Visions of luaus, ukuleles, and Elvis will forever dance in my head
Rick Bragg Flying to Hawaii
Credit: John Cuneo

I have sometimes been lucky in life, dancing between raindrops, falling into the septic tank only to come out smelling like, if not roses, at least not a septic tank. You can't count on luck, but in my experience, like the proverbial blind hog, I always seemed to stumble on a fat acorn now and then. I do not expect it to be that way forever; I suspect I have about used mine up.

But seldom, I thought as I waited in line at the Birmingham airport, had I blundered into luck like this. I had received a call from nice people asking if I would do a brief talk in Hawaii, for actual money, with free first-class airfare. In January. Now, January in the Deep South is not like what they have in Wisconsin, but that particular winter we had a rare cold spell. The weatherman warned us to bring in the dogs and wrap the pipes.

"Bring it on," I smirked. As the Southland froze, I'd be going tubular on an emerald-colored wave in the Pacific, waving at the wahines as I glided onto the sand, where someone, I'm certain, would hang flowers around my neck and hand me a coconut filled with a fruity rum drink.

"Aloha," they would say.

"Aloha, your own self," I'd reply.

Like most people in my zip code, I learned most of what I know about the islands from watching Elvis in Blue Hawaii at the Midway Drive-In. I do not actually surf, have never seen a wahine or even learned exactly what that means, and don't drink much. But who knew what I would do when I got there? It was a magical land, far away. I could be a surfer, or a sot. I could be Elvis. We are kin to him, on my grandma's side.

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I stood there in the security line, dreaming about luaus and sizzling roasted pork and volcanos spewing red into the tropical sky. I think I heard, faintly, a ukulele play.

I rushed to the gate.

"The flight's canceled," the gate agent said.

"I shall rebook," I said.

She told me the connections did not look good. You do not actually fly out of Birmingham. You just drive there so someone can tell you why you can't. Still, I did not fret. I had a safety day built in. I'd go tomorrow. I spent the night not in Hawaii but in the suburb of Homewood. I had a plastic cup of Frosted Flakes and went to bed, to dream, I hoped, of Waikiki, Waimea, and poi, which I think is like undercooked cobbler.

I was up at dawn and made it to the airport two hours early, only to hear the gate agents tell me I could not go to Hawaii this day, either, unless I strapped myself to the underside of a frigate bird for the Los Angeles-to-Hawaii leg. Or they could bend me double and put me in a crate with hogs. They did not actually say this, but that was the gist. "Toilet's froze," I heard someone say, when angry travelers demanded an explanation for why the plane could not fly.

I spent the rest of my Hawaiian vacation in the airport Chick-fil-A, till all hope was truly lost.

It is what I think of, every time, when I think of Hawaii—ukuleles and waffle fries.