Sunday, February 24, 2019

Breathless in the Bardo of Air Travel

I landed at Oakland airport on Friday night only five hours late, arriving from Denver, not on my original itinerary. There were small indications of trouble on that plane from the outset - a fat man in a loud aloha shirt who kept bawling inanities, a problem with one of the two toilets, the one at the front. We were told it was out of action, then - as lines grew long and twitchy at the back - that we could use it on condition we did not do "number 2" because of low water pressure. "Don't make me go in there and check what you did," said the humorist in the cabin crew.
    Three hours into the flight a small, elderly woman stood in the open door of the defective toilet gesturing for help. She was having trouble breathing. The flight attendants swung into action, clearing a seat at the front for her across the aisle from me, working with inhalers and oxygen tanks, parsing her limited English and her dozen boxes of pills to try to understand her medical condition. The lady was very scared. When her lips turned blue the decision was made to divert our flight to Denver.
    The EMTs were on the spot and wheeled the breathless woman away. We were promised a quick turnaround but - wait. Our plane was considered overweight because we hadn't burned enough fuel in our shortened flight; the mechanics were worried we had stressed the frame. And that toilet needed to be fixed.
    After a period of confusion we were given a new plane but no departure time. Snow was coming down hard and the clock was ticking on how long the crew would be allowed to remain on duty before a mandatory 8 hour break.
    After we boarded the new plane. we spent an awful hour on the tarmac de-icing and getting conflicting information. The blowhard in the aloha shirt kept yelling, "We'll be grounded! We'll never leave Denver!" He followed up these shouts with manic laughter. I finally leaned over and requested that he stop these predictions; they weren't funny any more. He wasn't happy with me but two minutes after he stopped announcing we would be grounded the captain came on the intercom to tell us we had been cleared for takeoff. After we got airborne, we were informed from the cabin that we had been "two minutes" away from being told we could not leave Denver that night.
    Not as eerie as another of my adventures in the Bardo of Air Travel, titles "What to Do When You Might Be Dead in Denver" that I included in my collection Mysterious Realities. But eerie enough. I had a new rowmate on the new plane, and we were sharing the empty seat between us - the only empty seat on the plane - to hold books and bottled water. When I put down my in-flight reading, a late collection of the strange stories of Jorge Luis Borges titled The Book of Sand, she laid what looked like a copy of a chapter from an academic book across it.
    I asked, "How do you think your text is getting along with Borges?" She had never heard of Borges, one of my favorite writers, so I had to explain how, in jeweled short-form fantasy, the Argentine writer takes us into the largest questions about reality. She now disclosed that her text - on personality cults and institutions in Latin America - was homework for a paper she is writing for a master's program. Argentina, Borges's country, is one of the case studies. And the political history of Latin America can be as fantastic as his stories.
    The conversation took another unlikely and synchronistic turn. My rowmate told me she had met the woman who developed a way to calm cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse by keeping them moving on a serpentine path. My mind was thrown back to a visit I made to a ranch in Mato Grosso decades ago before Temple Grandin’s work was widely known. I watched cows being driven up zigzag ramps to the platform where a slaughterer waited to crown them with a sledgehammer. I described this to my rowmate.
    The death blow might now be delivered in a different way, but – we agreed –the approach was similar. Like snaking round and round to get on a ride at Disneyworld. Or waiting in line to get on an airplane that might or might not follow its flight plan.

Image: Serpentine chute for cattle on the way to slaughter

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