Sunday, May 4, 2014

Hit or Miss: One More Day in the Air

On my first flight of the day, my rowmate was an off-duty flight attendant. I asked her to tell me the best story from her 16 years in service to the airline we were on. To my mild surprise, she launched into a litany of complaints about her employer. The airline was losing money hand over fist, missing opportunities, buying the wrong equipment.I did not feel this boded well for the trip, and was quite relieved when she arranged herself in a state of suspended animation, donning lined gloves as well as a sleep mask and several blankets.
   Changing planes at Chicago's O'Hare airport, I was fascinated by the behavior of a woman in front of me in the line for my connecting flight. She laid her roller bag flat on the floor, stomped on it, then walked up and down on it. I assumed she was trying to flatten the dumpy bag in order to meet the size restrictions for carry on baggage. This proved to be correct. "It's my stuff!" she asserted, stomping again. "I know what it can take." I remarked that I was glad I had not heard anything squealing or even crunching inside that martyred bag. The symbolism of the incident was rich. May of us try to deal with life's excess baggage in a similar way.
   On my second flight, bound to Seattle, my rowmates were a pleasant mother and daughter traveling to the Pacific Northwest for the first on a mix of business and pleasure. We talked about the Pike Place Market (one of the world's great synchronicity magnets), the Sci-Fi museum, whale watching, ferries to the islands.
   Before we left the gate, the captain spoke on the intercom telling us there was a problem at the ramp. His next announcement was brusque. All passengers would deplane immediately and were asked to stay in the boarding area while the ground staff looked for a replacement plane.
   They found another plane, and as we were boarding I heard the captain explaining what had gone wrong with our original aircraft. As he told it, the operator of a fueling platform wasn't paying attention as he raised the platform. He caught the underside of the fuselage with a corner of the platform and punched a hole in the bottom of the plane.I was glad to have this vivid account, which had the makings of a story. All we had been told officially was that there was a "maintenance issue" with the original aircraft.

    "Did you hear what happened to our first plane?"I asked the flight attendants as I boarded the replacement plane. "Yes,"one said, "but you're not supposed to know about that."
   "It's hard to keep me away from a good story," I riposted.
   We took off ninety minutes late. The man in front of me tried to pay for a drink with an airline credit card which the same airline's credit card reader refused to process. The same thing happened to me. The flight attendant shrugged and said, "This airline is always buying things that don't work."
   I read a little of a novel, then dozed for a bit until the slap of cards being shuffled and dealt carried me on a wave of memory, back to an earlier life, within this life. I was a reporter again, basically under house arrest in the midst of a civil war in an African country. I was playing poker with an assortment of partners who included three very tough French mercenaries. I kept winning. I had won over $4,000 when a British friend whispered to me, "You'd better learn how to lose a few hands or they are going to kill you." I took his advice.
   I thought about how a sound, or a smell, or a taste can take us back to an earlier time, with all of our senses, like Proust's madeleine or the glint of silica in the steps of the Paris metro.
   I turned to my left to see what was going on with cards on this flight. The daughter was playing a kind of solitaire. She explained that it's called Hit or Miss, a game she played again and again on road trips as a kid.
    We shared a little of our lives with each other. She explained that she was an electrical engineer, a specialist in "failure analysis" who did hands-on inspection of faulty microchips (for example) to identify what had gone wrong. She liked the detective element, the forensics, in this line of work. She had recently been laid off, but clearly had skills that were marketable in many places. One sector where she would not look for a job, she said firmly, was the aviation industry. She would prefer not to know any more than she did about what can go wrong on planes.

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