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My Last Flight

The commercial airlines may not be trying to kill me, but I need convincing. You see, I’m a 68-year-old grandpa with high blood pressure and zero patience. One more flight delay could kill me. As impractical as it seems, I would just like to get where I’m going on time. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison and left with no bitterness; I wait 15 minutes at a security gate and I crack a molar.

Where intelligent travelers caught in long airport queues retreat into their Bose headphones, I-Pods, and Wall Street Journals, I still try to count to ten to keep from blowing up. If I don’t quit flying some bystander is going to post a clip of my head exploding on U-Tube.

I don’t care if TSA staff takes liberties with their body searches, or if my pilot is flying loaded on Viagra and pain pills while packing a pistol, I just want to get where I’m going before I die of old age.

If commercial flying is stressful on those of us with high blood pressure, imagine what it’s doing to folks with, say, a touch of claustrophobia. At 6’3′ 230 pounds, I’m small compared to some of my fellow and sister passengers. So when we are all packed in and buckled up trading viruses inside a sardine ca., I mean, 737, it looks like the arrangements were made by Slave Ships Inc. – except on slave ships you had reasonably good chance of dying in transit.

I fly to fly fish. I fly to get to and from fun. Now I’m a mental case. You can spot me in most any airport waiting area; I’m the one who looks like a geriatric version of Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest right after a double dose of ECT.

Consider that on the last leg of a particularly aggravating four-time-zone, thrice-delayed flight, I was so unraveled I stumbled into the women’s restroom at Boston’s Logan Airport. Head down and dazed, just as I reached for the zipper on my fly I looked up to note a serious shortage of urinals and way too many cross-dressers for a men’s room.

Eyes popped all around, including mine.

Ladies of all ages stopped adjusting skirts and makeup and turned to full time glaring. My BP spiking, I turned cherry red, spun a Louie, and hiked out of there double time. An attractive blood on her way in caught my eye and cracked, ‘I feel your pain.’

The commercial airline industry feels my pain, too. Flight crews now attend mandatory Apology School, lest they fall victim to mutiny. While still trying to kill me, some airlines are trying to make extra nice.

For example, on a recent trip home from the Bahamas, and after only a few hours of sleep because the Bahamas Air flight into Ft. Lauderdale was delayed four hours the night before, and our luggage was lost, and we had an early morning flight, which meant my wife and I spent four hours in a $200 room (that’s $50 an hour which, if you are governor on date may seem like a good deal, but when you are married 48 years is just plain aggravating), a U.S. Airways ticket agent shrunk my exploding head with the words, ‘You’re flight has been cancelled, but if we hurry, I can get you out in 20 minutes, but the only seats we have left are first class. Will that work?’

He must have noticed the Nicholson smile. When he put the boarding passes into my hand I wept a ‘thank you’ and, over my wife’s protest, tried to kiss him.

Flying was not always like this.

Flying used to be fun, if a bit adventurous.

A good flight was one that didn’t fall out of the sky, and flight delays were quite acceptable.

On a cross-Pacific prop-driven flight to serve an Army tour in Japan in 1960, we landed to refuel on Wake Island. The GIs were de-planed so we could have lunch and poke around the old WWII gun emplacements. With refueling complete, and as I climbed the stairs back into the plane for the final the two-thousand-mile hop to Japan, I overhead a crew member say to the pilot, ‘There’s oil leaking from number two, maybe we ought to look into that.’

A capital idea in my view, we were again ordered off the plane and told to be ready to re-board at any moment. The three hour delay allowed me to wade in some nearby tide pools and enjoy a beautiful place I would never see again. We made it to Yokohama just fine.

On my return flight home two years later I was boarding a chartered Flying Tigers prop-driven military transport to San Francisco by way of Anchorage, Alaska. I asked the flight attendant, ‘What’s the flight time to Anchorage?’

‘I don’t know,’ she grinned, ‘We’ve never made it.’

But we did make it, and with our senses of humor in tact. Other than the old Alaska Airline pilot excuse for late departures – ‘Sorry for the delay folks, but our baggage crushing machine is broken down so we are having to crush your baggage by hand’ – there’s very little humor left in the flight crews these days. I feel sorry for them. I wish they could all get a nice pay raise and be able to go off their antidepressants.

In spite of all the current frustrations, I’m happy to report that I have enjoyed the same number of take offs as landings – something all pilots will tell you is the preferred flight plan. Safety is up, terrorist threats down. Except for grandmothers with blue hair wearing suspicious shawls and with first names like Elsie, hardly anyone needs to be body-searched anymore. Even the security queues are moving briskly.

But I’ve taken my last flight. To move things along here, I would like to offer any interested party my huge cache of frequent flier miles in trade for, say, a wee bottle of a single malt scotch.

PAUL QUINNETT lives in Cheney, Washington. He can be reached at: pquinnett@mindspring.com

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