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I'VE NEVER BEEN TO VEGAS but My Luggage Has
MISHAPS AND MIRACLES ON THE ROAD TO HAPPILY EVER AFTER
By MANDY HALE
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2014 Amanda Hale
All rights reserved.
Once Upon a Flight
I've never been to Vegas, but my luggage has.
Allow me to explain.
Eight years ago I was living the dream. Working as an associate producer in Country Music Television's news department, I had been bumped up from production assistant in a record three months without having to step on anyone to get there. For the first couple of months, the producers tossed me menial tasks like transcribing tapes and running errands, but I caught my big break one September day when one of the senior staff members called in sick, leaving us short-staffed. With an up-and-coming country music singer due in the CMT studios later that day to record a piece about his workout habits, and no one available to do the interview, I was assigned to the task at the last minute. Nervous and shaky but feigning confidence, I completed the interview with ease and even managed to vibe with the country cutie. Having proven my ability to rise to the occasion, I found that my responsibilities continued to increase, and a few months later I was handed the plum assignment of interviewing the stars on the red carpet at the CMT Music Awards! I could barely contain my excitement. Dierks and Kenny and Keith—oh my! After a mildly unpleasant run-in with an older actor who seemed exceedingly grouchy for someone at an awards show (let's just say he must have been on leave from the Starship Enterprise and wasn't happy about it), I looked up to see a vision in brown making his way toward me. Keith Urban, in all his still-single, pre–Nicole Kidman glory, was standing in front of my microphone with an expectant look on his face. I managed to snap to attention and point the microphone at Keith, ready to get down to the business of talking clothes.
"So, Keith," I said brightly, pretending I was chatting with an average Joe, "tell me about your outfit!"
Keith looked at me with a bit of hesitation. In the midst of the awkward pause, with me shifting around nervously, he reached over to grab the hand of the woman standing beside him. Much to my mortification, the hand just happened to be attached to Ms. Loretta Lynn—one of country music's biggest legends, decked out in a gigantic ball gown that rivaled Cinderella's—and I had completely overlooked her. The associate producer there to talk about fashion—me—had slighted a country music icon who also happened to be wearing possibly the most ornate, sparkly, and grand outfit of the entire evening.
"Why don't we talk about Ms. Loretta's outfit first?" Keith said in his adorable Aussie twang, showing me incredible amounts of grace, considering I had basically just snubbed one of country music's most beloved divas.
Wanting very much to crawl under the red carpet and disappear, I turned to Loretta Lynn, who gazed compassionately back at this completely clueless and inexperienced twenty-five-year-old associate producer who was just trying to make her way in a world that Ms. Lynn had long ago taken by storm. Not an ounce of indignation or attitude or impatience on her face, the beautiful, graceful woman answered all my questions humbly and kindly, not at all ruffled by the fact that a punk kid had completely disregarded her in order to drool over the much younger, and at the time much less established, Keith Urban. I was taught something about true humility and grace that night—in a much gentler way than I probably deserved and by a woman who was lighting fires and blazing trails through the world before I was even a gleam in my daddy's eye.
That gigantic snafu aside, the rest of the evening went by in a flash of sparkly belt buckles, gleaming white teeth, and shiny cowboy boots. And the news package I put together about the colorful and boisterous fashion of the 2004 CMT Music Awards went over so well, I was given even more responsibility at work. Before I knew it, I was chosen to be a part of the team that flew to Las Vegas for the Academy of Country Music Awards in April 2005, where I would once again be producing the fashion piece of the show. I was, obviously, ecstatic and overjoyed, and I felt like, at the tender age of twenty-five, I had arrived. My career was on the fast track! I was flying high for weeks, until one day the sober realization hit me—I don't like to fly high. Actually, I don't like to fly at all. Nothing appealed to me about climbing into a long metal cylinder and skyrocketing thousands of feet off the ground, putting my life into the hands of pilots whom I didn't know; and though I had flown three times before, the last time I had become so unglued, I had screeched, "I want off!" at the top of my lungs just as the jet started taxiing full steam ahead down the runway. (I did, however, somehow manage to suck it up and hold it together for the duration of that flight.) But that flight had been pre-9/11. In the post-9/11 world of uncertainty, orange flags, and raised threat levels, I wanted no part of flying the seemingly not-so-friendly skies. But how to explain that to my bosses? And how could I turn down a hotly sought-after assignment that was guaranteed to solidify my status as a valued member of the team, possibly even nabbing myself a "producer" title instead of AP? I decided I would just have to look at it as mind over matter, get over myself, and make that flight, come hail or high water.
On the day of departure, I couldn't eat all morning. I had barely slept the night before and was a gigantic ball of nerves. I'm fairly certain I was also wild-eyed and disheveled looking as a result of my overall terror and lack of sleep. Basically, I looked like Nick Nolte in that very memorable mug shot. When I showed up at the airport, my boss looked sincerely concerned. As I fumbled to get my shoes off and go through security, the security guards peered at me a little suspiciously. I somehow managed to make it onto the plane and into my seat without passing out, noticing as I filed back to coach that the members of one of country music's biggest bands were seated with their wives in first class.
Once in my seat, I pulled out People magazine to distract myself. It didn't work. I went for the Us Weekly. Nope, that didn't work either. The girl in the seat to my left looked increasingly alarmed as I continued to dig through my purse as if I were digging my way off of this plane and to China. I took two very mild anxiety pills that my doctor had prescribed, praying that they would transport me to my happy place—or even just a slightly tolerable place. No such luck. I took several deep, calming breaths and tried to close my eyes tight to shut out the world. All around me, I could hear plane sounds, fellow passengers, and overhead luggage compartment doors slamming. Somewhere in the midst of all this, I leapt to my feet, bashing my head into the plane ceiling so hard I saw stars—and not of the country music variety. So much adrenaline was coursing through my veins from the rising panic in my stomach, I barely even registered the pain. I frantically made my way to the front of the plane, well aware that the other passengers were staring at me curiously, wondering who the Nick Nolte look-alike with the shaky hands was and if they should start trying to call 9-1-1 from their in-flight phones.
"Excuse me, ma'am," I hissed urgently at the nearest flight attendant. "I need to get off the plane!"
The young, blond flight attendant whipped around in confusion to see who was causing the commotion and seemed relieved to find me, in all my skinny, twitching glory (which I guess was preferable to a bona fide terrorist with dynamite strapped to her shoes). She immediately launched into soothing, crisis-averting mode. "Now, ma'am, it's okay. People fly every single day with no problems at all. Is there anything we can do to make your experience more enjoyable?" Yes, I thought. You can knock me in the head with a blunt object and wake me up only once we arrive in Vegas.
"No, I don't think so. I think I just need to get off the plane."
The country music group sitting at the front of the plane in first class was, much to my chagrin, witnessing this entire humiliating episode. Should I actually make it to Vegas and wind up interviewing them on the red carpet, at least maybe we could use this as an icebreaker. "Hey, remember the crazy girl who delayed your flight and scared everyone into thinking they were being hijacked by a washed-up eighties actor having a really bad hair day? That was me! Ha, ha, ha!"
A moment or two passed with me insisting to the flight attendant that I must be allowed to exit the plane before one of the country stars' wives discreetly made her way up to the front of the cabin and to my side.
"Honey," she said in her sweet Southern drawl, "I deal with this same thing all the time. I had to make them let me off a flight to LA once. I hate to fly with a passion!" She put her arm around me and winked at me reassuringly. "Come sit by me, and I'll introduce you to my little friend, Valium. You'll be cleared for takeoff in no time!"
"Um, ma'am," the flustered flight attendant interrupted, looking alarmed. "Passengers aren't allowed to share medication with other passengers. It goes against our security policy."
Mrs. Star Wife looked a little miffed, but continued to pat me on the back in a very mother hen sort of way, her kindness bringing tears to my eyes. She gazed at the flight attendant imploringly. "Well, isn't there anything you can do for this young lady? Perhaps offer her a better seat, closer to the front of the plane?"
After a little shuffling around, a passenger at the front of coach agreed to trade seats with me so I could have an aisle and a wall in front of me, rather than being packed in like a sardine toward the back. Okay, here we go, I thought. Take two. You can do this! I glanced over my shoulder at my boss, who by this point was looking more than a little annoyed. Turning back to the front, I closed my eyes and began to say the Lord's Prayer to myself. I was just entering the zone when I felt the ground start to move beneath me. We were starting to taxi down the runway, and my body was going into major fight-or-flight response mode. Fight won that coin toss as I jumped to my feet once again and pushed my way to the front of the plane.
"Ma'am, you're going to have to sit down! The plane has started to pull away from the terminal!" the blond flight attendant insisted, her calm exterior starting to crack a bit.
"No! I can't. I have to be let off this plane. Now," I asserted. "I can't do this. I have to get off."
The flight attendant, perhaps seeing the look on my face and realizing she was either going to have to issue me a straight jacket or find a way to get me off that plane, turned to her little phone and began punching buttons. After a hushed conversation, she turned back to me. "Okay, we're going to pull back to the gate," she said. "But you have to be seated in order for us to be able to do so."
I walked the walk of shame back to my new and improved front-row seat, my face no doubt turning fifty shades of magenta as the flight attendant came over the loudspeaker. "Ladies and gentlemen, if you will remain seated and bear with us for just a moment, we are going to have to return to the gate momentarily."
A few minutes later, as I was exiting that plane bound for Vegas, I glanced back over my shoulder once more at Mrs. Star Wife. She nodded back at me, her eyes filled with compassion and understanding, tempering the sting of humiliation and embarrassment just a tiny bit. She gave me a reassuring smile that would stick with me over the coming weeks and months as things got more difficult at work based on my inability to complete that flight and take my assigned spot on the red carpet. She, like Ms. Loretta Lynn who came before her, was another guidepost I would meet along my path to becoming the woman I was meant to be. Even in the face of inconvenience, she was patient, kind, and protective of a young girl she had never even met. Her offer of Valium was less about trying to sedate me and more about trying to do anything she could think of to help out a fellow sojourner in need. Her big heart jumped to my defense even as my boss shot daggers at me from the back of the plane—and that was something that I have never forgotten, even all these years later.
After slinking off the plane in a cloud of humiliation, it occurred to me that I had packed everything but the kitchen sink in my luggage, which was now footloose, fancy-free, and Vegas bound. The extent of my wardrobe left behind consisted of the clothes on my back, a few other grungy T-shirts, and one holey pair of jeans. I had no toiletries, no makeup, no shoes, not even any clean underwear. (Let's just say packing lightly has never been my specialty.)
Over the next three days, while the rest of my coworkers partied with my luggage in Vegas, I went by the airport every morning to check on the status of my bags. Each day the situation seemed more and more hopeless, as now the airport couldn't even tell me that my luggage had, in fact, made it to Vegas. This only stood to reason. I mean, if the owner of the luggage couldn't get over her fear and make it there, why should her luggage be held to a higher standard?
On day four, when the airport representative came rolling out my two gigantic suitcases, I wept with joy and relief, not even caring that my luggage had evidently eloped with two other suitcases while on its brief sabbatical to Las Vegas. And even though what happens in Vegas usually stays in Vegas, my suitcases (and my entire wardrobe) somehow found their way home from Sin City to Music City in one piece.
Most people get on a plane to arrive at a destination. I got on a plane to arrive at the undeniable conclusion that the journey is, in fact, the destination.
Yep. I've never been to Vegas—but my luggage has.
I tell this story because it is a metaphor for my entire life.
Over the past thirty-four years, my journey through life has been much like that infamous plane ride to Vegas that puttered its way down the runway but quickly turned back before it could really get off the ground. It has been complete with a cast of colorful characters who have each revealed a new layer of myself to me; some have built me up, some have torn me down, but all have pushed me, challenged me, and molded me into the woman I am today. With as much excitement, anticipation, and fire as a jet hurtling down the runway, the relationships and significant milestones of my life have all been no-holds-barred, full steam ahead—until something came along and threw a wrench in the plan and the plane abruptly stopped midcourse. Sometimes the plane stopped to avoid certain disaster. Sometimes the plane stopped to allow my path to collide with someone else's who was meant to have an impact on my life. And sometimes the plane stopped to teach me a lesson that I never could have learned had it actually taken flight. Whatever the detour, roadblock, or stop sign, my life always finds a way to come magically full circle in the most beautiful, entertaining, and sometimes downright hilarious ways. And though many of my adventures have found a way to go horribly awry—often taking me places I never intended to go—I have never lost sight of the fact that the journey is the destination.
Does this cause me to lose hope? Absolutely not. Because in all their anticlimactic glory, my foibles, missteps, and wrong turns have pushed me ever closer to my destiny, just as your own fiascos and flaws are meant to point you to your cause. The people, experiences, and lessons I have met along the way have all been guideposts, pointing me in the direction of my own North Star. Most people's stories resemble those of a popular "chick lit" book: Girl meets boy, girl marries boy. Girl has 2.5 kids, buys a minivan, and lives happily ever after. My journey, however, has followed a far less predictable story: stalled chapters, unexpected plot twists, and dozens of rewrites that have left the ending more than a little uncertain. But this much I know: had I never met these people and lived these wild and crazy moments of highs and lows, pleasures and pains, I would have never met myself. Without more than a few bad dates, I would have never met my fate. Am I the perfect heroine of a modern-day fairy tale? No. I've stumbled and fallen, made a fool of myself, given in to fear, acted out of insecurity, made bad decisions, battled my control issues, and broken my own glass slippers a million times. But even in the midst of my biggest, most explosive crash landings, I've never given up hope for a happy ending.
Excerpted from I'VE NEVER BEEN TO VEGAS but My Luggage Has by MANDY HALE. Copyright © 2014 Amanda Hale. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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