Rob and Kathryn Swarczewski of the Chicago area deserve a salute. In a city that has a reputation as a dangerous place, they showed two strangers -- Nancy and me -- kindness and generosity. Here is the story.
I rarely find myself in a situation where I have no idea what to do. It is unknown territory. I am always confident I can handle any situation. Like water, I'll find a way around an obstacle.
But when United Airlines left Nancy and me twisting in the wind in Chicago last week, I was at a loss.
We were flying home from Philadelphia, where we spent four days seeing sights and, while Nancy went shopping, I spent four hours each day at a great Taijiquan workshop by Nabil Ranné, who had flown in from Germany.
The first leg of the return flight on Monday evening, May 16 was from Philly to Chicago. Due to severe weather, we sat in the plane on the tarmac for nearly 90 minutes in Philly before taking off. We were supposed to change planes at O'Hare for the trip home to Moline, but severe weather elsewhere disrupted the system and United cancelled our connecting flight.
Around 8:30 p.m. we got off the plane in Chicago and found ourselves stranded. There would be no flight available to Moline for at least 24 hours. Our luggage was on the plane, and to make matters worse, my heart medication was on the carry-on bag that they made me check before boarding the plane. Since we were in the cheap seats (economy) the plane ran out of carry-on room before we boarded. I would need my heart medication the following morning. This presented a problem. It seemed like a slap from United. "You should have paid more for better seats!"
I had seen many news stories about passengers having to camp out in airports because of cancelled flights. It had never happened to us.
It was roughly a three-hour drive to our home from the airport. There had to be a way to get home.
We almost walked out of the airport to see about a cab to take us to any nearby hotel that was available. Two security guards warned me I was about to leave the secure area and I would not be able to get back in, so Nancy and I sat down on the concrete floor against a wall to consider our options. People walked past, staring at us.
My mind went blank. It was the strangest feeling. My mind is never blank. It had been a very busy five days (including travel) and I had worked hard at the workshop. After a few moments sitting on the floor against the wall, we admitted we had no plan, then trudged back to the United Customer Service desk in a different concourse. The line of people at the counter stretched 50 yards down the hallway. Connecting flights had been cancelled for a lot of people. We found the back of the line and by that time I was mulling some options:
One -- We need a place to stay. How about a hotel? But we have none of our toiletries or medicine. It was all in the luggage. As we stood in line, I checked local hotels on my phone. The cheapest room was $149. There would be taxi or Uber charges, if the hotel had a vacancy. Then there would be food costs. And no medicine. It wasn't the money that bothered me, it was the expense that would still leave us with no flight and no medicine the following day. This would not work.
Two -- I could try to get my medicine off the plane. I found out this would take a minimum of three or four hours, maybe more. That would leave us without a room at 1:30 a.m. at the earliest.
Three -- We could wait for the medicine to come off the plane and then camp out at the airport. For 24 hours? No way.
Then I thought perhaps we could get an Uber ride to Moline. I checked and a driver was listed for $219, not including tip. That seemed reasonable. We could get home in three hours, sleep in our bed and have medicine. I would tip the driver handsomely.
I scheduled Uber to pick us up. The message from Uber said the driver would meet us at Level A. We scrambled down the hallways looking for Level A, where the driver was going to be. Walking fast down the large hallways, I was breathing like a freight train due to my silly one-lung situation, feeling a lack of oxygen and gasping for air. A few hours ago, I was sweating through the fourth day of a martial arts workshop with cramping quadraceps and dwindling energy. I was ready to stop for the day.
We walked out and saw where the cars were coming around. A couple was standing outside waiting for a car. They were strangers. It was Rob and Kathryn Swarczewski.
"Excuse me, is this Level A?" I asked. "Our flight was cancelled, we're hiring an Uber to take us to Moline. They are supposed to be at Level A."
According to my memory, Rob said yes, it was Level A. I thanked them and turned my attention back to my Uber app.
A moment later, the driver called.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"Moline, Illinois," I said.
"Oh. I don't want to drive that far," he replied. "Sorry."
I couldn't blame him. A six-hour round trip that would take most of the night? Oh well. It would have been a really large tip.
Suddenly, we were back at square one, looking at each other and wondering what to do.
As we stood there, Rob and Kathryn walked up. Rob observed that we appeared stressed and they needed to get their car situation straightened out, but he would be glad to drive us to Moline if we needed a ride.
I was floored. It was my "Do Good. Be Kind." mantra coming to life.
"What a kind offer," I said. Surely there was something we could do that wouldn't impose such a burden, even to someone generous enough to make the offer.
Rob asked for my cell number. He texted me his name so I would also have his number.
"If you can't find a way home," he said, "just call and I'll give you a ride."
We thanked him. As we walked away, Nancy's eyes were red and watery. She said, "That was the kindest thing."
These were people I was happy to meet. Two people who didn't know us from Adam (and Eve), extending compassion, ready to help shoulder our problem. It was awe-inspiring.
Then I thought we should check rental cars. Would they even be open this late to rent a car? Would they rent one for a one-way trip?
We made our way through the terminal to the Rental Car area, stood in line at Avis only to be told they were out of one-way cars.
"Try Hertz," the woman at the counter suggested.
We waited at the Hertz line and saw a couple of people rent cars on the spot. When it was our turn, we were told that yes, they could give us a car to drive one-way to Moline for $400.
Wow! 400 bucks? Luckily, I wear a pacemaker, so if my heart stopped for a couple of seconds it would zap me back to life.
I didn't hesitate. "Sold!"
We made the payment, got our papers, then walked into the parking garage and picked out a car, a Chevy Malibu, fired it up and began the three-hour trip West on I-88 across Illinois to Moline.
On my phone, a text message had appeared from Rob, repeating his offer: if we couldn't find a way home, let him know and he would drive us.
Blown away. That's what I was. I didn't respond at that moment. I was a man on a mission. Nancy and I were hungry, tired, and looking forward to sleeping in our own bed.
Around halfway, my plan was to stop at the Dekalb Oasis, a popular place for travelers that included a gas station, convenience store, restrooms and a McDonald's. We needed dinner, and I thought a Quarter-Pounder with Cheese sounded good.
We pulled off into the Oasis at around 11:30 p.m. and discovered the McDonald's closed at 11:00.
"Okay, that does it," I told Nancy. "After all we've gone through today, the McDonald's is closed? How can I be centered? I'm going to lose my $#!+."
She laughed. We got drinks and some Chex Mix in the gas station and continued on our way. We arrived home at 1:30 in the morning. It was luxurious to stand in my own shower and crawl into my own bed. I think I was out when my head hit the pillow.
The next morning, I drove the rental car to the Quad Cities airport, which is less than 10 minutes from our house, dropped off the car to Hertz, went to the United desk and was told our baggage was on a flight that was arriving in 40 minutes. We had not been offered this flight because it was fully booked.
I stayed, ate breakfast, and got our luggage when it arrived, then went to the parking lot, found our car in long-term parking, and drove home.
As our headlights cut through the night on I-88 the night before, Nancy and I kept bringing up Rob and Kathryn, and how stunned we were that we ran across two good people like that at the moment we were at a loss; two people who were ready to help strangers.
I contacted Rob this morning by text before writing this blog post. He let me know that today is their 36th wedding anniversary.
There are a lot of good people like Rob and Kathryn Swarczewski in the world. Yes, even in Chicago. They don't always get as much publicity in the media as the people who do bad things, but they deserve to be recognized and saluted. This is my way of doing that and also saying "Happy Anniversary." In just a couple of minutes, Rob and Kathryn made an impression on us that we won't forget.
As you go about your day, I hope you will do what I am going to do, fueled by their inspiration. I will look for opportunities to be kind to people in ways that will brighten their world, too.
-- by Ken Gullette