It is just before 7 o'clock in the morning, and I'm standing in a closet somewhere deep inside Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Cristina, a short woman with a smile far too big for the early hour, is shaking her head in amused disapproval as I fumble with the gold buttons on a green polyester vest. Too small. I blame the push-up bra I've employed to distract from the fact that I skipped make-up and contact lenses so I could snag 15 more minutes of sleep.
Cristina reaches into the closet and hands me another green polyester vest, which fits all right. Then, I slip on a matching green polyester blazer and the pièce de résistance: a wide-brimmed straw Stetson hat. This is the uniform of the DFW Ambassadors, a group of nearly 600 volunteers who direct lost travelers throughout our sprawling airport. Why green polyester vest and blazer? Why straw Stetson?
"They just wanted something classy," explains Cristina, who hands me a big red button that reads, "Ask me," which I pin to my left shoulder. I am temporarily bypassing the 16 hours of orientation it takes to become a DFW Ambassador and being thrust out into the wilds of the airport, a beacon of hope for travelers seeking check-in help, wheelchairs or just a place to smoke a cigarette, dammit. With Cristina as my guide, we will attempt to improve the traveling experiences of several flyers over the next seven hours, all while I try to forget that I'm wearing a straw Stetson hat.
I miss the daily arrival of the military rest and recuperation flight—"the R&R"—which has been landing earlier and earlier thanks to friendly summer tailwinds that flow east-to-west. Just a day after DFW welcomed its 500,001st soldier through Terminal D for a brief two-week respite, this morning's flight landed at 6:05 a.m. A pack of DFW Ambassadors, mostly senior citizens, are always there to greet them. At the international arrivals corral, a white-haired USO volunteer in an American flag-printed polo shirt tells us we've just missed the fun. Like many ambassadors, he does double duty, as he's about to swap out his patriotic polo and USO lanyard for a polyester look just like mine. It is a beautiful thing, generations uniting through fashion.
Ambassadors go through hours of training as well as background checks. Former doctors, pilots, lawyers, CEOs and engineers, most are well-to-do seniors with a passion for planes and not much to do during the day. As Cristina tells me, working with them is "like having 600 grandparents." It's also like being mother to 600 teenagers, she says, trying to manage so many schedules. There's even something of a dating scene among ambassadors who finagle schedules to get paired up with particular hotties.
Cristina power-walks me from one end of the airport terminal to the other, pointing out the other ambassadors stationed at information stands throughout as though I might miss their Stetsons, which can be spotted from 100 yards away. The youngest person on staff with the ambassadors, Cristina is 39 and tells me she'd have taken herself to Edgefest—an all-day rock-and-roll affair sponsored by a local radio station—even if her kids, two teenagers, hadn't wanted to go. Her accent is precious, the kind of sweet Texas lilt that makes the word "mint" into two syllables: "mee-yint."
Near a giant, spherical floor mosaic in Terminal D—DFW is making an admirable attempt at being the artsy airport on the block, complete with a Nasher sculpture garden—Cristina and I meet an elderly lady pulling a flowered rolling bag. With a meek hand, she holds out a boarding pass with "Gate A-19" scrawled on it in pen across the back.
"Where am I? How do I get there?" she asks in a New England accent with no use for the letter "r." She is shaking and frazzled, but Cristina puts her arm around her shoulder. "Come with us," she says, and we lead her up the escalators to the SkyLink. On the train, we learn the woman, Audrey, is bound for San Francisco. Though she has plenty of time to make her flight, she can't concentrate on the superbly cool view outside the SkyLink windows, where the buildings of downtown Dallas stand miles away, blurry with heat waves.
"I was going to have a heart attack," Audrey says, gripping a metal post with wrinkled fingers. But in just a few stops, we guide her off the SkyLink to her gate, where the flight has just started boarding. With hugs for both Cristina and me, Audrey is off to see her brother in the Golden State.
Later, Cristina introduces me to Jim, a Korean War vet and seven-year ambassador who's manning the info desk at the front of international Terminal D. While he's directing a horde of non-English speakers to the SkyLink train by drawing a series of arrows and X's on a notepad and repeating the words "IN! RIGHT! UP!" at top volume, a businessman on crutches works his way up to the desk.
"How do I get a wheelchair?"
Crap. Why couldn't he have just asked where the restaurants were, or how to get to the credit union? I know those answers, or at least, my airport map does. As Jim is indisposed, I ask the gentleman to wait a moment. After all, it's my first day on the job. Instead, he sighs and wobbles off toward the American Airlines counter, and I feel like a failure. But not for long.
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Ward, another jovial shift supervisor like Cristina, joins us at the info desk and tells me that wheelchairs are hard to come by at DFW. You have to arrange and pay for them ahead of time with the airline. If you haven't, the best thing to do is to go straight to the ticket counter and look as injured as possible. Maybe add a tear or two for effect.
Though I've gotten really good at telling people to walk down the hallway to their right where American, the big airline on campus, has its check-in area, I'm disappointed that I haven't been able to speak French, my completely unmarketable and useless skill that I'd hoped would at least come in handy in the middle of one of the busiest airport terminals in the country. More than 60 percent of flights coming through DFW are connections, which means there ought to be at least one lost French person in the place. I'm also hoping for my lost Frenchie to be single and dashing and male, but I'll take an aged widow if it means I get to help someone find the train (ahem, "le train" en Français.)
On the other side of our info desk, Jim is halfway through telling a guy from Zurich how to find the SkyLink train before I realize that I'm missing a prime opportunity—20 percent of Switzerlanders speak French. But as soon as I hear the dapper businessman thank Jim by saying, "This is fantastic, I do appreciate it," I figure the guy probably speaks better English than I do. My next opportunity is blown when a guy looking for the Montreal flight runs by, saying only, "Sheek-in, zis way?" I try to nod Frenchly.
Despite my linguistic aspirations as an ambassador, by the end of the day, I don't ever get to speak French. I have to settle for helping someone avoid a lousy heart attack. But when I recall helping Audrey find A-19, I realize being an ambassador did kind of give me les warm fuzzies. Either that, or it had something to do with wearing an aptly named "blazer" made of polyester in 90-degree Texas heat.