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Shipping Ludwig

We had a two-day delay in our flight from Atlanta to Johannesberg. Several months prior to leaving SFO, I was instructed by a person at Delta to call a month before leaving to book the flight for the dog. This was done rather painlessly and quickly by a Delta ticketing person and I told her how happy I was to have it all accomplished without phoning 18 different people. She said no problem, your dog is booked in baggage so when we arrive to check-in we bring the dog in his kennel and he will be checked in with the luggage. No problem!

We did all of this and the day of departure we showed up with the bags and dog with tickets in hand. The first kick in the killyonees was that the ambient temperature in Atlanta was 90+ degrees and it is the rule that no animals can fly if the temp is over 85. The guy at the desk said the exception would be if you can provide a note from your vet that it is ok if the dog experiences elevation in temps over 85 for limited duration. Panic was setting in big time. I thought that the only way out would be to auction off Ludwig at the airport.

Since we had a moderate problem in Miami in not having the right USDA 6 carbon copy form to be filled out by a vet, I thought maybe the Miami vet could fax such a clearance for Ludwig. She pulled me out of the fire by quickly completing the USDA form so maybe she could do the same with the temperature clearance document. I phoned and asked her if she could write a simple one liner on her letterhead and fax it to the Delta folks in Atlanta. I couldn't get her to budge on any thing over 85 degrees, but she did some kind of fudge letter that Delta looked at and just shook their heads and said, You have to do better, the dog can't fly. We were getting down to the final hour before boarding. Last hope! I'll call the Gualalalala vet. Bingo, they said no problem and faxed a letter to Delta that gave a last minute reprieve and Ludwig was ok to board. V.A. and I hugged and presented our tickets and passports to the ticket guy who by this time was all smiles.

Within seconds his smile disappeared. So did our feelings of joy and elation. Then he squinted at the computer screen and uttered the words, “We have a real problem.” It was like someone telling you that you only have 4 minutes to live. What do you do? The gods must be angry with us for some strange reason. Maybe it was Bush's fault or Hairy Reid seeking revenge. Who knows?

Our guy at the ticket counter went to see his supervisor. It was the feeling sort of like the days when you were buying a car and the salesperson takes the offer and paper work to the slimeball shuckster in the back room for some drizzle counteroffer.

Both of them returned to the ticket counter and presented us with the news that the dog had to be shipped “Manifest Cargo.” What is that? How does it differ from baggage cargo? I still have a hard time trying to come up with answers to those questions. However, the news got worse. Shipping an animal by Manifest Cargo takes three days to process. How can this be? The dog was checked in by a Delta ticketing person a month ago. They said the person screwed up and that if you read the online information of Delta, one can read that the animal had to go Manifest cargo. We were livid.

They had already provided us with two other stressors prior to this that already had us wild. The first was that our four big bags that had been checked in at Miami with the assurance that they were checked all the way to Johannesberg could not be located. Delta wasn't sure if they were still in Miami, Atlanta or in Johannesberg. It was a big mystery. Second, since the temperature in Miami was greater than 85 degrees we had to fly Ludwig in the cabin under the seat in a carrying case that we had to buy at the ticket desk. That all worked out ok. The problem was that once we reached Atlanta, Ludwig's crate couldn't be located. It was another big mystery. But as luck would have it, the crate emerged in sufficient time so that we could get ready for Delta flight 200 to Johannesberg.

Now back to boarding the airplane. Since Delta figured they had some blame in the setup, they provided room and limited meals until we could get the manifest cargo thing accomplished. With phone calls to manifest cargo the waiting time was shortened to two days. Another item that was of baffling interest was that no one knew for sure where manifest cargo was located. It was always a vague verbal response followed by a finger pointing that the taxi was there and the cargo place was somewhere in a nebulous area in the opposite direction.

On the day of the flight, Ludwig and I hailed a cab and set off for the Delta cargo facility. The driver apparently had just gotten off the boat from Haiti and had some difficulty both understanding and speaking English. By the sound of things as we started off, he was phoning relatives or coworkers to guide him in the direction of the manifest cargo site. The cargo facility was five or six miles from the airport in a large light industry area. It was chaos. He couldn't find it and I couldn't see the joint. Then out of nowhere there it was: Delta Cargo. Needless to say, it was mucho caliente.

The driver let me off and my thoughts drifted to, What if I'm stuck out here with no ride back to the airport and have to ride with Ludwig in his crate to Johannesberg? It could be a reality situation. The lines to get any sort of information were distorted and gloomy. People were milling around, but I did get directions to go through two large doors and that’s where Ludwig would get his shipping forms before being sent away to the waiting plane. This was done within half an hour.

I was getting anxious since we were down to three hours before boarding for Johannesberg. Even though Ludwig was crated and sitting on the dock, I still had to have the paperwork processed and pay for his fare. Plus, the deciding factor was that there were no cabs visible in the area to shout and wave my arms at. Then Bingo! I found that I had screwed up super bigtime. I had neglected to bring Ludwig's papers and vet information that was needed for the shipping. It was one of the few times in my life that massive disaster was in the making. One of the clerks had just finished with a customer and I jumped in front of the next guy and pleaded for him to call a cab — my time to get on a plane was running out. He did that and said the cab would show in 15 minutes. I could have kissed the guy.

Thirty minutes passed and I was frantic. What had to be done was go back to the airport, find V.A. and get the folder with Ludwig's papers and head back to Delta cargo. And then once back to cargo would I have to wait in a long line to process the paper work? I was actually saying prayers and gravitating to my knees.

All of a sudden there was the cab and a very interesting driver by the name of Lionel St. Louis. He was definitely one of a kind. I have been in a lot of cabs and talked with many drivers, but Lionel was top of the list. I told him my plight and he didn't seem the least bit concerned about driving back to the airport, waiting, driving back to cargo and waiting and then driving me back to the airport.

But time was ticking.

Lionel explained that he collected everything — stamps, matchbooks, foreign money, newspapers, American made items that had foreign writing on them, you name it / he collected it. I found it hard to focus on what he was saying, but did welcome a bit of levity at this point.

We hit the airport and I rushed to our agreed destination point, found the folder, gave V.A. a summary of what was happening and told her I needed more cash. I rushed back to Lionel and asked him to hurry our trip to cargo since time was running out. We got to cargo and fortunately the line was short, only three ahead of me. Surprisingly the check-in at cargo was rather quick as I repeatedly glanced to the parking area to see if Lionel was still there. Hewraw! I paid the cargo guy grabbed the remaining papers and dashed to where Lionel was waiting. We had an hour left before departure to Johannesberg. By this time I was actually verbalizing prayers as Lionel was talking about his collection of gum wrappers and napkin holders.

He was curious as to what South African money looked like and fortunately I had about 800 rand in my wallet. I showed him several different denominations. He was curious as to the exchange rate, which at the time was about seven rands to the dollar. He did a quick calculation and asked if I could pay him in Rand for part of the cab fare. I said no problem and unloaded about 400 Rand (~$57). He gave me his card and asked if I would send him anything that was American made and had foreign writing on it. I could also have kissed Lionel. He was the right guy for the stressful moments I had been crawling through.

With that V.A. and I and also Ludwig boarded Delta Flight 200 for Johannesberg. We were upset that Delta would not upgrade us to Business or First Class, claiming that the plane was full. They put us in bulkhead seats in coach. At first we were not happy about this, but quickly found out that there was a great deal of leg room in bulkhead, plus you can plant your shoes/bare feet on the wall in front that was helpful in draining the accumulating fluid back to the heart. V.A. slept during the flight and I was so mentally frayed that endless movies seemed to do the trick. It is amazing how I can watch one movie after another, and after watching five or six movies I have no recollection of the names or plot/story of any of them. This may be a good diagnostic test in evaluating a person for the onset of Alzhiemer’s. Kind of scary thinking about it.

Really, nothing has been more devastating in removing months/years from my life as that trip to Delta Manifest Cargo in Atlanta.

John Ford lives in Gualala but commutes to Africa occasionally.

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