What a boon on a lazy Tuesday afternoon, I thought as we sped along the highway en route to Logan Airport. Every so often, an airline will pay the cost of long-distance ground transport. I used to think they did this solely when a customer missed a connecting flight due to a screw-up on the part of the air carrier. But this run was purely the result of bad weather - nobody's fault, certainly not the airline's. So I have no idea. In any event, my three customers - Norwich College students homeward bound for winter break - each carried a valid voucher, and that's all I really needed to know.
"Bruce," said one of the two big guys sitting in the back to his friend in the shotgun seat, "you're really going to get another tattoo over break?"
"I told you I was, dude," Bruce replied. He, too, was a big specimen, even larger than his two mates in the back, with tree-trunk thighs and a round, ruddy face. In one ear, a diamond stud sparkled - a striking accoutrement, I've always felt, for a he-man. "Like I said," he went on, "I've decided to get the Sacred Cross on my calf. You know, for a Christmas present to myself."
"The administration lets you have tattoos at Norwich?" I jumped into the conversation. "I would have thought that might violate the military protocol or something."
"As long as they don't show when you're dressed," Bruce explained, "they tend to let it go. I'd call it one of those 'don't ask, don't tell' situations."
There's something about these Norwich cadets, and I've driven my fair share of them through the years. I'm sure it has to do with the military code of conduct, for which I have great respect. Norwich students can be as boisterous and fun-loving as any other college students, but I never worry about their going too far. At least in public, there's a line they won't cross. Knowing this allows me to relax and focus on the driving. And gab.
"So, Bruce," I said as we motored along, negotiating the rolling contours of the Green Mountains, "where are you guys headed to out of Logan? Do y'all live near each other?"
"Well, we're all from Indiana. I live in a little town outside of Columbus."
"Is it built up - you know, suburbanized?"
Bruce chuckled and said, "No, it's sure not. My town is, like, real rural, still a lot of farming. To give you an idea, only 15 percent of my graduating high school class went on to college."?
"How'd you end up at Norwich?"
"I've wanted to be a doctor since I was, like, 5, so I always knew I was going to college. The military thing is a family tradition, going back to my father and grandfather. My brother - my twin, actually - is in his first year at the Citadel. Let me tell you, that place makes Norwich look like nursery school. As a first-year student - they call them 'knobs,' 'cause with the shaved heads they look like doorknobs - you're basically tortured 24/7 by the upperclassmen. The hazing is absolutely brutal. Tons of kids drop out the first few weeks. They just can't take it."
"How's your bro doing?"
"It's no problem for Bradley." A broad smile spread across Bruce's face, and I could read the fraternal pride. "He is one tough dude. Myself, Norwich is more my speed. The discipline here makes more sense to me."
"So, it sounds like you and your brother are real different."
"Yeah, I guess we are. He's always been, like, real social, kind of a wild man, definitely a risk-taker. Me, I'm the studious one. Like I said, I've always known what I want to do, and I apply myself to getting there. But don't get me wrong. Me and Bradley are real close. It's weird, actually, being away from him this year. We talk and text, like, every day."
One of the guys in the back shifted forward in his seat, taking leave of the movie he and his seatmate were watching on a laptop. He asked, "What's the chance of us making our flight at Logan? I think it's scheduled for, like, 6, 6:30."
"To tell you truthfully," I replied, "it's gonna be tough. We left Burlington at about 2. Straight-ahead drive time would get us to Logan just after 5, which would be cool. But we'll be hitting Boston right smack in rush hour, so I don't know. I'll do my best."
"Crap," he said. "I mean, I know it's not your fault, but we all are trying to get home for Christmas."
I laid into the accelerator, speeding through New Hampshire and onto Highway 93 into Massachusetts, anticipating the inevitable. But Reading, Stoneham, Medford, Somerville came and went, and still the sailing was smooth. By contrast, traffic heading north on the other side of the highway was seriously backed up. It dawned on me that we were on the right side of rush hour. In a flash, we crossed the gorgeous, web-like Tobin Bridge and shot through the Ted Williams tunnel. Logan loomed before us, with time to spare.
"I don't know how you did it," Bruce said as we parted ways in front of the Delta terminal, "but, man, we sure do appreciate it."
"It's a Christmas miracle," I replied, and in a way I wasn't kidding. "Happy holidays, and see ya back in Vermont."