I’m on a plane awaiting takeoff. I’m departing Kansas City for Atlanta. My carry-on bag is above me in the tiny carry-on compartment—a compartment which, according to FAA regulations, is too small for carry-on bags.
There is a woman behind me trying to force her oversized roller-suitcase into storage by throwing her bodyweight against her luggage like a first-string tackle. Her efforts aren’t working because her carry-on is about the size of a 2008 Honda Civic.
But God love her, she’s trying.
A few of us passengers help her out, although we are not strong enough to bend the immutable laws of physics. In the process of helping, I meet the old man seated across the aisle from me. I’m guessing he’s late seventies. He’s in fantastic shape. Short. Wiry.
I can’t see his face to discern his age because we are all wearing masks. But his thin hair is white, slicked with either Brylcreem or industrial machine lubricant. He wears kelly green polyester trousers, unblemished sneakers, and a loud Hawaiian print shirt. I’m already in love with this guy.
“Hi, I’m Art,” he says cheerfully, and I smell nothing but Old Spice. “I’m ‘fine art,’ too.”
He laughs at his own joke. And after his Rodney Dangerfield opener I have a feeling Art is going to try to sell me a vacuum.
“I’m from Wisconsin,” he adds, leaving his statement open ended, waiting for me to respond with something biographical.
“I’m from Florida,” I say. “Flying to Savannah to meet my wife.”
He nods. “Wives are good.” He thumps his chest. “I was married fifty-nine years.”
“Oh you betcha.” He says the words like they’re all one syllable, a Wisconsinite to the core.
“Fifty-nine years,” I say. “That’s a rarity these days.”
“Oh, yeah. I learned a long time ago that marriage is really just an agreement between two adults. You don’t try to run her life, and you don’t try to run yours.”
He laughs again, making me fall much deeper in love with him. I have a lifelong affection for old men, and Art is one of the good ones.
We fall silent while the plane achieves liftoff. Suddenly, I’m doing mental math. If this man is in his seventies like I’m thinking, the numbers don’t add up.
“So wait,” I say. “Fifty-nine years of marriage? What were you, twelve when you got married?”
“Me? Hell. I’m ninety-three years old. Born in aught twenty-eight.”
And as if I couldn’t love him any more, then he tells me about his wife.
“She was Korean. Met her when I was in the Air Force. The last thing I thought I’d do is get married, but, hey, I fell in love. She was the prettiest woman you ever saw. I used to write her love songs.”
He goes on to tell me the whole love story. He tells me how he met her when he was a GI, and how he fell for her gentle spirit, her sable hair, and her devotion to her family. He speaks of how she grew up in horrific poverty, of how she was an incurable optimist in the face of loss.
“My wife was the strongest person I ever knew. She came through so much, and she was smart. Spoke four languages. And when she sang in Korean, it melted you.”
“Is that right.”
“Oh, you betcha. Shoulda tasted the food she’d cook. God, she was a spectacular cook. Sometimes your dinner still had its eyeballs, but it was always perfect.”
He pauses and looks out his window. About 40,000 feet below us is the Sunflower State. And there is something suddenly forlorn in his eyes.
“She was a great woman,” he says.
Our conversation finally fizzles. After all, we’re strangers. I read my legal thriller novel; he reads his “Guideposts” magazine and takes a short nap using a special pillow that wraps around his neck.
When he awakes he removes his neck pillow and we’re on to round two.
“So you have kids?” I ask.
“Two daughters. Both married. Both happy.”
“You betcha. Got eight of’em.” He’s beaming now. “I got great grandkids, too.”
“That’s a lot of grandkids.”
“Yeah, well, grandchildren are your reward for not killing your own kids.” He laughs privately, looks out the window again then he says in a quiet tone, “Oh, I can’t wait to see my family. You get my age, family is all that’s worth caring about.”
And just like that he’s done talking. He’s tired again. He sleeps. He gently snores.
After a few hours of reading, periodic napping, and just generally being miserable in a commercial airliner, the plane finally touches down. We deboard.
And I am impressed with how strong the old man is. He unloads his carry-on bag from the overhead compartment and hobbles through the passenger boarding bridge like a man twenty years his junior.
We livestock-like passengers filter into the crowded Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport terminal where I see two arrestingly beautiful middle-aged Asian American women waiting to meet the old man. The women confiscate his bag and throw their arms around the man.
“Dad,” they both say. And I only wish his best girl could see what I’m seeing now. For all I know, maybe she can.
As I walk past him on my way to my next terminal, he and I lock eyes briefly. “Nice meeting you,” the man says to me. “You take care now.”
I smile. “You betcha.”