Flying Lessons

I thought He owed me a peaceful remainder of my journey. Clearly, He did not agree. by Dave Cuzzolina

The automatic glass door at the airport entrance saw me coming. It slid open too slowly for my liking, and I stomped ahead impatiently. The heavy suitcase I toted banged against the half-opened door, jerking my arm back. I added the quick pain in my shoulder to a gathering litany of aggravations.

I trusted my luggage to the chatty woman at check-in. Her name was Madge and she wore glasses. I didn’t know many women named Madge and I didn’t want to know this one either. All I wanted was my boarding pass. She gave it to me.

I went directly to the insurance machine and bought the maximum amount. It was a lottery I didn’t want to win. Especially at only 26 years old. That my parents would be rich was scant consolation.

In the waiting area, the orange plastic chairs felt as hard and uncomfortable as they looked. All five in my row were attached. I flopped myself down and they bounced in unison. I chose an end seat in front of a huge window. Looking out above the tree line beyond the runway, I saw dark clouds conspiring, and I knew they were conspiring against me. Wonderful.

I sat my briefcase on the floor beside me, crossed my arms on my chest and closed my eyes in a clear message that I wanted to be left alone. Keep your polite chit-chat to yourself. 

I wanted to relax but I was angry. Angry that I was the last man on the totem pole at work. Angry about my car’s crumpled fender. Angry that no matter how hard I tried, I could not suppress my morbid fear of flying. Angry that still ahead loomed crowded airports, brusque taxi drivers and bothered hotel clerks.

I thanked God for all that and for the rain and I thought He owed me a peaceful remainder of my journey.

Clearly, He did not agree.

The ten a.m. flight time neared. I felt two quick bounces on my row of chairs. I had company. Continuous jostling and a constant moaning, low but audible, said I also had trouble. I opened my eyes and glanced left to see a white-haired man in a blue suit one chair away and a young girl to his left. 

She was the problem. She appeared to be mentally challenged and, I supposed from the blank appearance of her eyes, also blind. Her behavior would have been only a mild annoyance any other day, but my exasperation meter had hit red hours ago. He turned his eyes toward me momentarily. He had a pleasant face, and I thought he got the message, but he turned away and did nothing. 

Good one, God! I checked my watch, grabbed my briefcase and marched outside. I stayed out of the downpour under a green metal awning that hung out from the terminal building and stopped the large drops with a fast drumming sound. I paced under the length of it until I heard the PA system announce boarding for Pittsburgh.

The white-haired man and his charge led the way to the small prop plane. Her short black hair topped a round, cherub-like face. I figured her to be early teens, the man early fifties. Likely father-daughter. Their clothing was impeccable. Her neat and crisp white dress sparkled in contrast to the gray day and she had on ankle-high white socks and white sandals. His summery light-blue suit also looked neat and crisp, with a complementary blue necktie. He stepped smartly, but slowly, in clean white shoes.

She moved in short, cautious, almost fearful steps keeping a two-handed grip on his right arm. His left hand rested gently on hers. We needed to cross the tarmac under a portable canopy to the stairway at the plane. A breeze blew his white hair out of its perfect place a few times, and when he removed his hand from hers to smooth it down, she stopped and tightened her grip. We had about a hundred feet to go, and I wished they would hurry.

They reached the stairs and climbed one at a time, pausing on each until she was ready for the next. On the plane they sat in the first row; I went to the last. I rested my head back and closed my eyes. Even above the deafening roar of the engines and even with the distance, between us I could hear her. I would be rid of them in Pittsburgh. I wondered if she ever got tired.

Shops and restaurants lined both sides of the expansive corridor down the middle of the Pittsburgh airport terminal. It seemed a mile long yet still managed to feel crowded. I had time to kill. I made stops at the insurance machine and restroom, bought a newspaper and relaxed while I ate a burger at a restaurant and tried to forget my morning. 

With my evening departure nearing, I picked up my things and headed for my gate. The food was comforting, and the break was refreshing, and I was feeling pretty good when I arrived.

And there they were. 

Of the hundreds of departing flights, they were on mine. What were the odds? I must have groaned noisily because I felt some inquisitive glances. 

The white-haired man sat placidly, back straight against his chair. People sitting near them seemed unfazed by the girl’s carrying-on. Was I overreacting? I really didn’t care. I was tired of this day thumbing its nose at me.

Okay, God, let’s recap, I thought. First, I have to fly to a vapid rah-rah conference that everybody else at work could turn down. Then You send a deer dashing in front of my car. Not to mention the rain. Now this. I muttered under my breath that I didn’t appreciate His sense of humor. I vowed that if the pair sat near me on the plane, I would demand a move, unpleasant scene notwithstanding.

I joined the people gathering around the narrow tunnel entrance that led to the plane. Soon, everybody did and the gathering became a mob. The jockeying for position was polite but determined. The PA system voice called for those who needed assistance to board first. I smiled. Good luck getting through this human blockade, I thought. Moses probably had an easier time parting the Red Sea.

But it happened. The tightly packed mass of humanity began to part. Heads with hats and caps, heads with black hair and blond hair, male and female, long and short hair, no hair—they turned and craned their necks to see behind them, and whatever they saw caused them to set aside their greedy quest for line position and move to one side or the other. Wondering why, I looked behind me.

And there they were. 

My eyes dimmed like I’d been hit with a haymaker. That’s the only way I can explain it. When they refocused, I saw a king and his princess in royal procession. Regally dressed. The arm-in-arm posture of nobility. The onlookers lining their path. She, in her white dress, taking measured steps, holding his bent right arm with both hands, helpless and trusting, and I wondered if maybe she knew she was going on a plane. He, dressed to the nines in his summery-blue suit, accepting her careful pace so willingly, and I wondered where he got the patience. 

And I understood that all the time I thought God was ignoring me, He was answering, challenging me to look beyond my own selfish needs and see the beauty in this world. 

I watched their every step. As people closed ranks in front of me, I had to stand on tiptoes to see them. I watched until I couldn’t see them anymore. After we reached our destination, we parted for good.

But I would hear from the man. I wrote an item about my experience for my local paper. He saw it and wrote me with more information. The girl was 15. Deaf and blind since birth and diabetic since age seven. He was her foster father. She was three months old when she came to him and his wife. “Words cannot tell you the joy and satisfaction she has given us and all our family,” he wrote. 

He finished with this: “I ask my maker only for the gifts of love and understanding so that I may learn to communicate with her. How wonderful it will be when we have finished our last days on earth and can meet in God’s presence in heaven to share all eternity with him. For what more could I ask?”

While they now share the eternity he longed for, this self-centered interloper has never forgotten the lesson he learned from them that rainy, awful, beautiful day in June.

Forty years ago. 

Lt. Colonel Robert A. Webster is Divisional Commander of the Midland Division, with headquarters in St. Louis.