SPIR­ITS LIFT OFF AS AIL­ING KIDS HEAD TO NORTH POLE

The Detroit News - - News - BY NEAL RUBIN The Detroit News

At a point in her life when faith comes nat­u­rally, Izzy Caudill of Mi­lan took a trip to the North Pole Fri­day morn­ing from Detroit Metropoli­tan Air­port.

Izzy is 3 years old, she’s had two op­er­a­tions on her brain tu­mor, and she takes a 1-inch nee­dle in her chest like a champ ev­ery week.

From where she sits in her tiny wheel­chair, of course grown-up elves would sing Christ­mas carthe while they danced in the aisle of a Delta Air­lines 757. Of course Santa Claus would be wait­ing in ter­mi­nal. Of course the chemo is only a tem­po­rary in­con­ve­nience.

Of course, 57 ail­ing kids would walk, roll or be car­ried onto the 33rd an­nual Flight to the North Pole, to be art­fully and lov­ingly de­ceived into an ex­pe­ri­ence some of them might not re­mem­ber but their par­ents will never for­get.

“She’s been scream­ing to her brother, ‘I’m go­ing on a plane. I’m go­ing to the North Pole,’” said Izols

zy’s mom, Stephanie.

Then the mo­ment ar­rived, and it turned out she was fright­ened by the over­sized mas­cots help­ing to greet the guests — Sparty, Paws, Roary, Hooper, the EMU ea­gle, a 7-foot-tall ar­madillo in a cow­boy hat from Texas Road­house.

The Shrine clowns de­lighted her, though, and there was a gift bag at check-in fol­lowed by more presents at a party later, and she un­der­stood the part a 3-year-old needed to.

“Santa’s there,” she said.

The flight is pro­duced ev­ery year by the lo­cal chap­ter of the Sil­ver­lin­ers, the alumni as­so­ci­a­tion for East­ern Air­lines flight at­ten­dants. East­ern went un­der in 1991 and the Mo­town con­tin­gent is down to six mem­bers, but they get help from a wide as­sort­ment of be­liev­ers, start­ing with the air­port and Delta.

Event chair Madge McGoorty flew for the orig­i­nal East­ern in the 1950s, un­til she mar­ried and the air­line made her quit. She’s the one who checked with so­cial work­ers from seven lo­cal hospi­tals who checked with doc­tors who checked with par­ents, search­ing for 3-to-8-year-olds who were sick enough to need a lift, yet well enough to take part.

Some of the kids wore sur­gi­cal masks. All of them wore smiles.

“We broke her out of the hos­pi­tal last night,” said Kent But­ler of Bev­erly Hills, es­cort­ing 6year-old Carter. She’d just had her last treat­ment for leukemia, “and she had a flight to catch.”

The kids and par­ents checked in at a Delta ticket stand, took their shoes off at the se­cu­rity sta­tion, and waited for their flight at gate A38. The Shriners handed out long, skinny bal­loons, which im­me­di­ately be­came swords.

Two han­dlers from Home­land Se­cu­rity stopped by with dogs wear­ing signs that read: “Do not pet.” The kids ig­nored or were too young to read the signs, and nei­ther dogs nor han­dlers ob­jected.

Aboard the plane, flight at­ten­dants ex­plained that the win­dows needed to re­main shut be­cause the lo­ca­tion of Santa’s work­shop is a se­cret. The pilot drove around for a while, parked while the kids ate lunch, and gave sta­tus re­ports about weather and al­ti­tude: “Hold­ing steady at 35,000 feet.”

The kids didn’t know that what felt like a wind-whipped ar­rival was or­ches­trated by an ex­pe­ri­enced flier pump­ing the brakes. They didn’t know the event’s long­time Santa called in sick at 5 a.m., and that re­place­ment Dan Myska of Brighton was plucked from a Ford plant.

UAW Lo­cal 900 signed off on his de­par­ture, said Myska, 66. “Then I walked into work and the boss said, ‘Go.’”

He’s a pro­fes­sional Santa, mean­ing he owns his cos­tume and his beard is real. He greeted the kids one-by-one as they left the plane, com­pil­ing a per­fect record of will­ing hugs.

Cell phone cam­eras flashed. Parental tears were wiped away. Rita Wesol of Troy smiled.

Wesol, 67, made the flight with her 3-year-old, Ryan, 29 years ago. He died five months later, but she and her hus­band Bernie vol­un­teered Fri­day be­cause the loss isn’t the part they want to cling to.

“You don’t have many happy days when your kid is di­ag­nosed with cancer,” she said. Those days lead­ing up to the flight, though, when “he was so happy, he just glowed”?

“Those are the me­mories you cher­ish,” Wesol said. Those are the mo­ments to re­store your child­like faith.

Pho­tos by Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News

Kent But­ler of Bev­erly Hills with daugh­ter Carter, one of 57 young­sters set to take the 33rd an­nual Flight to the North Pole from Metro air­port.

The flight in­for­ma­tion is posted at gate 38 for the flight that takes kids to meet Santa Claus.

Melody Ru­nions, 3, meets Tigers mas­cot Paws be­fore the flight, which is pro­duced by a lo­cal alumni chap­ter of East­ern flight at­ten­dants.

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