Monday, August 15, 2005

Traveling Man

It's the cow gonna be hamburger experience.

You wait in a pen with lots of noise all around and folks you don't know and will never see again bumping against you and there's no place comfortable to sit, and you can't hear that tv hanging from the ceiling except for every third word. Then they smile and take your ticket and march you through a door that looks all the world like the door to happiness but as soon as you smile back at the nice lady and step through, you see the long sloping hallway of no return you have to walk down and it's really hot, as you wait behind the morbidly obese woman that you are (please, please, please) hoping won't be sitting next to also have pretty solid thoughts about the man with the wild child he's trying to hang on to who's standing behind you.

"This might not be much fun", you think.

But it works out. Your seat mate turns out to be a pretty girl, petite, and fits nicely into her seat with no parts hanging over into your space. Her Dad and brother are sitting behind her and you get to have a nice conversation about a planned road trip she and her college buddies are planning fron New Hampshire to Nashville. She has a to-do list that includes line dancing and buying a cowboy hat. You don't point out that Nashville is the fake cowboy capital of the world and that if you really want a cowboy hat, and you have a three hour layover at the next stop, which happens to be Dallas, you might...But she pounds two Bloody Marys as soon as the cart rolls by and the conversation deteriorates. Mental note: They didn't check her I.D. and she looks about fourteen to you. This has implications about your own age that you refuse to acknowlege.

On the next leg to Atlanta, as we walk down the cattle chute, the craziest child on the planet is being held onto by two parents. They look very strong. This turns out to be a good thing. The child cannot speak in normal volumes and likes to scream if he is denied the slightest gratuity.

By sheer force of will and parental determination, the man and woman manage to get the child into a seat next to the window, where they figure he will have to get past both of them in order to escape. I meditate on people's lack of foresight and planning as the child immediately ignores the two frantic parents and climbs over the seat in front and starts jumping around laughing happily in the lap of a very surprised woman who simply does not know what to do. Here she has resigned herself to an abbatoir and now she learns that someone left the orangatan cage door open, in order to make her last moments even more incredibly unbearable. She is mauled by the parents as they wrestle and retrieve the feral primate they have loosed upon the world. She will spend the longest hour and a half of her life on the flight to Atlanta, waiting for the next ear piecing screech from the seat behind her. I can see her head rock forward each time the child kicks the back of her seat. I wonder if she is thinking about the emergency door two seats ahead. She might jump if the flight isn't over soon.

Down the slaughterhouse chute once more...last one, to Nashville. They push us away from the gate and the pilot imediately comes on and points out the light show from the thunderstorm at one end of the runway.

We sit on the tarmac for two hours. They bring us a granola bar but won't give the guy next to me a beer. I can tell he is going home because he has an orange baseball cap and a U.T. tee shirt. We talk for a while and then he gets up and goes back to talk to the flight attendant. After a while he returns. "She won't give me one" he says. He looks tired. He may be the only person on the plane without a cell phone, and I loan him mine to call home. He has been away for a week.

"I was visiting family in Hartford", he said.

As we chat, it seems to me he is babbling a bit...making conversation to prevent himself from being alone in his head. People get to know each other sitting in a big metal can like sardines for two hours. He has been to a funeral. His year younger. Suicide.

"Bad", he said.

"I'm sure."

"All our family is in Hartford. It happened here. I was the first one at the scene...before the ambulance and the police...

"Bad!" he said again, looking at me.

"You gonna be ok? That kind of thing is really tough on the family. Takes a while to get over."

"I took him with me back to Hartford...Bad."

The flight attendant walked by and asked him if he could step to the back for just a minute. He was gone long enough to sit with the attendants and drink his beer.

How did she know?

He told me the flight attendant said she was a big Tennessee fan and saw his shirt. I didn't mention the code for funeral attendee that would be printed on his ticket.

When he came back, we talked about hunting and hydraulic excavators. He works at a factory that makes them in Chattanooga.

"Be careful driving" I tell him. "You get the least bit sleepy, pull over and catch a nap, Ok?"

We said bye at the shuttle bus to the parking lot.

A bunch of tired but mostly relieved people got on the bus. It filled up and some folks had to be turned back. The last seat left was next to me, and an attractive, but obviously unhappy, woman got on the bus and looked around before sitting down.

"This has not been a good day," she said. She was very nicely dressed up like she was headed out for an evening on the town, and was wearing too much perfume. Her husband's flight had just been cancelled. He was coming home on leave from the war.

"I haven't heard from him since he left Kuwait," she said. There was a cell phone clutched in her hands. She looked down at it over and over but it didn't ring.

"I have to drive three hours back home, now... I don't know what to do...two crying boys at home."

Several of us said the most comforting things we could think of to her, knowing that nothing would help except a call from her husband.

Her perfume was filling the air, blotting out all else. An American soldier was not getting an All American welcome home that had probably been months in anticipation. We all wondered why he hadn't called.

She was pretty. "This hasn't been a good day", she said again. We all felt bad for her. Everyone wanted to help but no one knew how.

I drove home, two hours, through a series of spectacular thunderstorms. Nasty weather to struggle through on the way back to my family. I thought of the grieving brother and hoped he would get home Ok, and I thought of the soldier's wife and her ruined plans...Hoping something would go right for her and her husband. Having been, long ago, the crying child lying in bed wanting his father to come home...I hoped things would somehow work out for the confused and bewildered woman driving back to Kentucky in this brutal August night.

I thought about two men in Texas. One spending the night in the airport in Dallas, after traveling halfway around the world to see his wife and two young children for a few days before they sent him back. The other man vacationing on his ranch while a mother sits vigil outside the gates holding a sign that asks,

"Why did my son die?"

Later...I pulled up to my house, opened the car door and gave a desicated french fry to each of the dogs. Setting my bags down in the kitchen and heading upstairs with my family sleeping, I thought,

"Now, finally...this is a good day."



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