The stranger at the airport

Want to hear a story?

Over the weekend I rearranged my bedroom. I moved my big old wardrobe from one side of the room to the other, and in order to do that I needed to take everything out. Everything. There’s not many times I do that. Do you have drawers where you put special, random stuff underneath your jeans and jumpers? I think all of my drawers have certain amounts of special weirdness in them, and mostly I know what it is and where it is, but this day I uncovered something I’d been wondering about, something that had been missing for a few years. This is it. Let me tell you its story.

My amethyst crystal

My amethyst crystal

It was September 1993. I’d just turned twenty, and was leaving Tasmania to fly to Perth, Western Australia, to see my dad for the first time in about five years. I had an hour-long flight from Hobart to Melbourne, then a two hour delay before I could board my flight to Perth. I didn’t mind so much. I loved airports, and Melbourne’s is a big one. I took the opportunity to wander through all the shops, and to check out the International departures lounge, dreaming that one day I too would fly out from there to somewhere exotic*

I bought some lunch at one of the cafes there, looked through the book shops and the way-out-of-my-league jewellery shop. I perused handbags and scarves and tiny, fire-coloured opals set in rings and watches. I had a lot of fun looking through the tourist shop, trying to imagine what overseas travellers thought about Australia, and wondered where in the world these “Kangaroo Crossing” signs and outback calendars would grace the backs of toilet doors, and whether people in other countries really did believe koalas were everywhere** and kangaroos hopped down the main street***. I bought a couple of postcards, just to fill in the time, and sat down on a padded bench outside the tourist shop and started writing them, pulling out the massive study bible I carried in my backpack to rest them on.

I’m not great at knowing what to say in letters and postcards, and there wasn’t much news so far. I read a bit of the bible while I waited for inspiration to hit me, and sat quietly and watched the people walk by. There were a lot of Asian people, which I wasn’t used to seeing, and old round men wearing the brightly coloured jumpers I’d seen in the shops just near me. People in smart suits, and people who looked haggard and travel-weary even by the early afternoon. A dude in a Raiders jacket with his hair curly at the back. He reminded me of Tony, because Tony was growing his hair long at that stage, and, because it was orange and curly, gave him the appearance of having a basketball for a head. To deal with this (this was 1993, a time when afros were very much not cool) he wore a Raiders cap constantly. To this day I have no idea who the Raiders are, where they are from or even what sport they play, but I’m as familiar with their logo as if they were my own hometown team.

I wrote some more, and read some more, and people-watched some more too. I tried hard not to be nervous, and so I prayed. I hadn’t seen my dad in years. We’d never been close, and the years before he left had been so fraught with tension and violence that I was glad to see him go. I didn’t know what to expect from him, or from this trip to Perth, where I knew nobody but him. I was confident enough to know I could look after myself in a strange city if everything went sour, and excited to visit a part of the country I’d never seen, but nervous enough to cling to that bible and search through it for promises of hope, for reminders that God was with me, that I wasn’t doing this on my own.

That’s what I was doing when it happened. I was reading the psalms, although I forget which one, when a hand appeared on my bible. A man’s hand, not in a vision or anything spiritual like that, just entering my field of vision while I was reading. And on my bible the hand left that beautiful amethyst crystal. I looked up. It was the dude in the Raider’s jacket. I held his gaze for a few seconds before he turned and walked away with his friend. I picked up the crystal. It was still warm from his hand, and as I held it I felt a shy peace creeping over me. This was my promise. Things would be all right.

And they were.

I still have that crystal. I’ve searched Melbourne airport a few times since that day, and have never found a shop that sells things like that. I don’t know why he was holding it, where he got it, why he decided to put it on my lap like that that day, or who he is. I love the idea that one day all mysteries will be revealed though. One day, maybe in Heaven, I’ll meet the man in the Raiders jacket, and I’ll smile, and I’ll say, finally, “thank you”.

How about you? Have you ever had an unexpected encounter with a stranger? Did it change you?

And another thing, this is the internet. You just never know who reads these things. Do you know a guy with curly brown hair, maybe in his 20s, who wore a Raiders jacket and was passing through Melbourne airport in September 1993? If you do, tell him I said hi, and thank you!

*And lo and behold, nineteen years later, I did! To Los Angeles, which was uncannily like Melbourne, and to the wildly foreign and terribly exotic city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Madonna, Eminem, and Susie Finkbeiner are all from Michigan. It’s cool.

**They are not. In fact, koalas don’t live in Tasmania at all, so although many people on the mainland have seen them in the wild, I have not.

***They don’t. Not really. Well, not in the major cities, anyway. Weeeeellll…not unless you count Glenorchy as a major city (which nobody does, and this fella is a wallaby, not a kangaroo anyhow). Because summer was so dry, and because the bushfires were so severe, a lot of animals made their way to the suburbs for food.


Yes, this guy DID hop round the city…or at least, the suburbs.


The man from Michigan

On the 28th of November 2012 I sat in Melbourne airport, forlorn and exhausted, homesick already for a country I’d only just left and had only known for two short weeks, saddened by smallness and saddened by familiar, and clutching an overstuffed pink backpack carrying everything I couldn’t leave behind and a handful of Michigan souvenirs I’d bought at the airport there some thirty hours before. I wanted to see my family, but I didn’t want to go home. More than that though, I didn’t want to be in Melbourne airport.

I was quite, quite sure that the gate I was waiting at was the one flying to Hobart, although the screens that displayed the information said something quite different. I waited, tried to catch a glimpse of somebody else’s boarding pass without seeming too suspicious. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t want to make small conversations with people whose journeys felt ordinary, who had been to Melbourne for the weekend to catch a show, to go to a wedding, to go to a work conference. I didn’t want to talk to Australians at all. I only wanted to talk to Americans, to people who Understood.

I didn’t know it’d be like that.

Because I was tired, and because I was heartsick and soon-to-be time poor I hauled my sorry self and my pink backpack over to the vending machine in the corner and bought myself a block of Cadbury’s chocolate, sad even that it was yummy, real Australian Cadbury’s, not the waxy strange American version (they put wax in chocolate. No joke. And when I looked at them strangely and asked why, they looked at ME strangely and said “you DON’T have wax in chocolate?” Real wax wax. Paraffin wax. No joke).

Because the departure lounge was crowded, and because my old seat was taken, I sat down with a slump and a sigh in another seat, near an old man with a kindly smile who looked at my chocolate and my overstuffed backpack and said “You look like you’ve just been on a Great Adventure; either that or you’re going on one.”

I looked at him again. He was a tall man, and his hair was white-turning-yellow, like a newspaper left in the sun, and his bushy eyebrows waggled when he smiled at me again. I smiled back. “Just been on one, actually. And you? Have you come from anywhere interesting?”

And that’s where it started, right there.

He told me he’d been to the States, and I said that I had too, and he told me he’d been to Michigan, and I told him I had too, and he told me he’d been in Michigan for Thanksgiving, and I told him I had too, and by that time the smallness of Melbourne had opened up into the wideness of memory, and we talked like old friends about the snow that almost was, and the unseasonable blue sky that day, about his experiences in the Buick factory in the city of Flint, that I’d driven through just a few days before. I laughed, and said I hadn’t seen him, although I probably should have waved.

He told me the story of his adopted daughter, adopted from Flint, Michigan, who went back with him and met her birth family for the first time, about how strange it was seeing a face so familiar on someone people he’d never met, about how her mannerisms were so similar to this sister she’d never known. I rejoiced with him, and felt that belonging, that sense of coming back to family, that love, that grief for the lostness. I felt the story there with him, right there at Melbourne airport.

I feel that story today, which is why I’m remembering the Man from Michigan. I’ve been meeting family – my own family that I didn’t know – family that look like me, that think like me, that share a history, and can explain huge chunks of who I come from that I didn’t even know about. It makes me feel like I’m the one who was adopted, the one returning to Flint, Michigan.

It’s a lovely feeling, and a happy-sad feeling at the same time. I don’t know how to explain it. All I know is that I’m holding tightly to the hand of the God who put me in Flint, Michigan for Thanksgiving weekend; the God who put the newspaper-blond man at the airport.

I wish I’d taken his photograph. I don’t even know his name. If I did I’d call him up and tell him I’m holding his hand right now too. I don’t think he’d mind.

I’m glad the Man from Michigan was there that day. I’m glad for the God who puts people in airports just when we need them. I’m glad for the God who allows flesh-and-blood people to be His hands and feet.

What about you? Have you ever met someone you think just must be an angel? Someone you don’t know who’s managed to impact your life? Have you been that person for somebody else?