When I’m the first person to sit down in my row on an airplane, I typically spend the rest of the boarding process judging passengers as the come down the aisle. If it’s a cute girl, I pray to the airline gods that, unlike my crushes on the bus ride to high school, she has no choice but to sit next to me. Usually I’m not so lucky. On a five hour flight back from Los Angeles, I was stuck next to a man so large I couldn’t get the arm rest down. It wouldn’t have bothered me if that part of my seat didn’t have my headphone jack on it. To this day I think about the time my enjoyment of Gravity was hampered by one person’s poor eating habits.
On a recent flight from Cleveland to Newark, I wasn’t really paying attention to who sat down where. After the constant travel I had the month before, I was just ready to get to wherever I had to go. My neighbor turned out to be a young man in a casual t-shirt and jeans. He was really just a boy, no older than twenty. I wouldn’t have noticed him if he wasn’t constantly wiping his face with his hands and muttering to himself while rocking back and forth like a crazy person. If I didn’t know any better, I would think he was getting ready to hijack the plane before we even left the gate. But the truth was far worse.
“It’s my first time flying.” He said to me.
This was followed by a polite, nervous smile as if to say, “You may comfort me now.”
I didn’t bite.
“I fly all the time.” I said without looking at him. “I’ve never had problems.”
“That’s good.” He said. “I’m just really freaking out. I’ve never been so scared in my life, man. This is my first time traveling more than two hours from Cleveland.”
I didn’t mean to ignore him after that, but I couldn’t help it. I was too busy imagining what it would be like to have never seen anything outside of northern Ohio. To have never cheered a football team to victory or waded in a river that couldn’t be set on fire.
The boy began to sweat harder as he fiddled with his tray table, staring in disbelief that an eating surface could magically be pulled from the back of a seat. I put on my headphones and started looking for a playlist that was loud enough to block out teenagers. He cranked up the air above him. I didn’t say a word. He began to rattle his leg up and down. I rested my head back against the seat and prepared to sleep. Finally, he rummaged through the seat pocket in front of him and pulled out a barf bag.
“You know, flying is really not that big of a deal.” I explained, slowly pulling out my earbuds and placing them on my lap. “I do it all the time.”
“Why do you fly a lot?” He asked.
“It’s part of the job.” I explained. “You get used to it after awhile.”
“Does it feel like a roller coaster?” He asked.
“Not really.” I responded. “You go fast, but you barely feel the lift-off.”
“Should I read the safety card before we take off?” He asked.
“They read it for you, actually.” I explained. “All you have to do is ignore them.”
Every question I answered brought more and more wonder to his eyes. It was like teaching my future son about the birds and the bees of frequent flyer programs. Like a bank robber lowering his weapon during negotiations, the boy slowly placed the barf bag back into the seat pocket. His fear turned into fascination as I passed along advice from one seasoned traveler to a newcomer.
“When you sit in the back of a short flight like this, you have to drink your beverage as fast as you can.” I warned. “Otherwise you miss the trash pick-up and get stuck holding a cup during landing.”
“Then what happens?”
“Nothing. It just sucks.”
As we began to taxi towards the runway, you could tell he was far more at ease than he was during boarding, but that was to be expected. He was sitting next to a man who has built up four years of business travel experience. Me. The communications professional who has flown to Europe on business four times. The employee from corporate who once ran the length of the Atlanta International Airport in close to ten minutes to make a connection. The big shot who was only a few hundred points away from United Silver Status last year, but didn’t get it because of an unfortunate trip where Delta was the only option. I can navigate any major US hub blindfolded. I could live in the air if I wanted to.
“And it’s very important that you never have a connection in Philly.” I explained as we approached the runway. “Unless you really enjoy never seeing home again.”
“Tell me again about the reasonably priced crab restaurant in Terminal D!” The boy pleaded.
But before I could continue, the captain came over the loud speaker and announced that we were ready for take off. This was the moment of truth. I looked at the boy to see if he would reach for the barf bag again. He didn’t. Instead he looked at me and asked me a question that I later made sure I wrote down for the sake of this blog post.
“What’s it like above the clouds?”
It was the first question that I had to think about before answering, but before I could give an appropriate response, we were there. In minutes we were flying high above the rainy world below.
There was no talking at first. He mostly stared out the window with his mouth wide open. Occasionally he would nudge me when he saw a neighborhood or a football field from 30,000 ft. A few times he burst out in laughter for no apparent reason, covered his mouth, and looked around the plane to see if the passengers were loving the journey nearly half as much as he was. And who could really blame him? He was just a kid on his first plane ride.
I would have never guessed he was on his way to Parris Island for basic training.
When he told me he was a U.S. Marine fresh out of school, the tables in our relationship suddenly turned. My life experience started to lose weight. Horror stories of flight delays and overpriced liquor seemed trivial. I instantly felt like I was sitting next to somebody completely new. Somebody who should be giving me advice.
But nothing changed.
“I can’t believe how those neighborhoods down there are shaped.” The soldier exclaimed, with his wide eyes still locked to the window. “You would never notice that while you’re on the ground! It’s amazing!”
As we approached the airport, I leaned back so he could get a good look at New York City. I was really more interested in his reaction. He just gazed off at the miles and miles of buildings, rising up out of the Hudson like a thousand Clevelands. He gazed off at the Freedom Tower which stands in the place of two former structures he never saw because he was only six when they disappeared. He gazed at the ground below and I gazed at him, wondering if he’ll remember this moment when he’s jumping out of a helicopter over a war-torn country or living on a base on the other side of the world. But by then this trip would seem like it was a thousand plane rides ago.