Believe it or not, it didn’t used to be that way.
I must’ve been all of eight or nine when I got on that first airplane. See, back then, traveling was a big deal for my parents. Since we weren’t what you’d call the “vacationing types", my dad’s idea of a summer vacation usually consisted of a few trips to his local watering hole with me in tow and just enough change in his pocket to keep me occupied playing one of the old fashioned bowling machines. I guess he figured it made his life easier to keep me occupied by doing that than it was for me to actually climb on his lap and bullshit with the other patrons.
C'est La Vie.
Anyway, those bowling machines, they were the ones that you had to keep the "lanes" supplied with a generous coating of sawdust just to keep the puck from sticking or so that it would come back to you after you made your toss. Even then, one of the corner pins seemed to be habitually busted so that picking up that fuckin’ inevitable seven ten split was damn near impossible. One of the “pins” always seemed to be dangling there like a broken arm or like some dead limb hanging off a tree. The bells that were supposed announce your spares and strikes had long since seen better days and seemed to whisper rather than chime and the counter that kept your score always seemed to stick on the whims of the ghosts inside the guts of the machine.
As I later learned, like a lot of things in life, those minor irritations could be cured by something as simple as a swift kick in its ass.
Oops. Got a bit off topic there, sorry.
But all of that changed on a fateful day that year when my sister, who had recently re-located to Ohio invited us out for a visit. Since we were denizens of NYC and didn’t have the luxury of a car, my father booked us on a flight on (I’ll never forget this) American Airlines.
I remember how excited I was on the “big day”. Maybe traveling by air was different back then, more the exception than the norm it is today. I remember us all having to get dressed up our my Sunday best and going through a rigorous inspection that would’ve made my future Marine Corps Drill Instructors proud. There was no way my appearance was going to be any kind of source of embarrassment to my parents.
We called a car service and made our way to the airport. After checking in, I recall thinking to myself that the place was huge and the size of the planes themselves would make it impossible for them to get off the ground. I expressed my fear to my dad who gave me the old “Don’t worry son” pat on the head and since we had loads of time to kill, found his way to the nearest airport bar.
Back then, just as it is today, being delayed in an airport for any reason, sucks.
Deciding to make the best of a bad situation, my dad did one of the few things he was really, really good at. He imbibed.
After our flight was finally called and we got on the plane and were seated I’m thinking my dad smelled my initial fear of flight. He began making those sputtering noises using his tongue between his lips and using his hand to simulate an airplane taking off. Just when it reached its apex, he’d simulate it crashing back down to earth with full sound effects.
Some of the other passengers, probably those with some flight time under their belt, actually found his schtick funny but others, probably novices like yours truly, asked him to kindly stop. Always one to love a captive audience, he ignored them. These were long before the days when you could boot somebody off the place just for being an unruly passenger. He paid his money, he’d have his way.
One of the stewardesses (this was the days before they were “flight attendants”) saw the distress I was feeling and asked me and my folks if it was okay if I wanted to go up front for a few minutes. My little eight or nine year old brain wasted no time and I think the imploring look on my face put to rest any doubts or reservations that my parents might’ve had.
She (they were all “she’s" then) ushered me up to the cockpit where I met the captain and other members of the flight crew and was taken on a quick tour. I was given one of those complimentary sets of pilot wings that they kept on hand for just this type of circumstance. Then, I was seated up front in first class, given a complimentary deck of playing cards with the airline’s logo on it (yup, they actually had that kinda stuff on hand back then) and asked if I was hungry.
It’d been a long day already and I’m not exactly sure how I responded but once we got up in the air, all I know is that I was given food. Plenty of it.
I think my dad passed out midway through the flight but was awakened when the captain announced that we were stuck in a holding pattern because a plane had somehow gone “off the radar”. Never one to miss a good joke, I remember hearing him from the few rows that separated us saying at the top of his lungs:
“Jesus Christ, I hope it ain’t us!”
(Nervous laughter all around)
Too much time has passed between now and then for me to remember what the menu was or what I had and it probably tasted like shit anyway. For all I know, some of it is still making its way through my digestive system. That's not the point though.
What I do know is this, I wouldn’t have traded that meal in for all of the pizza, hot dogs or hamburgers in the world.
Fast forward to now.
I’ve traveled too much over the years to know that those types of acts of kindness probably don’t occur all that often. That these days, the entire airline industry is struggling and you’re lucky to get a bag of stale pretzels and/or peanuts with just enough lukewarm soda or water to wash it down. The service is almost bordering on rude and that at times you’re treated more as inconvenience than a paying passenger.
But still, after boarding hundreds if not thousands of planes during my life, I still get a bit of a smile and the warmth of a memory when I fly American Airlines.
I think that’s something all the airlines should keep in mind as they trek us around the globe.