in Pennsylvania to go with her and our friend Colleen who would join us from Los Angeles. Together we would represent both coasts and the Midwest. It would be awesome.
Except it wasn’t. The chills and aches set in on Wednesday but I ignored them. By Thursday I was swallowing ibuprofen every four hours and telling myself that the pesky cough that appeared that morning would surely go away with two flights to Pennsylvania because airplanes cure all ills, right? Friday morning I dragged myself out of bed determined to get to PA no matter what. I boarded the plane and fared pretty well on the first flight. By the time I arrived in Philly, however, things had taken a turn for the worse. The flight had squeezed my head into a vice and would not let go no matter how many pills I swallowed. Colleen bounced off of her plane and said, “You look great!” Having lived with her for four years I knew when she was lying.
Laura picked us up at the curb and we began a tortuous two-hour ride to her house in the rain. With my head still pounding I quickly noticed something amiss with the windshield wipers on Laura’s car. She confirmed that they were new and that her husband, a librarian, had installed them. Every single time the wipers moved they emitted a long piercing EEEEK. Laura attempted to turn them off whenever possible, letting the rain build on the windshield until it blinded her. Then it was EEEEK, EEEEK, EEEEK, over and over again. I wanted more than anything to smash my head into the car window.
We stopped at the grocery store to pick up provisions for the next day. I found a loaf of bread and a package of Oscar Mayer bologna and slumped on the floor in the front of the grocery store while Colleen and Laura leisurely strolled up and down every aisle. I sat unfazed as mothers and small children stepped over my body on the way to the checkout stand.
We finally ended up back at Laura’s house and I found small solace in a cup of hot peppermint tea. Laura’s husband and teenage sons who were also going to the march sat down with us for a spaghetti dinner. I ate about two bites and excused myself so I could go upstairs to lay on the floor and moan. Still, I was determined to board that bus at 5:30 the next morning ready to seize my moment in history.
4:30 AM arrived and with my head still in a vice and the chills so strong I could barely move I began to face reality. What kind of friend would I be if I started hallucinating on the bus and then passed out while walking the two miles it would take to get to the march site? Would I spend the day staggering through throngs of girl-powered teens and octogenarian rabble rousers in a hopeless search for a medical tent? Worse, what if I infected Scarlett Johansson with the flu? I could never forgive myself. As much as I wanted to get on that bus, and I really, really did, there was something else I wanted more – a bed piled with blankets. So many blankets.
One by one my friends walked out the door and left me behind on the couch with a brown dog called Beau and a cat who chews off his fur because he is allergic to himself. I tipped over, covered my head with a blanket, and sobbed. Hours later I emerged from a coma-like sleep and made my way to the refrigerator in search of the first of my two pre-packed bologna sandwiches. The sleep must have helped because by this point I could walk without falling over and the television appeared as one unit instead of two.
I operated a Huston-like command center receiving texts from my thirteen year old daughter, my mother, and friends at different marches all across the country while watching all of the DC speeches on the New York Times site and flipping back and forth between CNN and MSNBC. My mother texted from upstate New York where she marched with my sister-in-law and 5,000 others. My aunt marched with 1,200 in Prescott, Arizona. And my daughter marched with her best friend in our hometown with 3,000 including a neighbor who said she went to the local march because I inspired her. My daughter told me that I didn’t have to be in DC in person to be part of the movement and she was right. The marchers surrounded me even as I sat on that couch eating cold bologna.
Anchors at MSNBC radiated pride as they called the numbers in DC “breathtaking” while that smug Gloria Borger over at CNN said the Women’s March means little if it does not translate into activism back home. As if on cue, Madonna responded to such sentiments by saying “Fuck you” to naysayers on live television. She also added a bit about her fleeting desire to blow up The White House which I am sure she did not mean. The site is an historic landmark and must be preserved no matter who lives there. This is why we can’t let Melania give Jackie’s Rose Garden the Jessica Newport treatment by digging it up and replacing it with a fountain of Vladimir Putin peeing into the small hands of an orange marigold-coiffed Donald statue.
By the time the gang returned I was feeling human and ready to hear their stories. They swore to me that I could not have handled the pace of the march or the close quarters. They saw no medical tents and confirmed that with everyone pressed up against barricades I would have Typhoid Maryied the masses and then died from exhaustion. I listened with bittersweet envy as they talked of euphoric crowds and pink caps as far as the eye could see.
Then Laura and I talked activism. We talked about how to get the attention of our senators and congressional representatives, that it was important to organize a group of people to fill their summer town hall meetings. To visit offices every time I went to DC. To support the local Democratic party. To run for school board. These are the conversations that make the Women’s March important. Numbers matter. Turning out the resistance matters. But it’s the networking that takes place at a march like this that will translate into action Gloria Borger, I promise.
I boarded the plane on Sunday ready to take on the world. I didn’t touch the moon but I could see it up close from the window and that was pretty cool. My health was returning and soon I would be home. Alas, Jack decided to “stir the tanks” and what was left of my trip went to hell from there. I left Philly for Atlanta around the same time tornadoes were popping up in Georgia. The pilot greeted us with an apology for the turbulent flight we were about to take. We reached Atlanta air space, circled once, tried to land, and could not break through the clouds. With more circling came lots of nausea. In what felt merciful at the time but caused more misery in the end, the pilot landed our plane in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was 5:30 PM.
At least five planes and nearly 600 people diverted from Atlanta and crammed into the one-terminal Chattanooga Airport. Teeming with humanity, the scene served as a microcosm for this political moment – at least thirty women still high on The March clad in hot pink pussy hats, Nasty Woman tees, Women’s March on Washington sweatshirts, pins, and stickers dwarfed the three men in the corner wearing red Trump hats. 10:1. Interesting.
I exchanged numbers with Lola from Seattle and Kristen from Denver. Both attended the DC march. I heard a story from a woman who protested against the Vietnam War in the March on the Pentagon. At that march she saw police snipers atop buildings. By comparison, she said the Women’s March “felt like a love fest” with the police “smiling and waving.” One man said that he flew to DC on Friday. The plane was full yet he and the pilot were the only two men aboard. They were surrounded by women ready to march on Washington.
As the night wore on, the march’s spell wore off and by 11:30 PM I was wishing Donald Trump would hate-tweet Delta on our behalf. Toddlers charged one another in their delirium while their parents stared into the distance dreaming of Benadryl. Gate agents lifted our hopes time and again with false promises of cleared weather only to be followed by mechanical failures later fixed, and then thwarted by a timed out crew. Hours went by and the crowd started to turn on the agents. “The Company” hamstrung its employees on the front lines with policies that made no practical sense.
Delta insists, for example, on keeping passengers together on the flights they came in on as if we were one contiguous unit. We watched in outrage as two planes escaped to Atlanta at 12:30 AM with dozens of empty seats that could have been filled by sobbing mothers traveling alone with their punch-drunk toddlers. Delta chooses policy over logic much like the Republican party clings to ideology over practicality. We need to let mothers and their babies fly ahead to Atlanta and we need to give them healthcare because it’s humane and more practical than letting them cry themselves sick.
Chattanooga sits 117 miles northwest of Atlanta. If Delta relied more on common sense than on a One Rule Book Fits All approach they might have responded to passengers who begged gate agents to call a bus and ship us to Atlanta. Is it really cheaper to put a hundred people up in the Courtyard Marriot for three hours of sleep than it is to charter busses to transport those same people to the airport? Is gutting the Affordable Care Act really less expensive and more sensible than fixing it?
Delta finally admitted that our plane would not depart until 9:45 the next morning. We waited in an obscenely long line for vouchers to the hotel and then for a shuttle. I walked into the lobby and saw the same 50 people from the airport waiting in one more long line and I promptly erupted in the kind of exhaustion-induced hysterical laughter that could lead to one’s arrest in other circumstances. The hotel clerk moved with all the verve of the Walking Dead after a meal. I collapsed into a chair and fell asleep for an hour. I awoke to hear the clerk declare that she had four rooms left for 15 people. I piled in with Monica from Ohio, and Christine and Mary from Arkansas. Sisterhood!
Three hours later we shuttled back to the Chattanooga airport and made the 23 minute trip to Atlanta at 11:00 AM. That’s right. It took Delta Airlines 18 hours to move us 100 miles.
I wandered around Atlanta Hartsfield marveling at all of the bright lights and pretty colors. I puzzled over how to dunk my tea bag in hot water unsure how the brewing process worked. With my ticket in hand at 3:00 PM I found the gate and cried ugly tears when the agent assigned me a seat. I stumbled onto the plane and immediately fell asleep, waking up just in time to see crop circles dotting the Omaha landscape below. I survived splashdown and headed home.
I may have lost the Women’s March, but the march didn’t lose me. I will stalk senators and representatives until they fear the sound of my footsteps. I know a little something about organizing and I’m not alone.
This will be our finest hour.