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Clear for departure

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In the fall of 1973, my parents got caught up in another conflict between Syria and Israel.

My father's congregation in central Pennsylvania gave them a Mediterranean cruise and a trip to the Holy Land as a thank you for a decade of service. They arrived in the Middle East just as the Yom Kippur War began. Sailing from Cyprus to Tel Aviv, their ship was seized and redirected into a Syrian harbor.

Officially, they were welcome to leave any time; however, the harbormaster was "too busy" to safely guide them through the mines protecting the port. The boatload of tourists sat amid Soviet freighters that unloaded tanks and other weaponry. After 72 hours of increasing diplomatic pressure, the ship was released. As they sailed into the west, my parents watched Israeli fighter jets scream in and bomb the harbor. My parents never made it to Jerusalem.

The tour group flew back to the States, landing in Detroit amid a flurry of media. My parents were supposed to catch a connecting flight the next day through Washington, D.C., but upon calling home to let everyone know they were OK, my dad learned that his father had just been rushed to Harrisburg Hospital with severe chest pains. Doctors found an aortic aneurysm and planned to operate.

Frantically, they checked for a direct flight to Harrisburg. The only one on the schedule left in a few minutes. My parents didn't own a credit card, so a friend used his to book the flight. My dad got the last seat on the plane. Airport personnel cleared a path for him, and he made it just as the door closed. My father got to the hospital 20 minutes before my grandfather went into surgery and talked with him right up until they put my grandfather under.

He didn't survive the operation.

When they told my brother and me what happened, they described that mad dash as a miracle, believing God had lined up everything to get my dad home. Whether you called it divine intervention, serendipity or luck, it was a good story. My parents would eventually make it back to the Middle East. Their aborted voyage drove their interest in the region, and they essentially became professional pilgrims, taking groups to the Holy Land dozens of times over the next three decades.

My father is 83 now, and his health is declining. In mid-April, my brother called: "You need to get up here now." Dad had been in Harrisburg Hospital since late February, and several post-op infections left him weak. I booked the next flight to Baltimore, where my brother would meet me and drive us to Pennsylvania. I set out to RDU but forgot to factor in rush-hour traffic. A massive storm was moving in from the Midwest, too, and authorities had just closed Boston airports because of the marathon bombing. As I sat in traffic, I thought of my dad's wild ride home from Detroit.

While waiting for the parking shuttle, I realized it had to arrive in the next two minutes in order for me to make my flight. Just then, the bus came around the bend. The rays of the setting sun caught the driver, a large blonde woman wearing a broad white blouse. She looked like an angel on top of a Christmas tree. I made it to the gate as boarding began.

As we taxied to the runway, I could see the edge of the storm in the west. The plane pivoted. The sun broke through the clouds. The intercom clicked: "Clear for departure."

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