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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Trapped on the Tarmac

I hate to fly on airplanes. I'm afraid of flying. But still I continue to fly.  My very first plane ride was about 45 years ago in a tiny 2 seater, twin engine propeller orange crate of a plane. A friend of mine was the pilot. And no, he wasn't one of the Wright brothers. He was 16 years old. He had just got his pilot's license and it was his first time in the air without any supervision. It was just him and me, his nitwit sidekick riding shotgun. Looking back, I'm not really certain it was totally legal. But all I know is that we hopped in the plane and took off. I was scared to death but like a lamebrain, I went along just for the thrill. In the blink of an eye, we soared out over an enormous expanse of deep, blue water, otherwise known as Lake Michigan. I prayed with all my might that we would not crash. I remember seeing the waves get closer and closer and then I noticed a guy on a sailboat wave at us. Oh my god. We were so low I could see the guy's red cap. My prayers were answered. We didn't crash. We landed safely at the airport. But it was the wrong airport. My pilot pal had miscalculated and we bounced down in a mud bog at an airstrip 50 miles from our intended landing destination. Stuck in the muck up to the wheels. I don't remember too much after that except we both laughed hysterically over the whole incident and later bragged to our friends about what incredibly cool and daring flying aces we were. Secretly, I promised myself I would never, ever, ever fly again.

But teenage promises were made to be broken and I did fly again. In college I took off into the wild blue yonder with a fellow from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He owned his own plane. It was another cramped, tin can, propeller job held together with rubber bands. To my astonishment, he announced that he liked to perform stunts in the air. Over and around, upside down, loops and barrel rolls. I was too petrified to even throw up. After we landed, we downed a couple pitchers of beer at the Brat Haus on State Street. Then I puked all over the table. I never saw him again.

I mention all this to explain that I am not a flying novice. Since those youthful aeronautical escapades, I've flown over vast oceans, across several continents---in huge modern turbojets and in dilapidated contraptions that were barely airworthy. I am a fairly seasoned flyer. And yet to this day, my nerves are on edge nearly every minute in the air. For the most part, I have had extremely good luck on airplanes. My flying experiences have been incredibly uneventful, smooth, few delays, no on-board drunks, no crying babies, no shoe bombers, no terrorists, no backed up toilets, no nasty flight attendants. I guess I've been very, very fortunate.

My worst fear (aside from crashing and burning) is being stranded in a plane on the tarmac for hours or even overnight with no air conditioning. We've all heard the horror stories: airline passengers trapped on the blistering tarmac with no information, no a/c, no water; sweltering human flesh, the stench of overflowing toilets and poop, screaming kids and adults huddled together in crazed pandemonium. I've often feared that if that situation ever happened to me, I would be overcome with claustrophobia and morph into a deranged lunatic. I'm petrified that I would have a monumental meltdown, be rendered temporarily insane and not be responsible for my actions.

Last happened. I was on what was supposed to be an easy-breezy flight back to my home in Michigan. From the beginning of the trip I was jittery because we took off in a ferocious rainstorm with giant lightning bolts bombarding the skies. If that wasn't bad enough, it soon became apparent to me that my seatmate was a terrorist. Dressed entirely in black, he had dark unruly hair, a black unkempt beard and a bushy mustache. He seemed nervous and kept fidgeting. He held a small bottle of hand sanitizer and kept shaking it into his hands. My mind raced. The hand sanitizer stuff was no doubt some kind of bomb explosive gel that would blow us all to kingdom come any second. How did it get past security? Oh did I mention, we were flying on September 12, one day after the 8th anniversary of 9/11?

It turned out he was not a terrorist. He worked at Walmart. Or so he said. I tended to believe him after he told me his hard luck story. His girlfriend had just left him, his uncle died, grandpa died, dog died. He said he'd lost his house, lost his car, no money, no friends. "Bad luck seems to follow me everywhere." he said. Somehow he managed to find a glimmer of happiness working at a Super Walmart in the electronics department. On second thought, maybe he was a terrorist afterall. He told me this was his very first time on an airplane and then he offered me some of his hand sanitizer. I declined. Suddenly and without provocation, he stuck his huge fist right in front of my face. I was paralyzed with fear. "See this?" he asked.  I squeaked: "See what?"  He pointed to a dried blood-gouged section of skin on his fist and said "See this big scab on my knuckle? I cut my hand on a metal case at Walmart. It's a dangerous job there, that's for sure."  For my own safety, I nodded in agreement.

I quickly immersed myself in a book while Walmart dude licked his sore knuckle. After we emerged from the thunderstorm, it was smooth flying through beautiful, sunny skies. I looked out the window and the weather was perfectly clear, bright and not a cloud in the sky. A gorgeous fall day in the Midwest. Suddenly, about ten minutes before landing, the pilot made a shocking announcement. There was a mysterious fog hovering over our intended airport and the entire facility had shut down. Our plane was being diverted to South Bend, Indiana. We would wait there until the fog cleared. The pilot nonchalantly mentioned that our plane would also need to be refueled. Refueled? As in we're running out of gas?  Would we even make it to South Bend? Was there any gas left in the tank? Would we end up splayed out in an Indiana cornfield? Could we possibly manage to limp into South Bend on a wing and a prayer and fumes?  Dear, Lord, save us.

After buzzing acres upon acres of lush green, patch-quilt farm land, we landed at the South Bend airport--which from the air appears to be smack in the middle of Farmer Brown's back forty. We did not conveniently pull up to the terminal ramp. Instead, we were way, way, waaaaay back on the outfield of the airport. I could almost smell the soy beans. The pilot announced that dozens of other diverted planes were ahead of us waiting to get refueled. He asked that we kindly stay in our seats and behave ourselves for the duration---which at that juncture might be several hours.

A collective groan ensued from all the passengers. My Walmart buddy turned to me and said proudly as if trying to prove his point: See I told you bad luck follows me. Ignoring him, I looked up toward the loo at the front of the plane by the cockpit. Nobody was using it. I reasoned that in a matter of seconds, everyone would rush the toilets and use all the toilet paper. The toilets would overflow and crap would careen down the aisles. I needed to make my move at once. I grabbed my purse, tucked it under my arm, unbuckled my seatbelt and charged hellbent up 16 rows to the toilet. An attendant tried to stop me but I pushed past her. I felt like a football quarterback scoring a touchdown. Yahoo. The thrill of victory.

Exiting the restroom, I discovered I had reached it without a second to spare. Twenty people were in line. And there was only a half roll of toilet paper left. As I squeezed my way past the loo people, I noticed several mothers were changing their baby's diapers on the seats. The aroma of freshly brewed baby poo annointed the already stagnant air. Babies howled from one end of the plane to the other. Back at my seat, I heard bells ringing. Am I starting to lose it already? I worried. Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding. Non stop, the sound was merciless. It was the attendant call buttons going off....over and over and over. The culprits were two toddlers up front who were standing on their seat screaming at the top of their lungs and pushing the buttons. Their distraught mother had her hands full with an infant and could not restrain them. Suddenly a man in front of me stood up and screamed bloody murder at the flight attendant: Shut those kids up! They're driving us crazy. Make them stop pushing that button. The flight attendant appeared unflustered and did not respond. That made the guy even angrier. He raised his fist and hollered: I'd like to strangle that mother. Let me up there. I'll stop them. At that several of the passengers seated near him, including myself, drew ourselves around him and shouted: Shut up and sit down, you despicable, obnoxious, child-hating oaf or we'll beat you to a pulp. Or something to that effect. Apparently he felt outnumbered and I'd like to think our little gang put the fear of God in him because he sat back down and said not another word.  My one bit of advice to fellow travelers: Show some patience and compassion for mothers traveling with children. It's very hard coping with kids on a plane and those harried moms are doing the best they can in a difficult situation.

After we shut the big jerk up, the attendant announced: No more water. We've run out of water. Another loud groan errupted from the passengers. Luckily I had purchased a bottle of water at the airport and had it squirreled away in my purse. It occurred to me that I might make a hefty profit offering sips for sale to my thirsty traveling companions. But as the onboard situation seemed to be turning uglier every minute, I figured I'd best keep the water to myself lest some crazed lunatic cut my throat for it.

So there we were. I was grounded in my own nightmare, trapped with 165 other hapless souls in a giant steel tube. The sound of children screaming and crying pierced the cabin. An elderly lady began vomiting. Poop, piss and other foulish odors permeated every inch of the air. No food. No water. No toilet. Impatient and angry passengers cursed the flight attendants. The blonde woman across from me looked ready to faint. My seat pal, the Walmart guy, picked his scab and droned on about the merits of Korean-made flatscreens.  I wondered if Mr. Unlucky had not been on this plane if we would have had this problem. Is there such a thing as a person who dispells bad luck wherever they go? A spreader of ill fortune? Then I wondered just how long I could hold up before cracking up. How long had we been stranded? Two, three, four hours? My watch had stopped. WAIT! What's that outside? Oh my's a fuel truck.  And it's refueling our plane. The captain came on the loud speaker and informed us: Just a few minutes folks and we'll be on our way. Passengers errupted into applause. Sure enough, we were back up in the friendly skies and in no time, we landed safely at our destination.

Turns out we were on the tarmac in South Bend for only 55 excruciating minutes. I can only imagine what horrors would have occured if we'd been there any longer. Is it any wonder, I hate to fly?

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Janet said...

You crack me up!!

Sarah said...

great story - i feel your pain.

i suggest to shorten the story and the paragraphs, so not to turn away people with short attention span. young people nowadays all have ADD syndrome! :)

Boomer Pie. said...

I know what you mean, Sarah. But frankly, this blog is from a boomer's perspective and I guess I'm just long-winded! Thanks for your remarks.

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