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Captive Audience

On boarding the plane to Albuquerque, I heard an attendant say the flight was full. I took the first available seat. Next to me was a man who looked as if he could be a federal marshal. A woman had the window seat. Immediately, almost before I could strap in, the man initiated a political conversation.

I can’t remember exactly what he said first, but within minutes he told me he was a libertarian.

“My guy used to be a libertarian,” I said, “until he became a human being.”

“I’m kind,” he said, “I just don’t believe illegals should be allowed to stay here.”

“Have you considered any of the reasons undocumented people leave their countries? Say, Mexican farmers hit hard by NAFTA or US-backed wars in Central America?”

His expression registered disdain, and before he could speak, I said, “Look, let’s not talk politics.”

“Are you a Democrat?”

“God, no,” I said. “I don’t align with either mainstream party, but no doubt I’m far to the left of you.”

We sat in silence for at least 20 minutes when the woman next to him opened crackers, spread something on one, handed it to him, and then offered one to me. He said, “My wife. I taught her to speak English and she taught me to speak Spanish.” I asked where she was from. He said, “Colombia.” She smiled.

Then he told me he’d lived outside the US for years. Asked if I remembered the television show, Father Knows Best. “Yes, I do.”

He said he liked this show, that the father was the “smartest person in the family”. He continued by telling me that when he returned to the US after about 15 years everything had changed. “In sitcoms, the father was considered stupid. The kids consulted the mother for advice.”

I’d opened my book, gone to the dog-eared page, and begun to read. He interrupted, suggesting I read the Mexican constitution. “Mexico has strict immigration policies.” I returned to reading.

He interrupted again, to tell me Obama used someone else’s social security number as proof of citizenship. “I’m a birther,” he said and followed with, “Michelle Obama was the worst thing about the Obama presidency.”

I knew as soon as he said he was a birther that he was racist. I can’t believe there’s any other possible explanation. And so I didn’t ask why he thinks Michelle Obama is the worst aspect of Obama’s presidency. Nor did I introduce the inventory of legitimate reasons to denounce Obama, starting with his becoming a war criminal as soon as he launched that first drone strike. My fellow passenger’s criticism was divergent totally from mine, plus he’s certain Trump’s going to make America great again, for him, for those like him. For those who perhaps would yell, “Get out of MY country” to a brown man or woman.

Where am I going with this? To another time that seems like yesterday. I was on a plane from NYC to KY to visit family a few months after my nephew Chase was killed in Iraq. A man boarded, took the seat next to mine. He began to proselytize, talking Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Told me he was a Jew who’d converted to Christianity and his job was to witness. For some reason, I told him my nephew was killed in Iraq, a casualty of George W. Bush’s lies, George Bush who said God had told him to go to war. The man said, and I paraphrase, “We’ve accomplished wonderful things in Iraq, liberating all those people.” I thought my head would explode.

I told him yes if he meant liberation in the ultimate sense of the word and then said, “Do not say another word to me.” He didn’t.

My husband was alive then. When I told him this story, he said the cardinal rule is to never begin any conversation with the person seated next to you on a plane, because you are too captive. I remembered this as soon as the federal marshal-ish guy opened his mouth and vocalized, yet I engaged. Engaged enough to know I would be enraged if I argued.

But I’m right, here. I know I’m right, here, because mother knows best.

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Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in BaltimoreEmail: missybeat@gmail.com

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