Melinda Hughey, a tour planner from Pulaski, Tenn., relates a few tales from 25 years of life on the road. She recalls the wild, the wacky and the downright weird. The anecdotes below will be included in a book she is working on. The title: War Stories.
For almost a quarter century, it has been my mission, my ministry of sorts and my great privilege to get senior adults “off their rockers and ready to roll,” much to the supreme envy of my cronies. I’ve been there, done that, got the T-shirt. Taken the road less traveled and gotten lost. Done it all, seen it all, just can’t remember it all.
With this calling has come the occasional – okay, the all-too-frequent – occupational hazard embodied in the form of, well, the passengers themselves. Some of those characters – and the incidents they triggered – remain so deeply embedded in my memory, dynamite wouldn’t blast them out if I live to be 100!
For most of those 25 years of road-running (I started doing this when I was 15), I’ve promised myself I would compile the wildest of these episodes into a book aptly titled War Stories. So, when Leisure Group Travel Editor Randy Mink sent out the call for wacky stories from the road, it seemed to me a sign from on high the time has come to put it all down. As I told him, – and as any seasoned, road-weary group leader/tour director/trip escort can testify firsthand – you can’t make this stuff up!
So, what wild tale would top my long list?
Would it be the hurricane-swiggin,’ Pendleton-suit clad, choir member/church lady who, on tour in New Orleans, swung around every other lamp post down Bourbon Street until she spied a “lovely young lady” on the sidewalk, beckoning tourists into one of the French Quarter’s better-known strip joints – and promptly felt led to stagger over and witness to “her?” And lecture “her” on the virtues of abandoning “her” tawdry life of lewdness for home, hearth and a nice husband? Nope.
Or, in another Bourbon Street caper, would it be the one about the very prim, proper, buttoned-down 93-year-old gal we spied toddling on her pearl-handled cane through the debauchery, obviously in search of the hotel? Or, so we thought. My two colleagues and I spotted her from about a block back. It was after dinner and we were mortified that she had somehow escaped the group to putter back to the hotel all alone. Not wanting to “smother-mother” or embarrass her, we agreed to follow her from a respectable distance and ensure her safe return to our lodging. That is, until she made an unexpected right turn into a shop that, shall we say, specialized in grown-up toys with whips and chains prominently displayed in the windows. We froze in our tracks, convinced she’d innocently stumbled into what she must have thought was a souvenir shop to fetch T-shirts for the great-great-great-grandchildren. So, we waited. Minutes later she emerged, carrying a small white sack. Hooking the cane over her left arm, she reached into the bag and pulled out a full-length, black feather boa. With great flourish, she tossed it around the high neck of her long, navy wool coat, deposited the empty (maybe?) bag into her pocketbook, and continued her purposeful strut down Bourbon Street.
Deciding she was able to take care of herself, we waited until after breakfast the next morning to tell her she was “busted” because we had witnessed the previous evening’s episode. When we asked her exactly what she was up to, she didn’t miss a beat when she informed us with a poker face she had trolled all the way to Canal Street and back “and I’ll have you know I didn’t get a single offer!” And, to our total horror she went on to tell us “younger gals” how we could use a feather boa, paired with some fishnets and high heels, to our advantage! With that, I instantly knew this was the kind of little old lady I hoped to be when I grow up! Still, this story is not the list-topper.
Would it be the time a club director client called me from the parking lot of The Biltmore Winery, frantic because two of her charges had parked themselves in the tasting room and “tasted” so much they were staunchly – and loudly – refusing to leave? With the other 45 passengers on the coach patiently waiting to depart for their next destination in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. – some 90 minutes away – my client implored me for any ideas I might have that would successfully lure these two birds back to the coach. “Offer to leave them?” I suggested. “I actually think they would love that,” she shot back, clearly not amused. Still, she managed to convince them to leave, I know, because she called me exactly two hours later from the hotel parking lot asking for any ideas I might have to get them off the coach. Needless to say, this partying pair had no memory of being dragged to their rooms, tucked in (and locked in) while the group went on to dinner! Nope – this was a good one, but not worthy of top billing.
Then, there’s the very faithful member of one of my client groups who owns – and doesn’t leave home without – a wardrobe of jewels worthy of a Brinks escort. We’re talking the real stuff! No amount of pleading on our part has ever convinced her to leave this stash at home. Name the gem and she can produce a stunning matched set of earrings, pendant, bracelet and ring. So, it beats me why she was trying on cheap fake rings at a costume jewelry kiosk on the international concourse of the Newark airport while we were waiting on our Ireland-bound flight.
When the flight began boarding, we had to hunt her down and hustle her back to the gate. As we waited in line, she suddenly turned to us with that “light bulb-just-flashed-on” look on her face and announced she had left her very genuine ostrich-egg-sized diamond ring behind at the jewelry cart. She had removed it to try on the cheap stuff and in her haste, left it on a tray of the fake rings. We sprinted back to the kiosk at warp-speed only to find it had closed down in a matter of 10 minutes. By now, I reasoned, the proprietor was half way to Manhattan with his newly-acquired treasure, ready to hock it on Diamond Row and retire to a life of leisure.
Left with no other alternative, we reported the incident to the Continental gate agent, who took her contact information and promised to look into the matter. Meanwhile “we of little faith” firmly decided that ring was gone forever. Imagine our shock, eight days later, as we were once again changing planes in Newark, when a customer service rep from Continental called our passenger to let her know they had the ring in their possession and to please come retrieve it. Seems the kiosk owner found it and turned it in! (I wonder if she ever bothered to have it appraised.) Despite the nerve-wracking nature and unexpectedly happy ending to this tale, it is far from the chart-topper.
Nor would it be the honeymooners in their mid-90s, on a week-long Caribbean cruise who didn’t “come up for air” as it were until late in the week – so touchy-feely and smoochy we would have told them to “get a room” except, they already had, or the other couple, also in their mid-90s, on yet another cruise whose all-night, screaming, object-throwing fights prompted complaints from passengers in adjoining staterooms. It wouldn’t be the ozone-residing little lady on a New York tour who decided to leave our group at the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree to go shopping on Fifth Avenue instead of to Radio City Music Hall with the rest of us. And that would have been fine had she bothered to tell anybody! (She finally showed up midway through the March of the Toy Soldiers hauling all the American Girl dolls her two arms could carry, oblivious to the fact that we had the NYPD issue an all-points bulletin for her). It wouldn’t even be a two-week, cross-country motorcoach trek with a passenger-from-hell I will only identify as “Mil-DREAD” (so christened by her 52 fellow passengers) – a woman so caustic and crazy, her antics alone would fill another book.
No, my No. 1 pick (so far!) has to be the time my client and I unwittingly harbored, aided and abetted a passenger who traveled on a scheduled trip to Las Vegas and conveniently failed to mention he was jumping bond on a list of federal charges as long as my right arm. That is, until he decided to spill his guts to his poor, unsuspecting wife after we got to Vegas.
Don’t misunderstand me. There was nothing funny about what unfolded when it happened and years later, she and I still reminisce about the whole thing with a sense of disbelief. This tale transcends wild, wacky or weird and is better classified as just plain BIZARRE.
In retrospect, we chalked up his hyper behavior at the airport to pre-trip excitement, although he did seem a tad concerned about his carry-on bag (and that part, we’ve never figured out and probably don’t want to know). He was antsy on the plane, but it was a long flight. Regardless, none of it raised any suspicion until a few hours after our arrival at the hotel. The phone rang and The Fugitive’s wife was on the other end, hysterically insisting they had to return home immediately. Naturally assuming there was illness or perhaps a death in the family, we tried our best to calm her and get to the root of the emergency, but she remained tight-lipped. We remained baffled.
Because TSA regulations back then prohibited making a flight reservation within two hours of departure, it was impossible to arrange their return home that Monday night. Meanwhile, we called back to the bank travel club office to explain our quandary. That’s when we found out news had blanketed the town that our fugitive’s place of business had been raided the previous Friday night by no less than an army of FBI, state and local authorities who charged him with everything from racketeering to jaywalking. He was booked and managed to make a very hefty bond and head home, his family none the wiser. Obviously ordered not to leave town, let alone the state, he still opted to fly cross-country with the tour two days later. As the reality slowly hit us that we had a fugitive on our hands, the bank’s CEO issued us only one mandate: “Get them home on the next flight out!” which by now was 10 AM the next morning. I fired up the laptop, booked them a nonstop flight and dispatched my client down the corridor with instructions for our couple to meet us at the elevator for a bright-and-early trip to the airport. Did I mention we were also expected to accompany them and make sure they checked in?
Neither of us slept a wink that night. In fact, we were saucer-eyed imagining every possible scenario (“Think he’ll run for the border?” “What if he’s not there in the morning?” “What if the Feds come looking for him before we can get him back home?”) while we waited for daylight. When morning finally dawned, we fetched our couple, hailed a cab, ordered The Fugitive into the front seat while we sat in back trying to reassure his teary-eyed, but stoic, wife. We were nervous wrecks all the way to McCarran International Airport. While the cab waited curbside, my client walked them into the terminal and stood by while they checked in. As they walked toward the security checkpoint, we headed back to the hotel trying to figure out how to explain the sudden absence of two passengers to the rest of the group.
We managed to chuckle at the thought of all her co-workers at the bank and my friends back home envious that we had jetted off to Vegas for the week.
I love my job.
Melinda Hughey is a freelance travel writer, an occasional contributor to Leisure Group Travel and a relentless road warrior. She conducts seminars on niche marketing and has addressed countless banking groups throughout the country. As owner of The RH Factor – a bank marketing firm specializing in the development and management of senior adult bank travel programs since 1990 – Hughey is currently incubating The Girlfriend Factor, a subsidiary devoted to girlfriend getaways.