A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


It was our problem. Our issue. Our business. But somebody – a total stranger, if you can believe it – decided to stick their nose into it.

And I’d just like to say thanks.

We were traveling as a family group – my wife, Anita, her parents and her brother and his wife – and were trying to find a place to sit during a long layover at a busy airport. Brent (Anita’s brother), who logs more business flight time than Superman, was leading us to an area where he figured we could find a bench or two for us and our luggage. We dutifully followed him down the airport escalator, with me – as always – bringing up the rear (I don’t know why I am always last in line; I think it has something to do with being the youngest of eight children and always being told by my mother that “last is best of all the game” – whatever that means).

We were gliding toward the bottom of the long escalator when I noticed a commotion ahead. As Brent reached the floor below, his sandal somehow became wedged in the collapsible escalator stairs. He struggled to pull away from the mechanical teeth that were chewing up his sandal, and in his struggle he lost his balance and fell back onto his father, who was standing right behind him on the still-moving escalator. Immediately my father-in-law was involved in the same struggle against the suddenly menacing metallic monster, which now was chomping on one of his shoes as well as Brent’s sandal, and he fell back against his wife.

The moment is still frozen vividly in my mind. Here at the tail end of a wonderful trip together, we were about to be eaten alive by a mechanical conveyance. Everything seemed to move in horrifyingly slow motion as we all tried to quickly understand what was happening and determine an appropriate response. Should we jump over the handrail to the floor 20 feet below? Should we leap down the escalator and try to free Brent and his father and risk making things worse (I have this big, clumsy body and no mechanical ability – believe me, I know all about making things worse)? Should we start running against the crowd back up the escalator?

I was still working numbly through the possibilities – the perfect response finally hit me about 15 minutes later – when a sound caught my attention. At first I thought it was the toothy, motorized beast snarling as it continued to chew away at shoes and pull a full load of dazed travelers inextricably toward its brutal steel jaws. Then I realized it was a cry – not a full-blown scream, but clearly a call for help – coming from my mother-in-law, who was absorbing the brunt of the predicament, stretched out as she was on the escalator steps with her husband, her son and a few odd pieces of luggage piling on top of her.

I reached out for Anita, who was next in line behind her mother and was about to be drawn into the rapidly escalating (if you’ll pardon the expression) crisis, just as the escalator stopped. We moved quickly to get everyone up and off the machine. For the next hour we dealt with the aftermath – filling out reports, working with technicians to free one sandal and one shoe from the escalator’s “jaws of death,” and a much-needed visit with airport paramedics for Anita’s mother. Things were just beginning to calm down when I asked my father-in-law, who understands all things mechanical, if the jammed footwear had forced the escalator to shut down.

“No,” he said. “Somebody must have hit the emergency ‘off’ button.”

An emergency “off” button? I had seen them on other escalators before, but I hadn’t noticed one on this particular escalator.

“It’s a good thing, too,” Anita’s father continued, “because we were about a second away from real serious problems.” He glanced at his wife, who was badly cut and bruised during the incident (and who, truth be told, is still suffering with some back problems as a result of the experience), and then back at me. “I hate to think what might have happened if that escalator had been going for even another two or three seconds, with people and suitcases piling up…”

I didn’t want to think about it, either. But I do want to think about that stranger who had the presence of mind to push the panic button. What are the odds of having the perfect person – someone who was aware of what was going on around them and knew exactly what to do in a moment of alarm – in the perfect position at the perfect time? How grateful we are as a family for our escalator angel, an everyday hero who was willing to get involved in our problem.

Thank you, whoever you are. Feel free to stick your nose into our business anytime.

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— © Joseph Walker

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