Let’s go back to the early seventies – when air travel was then a pleasure, be it business or otherwise. The ad agency art director where I worked (oddly enough, his first name was Art) and I occasionally flew together to service client accounts in distant cities. Canadian-born, Arthur was himself a veteran aviator, having been shot down twice – first parachuting over the English Channel, then again above the Normandy battlefield where the Wehrmacht briefly held him prisoner until he escaped out a bathroom window. Arthur’s abdomen – as he once displayed to me – was blanketed with stretch marks, none of which had anything to do with natal gestation. Rather, such scarring was the result of making too many power dives in his Spitfire, and then pulling up sharply – known as G-forces. Overall, Art was a personable and entirely likeable companion, on or off the job. That is – apart from one major flaw. He was addicted to practical jokes.
Exploding cigars and whoopie cushions were beneath his creative talents. Art had no need of props or other amateurish paraphernalia. Only his brain and vocal chords came into play. Art would go without for long periods of time, then suddenly fall off the wagon in a flurry of activity. He took extra pains to ensure that his victims never saw it coming. As with all creative minds, his joy was in the planning and execution. Results were always guaranteed, and thus more or less anti-climactic.
My first – but not last – encounter with his demonic addiction took place aboard an Eastern flight from Rochester, NY to Atlanta. Art was located in a center seat, and I sat behind him next to the window. A mother – and I assume her young teenage daughter – sat next to me. The aircraft had only just lifted off the runway when Art suddenly struggled upward as far as his restraining seat belt would allow, turned his head around so that he fully faced me, and half-shouted so as to be heard above the straining engines: “Lloyd – what about the appeals court decision? I just remembered – it was due out yesterday. Did Judge Connelly rule your child molestation conviction a mistrial, or did he let it stand? My God, man – if that happens, we’re talking five to ten in Attica. You’ll never make it out of there alive.”
Dumbstruck hardly describes my reaction. Totally stunned also falls short. I dared a quick sideways glance; the mother had her eyes closed while the daughter stared straight ahead. Once at cruising altitude, the mother and daughter got up without a word and exchanged seats, placing the daughter next to the aisle and thus ensuring an escape route from the monster who moments before had been at her elbow. It slowly dawned on me that Art had sized up the situation, plotted his course, and in turn was richly rewarded with exactly the anticipated results. At first, I wanted to kill him. Then I wanted to kill myself, for not striking back with something equally outrageous.
The second time it happened, nearly two years later, we were headed home to Rochester from Philadelphia. Art had moved up his return flight by a day after a number of meetings were suddenly cancelled, but neglected to tell me. When I learned of this, it was too late to book on the same flight. I decided to risk it anyway, and showed up at the gate on standby status.
In those earlier days of aerial compliance, the rules stated in bold print that a passenger had to check in at the gate no less than ten minutes before departure time, or he/she would forfeit his/her seat. On this particular flight, there was one no-show. And one standby – me. I was hastily hustled aboard and found Art seated well forward. I greeted him with “hey buddy” and a thumb’s up, and then proceeded to the rear of the aircraft to fill the solitary empty seat.
The pilot cranked up the turbo-prop engines. I waited for the familiar nudge of released brakes – but nothing happened. A couple of minutes went by, still no movement. Five minutes, nothing. Suddenly a voice came over the intercom, and I heard my name. I was being asked to come forward to the front of the aircraft. I ignored it. The message was then repeated two more times, each request more earnest than the one before. Then all fell silent for another five minutes.
That’s when I noticed two stewardesses slowly making their way to the rear, conversing with each passenger on either side of the aisle. When they finally got to my row, I was asked for my ticket. Bingo! At this point, my brain was whirring, and I instantly remembered another aerial rule of the road. A passenger could not be ticketless – meaning, he/she had to be in physical possession of a paid ticket (I don’t recall boarding passes being in use then, but I could be wrong). “Ticketed passenger” was not an idle phrase, and meant what it said. And at this moment, it never had more meaning.
I shoved the ticket, firmly grasped, under the stewardess’ nose. She grabbed the ticket’s far end and pulled. To no avail – I had an iron grip. A bit annoyed, she then told me I had to leave the airplane, that my seat was being taken up by a last minute arrival. I responded by reminding the stewardess of the ten-minute FAA rule that every commercial airline was obliged to obey – no ifs, ands or buts. I then flatly announced that I was not going to give up either my ticket or my seat, and promptly sat down.
The two ladies disappeared. Ten more minutes or so passed. Then I saw the second stewardess coming down the aisle with what turned out to be the co-pilot. A lengthy exchange ensued, closely resembling my first encounter – ticket tugging and faux politeness. I pointed out – an octave above normal – that the passenger ramp had been detached behind me, the passenger entry door closed and locked, and the engines started moments after I took my seat. I might as well have been talking to a deaf/blind mute. By this time, plenty of heads had swiveled around and a few passengers were standing in the aisle as well, trying to make sense of the commotion at the rear.
The co-pilot and stewardess finally turned about and stomped up the aisle, disappearing into the cockpit. Ten more minutes passed. I remained hunkered down and strapped in my window seat. The gentleman sitting next to me never uttered a word – stage fright, I supposed. I glanced at my watch, and pictured my wife taking both my name and God’s in vain as she drove endlessly around the Rochester passenger pickup ramp.
The next thing I knew, two more adversaries loomed overhead. The man in uniform introduced himself as a security supervisor. I didn’t need an introduction to the second person; he was dressed in a suit and carried an overnight bag. The supervisor went into a lengthy dissertation about regulation sub-paragraphs and emergency operational instructions, none of which I understood. Both his tenor and tone told me he’d delivered this recitation a time or ten before. He only paused once, literally interrupting himself: “There – did you hear that, sir?”
“Hear what???” I replied.
“The captain has just turned off the engines – you can hear them winding down. That means the ground crew has to top off the fuel tanks before this aircraft will be allowed to depart the airport.”
That’s when the fight went out of me. Airport cops could only be next, and I wanted none of that. I made my way out into the aisle, handed my ticket over, and opened the overhead bin to retrieve my suitcase. I then paused long enough to address the man in the suit with the overnight bag. He’d worn a stupid grin from the moment he entered the airplane, which only deepened as I got in his face. “Doctor Quack, I presume. It gives me great pleasure to know that the emergency flight you’re taking in order to reach a distant and desperately ill patient will result in a botched operation, for which stupidity you will be sued by the deceased’s family and ultimately lose your license to practice.” I never did learn his name or profession, much less his mission – if indeed he had one at all.
As I made my way toward the front, a torrent of abuse was issued towards me from both sides of the aisle. I’ll only repeat the least offensive ones. “You bastard, you!!! – I’m going to miss my connecting flight to Washington!” “Asshole!!!” “Scumbag!!!” Then, distinctly, a woman’s shrill voice, resulting in scattered laughter: “I hope you grow tits in jail !!!”
But wait… there’s more to come. We mustn’t forget Arthur…
I stopped at his seat just long enough to let him know I was being kicked off the plane, and that I’d call him later from home to explain my predicament. He didn’t seem particularly disturbed by the news. Then the supervisor’s voice from behind, urging me on: “Let’s keep moving, sir.”
I turned and took about three or four steps, just as a thunderous voice broke out: “I – WARNED – YOU – NOT – TO – CARRY – A – BAGEL – IN – YOUR – SUITCASE!!!”
E P I L O G U E
Art was clever about it, for sure. He knew those passengers closest to him would testify – if indeed they were ever questioned – that they distinctly heard the word “bagel” – and not the deadly B-word that would have brought five SWAT teams descending in helicopters onto the tarmac. I half expected to see Art being led off the plane, but no such luck. Nor did anyone in the terminal search my baggage. Within two hours I was on my way aboard a red eye to Syracuse, where my wife picked me up. We both fell into bed around 5am. On reflection, such a ruckus aboard a commercial airplane in present times would have found both Art and me in the Crowbar Hilton, eating week-old tortillas and smoking discarded Cuban cigar butts.
Late that same morning, my wife brought me coffee and breakfast in bed. On the platter were two toasted bagels, slathered with sour cream and strawberry jam. I swear I saw a twinkle in her eye, but then again I’m known for reading things that aren’t there. Maybe she was just glad I was home. “Thanks, honey,” I said. “You’d make a terrific stewardess.”