They’ll be home for Christmas, and not just in their dreams.
Christmas Eve Eve found the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport full of happy anticipation. There are two kinds of towns at holiday time – the towns people leave and the towns they come home to. We are in the latter category.
“Please have snow, and mistletoe, and presents under the tree,” the song goes. This year, Buffalo didn’t deliver the snow. But two out of three ain’t bad, judging from the delight Adrienne Keck showed, flying in from Anchorage, Alaska.
“It’s 15 degrees there,” she said.
No one else, from either here or there, seemed married to the idea of a white Christmas.
Ed Rak, of Dunkirk, said the recent dusting of lake-effect snow had been enough to allow a 14-year-old grandson, who just flew in from South Carolina with his dad, to go sledding. Now that the snow had melted, there was new happiness in store: the arrival of more family members. Another son was flying in from Texas. And another son was driving to Buffalo.
“I’m going to have them all here,” he beamed. “I’m getting up in age, and I wanted to get everyone together one more time. And if we do it again after that, that’s fine.”
This Christmas season is a busy one for travel, according to the local branch of AAA.
Gas prices, AAA reported, have fallen to under $2 a gallon. That would boost car travel. And a lot of expat Buffalonians were expected to fly home, thanks to our relatively small and manageable airport.
“December 20 through 26 is our busy time, with December 23 and 24 being the busiest,” said Doug Hartmayer, spokesman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, in a statement. “We expect 14,000 passengers coming in and out of the airport daily – totaling nearly 100,000 people in just seven days.”
On the morning of Dec. 23, the Christmas crush was not immediately in evidence. Larry Zajac, driving a parking shuttle, welcomed a lone passenger with a smile and a shrug. He has seen busy holiday seasons, he said, and this is not one of them.
“Normally, this place would be humming. I’m going to say it’s 50 percent down,” he said. He thought the economy was a reason. It could be, too, that more people are taking advantage of lower gas prices, and driving instead of flying.
Whatever the numbers, the airport was full of emotion.
On the lower level, Lauretta Hersh of Salamanca awaited the flight from New York City that was to deliver her son, Deon Oliverio.
She studied the arrival boards. What was the flight number?
“Well, that’s the problem. I don’t know,” she confessed. “And his cellphone is broken.”
She wasn’t worried. This year beat last year, when Oliverio – who works in the Big Apple as a waiter and a performer in musical theater – took a bus and hit a snag.
“The bus broke down. He was stranded for six hours by the side of the road,” she said. “So he said, never again.”
Right outside the barber shop, Kristin Garro and her mother, Lisa Hall, stood surrounded by children, signs and balloons. The North Tonawanda family was anxiously awaiting the arrival of Kristin’s brother, Marine Cpl. Alex Hall. He had been deployed in the Middle East and was due in on a flight from San Diego, Calif.
He had been gone since April. Garro said that her three children, Leyla, Diem and Mason, were so young that they could scarcely picture him. Mason was tearing around shouting and laughing.
“He’s super happy and excited,” his mother said. “This morning I told him, ‘You’ve got to calm down.’”
Nearby, another family awaited another Marine. Brett and Karen Skeels, of Cattaraugus, were joyously keeping an eye out for their son Kodie. He was flying in from Camp Geiger, N.C. He is a newly minted Marine, not yet deployed, his parents explained.
Hall’s homecoming was particularly heartrending. Silently, he scooped up the children, one after another, and held them close. For a wordless span of time, the family gathered in a huddle.
Happily, the expats arrived, more or less on schedule. It was yet one more advantage to the snow-less season: fewer flight delays.
The reunions were all the more moving considering the number of similar scenes that took place all day, as Western New Yorkers welcomed their loved ones home.
Even the airport staffers notice it. Outside, Charles T. Evans Sr., walkie-talkie to his ear, was coordinating shuttle service.
Evans, who is originally from Georgia but married a Buffalo woman, was about to celebrate his 83rd birthday. He added that he planned to celebrate by going to church with his family and giving thanks for his blessings.
Among those blessings are this season, and his opportunity to be in the middle of it.
“I enjoy this,” he said. “It’s wonderful to see people coming home to visit. It’s amazing. It’s an amazing time.”