Lifelong Lessons from an Overnight at the L.A. Airport, Alone, at Age 13

Reading, eating, meeting strangers -- and even a celebrity.

Enjoy this childhood story from Let Grow supporter Robin J. Phillips , who remains pretty proud of her resourceful 13-year-old self (pictured). Robin says confidence is a muscle – it grows stronger as you use it.

By Robin Phillips

When I was young, my Mom worked for Frontier Airlines. She worked her way up to an executive secretary in the C-suite, never called in sick, and because of employee passes that came with her job, she was able to take us on trips. I’ve always told friends that, as a single mother of four kids, Mom couldn’t give us much, but she gave us the world.

Mom was our tour guide most of the time. I remember in my teens going to St. Louis to climb the Arch and visit the zoo, to Phoenix in winter to play in the sun, and to Paris. A younger brother and I flew on our own from Denver to Cheyenne for a weekend with our grandmother. But then there was one trip on my own that I remember being full of adventure.

Mom put me on a flight to Honolulu where my Dad lived. I had to change planes in Los Angeles, but we’d done that before. My bag would be sent along. I had my pass and ID and some money. I was 13.

But because Hawaii is a popular destination and I was on a ‘stand-by’ pass, I got bumped off the next leg of my flight in L.A. There were no more flights that night, but they said I had a pretty good chance to get a seat on the first flight out the next morning.

That’s OK, I thought. I’ll spend the night in the airport.

Making a plan–and the most of the night

You might be thinking that this was long ago when Los Angeles International Airport was much safer than today. It was 1969, but I don’t know if things were much different then as they would be now for a confident, resourceful, level-headed 13-year-old spending the night in the airport.

I had strategies for that night:

  • The first thing I did was buy a Sunday newspaper. They were huge back then and I knew reading it would help me eat up some time.
  • I people-watched. At one point, a friendly man walking by veered over, shook my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Ron Isely of the Isley Brothers. You are the only one here who smiled at me.”
  • I sat at the counter in a diner, eating a sandwich and nursing a Coke. A man sitting next to me seemed concerned that I was on my own. He asked if I was staying in the airport because I didn’t have enough money for a hotel. I assured him that wasn’t the case. I knew this encounter might have raised a red flag, but I felt no bad vibes off this man who told me to be careful and left.
  • Since my Dad was in the Air Force, I had a military dependent’s ID card. I used that to get into the USO lounge where I hung out with soldiers and sailors heading out to Vietnam.
  • My three new Navy friends showed me how to camp out comfortably on an empty bench and hold onto my backpack and purse so they would be safe.

Lasting lessons from my younger self

I made it through that night. And five decades later, I am pretty proud of my 13-year-old self. I enthusiastically took on the challenge of riding out the layover in the airport, in part, because my Mom had already helped me be pretty independent. Then acting on that independence, turning the night into a fun and safe adventure, just reinforced my confidence.  

The next morning, I made my way to the gate and caught my flight to Honolulu. I don’t know if I ever really told my parents about all that happened that night. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal at the time. I was, after all, just another confident, resourceful, level-headed 13-year-old doing what needed to be done during a hiccup in her travel plans.

More than 50 years on, it seems like a very big deal.

Robin today