the friendly skies


    When I was a kid, I loved to fly. Heck, for most of my life that’s been true.

    There’s always been a certain romance to getting on a plane and crossing a continent or an ocean in a matter of hours. When we lived in Zambia, we used to drive out to the airport in Lusaka to watch the British Airways VC-10s land. No one in the country had ever seen a plane that big. The flights were still long and often inconvenient, but we were stepping into the world of the Wright brothers and Charles Lindbergh and Ameila Earhart. We were doing what Icarus dreamed of and this time the wings didn’t melt.

    When we came back to the States on leave, we took a flight from Amsterdam to Montreal to Houston twice. I was going into sixth grade the second time and I remember taking off from Amsterdam right about sunset and flying due west all night long just fast enough to keep the sun from going down until we landed in Canada. Then there was the time – a little more harrowing and turbulent – when we flew on an old DC-3 from one end of Malawi to the other at about 7,000 feet. The next week, my brother and I were playing tennis at the Baptist encampment at Limuru, Kenya at the same altitude.

    I’m writing tonight from the Atlanta airport, one of my least favorite places in the world. I’m sitting on the floor next to an electrical outlet (so I can plug in my MacBook) and wondering where the romance went. It’s not so much fun to fly anymore. Part of the reason is the size of airports like this one. It took me about a third of the time it did to fly from Manchester, New Hampshire to Atlanta just to get from the gate where I landed to the gate where I’m making my connection to Birmingham. In between, they’ve managed to turn the airport into a hybrid shopping mall, another dehumanizing environment. While I’m in hell I can still shop!

    Part of the reason is flying is much more common. Airlines are flying buses these days; it’s how we get around. When the Space Shuttle made its first landing, I remember Frank Reynolds lamenting the end of our romance with space. Now, he said, it will become commonplace – and it did. Mine was the last generation that stared up into the starry night hoping to see satellites and wondering what it felt like to be Neil Armstrong.

    The rest of the reason is fear. (Yes, I realize this is a recurring them for me.) While I’ve been sitting here on the floor writing – about thirty minutes – the same Homeland Security (I hate that name) announcement has played telling me the alert color is Orange (relatively high) and I have to put any liquids and gels in a separate clear plastic bag, which they will provide and which can be searched separately of my carry on. The woman behind me in Manchester had to forfeit her eye drops because they were in a 4.5 ounce container rather than a three ounce one. Once they confiscated it, I was sure the color would drop to yellow.

    Fear makes us lose our sense of humor. Southwest, I will say, has managed to keep theirs, for which I’m thankful. My favorite instruction came the day the flight attendant was telling us how to use the oxygen masks and said, “If you are traveling with a child, put your mask on first and then fix theirs. If you have two children, pick the one you like best and tell the other one you’re sorry.”

    I’m not sure there’s much romance in that, but it was funny. I like funny.

    There’s probably not a way to keep the romance in flying. The world got smaller and we kept getting on airplanes until it was not as big a deal. They really are buses with wings. Maybe it’s not the romance I’m missing. Chasing that turns me into a nostalgic those-were-the-days-and-you’ll-never-know-what-it-was-like kind of guy. I don’t want to be him.

    As I’m writing, a flight has just unloaded at the gate across from me. The people walked out single file as if they were in Jonestown looking for Koolaid. Maybe that’s what bugs me. We know it’s ridiculous to give up our eye drops in the name of safety, but we do it. We know a bag of peanuts and a biscotti does not qualify as a meal. We know if we ever have to use our seat cushion as a flotation device we’re done for. We know the color of the day makes absolutely no difference. We know we’re being fed a load of crap.

    And we still line up with our boarding passes and do what they say.

    Rise up, O men and women of God; be done with lesser things.

    At the end of Arlo Guthrie’s wonderful song, Alice’s Restaurant – all twenty-five minutes of it – he tells his audience:

    And the only reason I’m singing you this song now is cause you may know somebody in a similarsituation, or you may be in a similar situation, and if your in a situation like that there’s only one thing you can do and that’s walk into the shrink wherever you are ,just walk in say “Shrink, You can get anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant.”. And walk out. You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he’s really sick and they won’t take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they’re both [nuts] and they won’t take either of them. And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. They may think it’s an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day,I said fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. And friends they may thinks it’s a movement.

    Hear me clearly: I’m not advocating bomb jokes or demanding to carry your Big Gulp sized shampoo in your carry on, yet there has to be a way to be creatively subversive to reclaim our humanity.

    Sit in the corner and sing while you’re waiting for your flight.
    Skip from gate to gate.

    Give a package of Peanut M & Ms to the surly gate agent.

    Maybe I’m crazy, but all I need are a few of you and we’ve got ourselves a movement. I guess that’s why I’m wearing my orange shirt today. I wonder if the TSA has noticed.




    1. Apologies — I posted the Arlo lyric without reading it fully (just remembering it) and failed to edit out a slur I’d rather not use. Sorry to those who read before I caught my mistake.


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