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Crossing Borders 9: Home from the Holidays

The end-of-year holiday season in America means travel. Whether using trains, planes, buses or automobiles, people are on the move, especially the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the busiest travel day of the year.

I recently took a Thanksgiving weekend car trip with my older brother from Atlanta, Georgia to the small college town of Auburn, Alabama, where my sister lives with her family. Traveling on interstate highway 85, our route took us alongside the now enormous Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson international airport southwest across the state border past the tiny Auburn-Opelika Airport.

My brother, an Auburn engineering student in the early 1980s, recalled a hilarious yet true travel tale about his classmate Josh, who was from Maryland and periodically flew into the little Auburn airport on a small commuter airline that provided regular service from Atlanta using small propeller-driven planes. The airline, Southeastern Commuter, used a gate in concourse C at Atlanta’s midfield terminal, which opened in 1980 as the largest passenger terminal in the world. The short flight to Auburn was unique in that it lasted under an hour and crossed from Eastern into Central time zone, meaning that the flight actually arrived BEFORE it took off!

1980 Southeastern Commuter airline timetable Atlanta Auburn Rome Georgia
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Being a native Atlantan, there’s an old local joke about how to get to heaven. The answer was, “I’m not sure, but you’ll have to change planes in Atlanta!” On one occasion, Josh was returning back to Auburn from a holiday visit home to Baltimore, with the proverbial plane change in Atlanta. After transferring from his first flight to the Southeastern Commuter gate, he spied his small plane parked outside. While waiting to board, he watched as a man loaded luggage, checked the fuel and eventually entered the terminal to check-in passengers for boarding.

Josh’s flight that day was fully booked, so he was offered the co-pilot’s seat for the forty-minute plane ride. After climbing into the front right seat, he noticed the same man that earlier had been loading baggage and collecting tickets climbing into the pilot’s seat to fly the plane! After takeoff, the do-it-all captain basically followed highway I-85 down to Auburn, just as my brother and I did last month in our car. At one point, the pilot actually handed Josh a flashlight and asked him to read a gauge in front of him!

Southeast Commuter prop plane at Atlanta airport in Georgia circa 1981
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Nonetheless, the plane landed safely in Auburn where the story really gets funny. American college students are known to enjoy playing pranks on one another. Unbeknownst to Josh, my brother and his residence hall buddies had cooked up a harmless stunt that memorable Sunday afternoon. Deciding to stage a VIP-like welcome ceremony for Josh, they dressed up in varying outfits to play specific roles.

First, my brother donned a dark suit to portray the local mayor. A muscular man named Mike dressed up like a chauffeur and drove his large dark sedan which was joined by two other cars in a kind of motorcade. A couple of other guys, wearing camouflage-style military uniforms, played security men. A few young coeds also joined in the fun to act like screaming Beatles’ fans. To top it all off, another friend named Stan, also in full uniform, brought along a fireman’s hat with a spinning red light on top!

As Josh’s plane taxied into park, to the complete surprise of the pilot and passengers, the fake reception committee was all in place. The chauffer stood at attention beside his car, while the security guys attempted to hold back the excited young women. The “mayor” rolled out the red carpet to officially welcome Josh to town and escorted him to the waiting vehicle.

Welcome handshake for VIP guest
Photo by Pixabay on

As the three-car motorcade made its way from the airport to the town square, Stan, his fireman’s hat fully ablaze with its rotating red lights, got out to stop traffic. Other cars stopped to yield as the cluster of cars turned left onto College Street and headed for Toomer’s Corner, the historic site where Auburn’s university campus begins. Here Stan again halted oncoming traffic as the “VIPs” made their final turn onto Magnolia Avenue, heading for home at Magnolia Dormitory and the prank’s happy ending.

Whether you are crossing borders this holiday season, playing pranks with friends, making new memories with family, or enjoying a much deserved season of rest, we at Rails, Whales and Tales wish you warm regards and all the best for the new year 2020!

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