Nothing is more dismal than an airport in the rain. Few of them are miracles of art; but the dismality of airports transcends aesthetic failure. It is founded on the deepest fear of childhood -- I will never get home again! -- a fear that wonderfully combines the irrational with the practical: It is a fact, and not a hypothesis, that at no major airport do airplanes leave less than an hour late during precipitation.

The one we're now waiting for at LaGuardia certainly shows no signs of leaving. Add darkness, wet, and low barometric pressure, and human emotions would riot even in cheerful surroundings. LGA in the rain is nobody's idea of cheerful. And Chicago still to pass through!

At times like these, the only refuge is self-delusion. "Well, okay -- in the rain, airplanes never leave LGA less than an hour late. And yes, it's true that it's raining in Chicago. (In recent times, ORD may have saved more souls than the ministrations of the church: 'Rain in Chicago!') But we are not unprepared. We are the masters of our fate. We will arrive, if not on time, then at least in comfort; for we have in our briefcase an ace in the hole, squirreled away for times like this -- a First-Class Upgrade, good at any time on Erewhon Airlines."

Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make crazy.

I step confidently to the check-in counter at the gate, my salvation in my hand.

"Could you get me into first?"

The gate attendant smiles. (Obviously, she has just moved to New York, probably from Wisconsin.) She is kind. She is sympathetic. She says, "I'll put you on my list, sir." She says this the way a hangman says, "Watch the trap, sir. It's a bit sticky this morning."

"How long is your list?"

"Right now I have 13 names. You're my lucky number."

"And how many seats in first class?"

"Well, there are 12 on the airplane. But it was already overbooked, besides the standbys."

"So you won't have any seats?"

"Oh, we'll have some. We're always overbooked in first class. People book in first class and then cancel at the last minute and fly coach. They hope they can use a cheap upgrade that way." Her look at me is definitely not an accusation. Definitely not.

"What kind of people would do that?"

"You'd be surprised." Definitely not.

Book in first and cancel, eh? What a nifty idea.

So I'm 13th for not more than 12 seats. But fate has not left us unprepared. I take out my mileage club card -- not your plebian everyday mileage club card that every traveler has these days, but the Gold Super Premium Card, given to members who flew at least a quarter of a million miles on Erewhon Airlines in the last calendar year (real miles, not those ersatz things you get one for a dollar by using your airline-tie-in bank credit card). I lay the Gold Super Premium Card on the counter. "Will this help?"

She smiles. "I'll note it with your name, sir. But right now," she adds, "everyone on the list ahead of you has a Gold Super Premium Card." Hard to read, those smiles of hers.

"You mean," I say, "that even though I flew a quarter of a million miles on this airline last year, and you gave me this upgrade as a gift in appreciation of my loyal patronage -- look, it says so right here -- that the one time I try to use the thing, there's no space for me?"

"Well, it is a space-available upgrade, sir." Wisconsin politeness is indestructible. "And the flight is heavily booked. But if you'd care to take a seat, we'll be calling names as soon as the passengers confirmed in first class are seated."

I look around for a seat -- there are none, this is LGA in the rain -- and notice for the first time the pack of persons stationed just off the end of the check-in counter. Ten men and two women, a tight little group who eye every new check-in as a wolf eyes a newcomer to his hunting ground: Will this be the one, the Platinum Super Premium Card who pushes me over the edge? Fear is not a pretty thing in grown people.

Ten men and two women, standing in a pack. Even if there were room for the Pack to sit down, they wouldn't be sitting. These are not people who spend their days either sitting or standing, waiting for other people. They are people who keep other people standing and waiting. They are people used to holding their fate in their own hands. They cannot abide inactivity. They stand because it's the closest thing they have to action -- certainly closer than sitting. Sitting is for the weak.

I join them.

As we wait, one of us slides away to telephone surreptitiously. The rest of us watch him all the way to the telephone. In the wall-hung kiosk he faces away from us, shoulders hunched against our eyes, and mutters into the telephone; and we know he is up to no good. This is not the open confident talk, voice carrying across the room, of a man calling his office with orders. It is a furtive admission of the limits of his power -- a call to his secretary to try anything to get him on a different flight. Call my travel agent and tell them that it's imperative that I get to Denver tonight, and I expect them to find me a way to do it!

But of course, at LGA in the rain, there are no other flights -- all of them are late too, and filled with passengers like him who have bailed out of still other late flights, just as ours is still filling with people trying to improve their position by jumping from others. Around we go, United to American to Eastern to TWA to United.

Ship-jumpers swell our group to 15. One of our women is rubbing her right foot against the back of her left leg, as if friction would stoke the fire in her eyes. I begin to believe in the possibility of spontaneous human combustion.

Our gate attendant calls our flight at last. Super Premium mileage club members are invited to board early.

Now for the crucial decision -- give up the chance for an upgrade and board now, but find a place to stow the garment bag in coach; or hang on, knowing that if you lose and end up in coach anyway, every closet and overhead bin will be crammed full, and the garment bag goes down to be checked in the hold, adding 30 minutes to your wait at the other end?

A few break under the strain and give up the hoped-for comforts of first for the security of the coach cabin. But most of us are sterner stuff. We hold on, glad that the odds are now that much better.

Now every seat in the boarding area is empty; but still no one sits down.

With five minutes to go, our gate attendant picks up her microphone. "Will the following passengers please come to the desk." She reads three names. But only two passengers come forward. One of those called has already given up and boarded in coach. We smirk at this cowardice. The two board happily, without a glance at the rest of us. In this crowd, winners know they deserve it. A few others whose names weren't called break for the gate; but most of us determine to profit by the one's example, and wait now until the end.

Another name is called. Our band is down to five. Shuffling of papers at the desk. "Mr. Swanson. Ms. Barnes." And then it's over. "Any other passengers holding boarding cards should now be on board. We're going to count empty seats, and then we start giving those seats away." Miss Wisconsin is as perky at the end as at the beginning.

I notice for the first time the other pack, hanging off the other end of the check-in desk -- the confirmed passengers who checked in too late to get seats: This flight was overbooked. But that's another story.

Right now I have to get aboard before Miss Wisconsin can give my seat away. If I get there quick, maybe there'll be a place for my garment bag.

William E. Holland, a New York lawyer and businessman, is the author of "Let a Soldier Die" (Delacorte Press).