Written by Paul Penner Tuesday, 24 March 2009 13:48
Traveling over long distances by air comes at a price. The greatest sacrifice is time spent on the road in a vehicle or shuttling through city streets to airports, standing in line, passing through security checkpoints, waiting for flights to come in or sleeping in waiting rooms, thanks to rescheduled or cancelled flights.
Did you ever notice that sitting in an airplane can be the least amount of time you spent in real travel time to and from your destination?
At best, sitting in the plane by the window, watching the terrain or clouds, if the weather is behaving badly, makes it seem like you are finally getting somewhere.
Whether I’m sitting at a terminal, waiting for a flight or in the plane, a nice diversion from mundane activities—for example, reading a book or reviewing notes from an upcoming meeting, or visiting on the cell phone with someone—is having an occasional conversation with a fellow traveler.
Beginning a polite conversation is not rocket science but more akin to an art form. Unfortunately, the outcome of a polite gesture, like returning a greeting, if ever so inconspicuous and quietly performed, is unpredictable, depending on the individual.
On a return flight home, via Memphis, I sat next to a retired Washington, D.C., detective. I even learned that much without making any effort at all.
In fact, my mere politeness opened up a well of information, though interesting in a voyeuristic way, told a tale of wasted lives of people he met while on duty, not to mention a genuine disappointment with his own life. My encouragement for him to find peace seemed to fall on deaf ears. Perhaps the brief encounter nudged him closer to true peace and fulfillment. Only God knows.
On an upbeat, yet perhaps less significant note; while waiting for our plane’s arrival at LaGuardia for the trip home from our Christmas visit with Jessica and Tom, a tall, slender young woman sat a few feet away from us. As if on cue, we looked up and greeted each other. It was a rather awkward moment. Her face seemed familiar. She smiled, as if she were acknowledging the familiarity.
Unable to make a connection, I returned to reading my magazine. The ad I paged through brought instant recognition to the woman’s face. The movie, “Lord of the Rings,” was the latest to hit the screens. Actress Liv Tyler was a passenger on the St. Louis leg of our journey.
Yep. That’s all folks. The brush with fame was over in less time than it takes to tell the story.
At least I didn’t have the courage—no, guts nor lack of brains—to ask for a family photo shoot, like the one Farm Journal columnist John Phipps requested when he spotted then Governor of Illinois John Blagojevich. He had a goofy look on his face while standing next to “Mr. Blago.”
Then again, Phipps’ comedic writing style was able to turn that lemon of a picture into lemonade after Blagojevich was impeached.
For comparison, Liv Tyler is polite and very soft spoken. So was Blagojevich, says Phipps. She stars in fantasy films, he lives in real-life fantasies, where a Senate seat goes to the highest bidder, where plausible deniability is a generous stretch of the imagination, given his exposure to wire taps and other legal evidence.
In any case, I’ll take my brief, insignificant brush with fame over Phipps’ “photo-op” any day of the week.
Other chance meetings include a visit with an aide to Sen. Joe Lieberman, whose duties were investigating fraud cases stemming from Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
I chatted with a mother on her way to welcome her son home from a tour of duty in Iraq.
I listened to a mother discuss her daughter’s role as a dispatcher and working relationship that put her in close proximity to the BTK serial killer before he was arrested and convicted.
Perhaps the most ironic, yet chance, meeting occurred while riding a shuttle between O’Hare and Midway airports, shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. A young man and I were the only passengers in the van. He was a manager for a rap band that was scheduled to play in Denver. The conversation turned to the catastrophe in New York City that was playing out as recovery efforts were still underway.
My fellow rider and driver were genuinely frightened by the tactics the terrorists used to get aboard the airliners and were supportive of law enforcement’s use of profiling to apprehend potential hijackers.
As African-Americans, even they were surprised to hear themselves saying it. In that moment, however, all understood the language of fear and how recent events affect our thinking about the fear of the unknown and the need for a sense of personal security.
As we disembarked the van for our respective flights, we shook each others hands and departed.