Connecting Flights & An Alligator on the Wing

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“Wrong Turns Write Life”

Do you remember the first time you took notice of the white lines being drawn against the blue sky?

“Look mummy; there’s an aeroplane up in the sky” —Harry Waters (son of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters), at the start of the song “Goodbye Blue Sky,” recorded for The Wall album (released in 1979), when he was two years old.

I was a kid on a car hood with my grandfather parked under the inbound flights at Cleveland Hopkins Airport when I first took note of the ‘metal birds.’ Although their wings eclipsed the sky, they were so low that the overpowering sound stuck with me.

My grandpa told me stories about when his father took him to see The National Air Races, which were held in Cleveland from 1929 to 1949. He saw Aviators Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart fly there.

Human flight is ingrained in Ohio schoolchildren, considering the state’s long list of history-changing pioneers of the Heavens above. And it’s not just names like Armstrong, Glenn, and the Wrights, but Eddie Rickenbacker, Zachariah Lansdowne, Jerrie Mock, Jean Hixson, Judy Resnik, and Sunita Williams.

Imagine my excitement on a field trip to the airport to board a flying machine. It was the most luxurious plane I had ever seen. There were tables with lounge chairs and so much space to walk about. I couldn’t wait until the day I flew in such a fantasy.

But it would forever remain a pipedream.

Soon after that, I boarded a plane bound for Disney World with my parents and sister. I remember thinking, this doesn’t seem right. I craned my neck past the slow-stepping torsos of the undead to see down the single-file aisle, hoping for the lavish opening to come into view. Instead, we wedged into our bus seats, fighting for the window.

“Take some gum,” Dad said, handing each of us a piece.

It was his trick to help swallow and “pop your ears” when the cabin pressure became too much during take-off.

“I’ll be right back,” Mom said as she disappeared to an empty seat behind ours. It was the dividing line between the smoking and non-smoking sections of the plane. But the smoke did not honor it.

When it came time for me to fly as a newly minted adult, I was joined by a bunch of northeast Ohio Army recruits at the Cleveland airport headed for Fort Jackson, South Carolina. In those days, anyone could come to the gate with you to see you board—the setting for so many saved relationships in romantic movies. Our gate was packed with crying mothers and shirtless teenage boys. The only security was a quick walk through a metal detector. I made my mom promise not to embarrass me by crying. She kept it … in vocals, at least.

On the flip side, I had a chance to come home on leave before jetting to Europe to finish my enlistment there. Our standard-issue duffle bags didn’t seem big enough for what I was packing. I bought a super-sized duffle bag at the post exchange (PX). At 5’6”, I looked like a caricature hoisting that like-sized thing on one shoulder. That’s when I learned about size limits for luggage at the airport. I had no choice but to leave a good portion of my belongings in a trash can.

On the flight, I saw an old friend. It was quite a reunion. We managed to sit next to each other, order drinks like we wanted to fly forever, and talk about old times (just a couple of years in the rearview mirror). The drinking age was younger back then. When we deplaned, we were holding each other up drunk. Our slack-jawed moms were at the end of the ramp to greet us. It was still the old days when you could hug someone coming straight off the plane.

When I departed West Germany a few years later (and just shy of the fall of the Iron Curtain), I was on edge. Weeks before take-off, our base was alerted to a terrorist threat to bomb an American flight out of Frankfort within the next month. I signed the cross after taking my seat on The Fourth of July! It was probably halfway across the Atlantic before I relaxed my sphincter.

After college and after planning a national sales conference, I got in a Chicago cab, exhausted. There were several of us sharing it, so I sat next to the cabbie.

“Have a mint; they’re ‘curiously strong,” he winked at his clever reference to the tagline for Altoids.

My mom should have been in the back of my head saying don’t take candy from strangers, but it sounded like it would be refreshing. So, I snuck an extra when I dug into the tin between us. I’ll never know if I was slap-happy-to-the-max or if this dude had laced mints, but my co-workers were convinced of the latter. I boarded that plane as such a chatty Kathy I was told—between laughter—to cool it, or they would throw me off the plane. Fortunately, we were in the sky when the flight attendant tried out her singing voice over the microphone to her captive audience (captive as in trapped, not captivating, to be clear). The Altoids finally wore off when the seatbelt sign came on before being tossed around like we were tied to a mechanical bull. All the clasped hands in prayer must have saved us.

Like father like son, but his poison was sugar. It was our first big family vacation to … wait for it … Disney World.

Our last leg of the flight was on a puddle hopper with a column of single seats. Behind me was my rambunctious six-year-old boy, and behind him was his new friend, and behind him was that boy’s father.

The seatbelt sign was on. We descended before our stomachs. That’s when I heard two remarkable imaginations echo through the hollow tube with a play-by-play for everyone to hear.

“Oh my god, we’re gonna crash!” One boy yelled at the other.

“Pull up—pull up!”

“Whew, that was close.”

“Holy moly, there’s an alligator on the wing.”

The plane bucked in the air and then tilted to turn.

“The alligator is gone, but seaweed clogged the engine, and now it’s smoking.”

From the other side of the plane came an elderly voice, “Is there really smoke?”

I tried to squeeze my face between the back of my seat and the metal wall with desperate “SHHH” noises, but these two were on cloud nine all the way down.

In a post-Nine-Eleven world, airports have changed. My wife and I knew to get to the airport early. But now, living in Cincinnati, the Cincy Airport was a good trek into Kentucky. Go figure. This meant crossing a bridge dubbed the second-worst bottleneck in the country. So, we left super early to beat the morning rush hour. When we arrived, it seemed like a comedy sketch. None of the gate checks were open. No human being was there. Indeed, we were the only souls. Us and the old man on a riding carpet sweeper. He went in mesmerizing circles as if he were riding a Zamboni. I believe he slowed down time itself.

We watched the luggage turnstile circle endlessly when we arrived at our destination. Our bags were nowhere in sight. Many bags turned to none, and none turned to many again but from a different flight. We had nothing except boarding passes for a weeklong cruise and a couple of small carry-ons. I waved my credit card. We had better get to a store for some clothes and luggage quickly! But my wife asked for directions, and we were pointed to a door and a small room on the far wall nearly out of sight. Our suitcases were on the wall outside of it in a well-trafficked corridor for anyone to snatch.

Soon after this trip, we were on another when I became aware of the swell change exiting an airport. A sea of Uber or Lyft drivers pulled up and away with riders in a frantic efficiency. Three cabbies waited patiently at the end of the line before cussing something, getting in their empty company cars, and speeding off to join the 21st Century.

Like father-like daughter, our college girl was headed to Chicago to see a roommate she had at The Ohio State University. It was her first time flying solo. Silly me thought we could walk her through everything to teach the ropes right up to the boarding gate.

“No ticket, no entry!”

“But…”

It wasn’t happening. So, I sounded like I was calling a play in a hurry-up offense with time about to expire, explaining to my daughter what to do from there on out.

“Sir, keep it moving.”

“Ya-ya!”

And off she went.

A news crew grabbed us and asked about our experience on what they claimed was the busiest flying day ever because of the way the Fourth of July fell, with just a day between it and the weekend, allowing many to take a four-day trip. Well, it was only half of the story. Our girl’s return flight was canceled, and she was stuck in the Chicago airport. Another was delayed, then canceled, and again. She reticketed for the morning. I told her I was willing to drive there by phone, but it would be several hours, or she could find some chairs or floor to sleep on.

Our spring break flight from a Death Valley trip was for the birds in a mostly post-mask but germaphobe world! It started okay even though our departure was set further and further back. It didn’t matter, six of one or a half dozen of another, because we had a very long layover at the next airport, so it just made it that much shorter. We grabbed food and chairs and nibbled our way through the hours, waiting. I chuckled at some wall art, appreciating the sly humor. Two headshots were framed next to each other. One was Marilyn Monroe and the other was Jacqueline Kennedy.

Before boarding the first leg of the flight, I had to go for a walk because my stomach did not agree with my spicy airport food. It was announced that the plane’s carry-on luggage capacity had been exceeded, so they tagged luggage to be checked upon boarding. My wife and I couldn’t sit next to each other, to boot. And to add insult to injury, I had a middle seat between a younger and older lady. We were in the air when pressure began to build …within.

At first, I thought I might be alright. Then, the pressure looked for alternative escapes. I wondered if the ladies touching my elbows could hear the noise of essentially farting inward rather than outward; we were so close. The pressure upped its game. I knew I was in trouble. I imagined what a sneak release might be like. I knew it would be anything but stealth. The older lady in the aisle seat was asleep. I nervously looked around. It was go-time.

“I’m so sorry, but I need to get up.”

I hurried to the plane’s rear and hung out for a while. Then I returned to my seat. About three nerve-racking minutes later, I had no choice but to roust my sleeping aisle lady again. This trip to the back saved me. When I returned to my seat, both seatmates went from strangers to chatting companions. I wondered what they knew. I wondered what was said between them in my absence. In any case, they seemed friendly. I was relieved.

Now for the rest of the story …or connecting flight.

I was reunited with my wife. She won the window seat. I was directly across from a rather unhealthy-looking woman. She even had a hospital bracelet wrapped around her wrist. Once we were in the air, it began. A cavernous cough from deep within whooped with no discretion, visibly shaking her from head to toe. And she kept whooping …and whooping …and whooping. I figured whatever she had; we’re all getting. Thirty minutes later—no exaggeration—she stopped to eat and drink. Then, it kicked in again for another 30 minutes without a full minute at any time to catch her breath. I thought for sure I would be on my deathbed within the week.

My mind drifted to that old pipedream. If only this airplane had the space to walk about like the luxurious plane I boarded for that childhood field trip.

By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler, Your Tour Guide to Fun

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“Wrong Turns Write Life”