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  • Out in California: The Story

    A near airplane crash. A cross-country flight. Two college auditions. A son on Broadway. A wife working with the White House. And a drink with a Hall of Fame baseball player.

    I can't say the final weekend of my 50th year on the planet was boring.

    Coming in mid-January, my birthday always has felt like something of an afterthought, given the post-holiday hangover we all seem to feel post New Year's. Add four kids with birthdays in December and a January that is one of Jill's craziest months at work, and it's easy — and understandable — to see why. Hell, I'm usually not in the mood to celebrate, and it's my birthday.

    Last year, for my 50th, Jill pulled off a wonderful surprise that had my mom coming in from Texas along with a gathering of many of our closest friends. This year, as my 51st approached, I decided the fewer surprises that life has to offer, the better.

    It started Friday, when Emma and I embarked on another college audition trip. This one, which ultimately involved three auditions over a 24-hour period, was in California.

    Leaving the anticipated wintery mix and snow behind in Virginia had lots of appeal, although two cross country flights over a four-day period had me anticipating feeling my age and then some. My body does not deal well with the winter weather whiplash we seem to be having around here, and I was still tired from the previous weekend when Jill and I went on a whirlwind trip to New York.

    The New York trip (chronicled here and here via my iPhone) involved seeing Billy Joel and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time” (her Christmas present), having tea at the Plaza Hotel (a present to each other), and attending the engagement party for our “adopted” son, Ginno. The party also was a reunion of many of the kids and parents from “Billy Elliot,” sans Ben, who is on the road with “Newsies.”

    After all that, I’m sure Jill welcomed our departure as she spent the weekend working with the ASCA staff on planning the School Counselor of the Year celebration, which includes a visit to the White House next week. We don't see her much during January because of SCOY and another major program she supervises, so I felt fortunate that we had the New York trip as a last hurrah.

    Little did I know when boarding the plane how close to a last hurrah it really would be.


    On the first leg, we were off to Chicago, a little late and flying low because of the bumpy air. We made it just fine, did the cross-country trek across O’Hare, and got ready to board our connection to L.A.

    Checking my phone, I saw the first surprise. Late last year, Ben booked “Tuck Everlasting,” a new Broadway musical that opens in April. He’s leaving “Newsies” at the end of the month before starting rehearsals in mid-February, but no formal announcement had been made. Then, without warning, the press release went out.

    We boarded the plane behind a large man, obviously an athlete. As he sat on the first row in first class, I recognized him as Frank Thomas, the Fox TV analyst who spent the majority of his Hall of Fame career with the Chicago White Sox.

    After sitting on the runway for about 15 minutes, the plane started to take off. Two wheels lifted off the ground, and on Row 31 we felt the familiar surge from behind. But in a split second, the plane jerked back and the pilot ground it to a halt, fortunately taking advantage of O’Hare’s long runway.

    The collective reaction was, “What the (insert expletive of choice)?!?” The fire department came out to cool off the smoking wheels as the pilot explained that a cargo door, one right under where we were sitting, had come open.

    We were very lucky, even if Emma’s nap had been abruptly halted. We waited for some time until the wheels cooled enough to return to a gate (ironically the same one where our first plane landed in the nether regions of O'Hare), so we could catch another flight. I'm sure at least a couple of people also had to clean out their shorts.

    It was that scary.


    While Emma started on some homework, I went to the bar and saw Thomas. Figuring the night could not get more surreal, I mentioned that it must have been “interesting” to have been in the front row of the plane. He said “Cheers,” took a sip of his wine, and offered to let me sit.

    We talked briefly about — what else? — airplanes and baseball, and he could not have been nicer. An hour later, steeled for the next leg of the flight, we boarded again for California.

    The next day was filled with Emma’s auditions, followed by a nice dinner together. On Sunday, my birthday, Emma picked up Starbucks for me. We went to another audition and had lunch with some friends from Northern Virginia who also were in California.

    At that point, we drove to Hollywood so we could be closer to the airport for our departure. In our three trips to L.A., I’ve learned to hate the traffic (worse than even Northern Virginia), love the climate (65 degrees in January) and embrace the kitsch.

    Emma indulged me as we went to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (separate blog coming on that at some point) and to Amoeba Records, the second best in the U.S. after Austin’s Waterloo. We then had dinner with the Hetheringtons, longtime friends from Ben’s “Billy Elliot” days.

    Coming on the heels of Ginno’s party the previous weekend, the West Coast reunion with the Hetheringtons was a nice capper to the California trip. We reminisced, we laughed harder than I’ve laughed in a long time, and looked to the future.

    That future includes two more long-distance trips this month, one to North Carolina to see Nicholas and work on a freelance story, and Ben’s last “Newsies” performance in St. Louis. Ironically, that’s where he started tour life in “Billy Elliot,” more than four years ago.

    Circle backs. Full circle. And around and around it goes.