Last Friday night, I was on the last segment of my flight, due to arrive at 9pm. Like 90% of Friday night air travelers, I was exhausted and just wanted to keep to myself. Most of us have been out of town on business, and this time of year in the midwest brings a myriad of blights on the already mercurial air-travel experience. Delays, overweight and/or overbooked flights, and the dreaded flight cancellation all loom ominously larger in winter, especially for the well-seasoned traveller.
All of these factors, coupled with the urgency to get home after a long week away make Friday nights in airports especially charged with negative energy.
As I was boarding my plane, I saw a mother hugging and kissing her son, who was wearing a letterman's jacket that said 09 on the sleeve. The fact that she was allowed to accompany him to the boarding gate (unheard of in post-9/11 times) coupled with the way she clung to him - a little too hard, a little too long- before wishing him luck and telling him everything would be ok, caught my attention. Immediately I marked him as having some kind of mental disorder.
Then I shot up a prayer to St. Christopher, Patron Saint of Travellers: Please, don't let him be sitting by me.
I am ashamed to admit that I do this frequently. I scope out the crowd at the boarding gate and wonder which one I will be sitting next to. Inevitibly I find a few I really hope I won't be sitting next to: the extremely obese guy in grungy sweatpants, the somewhat tipsy lady chatting incessantly to someone she obviously doesn't know, the woman holding her rosary and praying, who jumps every time an announcement comes over the intercom, the guy who speaks exceptionally limited English and is asking anyone he can make eye contact with about his ticket, bags, etc.
Then I feel like crap for being such a bitch.
I guess part of me feels that I've helped a heck of a lot of people in my lifetime, and is it too much to ask to be able to sit in my miniscule airplane seat and just read a book, without having to smell, touch, listen to, talk to, or otherwise be imposed upon by the person who just happened to be assigned to the seat next to me?
At any rate, I got on the plane and realized this kid was behind me and to my right, at a window seat (I always take an aisle seat). His nose was plastered to the window and he was watching all the ground activity with avid interest. I thanked St. Christopher for coming through for me, and settled in to my "luxurous" airline seat for the ride home. Then a middle-aged businessman took the seat next to the kid, and the kid pounced on him.
"Hi, I'm Greg! I've never been on a plane before! This is so cool! I'm really nervous though. What's your name?"
I groaned mentally, feeling very sorry for that guy. He responded politely but noncommitally, which an ordinary person would have interpreted as "Thanks for the offer, but I'd really prefer not to chat with you. No offense."
But Greg was far from an ordinary person. He related his whole travel story to this man, and because his voice carried quite well, soon much of the plane knew of this kid's situation. He was going to visit his uncle, his uncle had paid for the ticket. He had never flown, and was excited and scared. Where was the businessman from? Oh, yeah, that was close to where he was going. What was the weather like there? What did the businessman do? Wow! He flew in planes all the time? Wasn't he scared that he'd die in a plane crash? Had he ever had to go out an emergency exit?What's that sound? The cargo door shutting? Where's the cargo door? Where was the businessman from again? Oh, yeah, that was close to where he was going! ....Oh boy....they're closing the plane door.... We're going to be okay, right? Must be about time...!
As the plane pushed back from the gate, the kid's mood escalated. As the flight attendants gave their spiel about plane safety, emergy exit rows, water landings, etc, the kid was quiet. Then he said to the man, as quietly as he could, "Well, I don't feel like any of those things are going to happen on THIS flight, do you?" The man assured him that those things were rare, and that he had flown enough times that if anything did happen, he would help the kid out; he had heard those instructions hundreds of times. The kid breathed a sigh of relief, and said, "Well, I'm glad I'm sitting by YOU then! Thanks." Then he got real quiet for the taxi. I sincerely hoped the kid wasn't going to go off the deep end as we took off, or freak completely in flight. My years of nursing experience taught me to always be wary of the quiet ones.
As the plane took off, the kid's nose was once again plastered to the window. He couldn't contain his excitement, and nearly yelled, "WOAH!! THIS IS AMAZING!" Most of us hid our surreptitious smiles, and I was reminded for a moment of how it felt to take that first flight.
The kid was nervous, though, and anxiously questioned every sound, every bump, every speed change and bank of the plane. The man reassured him tirelessly, and very patiently. He told the kid many times, "Everything's fine. Really. It's all normal. You're going to be okay, OK?"
By the time we landed, the kid was elated. He'd finished his journey. It was the coolest thing he'd ever done. He couldn't wait to tell his uncle. The businessman "shared" in his enthusiasm, and congratulated him on being a great traveller. They parted ways with a, "Good luck," and a "Nice to have met you," and that was that.
I really really wanted to pat the businessman on the back and tell him how much I admired him for being so patient and supportive of that kid, and for bolstering his confidence and not squelching his enthusiasm. I didn't though, because I didn't want to embarass the kid. Or the man. He knew he had done well, and hearing it from me could have done more harm than good.
That kid had a 95% chance of sitting beside someone who would have tried his or her best to ignore him. Or pooh-pooh his anxiety. Or look with disdain on his enthusiasm. Or shut him out entirely. It could have ruined his whole experience. Yet this kid was lucky enough to sit next to a man who was able to look far enough beyond his own frustrations and exhaustion to see that this kid needed someone to lean on for the 45 minutes we would be in the air. And then he made the decision to give this kid what he needed, wholeheartedly, and with sincerity.
I'd like to think I would have done the same. But I honestly don't know if I could have on that particular Friday night flight.
Or if I could have, if I would have? And if I would have, would I have been able to do it with such goodwill and genuine concern?
I just don't know.
But witnessing this act has made me certain that I now have an example to live up to.
Bless you, patient and kind businessman, wherever you may be. You've made a positive difference in that kid's life, and in mine too.
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