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The Holding Pattern

Returning from a convention on the West coast, my Continental Airlines flight began to circle Denver. Upon landing, my business partner and I would switch planes for the lastleg of our trip home to Omaha. A regular flyer, my inerds still stirred a bit with each sway of the aircraft. Near blizzard conditions prevailed and the inexplicable holding pattern added a squirt of fuel to the fire of my concern.

After the second or third trip around the mile-high city, the pilot made an announcement: “Due to backed up runway traffic at Stapleton Airport and inclement weather forcing runway closures, we will continue to circle the city until a runway can be cleared for landing.”

After circling the city for what seemed like another dozen times, the speakers crackled with another static laced announcement from the pilot. Without emotion, he explained that our aircraft would be diverted to Colorado Springs, a short twenty minutes by air. Deteriorating winter weather in Denver meant the grip of the holding pattern became tighter, like a persistent, but slow moving vise. With nearly four hours of travel time already logged and a delay at hand, I noticed the rarely seen look of annoyance on my business partner’s face. Removing my glasses and rubbing my eyes, I couldn’t deny that I felt the same way. It had been a long week. I just wanted to view the snow from my own window, inside my own house, with my own family.

After an eye-of-the-storm white-knuckle landing in Colorado Springs, we learned we would be required to sit on the tarmac until a decision was made on our final destination. As nervous passengers, we had many questions and no answers. I was happy to be safely on the ground, but still simmering in self-pity and mild anger when the familiar CBS jingle signaled the start of the five o’clock news, visible on a nearby T.V. monitor.

As the flight attendants passed out complimentary drinks and snacks, Dan Rather opened the newscast with these words: “This just in, from Denver, Colorado–Continental Airlines DC-9, Flight 1713, has crashed on take-off in a snowstorm; 28 people are reported dead and 82 have been injured …”

The half-joking demeanor of my fellow passengers–the byproduct of nerves and vodka–grew eerily quiet. The reason our flight maintained an extended “holding pattern” suddenly became crystal clear; literally too close for comfort.

I was stunned. As the snow continued to pelt my small window, my attitude transitioned from arrogance and anger to graciousness and gratitude. I was concurrently sad for the passengers and their families who had lost their lives or sustained injuries and thankful and humbled that my partner and I were–for the moment–safe and on the ground.

Many years have passed since that sad day in November of 1987. And guess what? I still face holding patterns. A traffic jam, a financial or personal dilemma, a career conundrum, or simply standing in line at the wrong supermarket check-out line–these things still present personal challenges. And though I’d like to say that I left my overgrown impatience and arrogance on that tarmac in Colorado Springs, I must reluctantly admit, I still carry them around in my pocket. How else to explain that they are so close at hand when I call them?

Nevertheless, on my best days I have a vivid recollection of a Colorado winter’s day. I reflect on the lesson borrowed from Continental Airlines flight 1713. A holding pattern need not be a bad thing. It’s often necessary for safety and provides an opportunity to recharge, refuel, and rejuvenate. Not to mention, just when I have the belief that my life circumstance could not get any worse, I need not divert my view very far to find a neighbor in need of support–maybe suffering though pain that dwarfs my own.

Oh … and this: Often, the reason for the holding pattern isn’t clear until I casually glance into the rear view mirror and see the flashing lights.

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