Posted by: ktzefr | April 27, 2012

Plane Talk

I’m not a frequent flyer by any stretch, but in the last five months I’ve racked up 16 flights and more than 10,000 miles, so I’ve had ample opportunity to observe the flying community.

First of all, people pay no attention to the announcements on planes, especially about turning off cell phones.  The minute the flight attendant heads for his/her seat the phones come out of hiding.   I’ve seen passengers slip them behind books and newspapers, into purses and pockets, and under legs — whatever is quickest when they see an attendant coming down the aisle.  And then there are those who will sit on a flight for hours reading or sleeping, but the minute the seat belt sign comes on they get up and head for the restroom. 

I’ve heard and overheard interesting vacation stories on flights.  On a recent trip I met two elderly women who were returning from a cruise in South America.  They had flown to Buenos Aires and taken a ship around Cape Horn.  It was the last voyage around the Cape for the season, so the ship was repositioning to the Caribbean and they’d gotten a good deal.  It sounded like a splendid trip until they started describing the rain and cold and rolling seas that happen around this time of year when it’s turning winter way down south.  The waves caused so much bounce, they claimed, that they’d sometimes had a hard time staying put in their beds.  It’s difficult to sleep when you have to hang onto the bed to keep from hitting the floor.  Seasoned sailors have described the waves as “mountainous” and most avoid the “Cape of Storms” altogether in winter.  But it was refreshing to meet these older women who had embarked on the last cruise of the season and still had a love for adventure coursing through their veins.

I’ve met people on trips who like to talk, entertain, shock, or make you laugh.  One fellow I met last week was capable of doing all of the above — and often in the same story.  He was more than a little familiar with the neck of woods in eastern Kentucky where I grew up.  As a member of the National Guard, a paratrooper, he often spent his time on duty jumping out of helicopters to chop and burn marijuana patches.  (Kentucky is one of the nation’s top ten marijuana producing states.)  He’d landed in forests, fields, gardens, and on riverbanks — sometimes the same ones again and again.  Funny how those picky plants are able to keep rejuvenating.

Someone always impedes the flow of traffic at the gate in airports.  I got in line recently, with boarding pass at the ready, behind two girls who spoke little English.  They had three carry on bags each, but only two are allowed — a small bag and a purse or laptop or backpack.  There was much discussion amongst the girls and the man collecting boarding passes, with little real communication taking place.  Someone offered to translate, but that didn’t make much of a difference, since the girls clearly understood the bag policy; they just didn’t want to abide by the rules.  The ticket man refused to allow them to pass until each had selected one bag to check at the end of the ramp.  This took a fair amount of additional time as both girls opened various bags and took stuff from one and put in another.  Finally, they got the yellow tags for the bags to be checked and headed down the ramp.  Then — I couldn’t believe it — they walked right on the plane with all three bags!

Bags have been a big problem since the airlines started charging for them.  At least one passenger on every trip brings a big bag on board and tries to stuff it into a space half its size.

Occasionally, I end up sitting beside someone who is a bit…off-kilter?  My most recent experience was with Bill from Denver who was very animated and loud and more than a little zany looking.  I got to know Bill’s life history before we even left the ground, as we sat on the tarmac for an hour waiting for the captain of our plane to arrive (more on that later).  Bill was a smart guy, an electrical engineer who had not worked in three years.  He’d been getting unemployment checks and gave every indication that he had learned to like that way of life.  He told me the “employment lady” gets angry with him every time he comes into her office because she thinks he could get a job if he wanted one.  She tells him that there are lots of jobs in Houston.  He has worked for oil refineries, he said, and he knew there were companies needing his expertise in Texas, but he would “rather be unemployed in Denver than working in Houston.”  He was a forty-something who had wrecked his car the week before and was flying to Baltimore to get a car that his parents were loaning him.  He would drive back to Denver.  Would he look for work along the way?  Hardly.  He had a fishing guide he’d brought to read on the plane and was planning to fish his way back across America.

And then there are the drunks.  On a late-night flight to DC recently the woman beside me reeked of liquor.  She kept taking her shoes on and off, twisting and turning, and spilling things — the contents of her purse, a cup of ice water.  Thank goodness the flight attendant wouldn’t give her coffee (because of the turbulence) or I would have been burned in addition to being iced.  She never stopped talking.  I turned away, closed my eyes, wouldn’t respond to her questions, but it didn’t make a difference.  The only good part of the flight was that the drunk kept me so distracted I hardly noticed the turbulence.

More often than not I meet genuinely nice people on planes.  The older woman I met last week from Puerto Rico couldn’t speak much English.  My Spanish is pretty much present tense with limited vocabulary, but we managed to converse the whole trip.  We talked about places we both knew on her island.  She lived in Catano, she said, near the Bacardi rum factory.  I’d seen the neighborhood at a distance many times from across San Juan Bay in the old city.  This trip to the States she’d been visiting with her son and his family at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.  Her son, Francisco, had already done three tours of duty in Iraq, she said, and he was now headed to Afghanistan.  She showed me family pictures.  His older kids, the little boy, the new baby.  She didn’t know the English word for tears and I didn’t know the Spanish, but she indicated tears flowing down cheeks to show how the little grandson had cried when she left.  Then she got teary-eyed herself.  I offered to pray for her son.  When she got up to leave she turned to me and said  in English: I miss you.   I miss her, too.  I wish I’d gotten her name.

 I spent twelve hours last weekend trying to get home from Nashville.  Mapquest says I could have driven it in twelve.  There is a long, tiring story I won’t tell about the captain not showing up for one of the flights and me finally getting a late-night flight to DC and having to then drive to Baltimore the next morning to retrieve my car in the parking lot at that airport and, of course, drive back to DC.  Suffice it to say, that I was relieved when I finally got into a taxi at Reagan National close to midnight last Saturday.  The friendly cabbie asked about my day.  Did I have a good flight?  Well…I shortened the long, tiring story.  And then he told me his own story.

The airport had closed for two hours earlier in the day because of the storms, he said, and they (the people in charge of taxis, I suppose) made all the drivers wait out the storm in a nearby parking lot.  Apparently, they have a nice off-duty taxi area with restrooms and a snack bar close by, but this time they’d been told to park in the lot and stay in their cabs.  He was desperate to go to the bathroom, he said.  When he couldn’t wait any longer he had peed in his hat.  No lie.  The hat was lying on the seat next to him and he reached for it, held it up.  “It’s still wet,” he said.  I was exhausted and stunned.  I didn’t recognize the man’s accent, but I wondered in what culture it was appropriate to tell a perfect stranger that you had just peed in your hat.

  Earlier in the day, I had paid to use the restrooms in Charlotte where “attendants” greet you at the door.  I don’t know if this practice is new, it it’s an idea that’s spreading, or if it’s unique to that airport.  But they greet each person with a “welcome to Charlotte” that you hear again and again if you spend much time in the john.  One attendant even sang little ditties, mostly off-key,  for our entertainment.   There was a plastic box for tips by the door and a bowl of mints, of all things, as if we were leaving a restaurant after a good meal.  I’d had a lot of Coke and water and coffee and endured various delays, changes, and cancellations, so I went in and out of restrooms a number of times stuffing money into plastic boxes — and eating mints.

Anyway, after the drive home and hearing the cabbie’s story, I couldn’t complain too much about the day’s events.  At least I didn’t have to pee in my hat.





  1. I love the story about your conversation with a woman from Puerto Rico. It’s so great to connect with someone like that, if only for a short time. Very sweet.

  2. This is exactly why I hate to fly! All those stories, with the exception of the very nice Hispanic woman, confirm my dislike of air travel.

  3. You never know who you will sit next to on a plane. Years ago my husband sat next to a young guy named Steve Jobs and he told my husband about his ideas for what he called the Apple. If only we invested in it then!

    • How cool is that! Would have been nice to have had a crystal ball…

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