Flying to Arizona for spring training today reminded me of a couple of airplane stories. My most memorable one involves a small jet, a large Marine and a lesson about judging.
A few years ago, I was sitting in the waiting area by the gate for my flight to Sarasota, Fla. The jet was small — two narrow seats on each side of the aisle — and the flight would be two hours long. I glanced at the other passengers in the waiting area, trying to decide which one I didn’t want sitting next to me — have you ever played that game? The choice was easy.
There was a man in his 20s sitting in a nearby seat. He had bulging muscles and wide shoulders, which would probably intrude on my space if he sat next to me. Plus, he had a couple of rather unusual tattoos. And he didn’t appear to be very friendly.
Just like that, I judged him and decided he would be my first choice for sitting somewhere else.
Naturally, he wound up being the one sitting next to me.
He seemed rather nervous when he sat down. Said hello, not much more. As the plane taxied toward the runway, he leaned back and closed his eyes. I wondered if he was sick.
He stayed that way throughout our takeoff. The eyes remained closed, the hands were clenched.
Was he just afraid of flying?
Finally, he opened his eyes and seemed to relax.
“You OK?” I asked.
The man became apologetic. It was the first time he’d been on a plane since he got back from Iraq. Takeoffs and landings were still tough on him.
He went on to explain that military planes tended to make abrupt descents and ascents in Baghdad so that they’re tougher targets to shoot down. Those takeoffs and landings also tend to mess with the passengers’ stomachs. That’s why our takeoff had made him anxious — he got that feeling back again.
Wow! Can you even imagine?
For the next two hours, we got to know each other. He told me about his tour of duty that had just ended. He was on his way to Florida to see his fiancee. He was a sports fan, so I told him some of my stories and he seemed to enjoy them.
The two hours passed quickly. Finally, the landing gear was locked in place, the engines slowed, and the plane cleared the fence that surrounds the airport. We were seconds away from landing.
Suddenly, the pilot gunned the engines and lifted the plane’s nose. The man next to me buried his forehead in the back of the seat in front of him and closed his eyes. I patted his leg a couple of times for reassurance.
The pilot told us we were in no danger. There was a wind-shear warning for the runway. He decided to be safe and circle the airport one time. Soon, we were on the ground. I shook hands with the young man, told him I was glad to get to know him, and wished him luck.
I don’t know what became of him. But I’m glad he sat next to me.