For the last several days I have been in Utah at a genealogy conference for work. It was a really lovely conference and I met some fun people. However, what was most remarkable, personally, about the trip were the travel experiences that bookended my going to and returning from.
I like to sit in an aisle seat in the very back of the plane. Usually no one else likes to sit back there so my chances for having room to stretch out are increased. I don’t mind being near the toilet, it’s actually pretty handy, and I like that I can sometimes overhear what the flight attendants are talking about in the food prep area. Yup, I like to be informed.
Wednesday afternoon I boarded the plane and got myself comfortable in the next to last row. Just when it seemed that they would be closing the door to more passengers a gentleman huffed down the aisle clearly continuing a conversation with someone off the flight.
“RIDICULOUS! What a crock of bull shit. BULL SHIT.”
A flight attendant caught up with him and while I could not understand all of their conversation it was clear that he was upset and she was trying to calm him down. He snapped out, “FINE!” and stomped towards the rear of the aircraft. His seat assignment was directly behind me. He grunted his backpack into the overhead bin and hoisted himself down into his seat.
“Are you KIDDING ME?” I could hear and then feel him shift and contort in his seat. Oddly enough I recognized the sound of someone trying to move an unmoveable seat as it was something Millie used to do in the car.
What followed next was sad. Truly sad. This guys was clearly having a horrible day and he perceived that a counter person at the airport had been rude to him and then when he realized that his seat did not recline he lost it. It was his breaking point and he broke. It was not pleasant to be around, sure, but I also imagine my discomfort at witnessing his unraveling was nothing in comparison to how things felt in his mind.
I am skating over some of the details, but our flight was delayed and the gentleman was moved to a seat that could recline and before beverages had been served a large man in a casual suit moved back to the rear of the plane “because there was extra room” but when I came out of the restroom a few minutes into the flight a flight attendant quietly told me that the casual suit man was an air marshall.
Coming home from my trip I experienced an even more intense flight situation that resulted in an emergency landing in Kansas City. This time a guy about my age decided he really needed to get off of the plane and he was determined to make that happen by repeatedly attempting to open the emergency exit door.
I have told the story a few times now, to Mom, to my coworkers, to my friends. It was a terrifying ordeal that rocked many of the passengers on the flight. Federal agents charged the plane after our jolty landing and briskly escorted the man off, a sweep of the plane was done. We sat in the middle of a runway, away from the airport, encircled by emergency vehicles with their lights ablaze.
It was nearly silent on the plane as we all waited for what would happen next. In the distance you could still hear the man screaming in some vehicle on the runway.
When we were in the sky and the man could not be restrained and you could hear him punching and smacking the people that attempted to hold him down it was terrifying. Once we landed, and I knew that I was safe, I started to worry about him. About what would happen next for him. It was clear that he needed a mental health advocate. Would he find one to help him through?
In thinking about these two travel experiences it makes me remember that we do not live in bubbles. We bring our entire lives with us wherever we go. The guy on my 1st leg of travel kept saying to himself, “I am disabled Vet. How could I be treated this way?” I later overheard him telling someone that he was on the way to a funeral.
When we travel in an airplane we are 80 tons of matter in the sky. We are the slowly moving white dot above your home. Mothers, daughters, sons, baggage. We are hundreds of people that for an hour (or five) have overlapping lives.
The flight returning to Philadelphia touched down just over two hours behind schedule. As all the wheels safely kissed the runway the entire cabin of the plane erupted into applause and cheers. The pilot came on the loud speaker to give the typical welcome to your destination speech and then he paused. “You know that was pretty scary for all of us. [pause] Hug your family.”
And I did.