What If? How Our Lives and Our World Might Have Been So Different

Embry and are watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the Holocaust and the United States. If you think the problems we face are tough now, they were even more foreboding in the 1930s and 40s. The series is deeply disturbing as you would expect and raises a lot of questions about “man’s inhumanity to man.” You wonder what might have happened had the U.S. not joined the fight against Hitler when we did. Would Germany and the Axis powers have won? What would have happened if Germany (or Japan) had developed the atom bomb (and used it) before we did?

There are so many “what ifs” in life, which I have observed on many occasions is often a matter of inches. An inch here and an inch there, and everything is turned upside down. It is not too much to say that if we had waited much longer to join the fray, we in the U.S. could be speaking German today. We tend to look at historical “facts” as a given and predetermined. What if The South had won the Civil War, which would have led to a separate, apartheid country much like South Africa before Nelson Mandela. What if the Civil Rights Movement had not happened? Jim Crow could still be the “law” of the South.

Which brings us to the times we are in today. What if the mRNA vaccine had not been developed just in the nick of time? What would the covid deaths have been? Would anyone want to leave their house? What about all the other medical breakthroughs and advancements? I for one would be a dead duck. I had a fairly severe case of polio in 1952 resulting in a curved spine that looked like the lettering “C.” Without a new operation at the time (1954) called a “spinal fusion,” I would not have lasted past my teenage years. If my polio had occurred five years earlier, I probably would not have made it. And what about the improvements in hearing aides, without which when my hearing disability began in the late 1990s, I would hardly have  been able to function? Or knee replacements without which I would hardly be able to walk? I suspect many of us have had health scares or challenges and have gotten through them because of great strides in health care and medical technology. A hundred years ago the outcome would have been very different.

And what about the technology we use that now we take for granted. The list is long—television, computers, the internet, jet planes, cell phones—what if they had never been invented? Can you imagine what life would be like without these things?

And what about politics? What if Trump actually had received more electoral votes than Biden in 2020? What if the January 6 Insurrection had succeeded? What if Ukraine had not put up a fight and the West had not supported their resistance, and Putin had been able to claim victory for Russia, his first step in restoring the Russian Empire?

Of course, we will never know the answer to the what ifs that never happened. This is the stuff for novels and short stories. Nor do we know the answer to the what ifs of the future.

What if Trump wins in 2024? Or if the next president is one of his wannabees like DeSantis, Cruz, or Hawley? Or if the militias try to take over the government? What if we drift away from a democracy to a strongman state?

What if Ukraine falls? What if China becomes greater adversary?  What if it attacks Taiwan? What if climate change initiatives are stifled? What if the Greenland ice cap melts? What if covid continues to rage and morphs into a more lethal virus? What if nuclear weapons are actually used (again)? All are possibilities.

What we do know is that we humans—especially we humans of good will– have a big role to play in the outcome. Without heroes and ordinary people in the past who led us away from the Dark Side and ills of slavery, racism, anti Semitism, human suffering, and despair, and who stood up against totalitarianism and bad actors, the outcome would have been different. We humans have been saddled with the responsibility of making a difference. If we are to survive as a livable planet for humans, people of good will who want to do the right thing can’t sit on our hands or give up. The stakes have never been higher.



The Desperate Search For Affordable Housing

Over the past ten years, Embry and I have been active in supporting three Afghan families who have moved to the U.S. In supporting two of the families, we have been part of a larger group consisting of three Episcopal Churches in the area, one of which, All Souls, is where we are members. In each of the initiatives, given my background in affordable housing, I have been the volunteer who has been responsible for locating and securing housing for the refugees. The current family, whom I will call the Zacari family, consists of two youngish, 30-something parents and three children, ages seven, four, and just over one. They spent months in refugee camps in Pakistan, Qatar, and Fort Dix before finally arriving in the Washington area just over a year ago. The husband with considerable effort was able to get a job making $16/hour at a local hospital as a security guard.

An income of $16/hour translates to an annual income of around $32,500. Starting a year ago, I spent several days investigating options in and around Arlington VA, where they preferred to live, and the least expensive three-bedroom unit that I could find rented for close to $2,200/month. The least expensive two-bedroom for around $2,000. The apartment we ended up with was in an older, five-story building with few amenities, in a close-in neighborhood, adjacent to a small park, good public transportation and was in a good school district and an area where many supportive social services were available for the family. The apartment was not perfect—mice and roaches are a problem—but adequate and in a great location.

The Zacari family started off with a three-bedroom unit but downsized to a two-bedroom in order to be near the ground floor. What if the support from the three churches was not available? How does a family afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment for $2,000 plus utilities, when this would require them to spend about 75% of their income for housing? Well, they don’t. Most landlords have a policy of requiring a family’s income to be three times the rent, which in their case would amount to having an income of at least $72,500. But wait, you ask, an income of $16/hour is the income of a whole lot of workers, especially in the services sector. How on earth do they get by? Where do they live? Is there any question about why there is an affordable housing crisis in the greater Washington area and across the nation?

In the case of the Zacari family the three churches had raised almost $50,000 and had committed to paying the rent for at least a year and supporting the family in other ways like buying them a car. But after a year the church money is diminishing, and we can see a time in the next several months when the money will run out. What will happen then? My job as the volunteer in charge of housing, is to figure that out. The original idea, of course, was to provide the support to them to get them started, and then within a year–or so the thinking was– they would be able to afford housing on their own. Wishful thinking.

In the early part of my search for housing, I was able to discover a housing grant program that was somewhat unique to Arlington and offered a pathway for housing affordability for the Zacari family. As some may know the main federal affordable housing assistance today is the “Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program,” administered by local housing authorities, whereby eligible families (incomes below 50% of the area median income) pay 30% of their income for rent and utilities, and the feds pay the difference between that and the contract rent of the unit provided that it does not exceed local market rents. While the program is not perfect, it works pretty well. The only problem is that there is only enough funding to help about a quarter of the families who are eligible, and the waiting lists tend to be very long. This is the case in Arlington. There are also older buildings which provide project-based, “deep subsidy,“ Section 8 assistance to eligible families and seniors, and this was the program which allowed me to get my start in the production of affordable housing. This program, however, had a short-lived life due to the high costs involved—from 1974-1984– and long wait lists are usually associated with these properties. Though few new public housing properties have been built since the mid 1970s, public housing still remains an option though units tend to be in poor condition and in less desirable neighborhoods. Because the wait list for public housing was so long in DC, several years ago the DC Public Housing Authority stopped taking new applicants. The other affordable housing program that provides new units at discounted rates is called the “Low Income Housing Tax Credit program,” which for the last few decades has produced over 100,000 new units a year nation-wide. The big difference is that instead of providing “deep subsidies” like the Section 8 program, it skews rents at income levels to make them affordable by households at 30-60% of area median incomes. The wait lists for these properties are also long. In my initial search for the Zacari family I did not try to rent a unit for them in one of those affordable housing properties since the family had  no place to live when they arrived and were desperate.

This is why I was intrigued by the Arlington County program. It was a local lookalike of the Housing Choice Voucher program except that the initiative required the applicant to have a 40-hour week job paying no less  than the minimum wage. If there were two or more adults, all working-age adults would be required to have full time jobs with the exception of families with small children. In other words, it was a Housing Choice Voucher program for working families. Neat idea, I thought. Arlington has long prided itself as a bastion of progressive thought and action. Good for them! It would be the perfect solution for the Zacari family. The grantor would consider the income of the family and obligate the county to pay the difference between what the landlord required as income (3 times rent or over $72,000/year) and their annual income of about $32,000. In their case it would amount to a subsidy of around $1,000/month. Hurrah! Problem solved.

Except that it wasn’t.

Several months ago, I filled out the application on behalf of the Zacari family and submitted it to Arlington County. In a few weeks the person responsible for processing the application emailed me that the lease had to be in the name of the family, not All Souls Episcopal Church. I immediately contacted the management company of their apartment house. They said they could not change the lease now—which would violate their rental procedures and put at risk their financing– but they would sign a letter saying that once the grant came through, then and only then, would they transfer the lease from the church to the Zarcari family.

 No problem. Sounded reasonable enough to me. The signed letter went to the county, and I prided myself at solving another housing problem.

Then this week the word came back from the county that processing would cease until the name of the applicant was on the lease. No exceptions. Nonnegotiable. I went back to the management company whose response was, “You must be kidding. You expect any landlord to execute a lease with a family whose income is less than half of the underwriting threshold? Surely you jest!”

“But the housing grant…”

“There is no guarantee that they will get the housing grant!”

Back to the county. I called the rep and asked how they expected any tenant to have an executed lease that no landlord would accept in the first place. How could they expect a family making less than $3,000/month to pay over $2,000/month in rent? And if they can’t get the grant, the family will end up on the street, homeless.

She said something to the effect of “their problem, not ours, and do not bother us again until you have a signed lease with the applicant’s name on it. We have to prove that they are not able to afford the rent where they are living before we can make the grant.”

To which I responded, “Catch 22.”

She hung up.

And people wonder why government is often seen as the villain rather than the savior.

However, I have not given up on this challenge and have a few weapons left in my arsenal. Stay tuned for the next episode.

But the question remains: How do hard working people in full time jobs, paying $16/hour (or less or more or in that range) find decent, affordable housing? Where do they live? How do they survive?

Is there anything wrong with this picture?







The Last Hurrah: Cruising the BVIs for the Last Time. Part Two

In the fall of 1995, I got a call from a good friend, Dan Look, who was an avid and experienced sailor and a person I had met and collaborated with in my consulting work in retirement housing. He said he was planning a week-long cruise in the British Virgin Islands and was looking for an experienced first mate. I immediately accepted. Neither of us had sailed in the BVIs before, and it was something that I had wanted to do for a long time. Dan ended up chartering a 50-foot sailboat with eight of his other friends on board, all men, most in our 40s or early 50s and working in the retirement housing field or members of Dan’s rowing club in Atlanta. Including Dan and me, the total aboard numbered 10. I still can’t believe how we got that many people on board or remember where everyone slept (some were in hammocks), but the experience was a blast. It was the first of 11 Dan Look Cruises, one occurring each year except for 1997 and 1998, not petering out until 2008. The second year we added a boat, which I skippered, and then another the following year, and each year expanded the cruising fleet until  one year we had six boats and a total of 25 men cruising. I was on every cruise and often was assigned to be on my boat were two or three of Dan’s friends whom I had never met. One year it was the first time on a sailboat  for all three men on my boat, and every year on my boat there was at least one person with very limited experience. I loved introducing them to the magic of sailing. There was not a person on these cruises that I did not like, and some became long term friends.

We had informal races from anchorage to anchorage, plenty of time ashore and for snorkeling , and meals at great restaurants overlooking anchorages. On the first day of every cruise Dan would hand out  customized golf shirts he had ordered for everyone with a special logo and the date of the cruise. I still have many of them.

The highlight of these cruises for me was the evening meal. Every afternoon after a day of sailing and sometimes informal racing, everyone would pile into dinghies and head to Dan’s boat where he would be preparing a feast. Dan had his own company which provided dietary services to retirement communities, loved to cook, and was an extraordinary chef, often assisted on board by others in the food service business. For several years he was assisted by a guy who owned a chain of high-end steak houses in Atlanta. I was the self-appointed bar tender and prepared huge pitchers of pain killers for the thirsty sailors and came to be known by many as simply “Dr. Pain Killer.” It is hard to conceive how 20 or more men could fit on a 50-foot yacht for pain killers and a gourmet feast. Every inch below and above deck was occupied, and there was always lots of laughter, storytelling, bragging, and joke telling. These Dan Look Cruises will always be etched in my mind as one of the most satisfying and enjoyable experiences of my life.

For some reason after about 10 years, enthusiasm started to wane, and 2008 marked the end of the  cruises. By that time, however, I was hooked and became a boat owner of my own BVI Sunsail yacht, which I named “Second Wind” (a sale/lease back deal, which allowed me three weeks a year of “free sailing” at any of their 90 locations around the world). Second Wind was a 39-foot sloop, perfect for a crew of four or five, and enabled me to continue cruising in the Caribbean, usually twice a year, once in the fall with Embry and one or two other couples, and once in the early spring with three or four of my close friends, many from high school, college or graduate school days. After five years when the sale/leaseback deal was over, because I was unable to sell the boat down there, I had it moved to the Chesapeake where Embry and I enjoyed cruising and (for me) racing for another eight or nine years before selling Second Wind in 2021, marking the end of my official sailing career.

Why was it so important for me to have one final BVI cruise with my family? Over the years the experience had become for me almost spiritual. Often, I would arrive with a bad cold or respiratory virus and in days would be cured. I have put in my will that I want a third of my ashes tossed into the Caribbean Sea in the BVIs. The main reason for a Last Hurrah Cruise was to share this experience with my family (children and spouses had been done there with us before) and especially with my grandchildren.

Many consider the BVIs to be the finest sailing waters in the world. The place is magic, with its reliable trade winds from the Northeast and East, usually around 12-18 knots, perfect speeds for exciting but not scary sailing. The BVI Islands, all but one volcanic, are close together and accessible, the waters deep blue, light green, and crystal clear, with coral reefs and excellent snorkeling. The towering mountains and hills are gorgeous as are the white, sandy beaches.   And the entire country is set up to accommodate sailors. Moorings are available at most anchorages, where you will also find small stores selling water, beer, ice, tee shirts, memorabilia, and items you might run out of. You will also find one or two local restaurants at all the major anchorages and at many of the smaller ones. The locals are friendly, and you do not have to worry about being robbed or harassed. If you are chartering and have a mechanical or sailing problem, help from the charter company can usually reach you in under an hour. In a word, it is a sailor’s paradise.

This is what I wanted my grandchildren to see and experience, and this is why two years ago I planned the Last Hurrah Cruise for the entire Howell clan. And now it was finally happening!

And here we were—at last! —in Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda. We passed through the tiny customs house in less than five minutes, ordered a cab, and in five minutes were at the marina in Spanish Town, the only other real “town” (population around 2,000) in the BVIs (population around 27,000) besides Road Town (population around 9,000). Within minutes we were reunited with the rest of our crew, Andrew’s and Jessica’s families, who had managed to sail the boat (“Odin II”) upwind in strong winds, rain, and squalls and dock her in the often-crowded Spanish Town marina. I was very impressed but not surprised. Afterall, Andrew and I had sailed up to New England and back in the early 90s, and Jessica had done a lot of small boat sailing.

We admired the large sloop, climbed on (with some help for me), and donned the sailing hats they had brought along, one labeled “Captain,” another “First Mate” and the others “Crew.” Embry had brought along 10 tie-died, multicolored tee shirts, and the “Howell crew” also had brought 10 “Last Hurrah” tee shirts which had been made for the earlier 2021 cruise that never happened. Embry also during the entire ordeal of getting to the BVIs  had been carrying in a separate plastic case a small, plastic Christmas tree fully, if not tastefully, decorated. The tree immediately found its dominate place in the cockpit and  remained a steadfast, silent member of the crew until we arrived back at the base when Embry gave it away to one of the workers, who seemed thrilled to receive it.

The five days that we spent cruising with the family were all that I had hoped for and more. It was indeed the cruise of a lifetime, a true “Last Hurrah.” The squalls of the first day on the second day were replaced by clear skies and “Christmas Winds,” which typically arrive around this time of year and are the strongest winds of year at speeds in the range of 15-25 knots instead of 12-18 knots. However, our 51-foot sloop with a double-reefed main could handle the higher winds easily. When we departed Spanish Town around two and headed north, upwind to the famous Virgin Gorda Sound, I took the helm and was astonished that crew assignments were in place. Our two grandsons—Jasper and Parker—were trained and ready, hoisting and lowering the main, trimming the sheets, reefing the main, tasks they performed with expertise, enthusiasm, and vigor. Maximum boat speed for our boat is about 10 knots, and with the Christmas Winds, the boat reached nine knots at times and on the longer beam reaches averaged around eight knots. Very impressive for any cruising sailboat!

Our two granddaughters—Jo and Sadie– also performed their assigned duty of keeping the cockpit sparkling clean, a job they performed cheerfully and gracefully. Our son, Andrew, helped out on the helm as did his son, Parker, who has had two sailing camp experiences and whom I had appointed Second Mate because of his experience. Peter, Jessica’s husband, was the official navigator and got us where we wanted to go and kept us from running aground. Embry, Karen, Andrew’s wife, and  our daughter, Jessica, quietly kept the boat in good order, and took the lead (with some help from their husbands) in being sure the entire crew was hydrated with a variety of beverages and well fed.

Perhaps more important than what happened is what did not happen. No one fussed or complained. No one got seasick. No one got covid. No one was injured. And—at least from my observations—everyone had a great time. We were all captured by the charm of the BVIs.

The cruise began with spending one full day and two evenings in Virgin Gorda Sound, considered by many as one of the most beautiful natural anchorages in the world. We then sailed about 20 miles on a beam reach in 20-25 knot winds to Annagada, the only atoll among the dozen or so volcanic, larger islands and the most remote of all the islands. We spent two evenings there and one full day relaxing on the pristine, white beach on Loblolly Bay. Then we sailed about 30 miles on a broad reach in the same fresh winds to Little Harbor on Jost van Dyke where we moored for the evening, and the last day  sailed upwind about 20 miles in more gentle winds back to Tortola and the Sunsail base via Pelican Island in the Sir Francis Drake Channel where we went snorkeling at the famous “Indians” coral reef. At every anchorage both the kayak and the paddle board got good use. We ate out only once, at the restaurant on Saba Rock in  Virgin Gorda Sound, where the food was excellent.

It had been almost eight years since I had been down to the BVIs. Since I had Second Wind moved from there to the Chesapeake in 2014, we had not chartered. A lot had happened during that time, however, since the islands were hit by Hurricane Irma in 2017, a Category 5 Hurricane with wind speeds of up to 180 miles per hour. The islands were devasted and have still not completely recovered though if you had never been there before you probably would not notice. The world-renowned resort on Virgin Gorda, the Bitter End, was rebuilt as only a shadow of its former self. The hotel cottages are gone and all that remains is a small restaurant. The famous Foxxy’s is back, however, and business overall is now reported to be good.

The biggest difference to me is how catamarans have replaced mono hulls, a sad development in my view. I am not a fan of those hulky, bulky crafts, which now account for about 90 percent of the charter fleet boats. It was the opposite when Second Wind was in the charter fleet. I was also surprised how few boats were sailing in what is usually the busiest week of the year. Early in the week moorings were around a third occupied when in almost every other cruise I had been on, if you arrived after four at an anchorage, you would be hard pressed to find an open mooring. I attribute this mainly to the flight cancellations.

There was one incident, however. The last day when we were in Little Harbor on Jost van Dyke the motor would not start. The battery that started the motor was completely dead. It is not possible to get into or out of a crowded anchorage without a motor. A heavy, 51-foot sailboat is not able to maneuver in small spaces without power. Not having a working motor is a big deal. We immediately called the Sunsail base, but were not able to get any definitive diagnosis or plan of action other than the Sunsail employee would try to find a mechanic. While Andrew and Peter were on the phone with Sunsail, two British young men, brothers, who were tanned and athletic, motored up in their dinghy and asked if we were leaving so that they could take over our mooring after we departed. Jessica said we were trying to leave, but the motor would not start. They asked if they could hop on and take a look, which they did, examined the battery that started the motor concluding that it was improperly wired to the generator. They replaced the starter battery with an auxiliary battery, and wired it properly to the generator. It started up immediately. The whole effort took less than a half hour. It turned out that the older brother’s job was a marine mechanic. Now how lucky was that? Embry’s guardian angel was on duty again. I recalled again the adage “that a coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

If there was a weak link in the crew aboard Odin II, it was me, the 80-year old captain, who needed help getting on and off the boat and into a dinghy. Old knees. Old age. When I originally set the date for the rescheduled Last Hurrah Cruise two years ago, I was well aware that my ability to do what I used to be able to do was fading. This is the way it is with us homo sapiens, as it is with all living creatures. I knew the time was getting closer when it would be beyond my capacity to do a week of cruising in the BVIs. Well, after two aborted efforts, I made it to 2023, stumbling across the finish line, as they say. And what a cruise it was and what a joy to be able to share my love of sailing with my four grandchildren and to watch them have such a great time. It does not get much better than this; and for this experience, for Embry, and for Andrew and Karen and for Jessica and Peter and for Jasper, Jo, Sadie, and Parker, I am profoundly grateful. This was for me a true “Last Hurrah Cruise,” one that I will cherish as long as I live. Of the hundreds of cruises that Embry and I have made, literally all over the planet, because of the fabulous Howell/Ellis crew of 2022, this ranks right up there at the top.  Thank you!









The Last Hurrah: Cruising the BVIs for the Last Time

Part One: Getting There

For those who know me, I suspect that most know that for most of my adult life I have been an avid sailor. Embry and I have owned five sailboats starting in 1974 with a beat up, 16-foot racing boat that sank in the Potomac River on the Fourth of July that year with Embry, me, and our friend, Naomi, aboard. In the fall of 2021, we sold our last boat, a 39-foot cruising sailboat, “Second Wind.” We have enjoyed racing (I more than Embry) and cruising—mainly in the Chesapeake—and have chartered sailboats in the British Virgin Islands many times and in other faraway waters like the Bahamas, the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, the San Juan Islands, and Tahiti. I estimate that I have raced in over 600 races starting in the early 70s, and Embry and I have cruised on the Chesapeake, anchoring in over 80 different places. It has been, as they say, a great run.

Two years ago, when it was becoming evident that as I approached 80, I did not have a lot of sailing days left, I decided it would be a great idea to charter a boat for a week of sailing in my favorite cruising grounds, the British Virgin Islands. I billed this as our “Last Hurrah” cruise with both of our children, their spouses, and our four grandchildren, ages 11-15 at the time. When we booked the cruise in the summer of 2020 for Christmas week, we had no idea that the hideous covid virus would still be with us but forged ahead anyway. Sure enough, days before our scheduled departure, our son-in-law, Peter, came down with a bad covid case, which he then passed on to others in his family. We cancelled, dodged that bullet, and immediately rescheduled for the next year. However, in 2021 covid was still a grave concern. We cancelled again. I was distraught. Embry encouraged me to try one more time, which I did for Christmas week 2022, our third and final try. By this time, I had already celebrated my eightieth birthday, and our grandchildren were all teenagers. A fourth try was not in the cards.

You can imagine my excitement as the Christmas holidays got closer. I was feverishly checking on all the arrangements—taxis to pick us up at the airport on Beef Island in the BVIs and take us to the marina in Road Town, a food, beverages, and supplies order for 10 hungry sailors for eight days, and a kayak and a paddle board for exploring anchorages and to facilitate on shore adventures. Our son, Andrew, and his wife, Karen, would be flying from Newark with their two children, Sadie (14) and Parker(13), and our daughter, Jessica, and her husband, Peter, would be driving down from their home in Maine to New Jersey with their two children, Jasper(17), and Jo(15), and then flying with the Andrew’s family to San Juan followed by a connecting short flight to the BVIs. Our flight was from Dulles arriving in San Juan about the same time where we also had reservations on a connecting puddle jumper. We would take a taxi together, board the boat around five and go out for a celebratory dinner at the Sunsail base restaurant. We would get everything put away the next morning on the 51-foot sloop I had reserved and would set sail around lunch time for a fabulous week of family camaraderie, fresh breezes, sunny skies, and drop-dead natural beauty. I had done this trip well over a dozen times without a hitch. I could not believe that finally, finally this was going to happen.

We were set to depart from Dulles Airport at nine in the morning on Christmas Eve, which would put us in the BVIs around five in the afternoon on a short connecting flight from San Juan. Two days before Christmas all the news was about the huge snowstorm with record low temperatures pounding the Midwest and headed toward the East. Then came the news about thousands of flight cancellations, which I did not pay much attention to because the storm was going to miss us, and I surmised that our United flight was a kind of daily shuttle between San Juan and Washington. That is why I was stunned to see the “flight cancelled” warning pop up on the screen when we were getting our boarding passes. What? This had to be a mistake! Yes, the vast departure lobby was in a state of chaos, but surely these unfortunate fliers were headed north or west, not to the south. This could not be accurate. Seeing my distress, an attendant appeared, assured me that it actually was accurate and whisked us along with several dozen other distressed passengers to the United international desk where we were the fifth or sixth in a line that was growing by the minute. I felt my heart sink. Embry, always the stalwart, cheerfully assured me that we could get down there on another flight, and we had a 3-hour layover in San Juan, plenty of time to make the connecting flight to the BVIs.

The next hour we spent talking with the agent, a somewhat rattled woman with a strong foreign accent, who I assumed would rebook us on another flight. Every option she checked was either full or cancelled. She checked United flights to Puerto Rico from Denver, Chicago, and Houston. She looked at flights on other airlines—American, Delta and others. Nothing. She then said that the best that we could hope for was a late flight on the 28th allowing us to get to the BVIs on the 29th. Following my vigorous protests, she said something to the effect of “Mr. Howell, what is it that you do not understand about the fact that there is no way you can get to the BVIs until later in the week?” She then cancelled the reservations—including the return flights—and asked us to leave so she could help others, apologizing for the “inconvenience.”

We were doomed. The Last Hurrah would not happen. I retreated to a chair, sat down, and glumly called Andrew with the bad news. Embry suddenly disappeared.

Andrew reported that their flight was on schedule to take off soon and that he would look for other options for us. Both Andrew and Jessica had some sailing experience, and I thought probably could handle the cruise without Embry and me, but it could be a bit of a challenge and surely would not be the same.

And where was Embry during this dark night of the soul? She suddenly reappeared announcing that she had just booked a United flight to Boston, leaving in about 45 minutes, and the next morning a Jet Blue flight to San Juan and a new connecting flight to the BVIs, getting us there at six in the evening. She had also booked a room at the Logan Airport Hilton. No worries. We would only be a day late.

Eureka! The Last Hurrah was on again. Except we only had 45 minutes to get to the United flight to Boston. We raced to the security area and charged to the gate barely making it before the doors closed. Embry then mentioned that we got the two remaining seats on the plane and also the last two seats on the Jet Blue flight the next day and on the connecting flight to the BVIs.

Good heavens!

It was a long trudge to the Hilton, but it turned out to be a pleasant evening. Except for distressed passengers the place was like a tomb, but there were plenty of distressed passengers waiting in line to get into the bar/restaurant. Most seemed to be trying to make the best of their ruined holiday. We opted to forget the restaurant and go straight to the bar where we could also order food, which turned out to be surprisingly good. That evening I was finally able to feel relaxed and optimistic about our prospects.

The next morning we boarded the Jet Blue flight, which was on time and would get us to San Juan with two hours to spare for making the connecting flight. I breathed a sigh of relief.

 At last, I was certain we would make it. I had a window seat right behind the wing and noticed a large stack of luggage sitting at the base of the machine that loads the bags into the plane. When the plane did not move from the gate after 15 or 20 minutes, the pilot came on the loudspeaker and announced that we would take off shortly once all the bags were loaded and wished everyone a happy holiday. I suddenly remembered it was Christmas Day.

I then glanced out the window to observe that the bags had not moved, and no human was to be seen. Oh well, I thought, nothing to worry about. We have two hours to make the connecting flight, plenty of time. Fifteen minutes later I glanced out the window again. No progress. I then began the exercise of looking out the window every five minutes or so. Some guy showed up, lit a cigarette and then left. I looked at my watch. An hour had passed. Still time to make the connection, but now I was starting to get nervous and could feel anxiety coming on. It was not until almost two hours had passed that the bags got loaded and the plane took off. Doomed again! Embry was sitting near the front of the plane and I near the back, so we could not confer.

When we landed and I finally stumbled out of the plane into the boarding area, Embry was not there. I figured she would show up eventually and sat down in a state of despair. In about twenty minutes, my cell phone rang. It was Embry, who reported that she was at the gate of the connecting flight demanding that they hold the flight for us, but they refused and had just closed the doors. Good for her, I thought, the lady never gives up, but what to do next?

What we did next was go to a hotel near the airport for the night and try to figure this out. Except for no sheets on the bed, the room was not so bad. When Embry complained to the lady at the front desk, she gave us another room, which was so much smaller and less desirable that Embry took the sheets off the beds in that room, and we put them on our beds.

The challenge now was how to get to the airport serving Tortola, the largest and most populated island in the BVIs and where the charter fleets were all located. Embry was at it again trying to book a connecting flight, only to find that all connecting flights for the rest of the week were full. I was ready to call it quits. Good idea, nice try, but getting to the BVIs was just not in the cards. No Last Hurrah for us.

I called Andrew to give him the bad news. The Howell family crew had landed on time, boarded the charter boat, and was heading out for dinner. He said not to give up and that he would figure something out. Fat chance, I thought.

Then my cellphone rang again. Andrew confirmed that there was no way for us to get to Tortola this week, but there was a way to get to the BVIs. We could fly to the airport on Virgin Gorda, the other large island, about 10 miles from the marina. They could sail and meet us there. Two remaining seats were available on a connecting flight leaving around eleven in the morning, which would get us there around noon, about the time that they should arrive. I told him to book it. He called back to report he had succeeded. Last Hurrah on again!

Then I thought, Virgin Gorda has an airport?

We boarded the small plane on time the next day, along with the pilot and six other passengers. We were all asked about our weight and seated so that the weight would be evenly distributed. Embry and I were seated on the front row, right behind the pilot, a late 40-something  guy, who seemed to be all business. The flight would take about 45 minutes. Off we went. At last, this cruise of a lifetime would happen after all.

On the way over, clouds began to gather and showers were evident though showers in the BVIs are always short-lived, and you almost always can see blue sky. I could not help wondering how you could build an airport on a volcanic island where there were few flat spots. As we got closer the clouds thickened and the plane began to jump around. At points the visibility approached zero. I scanned the instruments on the panel and could not see anything resembling a GPS or radar. The pilot would be flying blind if the clouds continued. As we got closer, an opening in the clouds briefly appeared, and I looked down to see what I presumed was the runway—a narrow dirt road of maybe 200 yards situated between the ocean and a steep mountain. There were no shoulders and no room for error. Only a single, one-story structure was adjacent to the runway, and it did not look anything like a control tower. The pilot had to nail the landing, or it would be curtains. I was wondering how much experience this guy had as he looked left and then right trying to figure out where the airport was.

Then suddenly the clouds parted. The pilot spotted the airport, turned the plane and headed down. He had to clear one large hill, then swoop down, steady the plane and land. Two or three yards off center would mean crashing into a mountain or ending up in the Caribbean Sea. I held my breath and crossed my fingers.

The plane steadied and hit the runway perfectly. I let out my breath and was ready to clap when he gunned the motor and took off again. Good heavens, I thought, what is going on?

He turned to me and said, “Airport closed.”

This was the point I considered changing the name of the cruise from “Last Hurrah” to “Last Gasp.” 

What? How can you close an airport when there really is no airport? Who said the airport was closed anyway? Just then a big gust hit, and visibility was zero again.

He turned his head toward the passengers and said he had about 45 minutes to land before running out of fuel and that he would keep trying until that became an issue. In all he made five more efforts to land the plane, taking at least a half hour and getting dangerously close to the fuel desperation point. Three of those were abandoned early in the descent due to cloud cover. On one approach, the clouds parted, and he cleared the hill and touched down perfectly as he had done the first time, then screamed “Oh my God, shit!” powered up and took off again. After we were clear of everything, he turned to me and said, “Three dogs on the runway, I will call and see if somebody can run them off.”

 I had noticed that a large truck with “Emergency Rescue” painted on the side was at the end of the runway with staff waiting.

Nail biting time.

But he did land the plane on the final try. Everyone on the plane applauded, and I patted him on the back. Had we not been able to land, I am not sure what he would have done, probably try to land at the big airport serving Tortola.

We had finally arrived in the BVIs, three days late, emotional wrecks, exhausted, and ready for the Last Hurrah to begin.