Why do I write the things I write? I often wonder. I suppose it’s much like therapy for me – a bit like breathing deeply in and out, as one is prone to do when first encountering a majestic bit of nature, like an open beach or a tranquil valley.
Today, I write as I do, tapping these words upon my phone’s miniature keyboard, in order to grip tightly to any vestige of sanity I may be fortunate to maintain in this beleaguered soul. I’m on my way back from a family trip to Ohio, and I cannot say that I’ve ever encountered a more horrible series of circumstances in all my seasons of travel. In the past, I’ve been slept on by strangers, crammed into tiny seats on tiny compartments in aircraft with no air conditioning, puked upon, urinated on (by my own children), bumped, delayed, luggage lost, wedged my 6’5″ frame into impossibly small bathrooms in order to change an infant’s soiled diapers, you name it – but all of that trial is a mere pittance in comparison to the virtual agony I currently combat aboard this overbooked Boeing 737, bound for a connection in my beloved city of lights, San Francisco.
Dear God, if conditions can become this bad upon the earth, I weep for any soul’s torment in hell.
The morning starts with a deep level of trepidation over the fact that, some two months since the booking of our flight, we’ve remained unsuccessful in obtaining seat assignments for our 5 hour jaunt to California. This, a mild nuisance to most, is disconcerting to us, as we travel with 2 small children, and it’s rather essential we are seated next to our little high-maintenance, frequently potty-goin’ Darlings. I say disconcerting to “us”, when it’s truly only so for my wife – the consummate planner in our dynamic duo. I, much to her frustration, do not worry about such things.
Today, I probably should have worried.
We arrive at the airport with little issue of worthwhile report. The 1.5 hour drive to Cleveland, preceded by many tearful goodbyes, is uneventful, and we are plenty in advance of our flight – fortunate because the line to check in is a monster. We four heroic travelers clamor into said line, sporting 4 large suitcases, 2 car seats, a stroller, 4 carry-ons, and a truckload of confidence that the day will go smoothly. This line will move quickly, the staff will be helpful in finally getting us those elusive 4 seats together – all will be well.
The line does move swiftly, of that I may attest; however, I am troubled by one sight. A disturbing sense of foreboding comes upon me as I peer over at a couple, standing several bodies back from us in the line for check-in. I see a man, some 400 pounds in stature, fanning an equally proportioned companion with a cardboard brochure. The equally proportioned companion is quite obviously not well. My foreboding comes from the inexplicable message playing in my suddenly troubled mind – “You will be sitting next to this weighty pair on the plane.” “Nonsense!” I say to my own pessimistic inner voice. “This airline has many flights going out this morning. What are the chances that they would be on our flight, much less seated next to me?!”
Indeed! What ARE the chances?
It’s about this time that an older gentleman in line taps my shoulder and, while eyeing my kids and the mountain of stuff we are checking, says to me, “You are a very brave man.”
Check-in occurs, with no small amount of friction between my task-driven (and much beloved) wife and a very rude (and likely underpaid) ticket agent. Check-in occurs, but still no seat assignments. “You’ll need to take care of that at the gate.” sneers the rude and underpaid agent.
To the gate we plod, now unhampered by the large bags and car seats and yet an hour before our flight to grab a snack for the little Darlings and (oh yeah) take care of those pesky seat assignments. I venture ahead to deal with the gate agent over said task while the wife attends to the snack-getting exercise.
“Let me guess…Family of four, going to Seattle, yes?” says the surprisingly friendly man behind the gate counter.
“Aha!” I think to myself. “You see, you old pessimistic voice? They’ve been waiting for us! This friendly agent is gonna hook us up – probably get us seats right by a restroom! (Not next to the sizable couple we saw in line.)”
“OK!” he says, placing my seatless boarding passes before him, next to another pile of seatless passes. “We’re working on it.” he says, nose crinkled.
“Hmmm,” I think. “Surely that nose crinkle was simply due to an allergy of some sort.”
Standing a few yards back from the counter, anticipating word at any moment of those splendidly located seats, I see my wife approach with the Darlings in tow.
“Well?” she asks, though her quest for a progress report is voiced much more in the manner of a statement, like, “Well, I’m sure you’ve resolved this whole matter of the seat assignments by now.”
“Don’t worry.” I say, pointing at the crinkle-nosed guy behind the counter. “He’s working on it.”
Thirty minutes of nose-crinkling transpires, and we are still in “working on it” mode. My confidence that all will work out remains unbroken, but my wife is hanging upon the precipice of a mild nervous breakdown. That part – the mild nervous breakdown part – does have my normally unflappable nature waning, but only slightly.
My unflappable nature is summarily flapped when an agent looks our direction and says, “I can get you into San Francisco via Phoenix by 11pm tonight.”
“We’re going to Seattle!” responds my startled and horrified wife.
So now we are no longer faced with the risk of being scattered about an overbooked flight, seated apart from the Darlings; but we are likely to get no seats at all.
“Oh, I see.” says the agent. “Well, in that case, I can get you into Seattle via Houston by 11:15 tonight!” The cheer in the woman’s voice is grating. I feel like a guy who shows up at the spa for a massage and is offered a nice kick to the groin instead. (Now isn’t that nice that I solved that little problem that we caused when we massively overbooked this flight and screwed you out of your seats? Now go occupy your children for another 8 hours in the awesome Cleveland airport!)
I don’t catch every word that follows from my wife’s lips, but there’s a whole lot of “what the hells” and “you WILL get us on this flight!”s. I love that woman right now. All I have to do is watch the magic. She’ll move mountains with this routine; I know it!
Now they are searching for 3 volunteers to give up seats in exchange for a $300 voucher, good for any flight on their splendidly serviced airline. Quite quickly, we see an attractive couple leave the plane.
“YES! You’re good looking and have no Darlings with you! Of course you can give up those seats!”
One more. Just need one more generous soul to give up a seat, and we are IN baby!
We seat ourselves next to the jetway, hoping to find pity, but we find none, as the plane has now fully boarded. Two minutes till takeoff, and my wife unleashes a mighty flurry of glares and “how dare you screw us like this!!”s, prompting another agent to board the plane and beg another volunteer to leave the flight.
Success! We have a volunteer! We are making this flight!
Teary-eyed, we run down the jetway, waving thanks to our benefactor as we pass her by.
As I walk down the aisle, witness to the flight attendants’ scrambling to move passengers around to get us seats, I see that one of the seats opened for us is (you guessed it) right next to the couple of jumbo proportions that my pessimistic voice warned me about in the ticketing line. Surveying the options, I see that my choice is to either squeeze my own ample hind quarters in next to theirs or to take a window seat across the aisle next to a young boy – obviously much slighter in stature. Then I look at my own little guy, glance again at the large chunk of meat peeling over into that aisle seat…
Let it never be said of me that I’ve not sacrificed dearly for my children. As I live and breathe, I now occupy one fifth of what must certainly add up to nearly a ton of humanity, squeezed into one tiny aisle of this 737 aircraft. The kindly lady across from me (God bless her) actually offers to switch seats with me once the plane takes off. The brief feeling of hope I feel at her words is quickly overshadowed when I hear the female component of “ton row” say some of the last words you ever want to hear from the person pressed up against you in a space you’ve no prayer of escaping.
“I’m surprised I haven’t popped a blood vessel from all that dry heaving!” I hear her say.
And thus ushers in some of the lowest 4.5 hours of my traveling life. I can’t bear to ask the kindly lady if her offer to switch seats is still on the table. After all, sitting here, cheek to cheek with a very large, flu-stricken lady as she suffers her 6th (or 7th – who’s counting?) bout of horrendous vomiting, I feel that it takes a special sort of person to endure this unique level of turmoil. It takes someone willing to turn this insanity into an excuse to engage in his passion for the written word.
So I will write on! With round elbow buried in my navel and warm, foreign flesh coalesced to my ass, I write on! With the aroma of regurgitated stomach acid mere inches from my nostrils, I write on!
I will not yield!
After all, as the wise old gentleman pointed out this morning, I am a very brave man, indeed.