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White Man's Problems Part 12

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What a great line. "It will not forget what they did here..." The writing was perfect in every way. He looked at the children's faces. They were in T-shirts and laceless sneakers, the boys with long hair and the girls skinny and tallish. "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us-that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion..."

As he said "that from these honored dead," Hansall felt a hitch in his throat. His eyes began to water. Mrs. Coyle looked at him and seemed to give him an infinitesimal nod. He heard his voice in the voice of the kids. "That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

The next day, their last, a road warrior feeling held the tables where the Webster parents and kids ate their scrambled eggs sleepy-eyed, but now accustomed to it, like soldiers at mess. Their suitcases were ready, their sleeping bags were rolled tight.

As the bus pulled onto the freeway on the road to Mount Vernon, the last stop of the week, Hansall studied Will leaning against the window next to him; he was watching the road.

"Hey, man, how are you doing?" Hansall said.



"Fine."

"It's been a good trip. Don't you think it's been a good trip? We've had fun, haven't we?"

"Yeah, Dad. Sure."

The kid never really gave him a chance. He never let down his guard, his loyalty to his mother never left the dynamic. Women weren't above involving the kids-to Hansall, that was one of the biggest jokes going. He kept looking at Will, hoping they could seize in this moment a little connection.

"Dad, why'd you do it?" Will said finally.

"Why did I do what?"

"You know."

"No, Will, I don't know. Why did I do what? What has your mother told you that I did?"

"Forget it," Will said and pushed past him and headed for the back of the bus. Hansall stared forward. Mrs. Coyle had put a DVD about the preparations the soldiers go through for the changing of the guard ceremony. It was called Honor at Arlington.

Mount Vernon, he knew, was a poor second to Monticello, and the bus wasn't far out of DC proper when he realized that the cacophonous mother who claimed at breakfast they were headed to Jefferson's home had been wrong. He wrote it off to exhaustion that he didn't catch the mistake at first blush; of course they wouldn't drive all the way down to Charlottesville, which would have taken hours. Fitting that they would end with Washington, Hansall thought. First in War, Peace, and the Minds of his Countrymen, and the last stop on the way back to California.

Dignified signs announced Mount Vernon's proximity, and a massive parking maze oozing of public/private cooperative fundraising dumped them into a horseshoe-curved unloading zone. From there they were funneled toward the main house and quickly joined the line on one side of the long circular driveway leading to the old building.

As a schoolteacher in front of them rattled on about Washington's love of trees, Hansall deduced from a sign under the nearby walnut that there was a fifty-five-minute wait from their current spot. They inched up the white pebble pathway, moving just often enough to distinguish what they were doing from standing. Mrs. Coyle sensed she was losing everyone, so she reached into her pocketbook and produced a colonial trivia book collection.

"Which political party did George Washington belong to?"

"Republicans," said one kid.

"Nope."

"Democrats," said another.

"Uh-uh. Republicans and Democrats didn't exist back then."

With that, the kids were out of ideas. The group inched in the line but kept looking at the teacher.

"Parents?" Mrs. Coyle said..

After a moment, a ginger-haired mother said, "Federalists?" She said it as though she was speaking for the group, like the appointed family leader on Family Feud. Her eyes petitioned the other moms for support.

"Nope."

"Then the Antifederalists?" ginger-mom said, laughing at her own cleverness. The moms grinned and avoided eye contact with Mrs. Coyle.

"No party," said Hansall, from the side. He said it without thinking, reflexively. "He was above party."

"That's right," said Mrs. Coyle. She put her hands on Jobie's shoulders, and pointed him up the path, as they moved with the mass of people another few steps toward the mansion.

Inside, the place seemed to Hansall incredibly small. All the more so when the docent said, "In one calendar year, 1783, after he was back from the war, Washington and Martha had six hundred and forty-two houseguests."

Hansall said to an eavesdropping old lady in the group behind them, "Jeez, I don't even like it when my sister wants to bring her kids out for spring break."

Once finished with the inside, the guide concluded the tour on the back porch overlooking a broad lawn with a beautiful view of the Potomac. "No matter where he went-and he went everywhere his country asked, because he never refused a request for service-General Washington always, always longed for nothing more than to be back in this spot. Yet he hardly ever was able to get here."

After the speech the group was free to roam. Hansall watched as Will and Declan and Harry ran down toward the river's edge. He noticed Jobie walking with one of the girls, deep in discussion. It was a beautiful view, Hansall noted for himself. The tourists were diffusing over the lawn. He saw Linda taking in the horizon as well. He moved her way.

"Beautiful," he said. "I feel like I've been here longer than George himself."

She nodded but didn't laugh. They both kept looking forward.

"I know how he felt," Hansall said. When Linda looked at him, he continued, "You know...he just wanted to be left alone."

She took that in with another nod and kept looking at the river. After a moment, she turned and stared at him.

"Really? Really, Doug?" She was suddenly livid. Like she was over something, past it. "You really know how George Washington felt?"

Taken by surprise, he became quiet. "It's a joke," he said.

She made a scoffing noise. "You're a real piece of shit, you know that?" She was gone by the time he tried to respond.

Mrs. Coyle had allotted a mind-bending six hours for the visit to Mount Vernon. She figured they could take the day exploring its grounds, gardens, and underground museum before heading for the plane. The specter had, for Hansall, the punishing feeling of the day at Williamsburg, on a somewhat smaller scale, like a reprise of a boring song in the second act of a bad musical. The Websters ground their way through the servant's quarters, the blacksmith shed, and the scullery. They spent an hour trudging through the private cemetery, culminating with a solemn procession past the minimausoleum containing the great man's cement tomb. Martha's coffin was next to George's, albeit much smaller-Hansall was gobsmacked to learn she was five foot one. He had always thought of her as a broad woman, with childbearing hips and lots of flesh-the only one who held George under her thumb.

He pondered this as he sat on a bench on the bottom floor of the museum building waiting for the day to end. He was in the Ye Olde Refreshment Center, a hybrid cafeteria and fast-food restaurant. On one side, cashiers with three-cornered hats took the money of guests who ordered burgers and fries from short-order cooks and slid their trays down aluminum counters, past self-serve soda fountains dispensing Styrofoam cupfuls of Pepsi, Sprite, and Mr. Pibb. On the other side of the pavilion, a shopping-mall-styled McDonald's coexisted, a marvel of cooperation, he thought, between local and national food service.

He had long since lost track of the boys, or anyone from the group. To pass the time he ate. Reasoning that locals produced better food, he hit the Mount Vernon side for an order of fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. He washed it down with a thirty-two-ounce Diet Pepsi and a white-chocolate-chip and macadamia nut cookie.

When the bus pulled into the unloading zone at Dulles Airport-yet another horseshoe curve-the headlights of the scores of vehicles jockeying for position cut into the night. The driver didn't turn the engines off, and as the kids piled off and were directed to pick up their bags by the chaperones, Hansall had to yell at Miss Barlow to be heard.

"I have to take off," he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. "Will knows. I have a different ticket-had to do it because I came through New York. I will catch up with you guys at the gate." With that he found Will and gave him a touch on the shoulder and a wave. He mouthed, "I'll get it taken care of, and I will see you guys in a few minutes."

He breezed up to the check-in counter, used the electronic kiosk, and was off to the Elite Gold Service security gate. As it happened, each of the lines to the nine metal detectors was empty, and he was through in no time. He checked the monitor and found it was 6:48. He had a full half hour to himself before having to get to the gate with the kids for the eight-thirty takeoff.

To his surprise, there was a decent-looking sushi bar on his way to the D terminal. Within ten minutes he had downed a Kirin Light and asked for another. An order of yellowtail sushi and a spicy tuna roll appeared. Men in suits and stylish women spoke in non-airport ways to the bartenders. It was a rare high-end airport spot with well-dressed regulars, business travelers shuttling to New York and Chicago.

He relaxed and shot the breeze with the waitress until seven thirty. He found an ATM and placed money into Jobie's envelope, subtracting a credible amount for meals and the glossy book from Arlington. On the upswing now for sure, he imagined a smooth accounting to Jobie's parents at the pick-up in LA. Buzzed up by the beer and sake, he glided toward the gate at 7:35. But, when he made it to Gate D-9, the group from Santa Monica was nowhere to be found. He double checked the destination listed on the sign. Yes, the flight at Gate D-9 was to LA, and it was on time. He realized that in his reverie of the liberty of the last hour since he left the group he had not checked his phone. He looked down to find three messages from a number he didn't recognize. He punched into his voicemail.

"Hi, Doug? It's Dana Barlow. You just left and we're here with the kids at the security gate. They won't let us through because you're not here. They say you are part of our economy ticket allotment and they can't put us through till we're all here. If you get this, please call me."

It didn't come as a complete surprise. He knew his assistant was having trouble rebooking the ticket, and now he remembered he had said, "Just get me my own ticket in First Class." He listened to the other two messages. The last was from 7:20 and Dana was clearly starting to worry the group would miss the plane. Hansall began to dial the number, but he stopped. There were no unoccupied seats in the waiting area. He headed to an empty floor space near an electrical outlet. He found his charger and plugged in his phone.

At 7:45, he saw Linda's daughter and several other girls coming down the terminal corridor. Then the others, like so many wagon trains drifting along. Mrs. Coyle walked alongside Will, Jobie, Declan, and Harry. Hansall ran toward them.

"What happened? Where were you guys?" Hansall asked, pretending to be worried.

Mrs. Coyle said, "Dana tried to call you, didn't you get the message?"

He pointed at his phone in the wall. "Oh man, I've been out of juice." He opened his hands, asking for an explanation.

"They wouldn't let us in without you," said Mrs. Coyle. "Some security thing. Did you not get rid of your other ticket?"

"They wouldn't let me buy a coach ticket..." he lied. "That was the problem. That's why I had to go in first."

By then, the whole group had walked past and was on to the gate area. Hansall said to Mrs. Coyle, "Well, at least we made it," and headed for the boys, who sat on the floor and pulled out their phones.

Jobie went to Mrs. Coyle and tugged her arm. In turn, she looked at Hansall. "Doug," she said, "will you take him to the bathroom?"

"Sure. C'mon, Jobie."

As he walked Jobie toward the men's room, Hansall said, "Did you have a fun trip?"

"Oh, yes," Jobie said. He was calmer than he had been before. Hansall wondered if it was from exhaustion. When they started back to the gate, Jobie spied a concession stand. "Mr. Hansall," he said, "can I get a Coke?"

"Sure," said Hansall. They waited in line without saying anything, the little boy standing next to him. When the cashier handed Hansall the soda, Jobie started to dig in his pockets to pay. Hansall said, "I got it, man. Remember? I've had all your money. Put your change away."

"Oh." Jobie seemed genuinely touched. "Thank you." He clicked open the Coke can and drank lustily as they started back to the gate. It struck Hansall that Jobie's had gained an air of confidence that had not been present before. Jobie wasn't nervous, or preoccupied with not getting lost, and instead surveyed the comings and goings of the airport like a scientist looking for patterns. Just as they were returning to the group, he looked up resolutely and said, "Mr. Hansall?"

"Yes?"

"Thank you for being my parent chaperone."

"Hey, no problem," Hansall said. "No problem at all. Thanks for being such a good boy."

The gate attendant announced boarding for first class and any uniformed military service people. "Ok, guys," Hansall said to the boys, who were gathered by a wall outlet, watching Declan play FIFA World Cup. He motioned to the boarding area. "I have to get on now-they're making me get on. Be good on the plane, I will come back to check on you after we get in the air."

He headed down the Jetway. When he arrived at 3A, he removed his iPad and a plastic pill bottle preloaded with Xanax and Ambien from his bag. A male flight attendant came to him with a tray of orange juice and champagne.

Hansall was just settling into a profile of a billionaire hedge-fund manager who was now revitalizing the Salvation Army when he noticed that the gate attendant, a natty man with a blue V-neck sweater over his shirt and tie, had boarded the plane and was talking with one of the female flight attendants. They looked at a computer printout and then approached Hansall.

"Excuse me, Mr. Hansall?" said the man.

"Yup."

"May I see your boarding pass?"

"And your reservation number or any other paperwork you have," said the stewardess.

Hansall stood and retrieved his bag from the overhead department. He handed them his boarding pass. "I don't really have anything else." While they conferred over the boarding pass, Hansall said, "I think I know what this is about. I may be double booked. My assistant had to route me through New York, and I got a separate ticket from the group I'm with..."

"Right, the school group," the gate attendant said, and looked at the woman. "He must also have a seat in first."

"Is there a problem?" Hansall said.

A line of passengers was stacking up behind them trying to board the plane, so the pair stepped into the row in front of Hansall and leaned over the seats to continue speaking to him.

"Well," said the man, "we have someone under your name in two separate seats. That sets off all kinds of bells." The line of passengers flowed past them toward the economy section. "The security system gets fouled up when someone takes two seats."

"Hi, Dad," said Will, making his way past Hansall to his seat, with Declan, Harry, and Jobie in tow.

"Oh, hey man," said Hansall. "Go along back there to your seat, don't hold people up."

"Are you in trouble or something?"

"No, no. Just get going." Hansall turned back to his interrogators. "My son," he explained. "I'm with his school group."

"I know," said the woman. The kids and mothers were all walking by now. Ms. Barlow passed him and lifted her eyebrows. Linda ignored him.

After another moment looking at the printouts, the gate attendant seemed to have an idea. "Mr. Hansall, do you want to sit in the back with your group? We have several requests for upgrades...That could make it easy."

"No, of course not," Hansall shot back. There was an awkward moment before Hansall said, "Don't you have standbys? Just give the other seat to someone going standby."

They shook their heads. "Not that easy," said the woman. They continued to stare at the printouts, until the man finally said to the flight attendant, "Well, it's up to the captain. It's his call."

After ten minutes, the plane was fully boarded, but the door had not been closed. Hansall said yes to another glass of champagne and downed it. The man in the v-neck lingered on, making small talk with the two flight attendants.

The door to the cockpit opened and the captain emerged, bending his head to get through the door, and then uncoiling to his full height. Peeking from his seat, it looked to Hansall like he was six three or six four. He listened as the gate attendant showed him the printout. Eventually Hansall heard the captain say, "Where is he? Show me." The female attendant pointed to Hansall, who stared down at his New Yorker but was able to peek back up and see the captain mumble something to the other three workers before ducking back into the cockpit.

Hansall began to muster his argument against any direction from the captain that would result in an attempt by the airline to put him in the back of the plane. He tried to remember the last time he spent six hours in coach. If they sent him back now, he sulked to himself, he would almost certainly have to sit in a middle seat. He might not even be able to trade with Will or one of the other kids since the plane was readying to take off.

And then miraculously the door of the plane was shut and Hansall was relieved of his worries. Takeoff announcements were made. The male flight attendant made one last pass through the cabin, taking glasses and making sure cell phones were turned off. As he reached down to take the champagne glass, Hansall said, "What did the captain say about my situation?"

The flight attendant leaned down to whisper in Hansall's ear. "He said it was up to you."

end.

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