The first commercial flight I took in 1957 was as a boy with my family, from New Orleans to Los Angeles. All of the men on the plane wore suits, I wore a coat and tie. My sisters wore frilly dresses. We checked our luggage and walked from the terminal at Moisant Field (now Louis Armstrong International Airport), across the open tarmac and climbed the rolling staircase into the fuselage.
The seats were spacious, the stewardesses were beautiful in their perky little caps, and they served elaborate meals which were sort of like TV dinners but with plastic trays in place of the tin foil. All of the adults drank booze and the cabin was filled with cigarette smoke just like my childhood home and the homes of all my friends. I was excited: none of my classmates had ever flown and I would be a sophisticated celebrity when I got back.
Fast-forward 40 years. My mural business was thriving. My hometown airline, United, was in financial trouble. My travel schedule had become so intense that I sometimes felt that I must be the only one keeping their company afloat. In the first few years of this intense travel period I must admit to significant anxiety during takeoff and landing. I knew that these were the two times where a crash was most likely. I might attribute this to the visceral memory of using helicopters during the Vietnam War like aerial taxicabs. In a combat zone the big troop-carrying CH-46s would swoop into a landing zone, dump us out the back door, and beatty feet out of the area before they would draw fire. So the landings were pretty perfunctory. When it came time to catch a ride to the rear we were thankful for the lift and the cooler temperatures at higher altitude, but the takeoff was a lurch into the air that caused your stomach to jump up into your throat. The first few times I had to suppress the nausea and vertigo, but eventually I learned to lean into the steep turns as if on a roller coaster.
Today I sleep through takeoffs and landings. All of the romance and allure has gone out of flying for me; I don’t dress up. I wear comfortable, easily removed shoes. I bring my own snacks and I suffer in silence with all the other sardines packed into this aluminum can. But recently I had an experience that reminded me of how flying used to be.
I was returning to Chicago from St. Paul on a late-night flight. As soon as the cabin lights came on and the seat belt lights went off, those of us with aisle seats stood up and began pulling our belongings out of the overhead compartments, waiting patiently for the congestion ahead of us to thin out.
Across the aisle from me were two fashionable young women perusing Cosmo magazine and chattering loudly about the fun they planned to have in Chicago. It was hard not to overhear their conversation. They were both kindergarten teachers looking for some relief from the stresses of herding munchkins. Both were standing in the aisle ahead of me still talking. But they suddenly stopped, and the murmur of the people in the cabin stopped as well. Everyone was listening to a little boy in a window seat two rows ahead of me, singing.
I could only see the top of his curly black hair and some of a bright yellow sweater, but I guessed he was around five years old. He was singing to himself, totally oblivious to his audience, and the song he was spontaneously creating was about his love of planes. His melody was simple, going up and down the scales, at least half of the notes being flat or off key. The lyrics went something like this:
“Oh, I like planes,
Planes are better than cars,
Planes are better than trains,
Planes are better than an octopus,
Planes are better than my dad.”
The two young women in front of me had been listening in silence but they couldn’t suppress their laughter any longer. And all around them sniggering became guffaws.
The boy’s mother was urging him under her breath to cease and desist. If he could hear her, he showed no sign of it. His song went on for several minutes, extolling the virtues of flight and his love of aircraft.
“Planes are better than a cell phone,
I would like to fly a plane.”
He may have become aware that he had an audience because his volume increased. At this point I could hear his mother insisting that he wrap it up. So he ended with a final, loud flourish.
“Oh, I l-o-o-o-ve planes!”
There was a momentary hush throughout the aircraft. I think the two young ladies actually started the applause. It was hard to tell because it erupted so quickly. I couldn’t see the mother or the boy because the congestion was shifting, but after a few moments he started singing again as his mother pulled him by the yellow sweater out into the aisle. He was still singing as they headed for the exit, leaving behind him a group of strangers who had temporarily shared a common, delightful experience.
We talked and laughed together and forgot the crowded, uncomfortable, depressing experience of modern air travel. For a brief moment I was able to recapture through the eyes of a young boy, the adventure of hurtling through the air in a gigantic machine above the clouds. I remembered a casual fantasy from years ago in which I was seated next to some historic figure, say, Abraham Lincoln, explaining this miraculous event as we lifted off, enjoying his childlike wonder and astonishment and, hopefully, recapturing some of my own.