“Neal: What’s the flight situation? / Del: Simple. There’s no way on earth we’re going to get out of here tonight. We’d have more luck playing pickup sticks with our butt-cheeks than we will getting a flight out of here before daybreak. / Neal: I guess we’ll find out soon enough. / Del: Yeah, but by the time the airline cancels this flight, which they will sooner or later, you’d have more of a chance to find a three-legged ballerina than you would a hotel room. / Neal: Are you saying I could be stuck in Wichita? Del: I’m saying you are stuck in Wichita.”– John Candy (Del) & Steve Martin (Neal) in Planes, Trains and Automobiles
In previous posts, I have discussed how my brother Jeff and I do a movie rewatch and chat each week. It started on ZOOM when things locked down at the start of the pandemic, and we have since continued doing it socially distanced in either his or my backyard. One week, what started as a discussion of our favorite John Hughes’ film, morphed into a conversation about bad travel experiences. As brothers do, we each told our own bad travel stories, competing to see who had the worst experience. In the end, we both agreed our worst travel experience was one we shared.
Many years ago, 16-years to be exact, my brother Jeff and I lived our version of the film Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Well, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but I remember it being terrible. In our attempt to go to Florida to celebrate Christmas and the dawning of a New Year at Walt Disney World with my sister Becky and mother, we experienced what can only be described as an awful travel adventure. To circumvent lousy weather, limited plane space, and a semi-strike by our airline, we did whatever we could to make it Florida, from Providence, RI. We went through insanity, yet it is one of the funniest stories to tell because, well, sometimes bad experiences make for great stories.
The end of the story will be as strange as the beginning. But, to better understand it, I want to add in a comparison take on John Candy and Steve Martin’s incredible buddy-comedy adventure, Planes, Trains and Automobiles. A film with sharp comedic timing, uncomfortable travel commentary, and touching dramatic elements, the movie always makes me think of what my brother Jeff and I went through and the paths we took to get to Florida that Christmas in 2004. Join me as I explore that travel adventure, study an incredibly nostalgic film, and partially spoil the story’s ending. It ends pretty well.
“Del: [sitting outside the motel cafe after finding out they’ve been robbed] You know I’ve been thinking. What we’re dealing with here is a small-time crook. He didn’t take the credit cards, right? So we charge our way home. What kind of plastic do you carry? / Neal: I have a Visa and a gasoline card. Oh, and I have a Neiman Marcus card in case you want to send someone a gift. What do you have? / Del: Chalmer’s Big and Tall men’s shop. It’s a seven outlet chain in the pacific northwest. Great stuff. Unfortunately, it does us no good here.”John Candy (Del) & Steve Martin (Neal) in Planes, Trains and Automobiles
In my four decades on this planet, I have not had many lousy vacations/travel adventures. I can’t remember a single bad experience other than the journey this post will cover. I love to travel, and small things are bound to happen. Lost luggage here, delay there, it’s the chance you take when you travel, and for the most part, I am okay with it. I try to maintain a positive attitude and high spirit, recognizing how lucky I am to have an opportunity to make journeys in the first place. Still, there are those moments when you can’t handle it and meet with such calamities that a right attitude will instinctively suffer a rousing Patrick Swayze style “roadhouse” kick to the gut.
For example, when I returned from my month-long stay in Shanghai, China, I met with delay after delay after delay. A trip that was supposed to be around 22 hours ended up taking over 38. First, there was a delay in Shanghai at the terminal, and then when I finally boarded the plane from the tarmac, we lingered for four hours in the plane. All of these delays occurred before starting my journey home. Yet, once in Toronto, I had to wait to get my bags so I could go through security again, only to have to run through the terminal and almost miss my next flight. When I made it to Ottawa, the airport was closed, and since I had to go through another security check, I had to sleep on a bench in the closed food court and wait for the US Customs area to reopen. I eventually made it home, but that was a long, long trip. So, chaotic and stressful moments can occur and might sour part of a travel experience. But, my trip to Florida with my brother was something else.
Connecting to Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
“You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. Yeah, you’re right, I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you… but I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings. Well, you think what you want about me; I’m not changing. I like… I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. ‘Cause I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.”– John Candy (Del) in Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Planes, Trains and Automobiles is one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. It is generally on each holiday season, but if I am scrolling through the channels and see it is on, you better believe I am stopping everything I am doing and watching. I always thought John Candy was the best actor. Armed and Dangerous, Uncle Buck, The Great Outdoors, Summer Rental, and of course, Cool Runnings are some of the movies I most remember him in. If someone asked me who was my favorite actor growing up? Hands down, John Candy. He could be both funny, lovable and add a sense of depth to his characters that, in lesser hands, might have been lost or unable to be brought to the surface. This fact is accurate for Candy’s performance as Del in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Del is annoying at times, sure, yet he is complicated. Candy brings that out while exhibiting a dramatic and emotional range, both in dialogue and facial expressions, not seen in many of Candy’s comedic characters. While I have always enjoyed the films of Steve Martin, even in this film, it’s Candy who steals the show, wins the film, and eternally is enshrined in this movie about travel calamities.
Here is the Rotten Tomatoes synopsis of the film: “Easily excitable Neal Page (Steve Martin) is somewhat of a control freak. Trying to get home to Chicago to spend Thanksgiving with his wife (Laila Robins) and kids, his flight is rerouted to a distant city in Kansas because of a freak snowstorm, and his sanity begins to fray. Worse yet, he is forced to bunk up with talkative Del Griffith (John Candy), whom he finds extremely annoying. Together they must overcome the insanity of holiday travel to reach their intended destination.” Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a perfect John Hughes’ film. The movie includes witty, quick, and emotional dialogue and a timeless story of two guys who don’t know each other, relying on one another to solve travel and loneliness issues. A fantastic supporting cast, patented Hughes’ score, and, as always, Chicago looking good during the Holiday season to make this travel buddy-comedy a classic that should be watched by one and all.
Yet as I learned from this film and my travel misfortunes, the most important thing is not the mishaps that occur but how you handle them. You want to be Del, never Neal. Del keeps it together when Neal loses his shit constantly. Del is genuine, kind, and cheerful, even when Neal is belligerent and ungrateful. Sure, Del might be a terrible travel companion, but he is also “ride or die” for Neal, someone he wasn’t acquainted with but wants to help get home. For Neal, he only sees the surface with Del, not the man inside who is in pain, lonely, and in hindsight, is doing all he can to help. Yes, there is a lot to this film and the “odd couple” thrown together from circumstances outside their immediate control. They will succeed, die trying, or kill each other along the way. The film can teach us a lot about travel. So, let’s explore my travel nightmare, and along the way, get help from Del, more than Neal, and consider the power and importance of Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Not a Good Start
“Del: Next time, let’s go first class, all right? / Neal: God, I hope there isn’t a next time.– John Candy (Del) & Steve Martin (Neal) in Planes, Trains and Automobiles
My story, and journey to Walt Disney World for Christmas and New Year, began on Thursday, December 23, 2004. My brother and I would be meeting my mom and sister in Florida and staying at Coronado Springs Resort, located on Disney property. It would be a fantastic opportunity to do something we had never done during the holiday season; travel to a warmer climate and be away from home for the holidays. To start, we would depart from Providence, RI, in the early afternoon of the 23rd and get to Orlando in the late afternoon. We would then go out to dinner in Epcot Center at the primary restaurant in the Canada pavilion. What could go wrong?
Well, the start of our trip did, slightly, imitate the beginning of the film when Steve Martin (Neal) needs to get out of a business meeting, one that took way too long, to make his scheduled 6 PM flight. Neal ends up fighting for a cab, loses one to Kevin Bacon, almost gets hit by a car, and John Candy steals another cab. He had one hell of a time even making it to the airport on time, thus showing that his trip home would not be without turmoil. For me, when arriving at an airport, I like to be very early. I have too much anxiety when traveling to arrive at an airport “on time.” But, when relying on others to stay on schedule, keeping stress at bay is tricky. I lived at home and waited for my brother, who had to drive from Worcester, MA, to our family home. Once together, my uncle would pick us up and taxi us to TF Green Airport in Providence. Simple, right? While I was ready early and Jeff made it to the house on time, my uncle was late, not terribly late, but late enough.
Once he arrived, my heart was racing. I’m not particularly eager to rush. I would instead get to the airport four-hours early rather than run to a gate. My friend Don would disagree, while my Dad would need more time. Either way, I like to get to an airport early, go through security, and relax and wait for the gate agent to call my boarding number. In the end, we made it to the airport about an hour and a half early. Once we approached the ticketing counter, the agent told us that the weather delayed our flight, but we should be fine. I didn’t care too much about the delay part, at this point, only that we didn’t have to rush.
There is a great scene in the movie when Neal and Del meet for the first time. They sit in seats at their terminal gate, looking at each other across the aisle, their plane delayed. Neal anxious, Del relaxed. Yeah, that was my brother and me as we waited. I was Neal, and Jeff was Del. Once we made it to our gate, the gate agent told us our flight was further delayed and didn’t have any more information. So, we waited. I was stressed out, and my brother “as cool as a cucumber.” Eventually, we realized something was wrong, as it got later with no real movement. Jeff and I talked to the gate agent, who told us that it didn’t look promising. The airline soon canceled our flight because of snow and a lack of employees (pilots and flight attendants). After asking what our options were, they told us that while our flight was nonstop to Orlando, two other flights were leaving within the next 30 minutes, one to Philadelphia and Washington, DC. Both would get us to Orlando that evening. There was a catch. There was only one seat available on each flight, and after those flights, there was no way to get to Orlando that evening. After an emotional chat with my brother, we decided to separate and take a seat on those flights, rather than wait for a better option, or come back the next day, Christmas Eve, and try this again. Jeff would go to Washington, D.C., before departing to Orlando, and I would travel through Philadelphia.
Midway through Planes, Trains and Automobiles, there is a very heartfelt scene where Del and Neal are at the train station after a cold truck ride from Owen, played by Dylan Baker, and they say their goodbyes. They have their tickets, but they can’t sit together. They smile at the fact that their troubles are over, only to learn soon after that, they still have a long way to go before the nightmare officially ends. As we decided to split up, the reality of our separating moment in Providence resembled that scene from the movie. Was it the right decision? Yes, but did it go well? No, not at all. Instead, our journey resembled a quote by Del, John Candy, when he said, “Six bucks and my right nut says we’re not landing in Chicago.” As Jeff and I separated in Providence, our journeys had just begun.
My Horrible, No Good Journey
“Neal: As much fun as I’ve had on this little journey, I’m sure one day I’ll look back on it and laugh. / Del: [giggles] Are you sure? / Neal: [starts chuckling] Oh God. I’m laughing already.– Steve Martin (Neal) & John Candy (Del) in Planes, Trains and Automobiles
It’s been sixteen years since this story took place. It took about five years to be able to laugh about what took place. When I boarded the Providence plane, I didn’t argue with the flight attendant as Neal did, nor sit next to someone like Del, who talked and talked. Instead, I boarded the plane, found my seat, and waited as the other passengers boarded the packed flight. About 20 minutes after everyone had boarded and pushed away from the gate, the pilot turned on the speaker and told us there would be further delays due to weather and issues regarding gate space in Philadelphia. I didn’t overthink that last part at the time, but it sure mattered later. So, we sat and waited. I wondered how my brother was doing with his flight to DC, and I worried about lines of communication since this was 2004 and my cell phone sucked, and I had accidentally packed the charger in my checked baggage and who knew where that bag was. Up seemed down, and everything was off. No matter, the bad was indeed behind me, right?
Nope, about an hour after our “scheduled” takeoff, we had still not departed. Delay here in Providence, delay in Philadelphia; something was going on. The passengers, too, had started to get restless. Three hours we waited in Providence before we got the green light to depart. While our flight was not long, once we did leave, I had grown nervous about Philadelphia and what was causing the delays on the ground there that had led to delays here in Providence. Was Jeff going through the same thing? Either way, when we landed in Philadelphia, we were told there was a problem. There was no gate for the plane to dock. Wait; what? Yup, Philadelphia had too many planes and not enough open docking gates for new incoming arrivals. At this point, the passengers, including myself, were confused and requested more information.
I won’t bore you with every detail of what took place while we waited inside that plane with nowhere to go. Just know, we waited for six hours. Oh my, it wasn’t very pleasant. That is when you start to see the worst of people, but sometimes the best. Even the gentlemen next to his wife and me, who lived in Philadelphia, offered to put me up for the night because we had chatted about where I was flying and was confident I would miss my flight to Orlando. I sat in that plane, on that tarmac, with no way out and nowhere to go, and sure enough, my flight to Orlando left without me. It seemed clear to me and the lovely couple next to me that I was, like Neal and Del in Wichita, stranded in Philadelphia for the night. While I didn’t take them up on their offer, their generosity showed me human compassion at what was becoming an increasingly depressing time, and I was all alone.
I always think of this delay in Philadelphia, stuck for six hours in a plane, when I see the beginning of the film. Neal is using the payphone to call hotels in Wichita, but they are all booked. Then, out of nowhere, Del appears and asks how if he wants to share his hotel room since he had procured it as soon as they got off the plane, as everyone else waited for more flight information. After hearing that he’s stranded in Wichita and not wanting to sleep in an airport, Neal accompanied Del, and more travel mishaps occurred. Every single time I watch this scene, I think back to those hours on the plane in Philadelphia and that lovely couple who tried to help me out by offering me compassion.
Once we were allowed off the plane, I rushed to the gate agent and proceeded to get in a long line of people, all with similar issues. Trying to get to a final destination, and with quarries about what was causing the delays. Toward the line, I went, with an anger building that reminded me of Neal when he confronts the Marathon Rental Car agent, after being stranded, with no car, and needing to walk back to the rental car office. He had lost it. It’s one of the most iconic moments in the film. He finally lost his shit, swore, and was an asshole. Well, I didn’t do that, but oh my, was I exhausted, angry, and wanted some answers and support, as well as assurance to how I was getting to Orlando. When I finally got to the front of the line, and it was my turn to speak to someone, I asked what my options were. Again, the gate agent told me the airline had canceled my flight and most flights, but not because of the weather. Instead, it seemed like “employee issues,” but I could get no more information at that time. All I knew was, at least for tonight, no more planes were departing from Philadelphia carried by this airline. All the airline could do was put me on standby for the next morning, December 24, hoping that more flights would depart for Orlando. It’s all they offered, so I took it, well that and a breakfast voucher. It looked like I was spending the night in the Philadelphia airport. I became the guy Neal was terrified of being. Hey, at least I didn’t yell at anyone!
That night I received no sleep, but not for lack of trying. I was able to find a bench and spread out and tried to make myself as comfortable as possible. But it was brutal, and I was in and out of consciousness the entire night. As the night went on, and I couldn’t sleep, I did start to unravel little by little all the airport issues. It seemed that thousands of employees had called out sick as a seemingly organized work stoppage, but that was unconfirmed. It did make sense since I had trouble finding employees to talk to for hours after I initially arrived. News stations had begun covering it, and information was flying around by the time the sun rose on Christmas Eve. This trip had been so bad, so far, and I was worried about my brother, who I had limited ways to contact. By the middle of the night, my phone had gone dead, and I resorted to payphones to reach Jeff, who had successfully made it to D.C. but was in similar circumstances. We both were on standby flights for early the next day. Still, a lot would have to go right for us to make it to Orlando the next day. We were now battling holiday travel, a semi-strike by the airline, and were on standby for a limited amount of full flights. At this point, we knew, if we didn’t make those first few morning flights, we weren’t going to make it till after Christmas.
Neal and Del, in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, had a much tougher time getting to their final destination, and it took longer, but that’s why I love this film. They went through so many improbable situations while I went through one. As Mark Twain once said, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” The film is fake; my night sleeping in an airport terminal on a bench was real. No burned-out car, no “Mess Around” by Ray Charles, no rental car mishaps, no low budget motel, or a Casio watch, just two brothers delayed, separated, delayed more, and finally racing against lack of flights, no sleep, and all on Christmas Eve on route to Orlando. I watch this film and get reminded of this improbable travel adventure, but I am far removed from it. I can laugh about it and finally see all the similarities that I could not or refused to see almost two decades ago.
The morning of the 24th began with news of airport delays, information regarding the chances of getting on a flight, for which the gate agent said, “slim.” Wonderful start! I did take advantage of the free breakfast but would soon learn that I got something Neal and Del didn’t get, food poisoning, but more about that later. I then proceeded to go to my standby gates. I waited through 4 flights; not once was my name announced. I had heard from some other stranded travelers that flights had begun getting canceled.
Later, I learned that there was only one more flight leaving Philadelphia for Orlando on the 24th. After that, the next flight to Orlando was on the 26th. Freaking out does not even begin to cover how I was doing, but I did have one advantage, I was alone. The last flight out had only one seat available. Not many people were flying alone, but they called the standby names one by one, and each person refused to separate from their travel companion. They must have announced 20 people, maybe more, but in the end, I was the last one called. I took my seat on the plane and departed, this time without delay. My flight to Orlando was uncomfortable, and I started to feel sick. I later learned the breakfast had given me food poisoning. Because, of course, it did!
Connecting the Dots
“Neal: Let me close this conversation by saying that you are one unique individual. / Del: Unique… what’s that, Latin for “asshole”?– Steve Martin (Neal) & John Candy (Del) in Planes, Trains and Automobiles
I landed in Orlando, FL, a couple of hours after my flight left Philadelphia. In hindsight, I could have done what Del and Neal did, rent a car and drive, rather than dealing with the stress of the last 24 hours. It had only been a little over a day since my brother, and I parted ways. We had only lost one day of vacation in the large scheme of things. With my feet on the ground and with no clue how my brother was doing, I walked to the baggage claim area with the plan to regroup, refocus, and prepare for the next step, getting in touch with my family. Remember, I mentioned how this story would start poorly, worsen, and end strangely pretty good. When I walked into the baggage claim, the first person I saw was my mother, the second, my brother, who somehow had landed in Orlando, roughly a half-hour before me. He, too, had been on standby and got the last seat out on the final flight from Washington, D.C. to Orlando. How the hell?
When John Candy as Del, and Steve Martin as Neal, are in the second motel room drinking and eating old school Doritos, they have a fantastic conversation. Honestly, it’s one of, if not the most rewatchable scene in the entire movie. Sure, I love Del’s emotionally powerful monologue in the first motel, Neal going insane at the rental car agency, the two of them frozen in the back of Owen’s truck, and who doesn’t love John Candy hamming it up while smoking, driving horribly and singing to “Mess Around.” Most of these scenes have been spoofed by Family Guy on several occasions. They are amazing, and while the entire film is rewatchable, those are the cream of the crop.
But that last touching moment in that hotel, as they laugh at the insanity of what they have experienced, always reminds me of seeing my brother in the baggage claim of Orlando International Airport. There was no way we should have been there at roughly the same time. What are the odds? While we didn’t share the laughter Del and Neal did towards the end of their journey, rest assured, we did many years afterward, and still to this day.
“If they told you wolverines would make good house pets, would you believe them?”– John Candy (Del) in Planes, Trains and Automobiles
We ended up having a wonderful vacation and celebrated Christmas at Magic Kingdom, even though I still felt pretty sick and may, or may not, have thrown up on the Haunted Mansion ride. We spent New Year’s Eve at Epcot, ringing in the celebration in each county’s pavilion. We laughed, complained, had fun, and, by the end of the trip, we needed a vacation from our vacation. The funny part is that I vividly remember way more about my journey getting to Florida than I do from the trip itself. If you asked me to give you a minute-by-minute account of the journey, I would be unable to, and the trip itself would fail to live up to the expectations the disastrous flight to Orlando had set for it.
In the end, that’s the point. Similar to Del and Neal, who laughed about their travel horror show, I, today, get more of a tinge of nostalgia when reflecting on the nightmare of the trip than any other part. It doesn’t diminish the journey I had, not at all. Instead, that journey was a unique lived moment that, in the end, turned out fine, no harm done, even though while going through it, was awful. Even as I write this, I am laughing, not angry. I even ask myself if anyone will believe me since, like a wolverine being a good household pet, the experience seems so improbable.
I love Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and the movie’s ability to make travel look terrible and essential. You never know who you will meet. I’m afraid I have to disagree with Neal when Del says, to paraphrase, let’s go, first-class, next time, to which he responds, hopefully, there won’t be “next time.” It’s the next time that is more important than anything—travel in-spite of the previous bad experience. Travel is a gift, a luxury, and it fuels the soul. My bad journey didn’t make me want to travel less. It made me want to travel more! Would I want to do it again? Hell no! But, like Del, I have a story to tell, and while I will not remove my shoes or socks on a plane, I might spark a conversation with the person next to me! Without being too much of a blabbermouth, I have a story to tell.
“Don’t let me stand in the way. The last thing I want to be remembered as is an annoying blabbermouth… You know, nothing grinds my gears worse than some chowderhead that doesn’t know when to keep his big trap shut… If you catch me running off with my mouth, just give me a poke on the chubbs…”– John Candy (Del) in Planes, Trains and Automobiles
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