The airplane ovation

The most interesting things happen at airports and on airplanes. Maybe this is why while the very thought of packing and preparing for a trip throws me into brief fits of ugly hysteria, I immediately grow calm once my bags are checked and I am free to wonder the airport. Airports, frankly, are a writer’s paradise.

I’m something of a connoisseur of American airports at this point in my life. My favorite airport is still Pittsburgh International. The new airport in Detroit is fine as well, and I love Atlanta’s airport. My judgment on San Diego’s airport? It sucks. Before you think I spent too much time judging San Diego (which truly, I did enjoy incredibly), I’d like to point out that this verdict is also supported by Thomas, A Business Man from Savannah, GA.  I found myself sitting next to Thomas on Tuesday evening at the small bar near my gate after a fruitless attempt to find anywhere to enjoy an actual sit-down meal. He was drinking a beer, I a vodka tonic. I don’t remember what we started talking about first but he was very kind and I enjoyed our casual conversation. I remember he works for a credit card company and hates all of the travel because it keeps him away from his wife and young children. About mid-way through my drink, he looked at me and said “You know, there is absolutely no where to get a good meal in this airport.”

“I know!” I said. I myself was slightly dazed from wondering from McDonalds to the yogurt shop and back again, blinking and wishing for an actual restaurant with a menu I could hold in my hand. While I had wonderful meals  in San Diego I hadn’t really had time to, as my grandma called it, dine, with a glass of wine and different meal components, like salad and bread and dessert, and while I love tacos and fried scallop plates, S. and I make a regular habit of dining and I had missed it. I was looking forward to, if not a good meal at the airport, at least the experience of dining.

“Even in the airport I last connected in, there was a Chilis.” Thomas said. “It wasn’t great but you could get a steak. I just really wanted a steak.” He looked so forlorn my heart actually hurt for him because, you know, I get it. You are away from your family, your home – even your office takes on a sheen of nostalgia when you’ve been gone too long. And let’s face it, sometimes food IS comfort, and to be forced, as Thomas and I were, to order “roasted turkey sandwiches” which were pulled from a cooler and came with accompanying mustard packets, well – it sort of hurts your soul, a bit.

Later, when I boarded the plane, I found myself in the same row as the largest man I’ve seen on a plane, and the smallest. The largest man was heading out on a business trip – the smallest was a cancer researcher returning to Columbia University. It was a chatty plane of people, and the plane fairly hummed with the buzzing of it. The cancer researcher and I spent some time discussing the conference, but somewhere between takeoff and drink service concern flitted across his features.

“I forgot my movie earphones in the hotel!” He said. “I paid for them and I got to watch Chris Rock all the way here, and now I don’t have them!”

I didn’t really know what to say. I thought about offering him my ipod earphones but I had already offered up my aisle seat to the largest man I’ve ever seen and I really didn’t think I could fall asleep without Bob Dylan, since I am nothing if not a creature of habit and like the Starbuck’s lemon poundcake and cappuccino I always eat when traveling, Bob Dylan is who sings me to sleep on planes. I couldn’t bring myself to give him up.

“They are just two dollars.” I said. “You could get another pair.”

“No, no. This is just terrible. I already paid for a pair. Already I am missing Hillary on Conan! Now I can’t watch the movie!”

“Here,”said the largest man. “You can have my earphones. I brought earplugs and I’ve taken a valium so I’m not going to need them.”

There was much “are you sure-ing” and “thank-you-ing” and but in the end the cancer researcher took the earphones and I swear I have never seen anyone enjoy any film as much as he enjoyed “The Water Horse.”

And so.  The airline I was flying has apparently decided there is nothing like a bunch of captive passengers, and decided to pitch its own credit card to us. Attendants walked up and down the aisle with credit card applications trying to convince us to fill out forms. The particular attendant for our area was particular aggressive and told us he had five kids to support and he could win a plasma screen television with only five more applications. I was mentally rolling my eyeballs when this kid next to me muttered, not quite under his breath, Get fucked.

Something about it – I don’t know – made me laugh out loud. He smiled at me and said, I’m sorry, but this guy is an asshole.

“Right?” I said (a response which warrants in own post soon). The guy was an asshole.

“This is the last thing we need,” he said, gesturing towards, apparently, the whole rest of the plane. “I’m already pissed off about how cold it is in Maryland.”  Some of his friends turned around and nodded their agreement.

“We got used to California weather,” another one said.

“I read somewhere that in Baltimore, on the first day of spring, all the boat owners burn their socks in order to celebrate the beginning of boat season,” I said.

“All of their socks, or just one pair?” Asked my neighbor, frowning.

“Just one pair, I think. You know, because then they can wear boat shoes without socks…”

“Makes sense,” said one of the kids ahead of me. “But we won’t be there too long anyway. We are headed for parachute school.”

And that’s when your intrepid writer finally noticed. The boy next to her. The boys ahead of her – and they were boys, reader. And row after row after row ahead of them – at least three out of every five people on the plane  had the tell-tale buzz cut and wore fatigues. And their energy, their bantering, is what kept a normally sleepy flight buzzing.

“All of you are going to parachute school?” asked the cancer researcher.

“No,” said my neighbor, gesturing to the small group around us. “Just us. We’re the badass motherfuckers of this plane!” Again, he said it so exuberantly it was impossible to be offended. Everyone was going to special training. We were on a plane full of troops on their way to three months of special training before going, of course, to Iraq. And, God. I mean – God.  They were BOYS. Many of them didn’t even yet have planes and angles emerging in their features. Their faces were unlined, their energy contagious. They tried buying beer on the plane, but were too young. They made jokes. They talked about what it would be like to jump out of planes. What it would be like in Iraq. Once they thought I was asleep, they talked a little about having sex with their girlfriends. And all I could think about was how ever since my dad returned from Vietnam, he has slept on his back with his arms crossed over his chest because that is how he slept with his gun. And how you can’t wake him up in the middle of the night without being fearful of his reaction. And how that war has been like another member of our family – or, like the burning smoke of a distant city, tinging the air around us – or, like a jungle cat, waiting to leap on its prey – but mostly how it took a small-town football playing, hopeful writer and turned him into to someone who can’t sleep, someone haunted by the an experience no one he shares blood with can identify with, and according to all my reading this is the same thing we are doing to this young generation of boys, and how it is criminal.

I fell asleep for much of the flight, and when I awoke the boys around me were sharing gum with one another and debating the various merits of Bubba-licious versus another kind. This is how young they were: they were talking about the different flavors of bubble gum.

I wonder if we could end this war if our government officials were forced to fly in coach for nearly five hours with a plane full of boys alternately discussing what it would be like to jump from a plane into the Iraqi dessert, and bubble gum?

As frustrating as it can be to be an American right now – at least, an American who hasn’t supported this war from the beginning and who finds herself disillusioned with how her values stack up against the rest of her countrymen, beautiful moments can still break through. Here is one.

When we landed, our attendant, the one who my neighbor told to get fucked, came over the broadcast.

“As you may have noticed,” he said. “We have some very special guests riding with us today. We have been accompanied by many men and women from the army, and I just think we should give them all a big round of applause for all they do for us.”

And people, the plane thundered with applause. And passengers stood up, until attendants came by and sheepishly asked them to sit down and buckle their seat belts. And the boys all looked sort of sheepish and embarrassed and slunk down a bit in their seats, and my neighbor looked to me and said we haven’t done anything yet. And I thought about how tricky living a whole entire life can be – how as we age solace can be found in a hot dinner or a movie or a stand-up comic and how that’s not all that different from when we were young, when a misbegotten beer made us almost as happy as our favorite kind of bubble gum.

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16 Responses to The airplane ovation

  1. Noble Savage says:

    I was reading a feature story about British troops in Iraq last weekend and many of the the accompanying photos were of CHILDREN. Not men, BOYS. I can imagine how seeing so many of them up close and personal, the excitement fresh on their faces, would be difficult knowing what you do about how war affected your father.

    On a lighter note, thanks for the tip about lack of food at San Diego airport. If I ever have to fly through there I will be sure to prepare myself for a McMeal and an overpriced beer.

  2. indiawallis says:

    Totally didn’t expect that from a post about b-travel – I have tears in my eyes.

  3. auntjone says:

    I’m not sure how long I’ve been reading your blog, and I haven’t gone through your archives yet, but I truly believe this is the most beautiful, thought-provoking post you’ve written yet.

    And I must say if I’m faced with a credit card application while being held captive…I mean flying to Colorado this summer I will go off. I will not mutter. I will not be polite. I will also be 6 months pregnant so they better watch themselves.

  4. I don’t know if you read Barbara Kingsolver- she’s one of my favourite writers. She writes profound and lovely essays about meeting people, about things that happen that seem insignificant and might actually be a cornerstone of our lives- and your piece reminded me of her in its goodness to other people, and observant nature. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say this is one of the most moving things I’ve read in a long, long time. This is what I look for when I pick up a book of essays. Please keep doing this.

  5. smithereens says:

    A great post, Courtney, one that moved me in very unexpected ways, even if I hardly go to any airport and am very far from the US! Thanks so much

  6. Make Tea Not War says:

    I just teared up reading this. Lovely, unexpectedly moving writing Courtney

  7. Emily says:

    You and I are absolutely, positively living in a parallel universe. Either that, or we just travel too much. Before I got home from all my travels last week and collapsed, brain dead, I was writing a very similar post to this one in my head that never made it to the screen (complete with my panicked state over packing and leaving for trips, my joy once I’m in an airport, even for hours and can people-watch and eavesdrop, and boys headed to Iraq and everything). Thanks for writing it for me, better than I could have.

  8. Cam says:

    This is such a moving post, Courtney. It starts out so casually, so everyday, then moves flawlessly to its powerful conclusion.

  9. Like your other readers, I am moved and have tears in my eyes. You are a wonderful essayist, Courtney. Thank you.

  10. Dorothy W. says:

    Great post Courtney — it is moving and beautifully written.

  11. kimhaasdesign says:

    Beautiful post, Courtney! You observe the people and world around you with such an open mind and open heart.

  12. SA says:

    That’s some mighty fine scribbling, cuz.


  13. Stephanie says:

    Oh, Courtney! This is what a blog should be! You should think about trying to send this post out as an essay. I feel for these boys…and the comparison to your dad’s post-war trauma is just so powerful. I agree with all the comments above mine: keep observing, and keep writing about what you observe. Kudos, kudos.

  14. Courtney says:

    Noble Savage – It was incredibly startling to see it so up close. I wonder if this is why Americans have disengaged themselves from the war so much – we so rarely see the actual faces of the war?
    India – WELCOME – and thank you for the kind words.
    Aunt Jone – Thank you so much. And don’t bother going through the archives…I doubt there is much going on in them. And CONGRATS on your pregnancy – how wonderful!
    Elementary – How incredibly flattering – I love Barbara Kingsolver as well. Thank you for the lovely comparison and don’t worry, I’ll keep at it.
    Smithereens – thank you for being such a loyal reader.
    Make Tea – Aw. Now go drink a gin and tonic!That’s what I intend to do…
    Emily – this confirms we simply must meet in person, if only to make sure we aren’t living in different universes. Once S. is settled here I’ll email you to make the plan…
    Cam – thank you!
    Dorothy – ditto!
    Kim – what a kind, kind thing to say. I am blushing.
    SA – Thank you. I am hoping to see you LOTS this summer, babe.
    Stephanie – I will do my best to keep at it, thank you!

  15. Stefanie says:

    Oh Courtney, you made me cry. What a beautiful post.

    As someone who grew up in San Diego and who has been through that airport many times, I can wholeheartedly agree with you about how much it sucks. And every time I am there, there are also lots of boys, fresh from bootcamp at Camp Pendelton, flying home to see their parents or flying somewhere for special training and it breaks my heart.

  16. Elaine says:

    A brave and beautiful post from a brave and beautiful writer.

    Thank you for this, Courtney – from one vet’s daughter to another.

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