Don Gleason still on the go after all these years

Gleason in a current photo of him sailing

In 1985 I was stranded on an island in the Pacific Ocean, and a man named Don Gleason from McComb bailed me out.

But since he was the one who got me stranded in the first place, I guess it sort of evened out.

Don owned Rainbow Travel International, which was the place to buy airplane tickets around here back in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Now 65 and living in Orlando, Fla., he passed through McComb on Tuesday and we met for lunch — first time I’d seen him since he left here in 1988.

Don was on his way to Belhaven University to record lectures for a bachelor’s degree curriculum he designed on the hospitality industry, which gives a hint as to how far he’s traveled from his McComb days.

In 1985 I went to Rainbow Travel and bought a round-trip plane ticket to Papua New Guinea, where I planned to do some wilderness trekking with an old missionary friend of mine. The itinerary routed me through the tiny island of Guam for an overnight stay.

I arrived there in the morning and caught a cab to a hotel. Later I called the airline desk to confirm my flight the next morning, only to hear a woman utter words I have never forgotten: “There is no flight from Guam to New Guinea.”

I explained that I had the ticket in my hand, but she was adamant. There were no flights from Guam to New Guinea, period, ever.

I hung up, stunned.

Stranded on Guam.

It’s not a bad place to be, mind you. The scene of fighting in World War II, by 1985 it was a major destination for Japanese tourists and, with miles of beaches and lovely green hills, a great place to relax — at least under ordinary circumstances, which these were not.

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I called Don, waking him up in the early morning hours, McComb time.

I didn’t know what to expect. Would he say, “Sorry, that’s between you and South Pacific Island Airways”?

To the contrary, he stepped up to the plate without hesitation. Apparently some rogue operator from the airline had sold him a bogus ticket.

Don routed me through Manila for another overnight stay and ate the $1,000 cost, which he would never be able to recover since to do so would involve international litigation.

I arrived at Manila about the time people were rioting in the streets burning Uncle Sam in effigy as they protested U.S. support for their dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. I entered a warehouse-like airport guarded by soldiers with sunglasses and rifles. Beyond was a seething mass of humanity. As an obvious American, I figured I’d be torn limb from limb.

Sure enough, when I passed through customs, two men accosted me, demanding to know if I had hotel reservations. Of course I didn’t, so I figured I’d probably be arrested on the spot.

Instead, one of them said, “Come to Hotel Tropical Paradise. For you we make special deal, $25 a night.”

They took me to a palatial resort hotel and served as my buddies and tour guides, even getting me on the flight the next day to New Guinea. So my misadventure turned out all right after all.

Even so, I bought Don’s lunch Tuesday as a token payment on the $1,000.

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Don was born in Chicago, raised in Arizona and went to school at Louisiana State University, where he was involved in Young Life campus ministry. He was hired as youth director at J.J. White Memorial Presbyterian Church in McComb, where his duties included arranging group ski trips and similar excursions.

But with a wife and children, he needed more income. Spurred by his travel-arranging experiences, he decided to become a travel agent. Eventually he opened Rainbow Travel in the late ’70s. I met him in 1981 when I bought tickets for my first trip to Papua New Guinea.

Don was always on the go. He acted in Pike County Little Theatre, played tennis, sailed and traveled. He expanded his agency into surrounding towns.

In 1988 he sold out and moved to Gulfport, where he continued to work in the travel industry. In 1991 he went to work for Disney and in 1998 became president of Universal City Travel Co. for Universal Studios Florida in Orlando. Later he worked for Apartment Life ministry, also serving on the board for Belhaven for 20 years.

He’s a business consultant, helping companies figure out how to improve their efficiency. He’s also busy sailing, boat-building and teaching sailing.

The travel industry has changed a lot since the 1980s. Back then, airlines paid agents commissions on ticket sales. When that ended, agencies shifted their focus to group trips, cruises and tour packages.

Don and I have changed a bit in the past 30-plus years as well. Our hair has gotten a touch grayer, and possibly thinner on top. But we’re still on the go — hopefully without getting stranded.

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