Spirits lift off as ailing kids head toward North Pole

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
Three-year-old Izzy Caudill, of Milan, and her mom, Stephanie Caudill, prepare to board their flight to the North Pole.

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 carols while they danced in the aisle of a Delta Airlines 757. Of course Santa Claus would be waiting in the 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 Izzy'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.

Three-year-old Melody Runions of Tayor dances with Paws before boarding her flight to the North Pole.

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 6-year-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 long-time 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.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn