On Wednesday it was necessary to send my two sons on their first traveling adventure on their own. Of course, I had no doubts that it would go smoothly. I had the standard confidence that fathers are suppose to have that their sons have been listening well throughout all the previous training on how to act like men in his absence. Previous summers had found all three of my children flying off to the grandparents' house for an extended stay. Early on, they all needed an escort with the airline to ensure that they successfully made the necessary plane changes at layover cities. As the trio grew into seasoned travel veterans, and my daughter was old enough to be the watchful "Wendy" from "Peter Pan," no escort from the airline was requested. So off, onto the airplane my wife and I would sent them each summer, assured of the kids' safe passage to grandma and grandpa's house.
This year differed, however, in that my daughter was now too old to take a full month away from the responsibilities she's seeking to take on here at home. Thus the boys now needed to fly away on their own. The initial exchange that took place with my oldest son needs to be discussed briefly. Upon learning of this situation, his tone took a fearful turn as he mused, "Oh. I don't know about that." Among a father's many duties is to seize opportune moments for his children to mature. At critical times in their life, the right combination of circumstances can emerge that will place them at a crossroads of sorts. In that instant, they can either (1) choose the path requiring courage, that challenges them to take on new responsibilities, exercise new powers and brave the possibility of failure, or (2) shrink back into familiar patterns made comfortable in childhood. To my son's seemingly timid response laced with uncertainty, I countered, "You 'don't know about that?' Well... I DO.. You ARE going on this trip and you WILL be fine. You WILL accept this challenge, and you ARE flying to Grandma and Papa's house on your own. Is that understood?"
"Yes sir." He knew no other response would do.
As we drove to the airport on Wednesday, I took that time on the road to brief them thoroughly on what to expect. I would be with them at Houston Hobby Airport, but not as they changed planes in Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Yes, that's right. Their first time ever flying alone included changing planes at LAX. I was fine with this because I was aware they were receiving good training. Navigating the highway, I emphasized the need to talk to people, to ask questions, to identify those in a Southwest Airlines uniform as people eager to assist them. I attached it to our family identity with "We're Otts. That means we ask more questions, get more cooperation, speak to more people, coordinate our help and get more done than most people. Some might not ask for help," I warned them," because their pride convinces them it'd be better to do it alone...not so with us. We're Otts," I continued, "we get it done because we ask for help. Understand?"
"Yes sir," they both agreed in unison.
I made sure this principle of asking and getting help played out before their eyes multiple times at the airport. When we got their, I was shocked to discover that every parking garage was "FULL." In all my years of flying, I have never seen an occasion when all garages were full at an airport. It might be a more frequent occurrence than I'm aware of, but this was the first time I had seen it. After driving two loops around the terminal entrance, I stopped and asked a parking lot attendant where parking could be found. He instructed that lots were available out on Airport Rd. that offered shuttle service to the main terminal. Therefore, that is exactly what we did, and the boys thought the shuttle was a neat addition to their experience.
Next we entered the main terminal and approached the ticket counter. I made sure the boys were watching as I walked up to the Southwest Airlines employee and openly declared, "Hello. These guys are 12 and 14, and it's their first time flying alone." As expected, the gentlemen beamed, looked at my sons and responded, "Outstanding... we'll make sure everything goes perfect." He checked their suitcase, and issued the boarding passes (plus my pass to escort them through security). After successfully navigating the security gate (a tense matter considering the TSA horror stories that abound), we put our shoes and belts back on.
Standing in the center of the main concourse, I began to test them: "Where's your gate information display? Find your flight number. Where's you gate? Is it leaving on time? Do you see the current time there?" Standing there, after they were able to answer all my questions, I was satisfied they could find their bearings in an airport. Still having plenty of time before their departure time, we elected to have lunch. Following that, we walked to their gate. Again, I made sure they were with me, watching me, as I walked up to the gate counter and addressed the attendant: "Hello. These guys are 12 and 14, and it's their first time to fly alone. They'll be changing planes in LAX."
"That's wonderful," she said, winking at the oldest, "these two young men look perfectly capable to me of flying on their own. But if you'd like some directions about the next airport, step up close, honey."
"Man," I thought, "she's good."
She instructed my oldest about the airport they're changing planes at, what gate they'd arrive at, and where the next gate nearby would be. Making sure he understood, she smiled and offered to have them move up in line so as to ensure they'd sit together (Southwest does not have assigned seating). "Wow!" I thought, "this was a good lesson to them in asking for help."
Indeed it was, the boys commented to me as we were waiting for their flight to board on all the cooperation we had received simply because I spoke up. The insights gained through what they witnessed had made an impression, and I could not be more pleased. As a result, I was more confident than ever they would do well on their first "mission" on their own. Waiting by the gate with them, they seemed suddenly taller than they were mere hours before. A little step toward manhood was taken in those brief minutes from the house to the plane. As I watched them saunter down the ramp, the 12 year old looked back at me, but the 14 did not (just as it should be). The elder son's eye were fixed on the adventure ahead, the open door to flight #618 welcoming them into their next phase of life. I was proud of them right then. As a father, I felt the quiet satisfaction of completing a vital stage of their training. These young apprentices stepped out into a new world, and I walked back to the car a little taller as well.