Once upon a time, there was this annoying little kid named Jimmy who loved to fly. He wasn’t crazy about wearing his Sunday best to board a plane, but he loved the adventure and especially the attention the hot stewardesses gave him.
At age 9, when your hair falls into your face and you’re missing a tooth, the flight attendants think you’re cute, from the sail-like lapels of your virgin Rayon electric blue sports coat and almost matching 7-inch wide floral design clip-on tie to your nascent cheap moves.
If you have the same look and the same cheap moves at age 34, for some reason, they -- and by “they” I mean all living females, not just flight attendants -- no longer think you’re cute. They think you’re a sex offender.
But I digress.
Back then, flying was cool. It was fun. You had to dress up to get on the plane but the food was pretty good and you could get as many sodas and packs of peanuts as you wanted. Maybe being in a coat and tie made people act a little more civilized, too -- I don’t ever remember fisticuffs and foul language erupting over pillows, armrests or seat reclining mechanisms.
They also gave away cool stuff like playing cards, coffee mugs and gym bags. I had an Eastern Airlines gym bag I used for years -- in fact, the bag lasted longer and was far more reliable than the airline itself.
Coach wasn’t as nice as the fabled First Class seating beyond the curtains, but at least they didn’t put a tag in your ear like they do on today’s flying cattle cars.
I never worried about crashing, either. Years later, I would spend too much time in too many dive bars with too many aircraft mechanics. I have never worried about terrorists, but God save me from the severely hung-over mechanic who is mad at his wife and is currently working on the innards of one of the engines that will be vital to keeping my particular cattle car airborne.
I guess I first started noticing the change in the late ’80s. Absolutely the worst flight I ever experienced was a short hop -- Columbia to Atlanta -- aboard an elderly Eastern Airlines jet, not too long before Eastern finally crashed and burned, no pun intended.
It was the longest -- and if I have my way, the last -- 45 minutes I would ever spend in the air.
I was already a little nervous because of the ominous cloud bank swirling at the end of the runway. Worse, it was Sunday, and the idiotic blue laws were still in force, so all the bars were closed. To add insult to injury, the flight was too short for them to serve cocktails in the air.
Then we boarded the plane. I tried to ignore the duct tape on the seats and the rubber ducky life vests stuffed into the seat pocket next to the barf bags.
Then power in the plane shut down. The engines made weird sounds, the lights flickered, the A/C blowers sputtered -- then there was only darkness and silence and oppressive heat.
I saw one of those repair carts pull up at the nose of the plane and thought, “If I see them pulling out jumper cables, I’m out of here.”
A few minutes later, the engines cranked, the lights and air conditioner came on and we took off into the roughest, bumpiest, wind shear-ridden wild black yonder ever survived by anything smaller than an ICBM. From the moment we left the ground, the plane rocked, swayed, bucked and plunged as though a madman had hijacked one of those Vegas bullet elevators and was now tap dancing on all the buttons at the same time.
To help maintain my trademark Bond-like cool, I buried my nose in a magazine, so at first I didn’t notice the pretty young blonde woman seated next to me. Nonetheless, despite my air of nonchalance, she somehow saw through the façade.
“Are you scared,” she asked me.
“So you always read ‘Ladies Home Journal’ upside down?”
Suddenly, an intense burst of turbulence sent our aged DC 9 plunging and I forgot all about magazine and conversation. A crushing pain enveloped my left upper arm. At first I thought I was the youngest heart attack victim in history. Then I saw her right hand wrapped tightly around my left elbow, knuckles white, fingernails digging into my bicep like osprey talons.
The next 40 minutes were just like that, only more painful. I never knew of any creature besides a reticulated python which could not only sustain, but increase, its grip so powerfully for so long.
The flight ended with a spectacularly nauseating plummet through a raging thunder cell followed by a couple of hard bounces on the tarmac.
But we were alive.
Out on the concourse, she thanked me for being her in-flight squeeze toy. I replied I was glad to be of service and was sure circulation would return to my arm at some point later in the day.
Then I decided to go for broke and asked her to go have a drink.
“Silly boy,” she said. “My pet boa constrictor would be so jealous.”
To add insult to injury, I couldn’t remember where I had parked my car, the legendary Sputnik the Wonder Sled. Two hours later, alone, cold, and extremely wet, somewhere out in the vast unsheltered acreage that was general parking, I found Sputnik rusting happily away where I had left it three days prior. I wrestled the door lock open, climbed into my untrustworthy tin can, and shut the door -- and the window shattered.
Then it began to rain again. Hard.