Sunday, August 10, 2008
Flying the Friendly Skies
Has everything already been written about the nightmare of flying commercial? Maybe so, but my trip home from Hilton Head last night is at the very least worth a blog posting. Actually, the way I got through what I'm going to write about was by thinking this will make a great blog post.
Carmen and I left the Savannah airport with the three children at around 5:30 pm. We had only a short flight and then an hour layover in Atlanta before we boarded the next plane to Los Angeles and home. As I've mentioned before, travelling with Sophie isn't too easy. We put her in her stroller/wheelchair so she doesn't have to walk so far in the airport, but she always has to be thoroughly patted down and checked by airport security. We didn't have any problems in Savannah other than the confiscation of Henry's jar of gourmet chocolate peanut butter. He burst into tears when security told him it was an infraction and then casually tossed it into the nearest garbage can. "I hate those people," Henry told me tearfully, "they're stupid. Why would I put a bomb in the peanut butter?" Sigh.
The trip to Atlanta was uneventful, but when we landed we had to dash to a different terminal to make our flight to Los Angeles. If you've ever been in the Atlanta airport you know how vast it is and how odds are you'll always arrive at the end of the terminal, at the last gate. Despite this, we were able to board the plane early and made ourselves comfortable toward the back of the plane. I'm telling you these boring details to mainly illustrate the boredom of flying, the methodical way one has to make one's way through the airport, and the hardship of all of it on Sophie.
When the plane was loaded up with several hundred people (and we always seem to fly on completely full flights), the pilot came on the loudspeaker and informed us that we were flying a "fallen soldier from Iraq" on the plane with an escort, "to his final resting place." He also threw in a couple words about "paying the ultimate sacrifice," "fighting for our freedom," etc. etc. We were told that when we arrived in Los Angeles, we would be expected to remain in our seats, even when the seat belt light went off so that the escort could leave the plane and begin the proceedings for the dead soldier's removal from the baggage hold. It was sort of hard to hear all the particulars, but there was enough said that Henry and Oliver grew sombre over the thought of a dead body somewhere below us. I can't say what I felt. I'd like to say that I felt sad or even moved. But I didn't. Or at least all the stuff about "ultimate sacrifice" and "fighting for freedom" made my stomach turn. I can't express that sort of doubt and cynicism, though, to my sons, so I quietly explained that the soldier had died in Iraq and was going to be buried in his home cemetery.
When the plane landed, the pilot came on the loudspeaker again and told us that if we looked out the windows on the left, we would see fire engines lined up outside that would be spraying the plane with water. At first I didn't realize that it was some sort of ceremony and had the fleeting terrified thought that it had something to do with chemicals, etc. etc. (That would be my Debbie Doom side coming out). As the plane slowly taxied in the darkness and the water splatted on the windows and wings, the normal bustle that marks the end of a long flight stilled and the whole plane got quiet. When we came to a full spot, somewhere up in front, a young man stood and was led out of the plane by the pilot. Everyone clapped and then we all sort of sat there in the quiet for a few minutes. The seat belt light dinged off and the mad rush to get out of the plane began. Since we were at the back, we had a while to go before we actually got to the jetway, but when we finally did, Sophie's stroller had not been brought up. She was having seizures, tiny ones, but enough of them to make it really difficult to walk, and I was trying to support her while Carmen shepherded the boys. We stood and waited for the next several minutes, until every passenger had gotten off and then watched as the cleaning people swarmed in. A flight attendant asked me what I was waiting for, and when I told her that my daughter's wheelchair had not come up from the baggage hold, she whispered to me, "Oh, I think it's because of the DEAD soldier."
By this time, we had been on the road, or in the air, for over nine hours. It was well after 1 am, east coast time and we were all exhausted. Sophie was a wreck and could barely stand. I tried at first, I really did, to remain patient. I said that I understood about the DEAD soldier, but that if I couldn't get the stroller right now, I at least needed to know about how long it would take to get it. The flight attendant scurried away and we waited some more. When I poked my head around the corner, back into the plane, I saw a line of uniformed people who I gathered were flight attendants, cleaning personnel and pilots lined up in the window seats of first class. All had their faces pressed up against the window and some were dabbing at their eyes with tissues.
I'd like to say that I felt bad, too, but the fact is that I didn't. I know this was some sort of historic moment, a sobering experience as an American. But I didn't feel ANYTHING but annoyance that I had to wait for Sophie's wheelchair. The thoughts that raced through my head that I thankfully didn't voice were along the lines of: This young man is dead FOR NO REASON. He volunteered to fight in this stupid, tragic war. I can't believe that I am supposed to somehow honor him NOW, when he's dead. I was back out in the jetway now, still holding Sophie up, under her arms, letting her rest against me. I leaned back and bent my face into her soft, curly hair. I closed my eyes and began to think that this soldier, this boy, was dead and that he had a mama and a father and perhaps a wife and a child and that as his body was rolled out of the same hole that housed the baggage of vacationers, they would be there, grieving. I let go of all the banalities of patriotism and melted into patience.
And then it was over. We got the stroller and straggled down toward baggage claim. I was going to write about the fight my middle eastern taxi driver had with the airport security (he got out of the van, raised his fists, screamed obscenities and I honestly thought there would be guns drawn) but that would just be too much. As my writing friend Sam Dunn likes to say, "You just can't make this shit up."