Last weekend I gave a talk at the National Youth Science Camp, which is at beautiful Camp Pocahontas in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia. I attended the camp the year I graduated from high school, and worked there the following year, but this was the first time I had been back since then. More than anything else, I was surprised by how little had changed.
Every year the campers are different–each state sends two delegates who have just graduated high school–and yet as a group they reminded me very much of the campers from my year. I can describe them in just four words: nerds who play frisbee. Since that description also suits me, I fit right in, just as I did back when I was a camper.
I presented my lecture, with the topic Math and Music*, on Saturday morning. The Friday evening and Saturday evening lectures were also about math, so I think we might have overloaded the campers just a little bit. I think that my talk was well-received, especially because many of the campers are also musicians. I’m afraid that I disappointed the people with my answer of “no” when they asked if I was a musician.
Although the camp itself is peaceful and bucolic, getting there and getting home were both adventures. I flew into Lewisburg, but had to wait for several hours to pick up the Friday evening lecturer, Denny. His flight was delayed in part due to a power outage that struck much of the town, including the airport, which inexplicably didn’t have a backup generator. Our driver from there to camp was Dave, Saturday evening’s lecturer, and also a long-time presenter at and supporter of the camp, and we talked mostly math for the whole drive.
I was supposed to fly out of Washington, DC on Sunday, which is also where Dave had to return the car, so we were again traveling companions. Our drive was pleasant and speedy, because Sunday morning is the one time when there’s no traffic on that route. The time passed even more quickly because of the interesting conversation–yes, more math, but this time mixed with pedagogy.
Once I got to the airport, things changed. I checked in and headed to my terminal, which seemed extremely busy. I was there early and stood by for an earlier flight, but just missed out. The gate agent called the only name ahead of me on the standby list, but he didn’t immediately show up. She waited just a moment, then started to struggle through my name. Before I could stand up to claim my spot, the other guy walked up to the gate and claimed the seat.
When it was time for my flight to board, the agent announced that they would need about fifteen volunteers to take a later flight, which seemed like an unusually large number. I was by myself, and the compensation they offered was pretty good, so I called Jenny and decided to take the bump. I tried to get a free internet voucher in the deal, but ended up with meal vouchers instead. Jenny had packed food for me, and I still had lots of it left, so I didn’t appreciate the vouchers at first. But during that long day in the terminal I emptied my lunch bag, and still needed dinner, so I was glad I had them.
Throughout the afternoon, the terminal got more and more busy. There were definitely more people trying to leave than there were planes to accommodate them. I couldn’t find a place to sit anywhere near my gate, and retreated down the hallway for some peace. Later, as my rescheduled flight approached, I went back to the gate area only to find that it would be delayed by an hour. A customer service agent told me that with that delay I could probably still make my connection, but the delay just kept lengthening and soon I realized that the connecting flight would take off long before I arrived.
By this time, there were no more agents working on rebooking in the terminal. Along with others in my position, I was told to go to the main desk at the front of the airport. It too was understaffed, but after a lengthy wait, the booking agent worked some magic. He realized that if I ran, I could make it onto a different flight that had also suffered delays, and would possibly allow me to connect in Atlanta. I raced back to the gate, through what was now a thick crowd of people all trying to get to Atlanta. Order had broken down, and the gate agents had resorted to yelling the names on the manifest to let them know they were cleared to board. My name was the second to last one on the list, but I was glad to hear it.
Once in the air, we suffered an additional delay because of a thunderstorm that had parked over the Atlanta airport. I was worried that I would miss my connection, and upon landing called Jenny. She checked the flight online and found that it had also been delayed. With renewed hope, I raced from one end of the terminal to the other, only to find that there was still plenty of time. Regardless, I was glad to settle into my seat.
Even though I didn’t get home until after midnight, I was extremely grateful to be home. I had missed Jenny and Elena, so it was wonderful to be back with them. Next year at this time we’ll be within driving distance of camp, so I hope I am invited back and can convince Jenny to drive out there with me.
*These slides contain embedded audio, which may only be audible if you use the official Acrobat Reader.