Why I Still Love Flying
Floating in a sea of blue, spattered with clumps of cottony clouds waiting to pillow you if you fall. What’s not to love about flying? As a child I wanted to be like Peter Pan and Wendy – traveling without the use of arms or legs or bicycles or cars – jetting through the air to anywhere in only minutes. That’s why my first experience in a plane at age 20, far removed from my fairy tale years, was viewed through child-like eyes. It was 1967 and I was flying with my parents to my brother’s wedding in Pennsylvania. I do not remember the name of the airline, our departure or arrival airport, the length of the flight, or even what kind of little hats the stewardesses wore – because they most certainly must have worn those little hats back then. All I recall is a feeling of freedom and wonder as I stared out the window at the massive expanse of sky peppered with calming, cool-white clusters of clouds. I was finally floating on air!
Thus began my love of flying. Which is not unusual. Most people enjoy it. For me, however – the one whose stomach does somersaults and whose eyelids are locked as tight as a bank vault when I ride on any skinny, winding, mountain road – it seems a bit strange. How can one be afraid of heights on the earth, but love drifting above it? Strange or not, I continued to do it. I flew with my children before the invention of monstrous strollers and car seats. I flew with my cohorts to conventions, with my elderly mother when the beeping cart in the airport was a necessity, and I flew alone. A member of the frequent flyer club I was not. But each time I was able to secure a window seat, my nose would be pressed tightly to the glass as I marveled at the world below: tiny trees; miniature houses; cars moving slowly like marching ants, rivers trickling along as if someone above had just poured out a large bottle of water, forcing them to cut paths through the hills and valleys below. Back then people who were frequent flyers were evident. They were the ones whose eyes were either glued to a magazine or book or completely closed. For them the awe had vanished. For me it never would.
However, there was more to like about being on a plane than the view. There were the people – throngs of them. All strangers. Strangers who passed by you in the airport without giving you so much as a glance. Strangers who sold you your ticket and tagged your luggage, took your money at the food court and took your ticket at the gate – all waving you on as quickly and as wordlessly as possible. This was good. In fact, it was wonderful. Because….I was shy. So shy that I once rode 60 miles in a car with my third grade teacher without more than ten words passing between us. When we reached our destination, I read my assigned piece loudly and expressively to of rows of strangers – from a stage – the place where I was most at ease speaking. What I could not handle was casual conversation. What should I say? What if I say something wrong? Will they make fun of me? What if they don’t like the way I answer their questions? Although I was embarrassed by my own silence, to talk was much too tortuous. Every year my report cards carried the same chastising comment: “Needs to speak up more in class.” In college I ruined my chances for a future date by refusing to give our food order to the new-fangled metal box hanging menacingly outside my open car window at the Blue Buffalo Drive-Inn. This “shrinking violet” aberration followed me through most of my life. Granted, the quirkiness grew less pronounced as I advanced through years of teaching, but I still sighed with relief every time I plopped down on a plane seat next to a complete stranger, one with whom I felt absolutely no obligation to exchange words.
Plane seats then were very comfortable. The little-hatted stewardesses brought you a blanket if you were chilly, or a pillow if you wanted to sleep. When your stomach was growling, you didn’t have to worry about rushing to grab something in the airport. They graciously fed you a full meal. They were there on the spot to help lift your luggage above or stash it below. Forever smiling, they all made you feel like a very important guest. The stewardesses. The strangers. The miraculous views. They all contributed to my early love of flying, whether it be in a large jet or a clunky turbo prop that flipped and flopped in turbulent weather. Just get me to the plane!
Fast-forward several decades. I now fly mostly to visit my grandchildren. The panorama outside the small windows of the plane continues to take my breath away. That wonder has not left my soul. However, because today there are flight attendants of both sexes, the stewardesses have lost their little hats and also, it seems, some of their smiles. The meals have morphed into drinks accompanied by a small package of cookies or pretzels. The rows appear to be closer together, the seats harder, and the seat backs straighter. Travel has become less relaxing, especially for us old folks. There are more passengers with more and bigger pieces of luggage. This means boarding and deplaning are both longer and uncomfortable, and perhaps because of this, the attendants seem not to be as eager to help as those in the past.
I am one of those short persons who can stand (with a scrunched neck) in front of my seat while waiting to leave the plane. On a recent flight when it was my turn to get into the aisle, a small boy jetted in front of me. I let his father pass, silently forgiving him for not teaching the little one plane etiquette. It happened again on the return flight. This time, it was a young adult who almost made me fall back in my seat. He definitely should have known better. What, I wondered, has happened to good manners? These strangers must feel no obligation to be polite to other strangers.
Strangers. That aspect of flying has not changed. They still swarm through the airport like locusts, their voices blending into one constant hum, their eyes purposely averted from those of other strangers. In the years since my first flight, my feelings about people have changed. Though far from an extrovert, I no longer shy away from conversation, but am usually the initiator. It may be due to maturation or the Dale Carnegie Course. It may be due to my move to Texas, where the folks are exceedingly friendly. It most probably is due to my growing belief that we as humans are all connected.
Whatever the reason, I now have greater expectations from those strangers. So, I was very frustrated when the disrespect continued on subsequent flights. In one instance, going through security, I was rudely ushered into a line where my body was searched with a metal wand in very private places. I had not set off a buzzer. I had no metal. I was not wearing a jacket. I was not wearing shoes. Was the rudeness necessary? Did I really look like I was a danger to other passengers? On another occasion, I was at the gate and had handed my ticket to the attendant, who was trying to scan it. After several attempts, she looked at it closely and snapped, “This is for the wrong flight! Move over there!” My face red, I shuffled out of the line, frantically searching for the proper ticket, which was right there in my purse. I re-entered the line and boarded the plane, but my heart was beating like a rock and roll drum. Couldn’t she have used kinder words or at least been more gentle?
The most exasperating experience occurred when I was in the airport trying to find the gate for my connecting flight. I had been walking up and down the hallway in the lower level of the airport where the G gates were situated. My flight was to leave from gate G33. I could find no such gate. The gates went from G29 to G35. Where was gate G33? There were no attendants at any of the desks. There were no boards showing arrivals and departures. My legs were cramping, my arms growing weary from dragging my suitcase. I asked person after person if they knew anything. No one did. Finally, I spotted an attendant wearing a uniform from my airline.
“Excuse me, miss,” I said. “ I can’t seem to find Gate 33. I have a connecting flight on your airline to Austin. Can you help me?”
“I just got off duty!” She sounded perturbed.
“I’m sorry, but I have asked several people. I can’t find anyone from the airline.”
“It’s probably down that way.” She pointed to where I had already searched and started to go on her way.
“It’s not!” I called after her. “I’ve been looking for more than thirty minutes.”
She turned around, visibly upset now. “Are you sure you have the right gate number?”
“Uh…. I think so. I never thought of that.”
“Well, you can look it up on our website using your phone.” She was off again.
“Wait!” I was walking beside her now. “I’m really not sure how to do that. I’m old, you know.” I forced a chuckle. “Could you possibly do that for me?”
The attendant sighed deeply as she grabbed her phone out of her purse. “What’s the flight number?”
After I had given her the flight number and destination, it took her only seconds to find my mistake. “Your plane leaves from C33, not G33.”
“Oh, no wonder!” I breathed a sigh of relief and flashed her a smile. “Thank you so much for your trouble.” I was talking to the back of her head.
This was the incident that almost ended my love affair with flying. I now had some inkling of how people with dementia must feel when they don’t recognize their surroundings – lost, alone, frightened, and just needing someone to help them find their way. Is that asking too much? Isn’t that what airline employees are supposed to do? Does it matter whether it is on or off the clock? What has happened to ‘the customer is always right?’ That experience bothered me for weeks afterward. I was not yet ready to give up air travel, but as I prepared for my next flight, I was more than a little apprehensive.
It was the month of August – exactly five decades after my first encounter with an aircraft. My husband, Mike, and I were flying to the east coast to attend a celebration for my only sibling, my brother, and his wife, whose wedding I had attended 50 years ago. It had been a while since we had visited them, so we were both eager for the trip. Trying to alleviate waiting in long lines, I had printed our boarding passes and checked our luggage online. We dropped off our bags and headed for the security check line. After we flashed our IDs, I began taking off my shoes. I heard a guard yelling out instructions, but I couldn’t make out exactly what she was saying. “Excuse me. Did you say NOT to take off our shoes?” I cupped my hand around my ear to show I was having difficulty hearing her.
She glared at me with a look of disgust. “That’s EXACTLY what I said. Do NOT take off your shoes or your jacket unless the buzzer sounds. I said it so loud I bet they heard me way over there!” She jabbed her finger in the direction of the long line’s end and then began her rant again.
I looked at my husband, who simply shrugged his shoulders. As we put our bags on the security belt, the woman in front of us was nearing the scanning booth. She had a sweater wrapped around her waist. The booth attendant told her, “You need to remove your sweater.”
“But that lady just told us we could keep …..”
He repeated in a louder voice, “Ma’am, you need to remove your sweater!”
Our trip was just beginning, but already my fears were being realized.
The people we encountered on the remainder of our trip east were not so blatantly rude, but neither were they overly polite. The girl at the airport lunch counter could have been mistaken for a robot, but a robot would at least have had a fake smile. Two clerks at the bookstore were so busy talking that they ignored me as I waited to pay. I put my book back. In past days, these were the strangers that made me love flying. How I had changed! Today I liked to link with people – to feel that warmth of a bond, if only a temporary one.
Before we could blink, the return trip home was upon us. Our week in Pennsylvania had been exhilarating, filled with varied activities, re-establishing old connections, and reminiscing. My mind was definitely set to the “positive” mode, so I was able to ignore a minor glitch at the bag check-in counter. But I was not prepared for what happened during the rest of the trip.
We had somehow been selected for TSA Pre-check for this trip, and the lady at the counter motioned us up with a huge smile on her face. She commented on how far we had to travel and wished us a safe trip. I smiled back, complimenting her on her glasses and thinking, “We’re off to a grand start!” Before our plane left, I decided to give book-shopping another try. I found the perfect book and took it to the counter, where the young man greeted me with another huge smile.
“How are you today, ma’am?” he bellowed with the exuberance of a car salesman.
I answered with my standard, “I’m very well, thank you. How are you?”
“I am excellent. I’m thankful to be alive. The sun is shining outside. I love working here, and I’m happy to be able to meet people like you!”
“Wow!” I said. “I like your positive attitude. I ‘m giving you an A+.”
“Why, thank you so much. You have yourself a wonderful day.”
Strange how just a few kind words bobbing back and forth can make your whole body beam. And mine was still beaming as we prepared to board our connecting flight. A young man in Army camouflage was standing next to us. I motioned for him to go ahead, and he motioned for us to go first. After exchanging a couple more of the “go-ahead” gestures, Mike solved the problem by saying, “Okay. We’ll go first. Thank you. And thank you very much for your service.” When the opportunity presented itself, Mike generally thanked anyone in the armed services. But here the act had significance. It had been in an airport where my husband had been booed and spit upon when he returned from Viet Nam. It made me proud that he was caring, appreciative, and forgiving enough to do what should have been done for him years ago.
We boarded, deplaned, and boarded our connecting flight with relative ease. The seats on the final flight seemed larger and more comfortable. There was even a screen for gaming or movie viewing. As we were buckling our seatbelts, a young mother sat down in the aisle seat next to me. I smiled. There was an extra bonus for this trip – a baby. “Hi, little guy,” I cooed. “What’s his name?”
“Henry,” his mother answered with a smile.
“Henry? Henry is my grandson’s name! It’s a great name, isn’t it?”
“The best,” she said.
I knew I was in for a joyous ride. We exchanged pleasantries, and I continued to talk to the little one. I was amazed at how his mother could manipulate him and her bags and buckle her seatbelt with ease. He was eight months old and a good little baby. Finally, he did start to fuss. I was reading my new book when I felt a poke.
“Could you maybe take him while I get his bottle ready?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
Ahha. She WAS just a regular mom who needed occasional help. I put him on my lap. He preferred to stand up on his strong tiny legs just as my Henry had when he was that age. I stuck out my tongue and made all of the faces and sounds that usually drew smiles out of babies. Henry did not fail the test. He even gleefully giggled when I poked his tummy. Although his bottle was ready, his mommy allowed him to entertain me a while longer. When she took him in her arms, Henry soon fell fast asleep.
But another surprise was awaiting. Down the narrow plane aisle toddled a little girl followed by her daddy. They were a family! And they decided to exchange children. Into Mommy’s lap climbed this delightful child, who (I was told) was not yet two years old. She had big brown eyes and wispy brown hair held back on one side by a small bow. She reminded me of me in old pictures where my mother had put bows in my hair in exactly the same spot. I repeated my whole baby routine as she sat on her mommy’s lap, until she became distracted by a cartoon movie.
Absorbing myself in my book, I only vaguely heard the announcement to prepare for landing. I could sense rustling next to me, and realized there was a lot of baggage my neighbor had to prepare. “Would you like me to take her while you get ready?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. She’s a little shy.”
I smiled and opened my arms. She lifted her pudgy little hands, and I placed her gently on my lap facing the window. We talked about the sky and clouds until my husband’s beard became more interesting. She touched it with her tiny finger, then sat back down on my lap, leaning tenderly against me. I hummed as I held her closely – the songs I hum to my grandchildren. And because it felt so right – cradling her there like one of my own – I planted a kiss on her elfin forehead. Sharing a kiss on a plane – how could any two strangers be more connected?
When it was our turn to enter the aisle, the mother took her little girl, along with their many bags, and scooted into one of the seats that had been emptied ahead of us. As we passed by them, she thanked me profusely for my help.
“Oh, you’re very welcome,” I said. “But it is not by accident that grandmothers are placed where they belong.”
Had there not been a line of anxious people behind me; had I been allowed more time to respond to this lovely mother, I would have told her so much more. I would have told her that it was I who should be thanking her – for allowing me to do what I love more than anything – being a grandmother. I would have told her that it was the gifts of her and her children, the TSA lady, the bookstore clerk, and the Army soldier that have rekindled my hope – hope for staying connected to a loving humanity and hope for once again enjoying my trips through the sky. I would have told her that she was among the strangers who taught me that for every rude remark there is a gentle word; for every frustrating encounter, there is a calming garden; for every pair of horns spewing nastiness, there is a set of angelic wings radiating sunshine. Goodness is waiting right around the corner.