Word filtered down from North America that the U.S. is spinning out of control, flinging folks into a maelstrom of frenzy and gunfire. I was told that mass murder is treated with the same importance as a mass transit accident: what a shame and too bad. I was warned that the country is at war so keep your head down and stay close to the trenches — I did not, and am all the better for it.
But first, I will make good on my threat to dish the dirt on the guy who was thrown from the plane.
I boarded an early morning American Airlines flight on Sept. 24 in Miami, bound for Connecticut, unaware that I was assigned a front-row seat to a drama that was compelling, tragic, and profoundly sad.
Walter is 63 years old. He is well-tanned, appears to spend time in a gym regularly, wears an expensive watch, and was very casually attired in a light-colored plain tee-shirt and matching shorts suitable for either the links or the pool. He wore moccasins designed as slippers for in-house use only.
Sitting beside him was his wife, Mary, (we chatted for a long while later in the flight). They live in Florida and booked this flight, as they do every six months, to visit their grandchildren in Massachusetts.
Walter casually kicked off his mocs as soon as he sat down in the aisle seat of the 32nd row, port side, and pulled his mask below his mouth while looking ahead and chatting with his wife. I was seated directly across from him, on the right.
One minute later a flight attendant began checking for seatbelts that needed fastening and proper mask-wearing. She stopped and reminded Walter to wear his mask correctly and he complied. Four or five seconds later, she turned to answer a passenger’s question and noticed that Walter was again wearing his mask below his mouth.
The rest was over in moments.
She returned. “Sir, you must wear your mask properly at all times. Please pull your mask up and wear it correctly for the duration of the flight.”
Walter, barefooted, sprung upon his seat like a baseball catcher, or a cat ready to pounce, and replied to her as he pulled his mask up, holding it an inch away from touching his face.
“I can’t breathe,” he complained.
The flight attendant did not miss a beat. “You cannot remain on this plane because we cannot afford to have to divert the flight should there be another incident. The captain wants to see you in the front of the plane.” Walter was astonished. He padded to the front, still barefooted, to plead his case; he was away for less than 30 seconds. When he returned two attendants accompanied him, one stating, “Please take your shoes and whatever carry-on you had with you. Madame, your husband is being escorted off the plane. Do you care to join him?”
“Of course not. I’m going to visit my grandchildren,” she snapped.
It was over.
Mary and I chatted for a long time afterward. She insisted Walter was once a good man but added that he was inducted into the maelstrom swirling around the news shows he enjoys watching. “He was never like this before, but the last few years have been so crazy for all of us.
Our daughter and her husband are nervous when Walter is tending the grandchildren because he is so mad at everybody and argumentative about everything. I am afraid that our marriage of nearly thirty years is over. We may divorce.”
The pools in her eyes reflected the collapse of a life she had so purposely tended since childhood. She knew at that instant that two decisions — to not wear a mask, and a determination to see her family — forever shaped her life in ways she cannot yet begin to fathom.
Deciding to leave Walter in Miami, and deciding that her grandchildren take precedent exposed a bare truth; we were both disoriented by the magnitude of events. The newfound knowledge swept over her with the velocity of wind sheering off a jet heading to Connecticut.
It was a relief to take in the smoky scent that defines a New England fall. The trees were just turning out their holiday colors and shoppers were busier than ever, filling shopping bags, dining out and resetting the decor.
People could not have been sweeter or more courteous. Drivers were unfailingly polite, often stopping many yards away to confirm to you their intention to see that you cross the street safely. Every village had a bookstore, or two, and a cluster of art galleries.
Passers-by on the sidewalk or those sitting in cafes freely called out a warm greeting and fond farewell. I barely opened a door but held many already open doors for others all the time. Yes, please, and thank yous were sprinkled into conversation like pumpkin spice in an age-old pie recipe. It was exactly as I imagined it to be when I was a boy living out west.
It would be foolish of me not to mention that I am aware that the generations-old roads, bridges, and vines of antique shops, restaurants, and fine accommodations, are wholly dependent on massive scale tourism. Every effort is made to inoculate the visitor from the slightest irritation. It was not window dressing, and for this I am grateful. Folks seemed genuinely concerned about everyone’s comfort and well-being.
I drove all the way to Maine, making the time-honored pilgrimage to the LL Bean Flagship store, and look forward to returning again someday.
I saw many wonderful sites and met many fine folks who call the far north woods of New England home; I’d like to meet more of them. I’d also like to return to Freeport and buy those really cool-looking hiking boots that I drooled over. It was foolish to leave them on the shelf, but I wasn’t sure if the added weight would exceed my airline baggage limit — and it seemed prudent to be in compliance.