A Flying Dog

A good friend and regular reader of this blog, One More Thing to Read, suggested that I revive On the Road but as an edgier version. I appreciate that observation, and it does seem that several posts have something to do with traveling. I’m not sure that I travel all that much, but it seems that when I do, I observe every aspect of my ever-changing environment.

For instance, on a recent flight, I was seated next to a woman whom I considered one of the last people who still makes an effort when traveling. One is so used to seeing travelers emerge from jet-ways looking as rumpled as the clothes in their luggage after a TSA bag search, so I was impressed that she had taken the time to pull herself together.

The flight wasn’t packed, so she opted to put her carry-on bag under the middle seat in front of us. I was already focused on a re-read of The Catcher in the Rye when she sat down. Reading a real book with actual pages to turn provides me the opportunity to mind my own business the moment my seatbelt is fastened without having to wait until the captain has reached the proper altitude for electronic gadgets.

Let me be clear: I say that I have the opportunity to mind my own business. That doesn’t mean I do.

I was involved in the antics of Holden Caulfield, so it wasn’t until I heard the first muffled bark that I realized the carry-on at my feet was indeed moving on its own. Earlier, I thought I had seen movement in my peripheral vision, and I was relieved to know that the bag wasn’t haunted. It was merely possessed.

The anxious Yorkie in the bag had let out a muted cry, and its owner reacted with such surreptitious attention that I was under the impression that she’d smuggled the little dog aboard. As she glanced around her in all directions, the woman projected the nervous demeanor of someone who has just shoplifted something sparkly from TJ Maxx, and based on the bling in her blouse, I suspected she was familiar with the store.

My seat-mate frequently bent over to get her head close to the bag, and it seemed to me that she was having difficulty letting the dog relax and settle down. From the corner of my eye, I watched as she constantly opened the pet carrier to speak to the dog. She would pull out some kibble, offer it to the poor little thing, and then she would grab its head and shove it back in like it had been naughty. The severity of her shoving may not have seemed such a big deal to her, but from where I sat, it looked like she was trying to un-deliver a baby. She struggled to zip the bag after each discourse, causing me wonder why she would continually open it if it was so much trouble to shove the dog back inside.

I looked up for a second to give my eyes a break from reading, and I saw the Yorkie ram its head through the small opening where the two zippers didn’t quite meet. Aha! The dog was unzipping the bag, but its owner had not thought ahead to put something through the holes in the zipper handles to keep them from separating. Even if she didn’t have a lock, surely she had a safety pin or even a paperclip.

Finally we were cleared for takeoff, and she shoved her pooch under the seat after giving it a final pre-flight lecture. This lasted so long that she missed the entire speech on safety belts and oxygen masks. The flight was just commencing, but I was curious as to how our trip was going to turn out. On the first leg, I’d shared a seat with a very interesting woman who had once lived near the Grand Canyon. We talked of the Southwest’s scenic topography, and we exchanged stories about the cuisine of her native New Mexico. I didn’t hold out much hope that any conversation with the Dog Whisperer would be as interesting since she was preoccupied with keeping her cantankerous cargo under control.

Because the flight was not full, and there were no assigned seats, her husband had opted to sit across the aisle. On a 95-degree day in both our departure and arrival cities, he spent the entire fight wearing a corduroy jacket and a facial mask as though the cabin air was cold and poisonous. I had yet to hear about MERS, and SARS had not been en vogue for over eight years, but he was afraid of something. I considered the possibility that pet dander had forced him into a seat across from his wife, but I assume he lives with the dog and was able to tolerate any possible allergens. Judging by his rare attempt to communicate with his wife across the aisle, I wondered if the mask’s purpose was to separate himself from a woman who had clearly insisted on bringing her dog against his will and better judgment.

When you travel alone, you never know who will end up seated next to you on a plane.

When you travel alone, you never know who will end up seated next to you on a plane.

I had gotten a quick look at my seat-mate as she made her way toward me, and she looked about 45. By comparison, the husband looked significantly older, which made me think the woman was a trophy wife.

After all her struggling and fidgeting, my reading material was less interesting as I repositioned myself in order to get a better look at the situation. We were not in the air very long when I noticed that she had taken off her shoes and had brought her legs up so that she could sit on them. I couldn’t miss the fact that they were plastered in bandaids. Was she treating blisters or preventing them? And those were not her only feet issues, as she had prominent lumps on both. The sort of lumps one gets from having worn the wrong shoes for decades, and the bandaids were a sign that she had not yet learned her lesson. In comfort mode, however, she had shown herself as the type of person who kicks off her shoes at the drop of a hat.

I’ve become even more germ conscious in recent years, and my imagination runs rampant when I think of the surfaces we walk on while wearing shoes. Just getting from your home to the airport, you’ve walked on the sidewalk at the terminal, across the floor, into a public restroom, across even more floor and then onto a plane. Add to that, shuttle buses, taxis and urban landscapes, and then multiply those exposures by the millions of other people who fly on a single day. The floor of an airplane, then, is a bacterial brew.

I cannot believe a single person thinks that the cabin floor somehow gets cleaned every night. They’re not shampooing those carpets when the crew leaves, and even when they do clean the carpet, you can be sure they’re not using antiseptic. If you’ve noticed that your tray table, when in the unlocked position, has something sticky on it when you take that first flight of a morning, you must accept that cleaning the floor isn’t even an afterthought. Keep your shoes on; especially if you have such pronounced lumps that could hang a jacket.

Coiled up with legs under her, my seatmate fidgeted as we flew over Arizona and New Mexico. The dog continued to unzip the carrier from time to time, and its owner continued to scold it as if the poor thing might suddenly comprehend English. I decided to say something.

“If it makes it easier on you, feel free to bring the carrier up to the seat. Perhaps your dog will relax if it’s seated next to you.”

“Oh!” she replied. “I can’t do that. They won’t let me.”

Her husband looked over and lifted up his mask in order to communicate. She told him that I had made an offer, but she couldn’t accept. He nodded toward me to acknowledge that they had been through this before, and there was nothing to be done. The dog’s restlessness didn’t bother me at all, but it was stressing my seat-mate. I felt that we’d all have a better flight if she could sit still.

Her excessive movement was causing her to get hot, so she pulled off her sparkly blouse to uncover a revealing halter-top. In California, we get anti-tobacco commercials, and they have shown to a generation the effects of long-term cigarette smoking. If only someone would form a campaign that shows the results of damaging sun exposure, we could change the look of senior citizens within our lifetime. The poor woman’s shoulders looked like the forearms of a redheaded farmer.

I couldn’t help myself, but I had to get another look at her face. I would have guessed somewhere between 40 and 45, but considering those arms and working my gaze down to those tragic feet, I calculated 11.7 years for every foot of her length. My hat is off to whoever worked on her face since she had barely a wrinkle or a blemish for someone so thin and sunbaked.

I ate my little bag of peanuts and returned to reading. The dog finally settled down, and I assumed it had gotten bored and decided to take a nap. It wasn’t until I looked up again to hand my trash to the flight attendant that I noticed my seatmate’s splayed position. Her left knee was pulled up to her chin, and her heel was barely preventing this foot from sliding off the seat. At a glance, it appeared that she had extended her right leg at a 45-degree angle. If she were trying to maintain some level of in-flight flexibility, she was succeeding.

Then I realized that her right foot was inside the pet carrier. If the dog was still inside it and awake, what was it doing? I felt like I was suppressing laughter in church. She was a shorter woman with smallish feet, and the pet carrier made it look as though she was wearing a cast boot the size of a small sleigh. For all her attempts to look elegant, she had failed. Her husband looked over and rolled his eyes as he turned away. I could only imagine the exchange before she won the argument to bring the pooch, but he was saying nothing while thinking, “I told you so.”

© 2014 by Patrick Brown

Cheerful Travel

I hadn’t been to Florida since Spring Break of my sophomore year. I had a great time that week even though by most collegiate standards the vacation I had was dull compared to the bacchanalian revelry one sees along the coasts. I stayed with a Baptist family and went to church five times. However, I still had time to water ski, lie on the sand and go to Disney World. I also learned how to play poker from a deacon’s wife.

The opportunity to return to Florida didn’t come for 30 years. When you live in Southern California, you have warm weather, mild winters and access to as much Disney as you want, so Orlando and its surrounding areas are not always among top travel destinations unless your goal is to reach the Caribbean.

We departed Los Angeles on a Friday in early April, in order to land in Orlando that evening. The flight time and the change of time zones kill the better part of a day, but we were prepared for that. We had very carefully selected our travel time to avoid certain things like hurricanes, spring break, election debacles and families vacationing with lots of children. Wouldn’t you know, the one thing we weren’t aware of was the annual cheerleading competition taking place in Orlando.

Gary and I made our way through the LAX terminal, noticing a few teenagers at drop off, then at security. They were fairly subdued at that hour, and they were so sporadic that we had no idea they were forming a herd to end up in our part of the terminal. My mind is distracted on travel days. From the point I close my luggage at home until I find a seat near the gate, I’m on a mission and cannot easily be distracted.

Once we arrived at the gate, there was no room in the seating area, so we piled our stuff in a couple of adjacent chairs before taking turns to get snacks for the trip. Having reached the gate, or close to it, I had begun to get into vacation mode. I had already dived into a book, so my head was down. The writing was smooth and the subject was interesting, so I barely noticed that the teens were gathering at the same interval as Hitchcock’s perching birds. It wasn’t until one of them flapped his wings, so to speak, that I realized what was happening. There was a legion of them, and they were beginning to wake up!

I wasn’t fully aware what fate had in store until the flight was announced. First-class boarding was called along with parents who need assistance with small children. I didn’t worry at first, as these young people were not gathering their things in preparation to depart, and since we had been seated in the adjacent gate’s lounge, I had forgotten that they were standing in our gate’s immediate boarding area.

As we waited our turn to board, I was in denial that any of these noisy kids would be going with us. Ours was a direct flight to Florida, and surely these spirited young people were in school somewhere. It was unlikely that they would be taking such a long trip so soon on the heels of spring break. No, they had to be going on some field trip to Sacramento to study state government. I heard more murmuring and the occasional shout, and with apprehension, I glanced over my shoulder to see 26 energetic teens and their sleepy sponsors lined up behind us. How could this be?!?

Of all the flights taking off that day from LAX, the cheerleaders were on ours!

Of all the flights taking off that day from LAX, the cheerleaders were on ours!

Gary and I try the occasional trick when flying coach. First, we buy as early as possible, and when there are three seats on each side, we buy A and C, hoping that no one will select B. This doesn’t work every time, and on really full flights, it doesn’t work at all. I always say that if someone sits in the seat, I’m going to deliberately spill into his or her space and hold conversations with Gary until the intruder decides to find available seating elsewhere, but inevitably we welcome the poor soul and I get smashed against the window. We usually get a sleeper that can’t be roused even if the oxygen masks drop.

Such was the case of Flight 4355, which by the way spells H*E*L*L on your telephone keypad. It seems that the sponsors were parents, and that these bleary-eyed guardians had decided their job was finished until the plane landed safely. After all, they had had roused their teens out of bed, survived the trek to and through LAX, and had made sure these kids, who were more and more awake by the minute, had gotten onto the correct plane. Getting into the correct seat, however, was the flight attendant’s job.

The parents lumbered down the aisle with large disposable cups of coffee, which I’m positive were decaffeinated. One such mother squeezed into the seat between us, her disposable coffee cup jerking so wildly over our heads that the familiar logo was just a green blur. Without a word, she kicked off her flip-flops, washed down a banana muffin and curled into the fetal position for the next five hours, 99% oblivious to the madness that reigned supreme.

We almost didn’t leave because one of the cheerleaders left her seat as we pulled away from the gate. She was looking for an electrical outlet in the wall of the cabin in order to charge her phone—the one that she, along with the rest of the passengers, had been instructed to turn off. Flight attendants and a couple of the girl’s peers called for her to take a seat. Where was her mother to tell her to sit down? Was her mother even chaperoning the trip? Did anyone know where on the plane her mother might be, or if she was on the plane?

Ah, that would be the woman sitting one row behind the disruptive girl, scrunched next to me, not saying a word. “Ma’am! Take your seat at once,” stated the flight attendant firmly. “But I need an electrical outlet. My phone is dying.” Mother of the Year clearly had a hands-off approach to letting her daughter handle her own business.

Once airborne, it was like flying with the cast of Glee. The noise and enthusiasm never waned for a second. No one instructed the kids not to practice cheers or told them that regardless of how cute they thought they were, the entrance to the plane’s rear galley is not the place to form a pyramid. The flight attendant in our stretch of the fuselage maintained a broad smile throughout though by the end it looked more like a grimace. You know she was seething on the inside each and every time she had to move that drink cart all the way to the back in order for one of the little darlings to get to the lavatory.

Perhaps it’s age, but I really think there’s a problem with too much self-esteem. I think it started with telling kids that they are winners just for showing up. Everyone gets a trophy, and if you attend a party, you get a goodie bag. We’re all winners; there are no losers. I don’t know who thought it up, but it was probably a couple of parents who never won anything when they were kids.

If everyone gets a prize for participation, how can anyone learn that everything that is said and done is not great? I recall the feelings of not winning a particular award, or coming in second or third place—or not placing at all. It made me try harder next time. A ribbon for participation at a grade-school track meet would’ve left me with the false impression that I was an athlete on par with the physically fit and agile. Surely I would’ve seen the truth after placing next to last with only the obese kid to eat my dust, but what if I had received a ribbon when my participation had been lackluster due to an utter dislike for running, not to mention my loathing for our track coach?

I struggle with humility enough as it is. Can one imagine what I’d be like if I’d been told everything I’d ever done was perfect? I’d be writing with way more grammatical errors and thinking every word out of my mouth is comedy gold. Self-esteem can lead to over confidence, and in the case of the non-athlete, it’s a slippery slope to becoming a cheerleader.

Midway through the flight, our seat-mate’s daughter, the one still looking for an electrical outlet, stood up and announced to anyone listening that she was a cousin to the Kardashians. (I love that when you type Kardashian it comes up as a misspelled word. There may still be hope for humanity.) This particular cheerleader didn’t look the type to have sat on a secret like that for the first seven months of the school year, so I was quite sure that she was directing her remark to anyone within earshot even though her head was turned in the general direction of another cheerleader.

She must’ve been disappointed when no one, not even her comatose mother, looked up to see who had announced being on the fringes of pop-culture “greatness.” My nose was in my book so that she couldn’t see me listening. I glanced over at her dozing momma, mouth agape and drool running down the corner of her mouth. With no care for her physical appearance, I deduced that the head cheerleader’s blood connection to the Kardashians was paternal.

Somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, I was hit with a memory. I was in college, perhaps a year or two after my previous Florida trip. I was traveling with a musical group, and toward the end of the tour, 50 of us disembarked from the charter bus, bursting with energy and the urge to spread out. We had been dropped off at a private school where we would have lunch and a free afternoon. Lunch plans were delayed when the director pulled us together for an impromptu meeting. She told us that she had never been so embarrassed by such insensitive and arrogant behavior. Who did we think we were? Where did we think we were, and how had we ever come to believe that we could walk in like we owned the place?

My co-travelers that long ago day and on this flight were insensitive, and yes, rude. My true discomfort was recognizing my lack of patience when I had once been in their shoes.

©2014 Patrick Brown