I am thirty-five thousand feet above the rest of the world. Below me is Texas. Or maybe it’s Oklahoma. I’m on a flight back to Atlanta, sitting beside a stranger.
The stranger is from New York. Earlier, he was talking on his phone before takeoff. He was using swear words like they were basic adjectives.
Folks on the plane were beginning to stare, like maybe the stranger and I were buddies. I just smiled.
But now that we are in the air, and he’s chewing ice cubes. That’s right. Big, loud, ice cubes. And he’s listening to rap music on headphones.
You should hear the music leaking out of his headphones. I cannot repeat the lyrics because my mother raised me in a fundamentalist home with a framed picture of Billy Graham on my nightstand.
So I will substitute all swear words using names from the 1953 roster of the New York Yankees.
One of the verses to the rap song I am overhearing goes like this:
“You no good sack of Phil Rizzuto,
“Yogi Berra, Berra, Berra,
“You stupid mother Whitey Ford,
“I mean, what the Johnny Schmitz?
“What the actual Johnny Schmitz?”
Commercial flying has changed over the years. The first time I ever boarded a plane was to visit my aunt in St. Louis. I was a kid, traveling with my mother.
We flew because my father didn’t like the idea of my mother driving long distances alone. He was afraid she would get a flat tire.
Once, to prepare my mother for a road trip, he taught her to change the rear tire on our station wagon. My mother got so good at changing tires, Daddy would clock her with a stopwatch.
Her unique skills were a source of entertainment at family barbecues for years thereafter.
One time my father’s friend, Buddy, lost a $200 bet when Mama changed the tire on a ‘62 Chevelle in under three minutes, then replaced the spark plugs.
The day of our flight, I remember my mother wearing her nicest outfit to the airport. I wore my Sunday khakis.
“Why are we in dressy clothes?” I asked Mama.
“Because we’re flying.”
And it was as simple as that.
It was a boyhood trip to remember. The captain let me visit the cockpit and pinned gold wings to my shirt. I pressed my face against a window.
“Is that our house?” I would ask my mother.
“Lord no, that’s Arkansas.”
“What about that?”
“I don’t know.”
“What about that?”
“Lower your voice, people are staring.”
“How about that?”
“Honey, why don’t you color Mama a picture?”
But what I remember most was how my mother made friends with a perfect stranger. You’d have to know my mother to know what I mean.
Some women are born Methodist, others are Presbyterian. My mother was a Conversationalist.
My mother engaged the young woman in conversation. Before the plane ride finished, my mother had learned about the stranger’s childhood, her parents, her kids, and her first two marriages.
Then, Mama gave the lady her mailing address so they could keep in touch.
At some point in the conversation, their voices became quiet, and the young woman even started crying. My mother just listened.
I remember when we landed in St. Louis, my mother spit on her hand to fix my hair. She straightened my collar. We stepped off the airplane.
My mother said, “We need to say prayers for her. She’s going through a lot.”
“Who was that woman?” I asked.
“A stranger in need.”
There’s no way I can be certain, but I would bet you $200 that my mother said a few words for that stranger before she turned out her light.
So the New Yorker has now turned off his headphones. He is looking out the window like he has something on his mind. And I can feel my mother inside me.
I start with an informal introduction. “How’s today treating you?”
He smiles. “It’s a good and a bad day, dude.”
Not quite the answer I expected.
“My wife just had a baby last night,” he goes on. “I’m a dad. A real dad. But my son’s premature, we’re real worried, he’s got some very serious problems. They aren’t sure he’ll make it.”
I’m sorry I ever thought ill of this man. Even if he does chew his ice.
He says, “I keep telling myself, ‘Holy Mickey Mantle, dude, you’re a father.’ Then I start getting all scared he ain’t gonna make it.
“But my kid is gonna pull through, he’s a fighter. I just know it. I’m not worried. No, I’m not gonna be worried.”
He chews more ice. His eyes turn pink. He looks out the window.
After our plane lands, I don’t know why, I give him my mailing address. Maybe, if for no other reason, because I am my mother’s son.
If you get a few minutes, say a few words for a stranger in need.