By Jeff Balke
By Ben DuBose
By Ben DuBose
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Calvin TerBeek
By Jeff Balke
By Jeff Balke
My brother Joel said I was crazy. Booking a flight New Year's Day was, to him, yet another piece of evidence to prove I was switched at birth. Someone who can't name all the players on Duke's '91 championship basketball team and is stupid enough to fly into the teeth of the Y2K bug can't have his same DNA, he figured.
"Your story's going to start with: 'The plane dove toward the earth,' " he said.
My eldest brother, the computer scientist, said I was going to be fine. Y2K wasn't going to be a problem for the airline. It might be a tiny problem for the Stop N Go, but the airlines were ready, he said. The plane was probably going to be empty, Dave said, I could try out every seat.
"Maybe the captain will let you fly," Dave told me. "You'll be fine."
How did I get myself into this? A few months ago the editor announced in a staff meeting that she'd buy a plane ticket for anyone who wanted to fly on New Year's Day. No one jumped at the offer -- maybe because they had actually paid attention to the Y2K hype. I read a few stories about people stocking up on cereal, but mainly I ignored the news.
So, I volunteered to take one for the team.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" the editor asked.
Sure, I said.
But I had other motivations: I was born January 1, 1975, and it has been my 15-year-old fantasy to spend my 25th birthday in Times Square. I figured the trip was a birthday bonus.
I told my friend Angela about my plans; she said she'd always wanted to watch the ball drop, too. So she bought a ticket. This is great, I thought: I can party with my friends, catch a Broadway show and come home.
Excited, I called my friends in New York. They were less than enthusiastic; they told me going anywhere near Times Square was the worst idea they had ever heard. By December their fears appeared to be legitimate; the feds arrested a couple of Algerians with bad attitudes -- and bomb-making materials. Seattle officials decided to cancel their celebrations, saying they couldn't, in all conscience, put their citizens at risk.
I was starting to feel uneasy. It didn't help that my mother started calling me daily and reciting what she'd read in the papers. I asked my boss if I could maybe stay home.
She said it was too late.
I called my mom and told her not to mail my birthday presents because I had this dark, depressing feeling that I might not be back.
Angela said not to worry. Times Square was going to have 19,000 cops; the city had sealed the manhole covers and got rid of the trash cans.
"If anything happens," she told me, "I can take great pictures and you can write the story. We'll make a lot of money."
Angela didn't seem to understand that if "anything happens" -- e.g., a bomb explodes -- we would die. There would be no Kodak moments.
Before we left town on Wednesday, December 29, I made sure to pack my cell phone and Social Security and health insurance cards in case I didn't die immediately.
When we got to my friend Diane's house in Queens, she said there was no way she was going into the city. So we decided to invite a bunch of people to my cousin Mike's place. He lives in the City Lights Building, the tallest high-rise on the water just across the river from Manhattan. He said there'd be a pretty good view of the Times Square fireworks.
Angela still wanted to go into the city. I wanted her to drop the idea.
The day before New Year's Eve, we wandered around Times Square.
"I've never seen so many people here," Angela kept repeating. It was packed with people selling glow-in-the dark 2000 eyeglasses and carrying life-size statues of Jesus impaled on the cross. We watched the ball drop in a few practice runs. (The ball, by the way, was an enormous letdown. From the street it was the size of a cotton ball.)
After our run-in with the wall of humanity on 42nd Street, we convinced Angela that Times Square on New Year's Eve was a bad idea. Mike's place, she realized, would make a fine alternative.
At ten minutes to midnight, we took bottles of champagne down to the docks to watch the pyrotechnics. We saw smoke come from Central Park. Then more smoke over Times Square.
"That must be the fireworks," Mike said.
"Or a bomb," I said.
The fireworks never reached above the skyline.
My gay friend Stephen gave me my midnight kiss, then we went back upstairs, where everything seemed the same as it was before.
Mike was pissed. He wanted chaos, he wanted people shot in the subway, he wanted the TV to explode -- something, anything. He was so excited, he'd set his clocks and computer ahead a few weeks ago. Nothing exploded then, and nothing was exploding now.
We didn't get home until after 5 a.m. So we slept most of the day Saturday and then turned on the news. Everything seemed fine.
My flight wasn't until 4:30 p.m. I opted against the 8 a.m. flight because a) I'm not a morning person, b) I might be hung over, and c) I didn't want to die. I figured if I flew late in the day Continental would have either worked out the Y2K problems or canceled my flight. I was willing to take this experiment only so far.
At 3 p.m. LaGuardia was empty. It looked like the commuter terminal at the Tri-Cities, Tennessee, airport. I was the only person on the escalator when I went to check in. Almost all the counters were closed.
As I handed over my driver's license, I asked the check-in attendant if there'd been any problems.
"Nah," the lady said. She looked like she was tired of being asked that question.
Were you worried? I persisted.
"Nah," she said. "I was more worried about yesterday. I thought once it turned twelve o'clock instead of the ball dropping, I would have heard a boom."
That was the common worry. Mike Warren, a 31-year-old aircraft mechanic from Tucson said he was more worried about dying in Times Square than on the plane. His earlier flight had been canceled. The airport said it wasn't a Y2K problem, but he thought "they" might be lying. "It could've been," he said.
Now, as the plane started boarding, he figured everything would be fine.
"If they started flying and the planes were all falling out of the sky, they wouldn't keep taking off," he said.
The flight was full. Not many people had bought tickets, so Continental had canceled and consolidated earlier flights.
I talked to airport security guards and people who search for bombs. But no one had any terrorist tales. I was getting worried -- not about Y2K, but about my story. No mayhem means no story line, or at least no interesting story line. I thought about checking my bag to make my article more interesting; after all, a computer glitch might send my suitcase to Africa. I decided against that.
"So do you think we're going to die a fiery death?" I cheerily asked the people next to me as I sat down.
University of Houston professor Ellen Stevens-Roseman said she was feeling really cynical about this whole Y2K hype. She didn't think we were going to die. I, however, was still a little bit worried. But I'm a worrier.
"It's our honeymoon," Ellen said, introducing me to Mark.
"Mazel Tov," I said. "It's my birthday."
The newlyweds hadn't planned to fly back New Year's Day; they had planned to take a train to Cape Cod to lie around, and fall further in love.
"That was going to be the romantic part," Ellen said. "He copped out."
Mark had the flu.
I took out my knitting and talked to the people around me. Then I wrote an 11-page letter to my old editor in Norfolk, Virginia, telling him I was waiting to crash.
Then we did. At least it felt like it.
We hit the ground, then we hit the ground again, and then the plane dipped to the left and to the right. Ellen admitted that Y2K worries rushed through her head.
But everything was okay. I waited around and talked to the pilot, Pete Kirchner.
"I had no Y2K worries," he said.
"I flew yesterday," he said.
Did you worry yesterday?
"No," he said. "I never worried about it at all. We had 19 hours of warning from New Zealand, and our stuff's been checked 19 trillion times."
His mother worried, though. She told him he was crazy to fly on New Year's Day. She heard the planes were going to fall out of the sky, and she wanted him to stay home.
Sounds like she talked to my mom.
E-mail Wendy Grossman at firstname.lastname@example.org.