Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Journey through Hell to Portland, Oregon

Let’s put it this way: Flying has become a downright terrible experience that most of us simply want to avoid as much as possible.
by Charlie Leck

I’m sitting out here in Portland, Oregon, one of American’s really civilized cities. It’s a wonderful place. I would come here often and spend a lot of my money here if it weren’t for the problem of getting here.

I have a sparkling, brilliant and delightful daughter who lives out here. She’s grown into such a lovely person and it is a treat to be with her. I’d come out here to see her much more often if it weren’t for the problem of getting here.

Then there are those grandchildren – Rowan and Daphne – who are so damned cute and so much fun to watch as they grow up. I’d come out here to see them so much more often if it weren’t for the problem of getting here.

It’s about a 3+ hour flight from Minneapolis to this lovely city in the Northwest. That, of course, is flying time. Then, as everyone knows, there’s all that time getting to the airport itself, getting through the long security inspection lines, boarding, unloading and, often, picking up one’s baggage. Make it a 7+ hour process! That comes close. Take along an iPod, some good music or an audio-book and it shouldn’t be a bad trip. Yet, it is a terrible thing to do; for flying these days is, in fact, like subjecting oneself to a virtually inhumane experience.

Who, in his right mind, could enjoy flying these days if he/she isn’t sitting up in first class?

I try, in everyway, to get myself upgraded to the premium seating when I fly, but there are times when none of the little tricks will work. On those occasions I must go back there with the hopeless, cruelly treated animals.

A description of the experience is not pretty and, unless you are strong of stomach, you may not want to read further.

I’m herded down a long, narrow chute toward the pen, especially reserved for me and into which I will be stuffed. Trudging slowly along this narrow passageway, I often need to pass other hapless animals who have been penned in their tiny slots. I bump and bang against many of these sad men or women whose elbows and shoulders hang out beyond the technical limits of their tiny stalls.

It is already hot and stuffy and I can feel droplets of perspiration building up under my armpits. The others in the herd are groaning and moaning and some are sputtering muffled obscenities. And, we’ve only just begun.

The lengthy line of cattle moves slowly. A little pen has been reserved for me in row 30, seat C. It is a long and difficult trip down the chute to a row that far back in the plane. Enjoyable conversation with fellow travelers is impossible because no one is in the mood for pleasantness. It would be fairer to say that everyone is in the mood for killing someone – anyone – who is in the business of organizing and promulgating such travel experiences.

It’s a struggle to find a space in the overhead baggage compartment for the little bag I’ve brought along. I’ve followed the instructions of the airline pertaining to the size of the bag I’m allowed to bring aboard. It seems that none of the other travelers has. No one from the airline makes any attempt to enforce the restrictions about carry-on bags. I finally find space about six rows of pens beyond the one where I’ll be stuffed. I feel a sense of guilt as I push my bag into a space too small for it. I am crushing some lady’s cute hat. And, I am taking space from some fellow traveler who has not yet arrived at his pen. Yet, this “style” of travel fosters this “it’s me or him” attitude among all of us.

Now I find that I need to move upstream along the travelers going downstream in the narrow loading chute. Some of the other animals become extremely unhappy with me and I swear that one of them calls me a “prick” even though there is a young calf nearby who can clearly hear him. I give him the finger as I squirm by him. He smacks me in the ribs with his elbow and, so, I knee him in the crotch and the air goes out of him and his knees wobble. The little calf is frightened now and he is bleating loudly and squirming to get clear of the two crazed, raging bulls. I push wildly, in a panic, up the chute to the pen that has been designated for me.

A big cow has already moved into the pen just in front of mine and, desperate for more space, she has reclined her seat-back. This is another clear violation of travel restrictions. No one is there to enforce the regulation. It is impossible to slide into the narrow space reserved for me. People want me to get out of the way. Another bull is looking angrily at me, as if he might also want to tangle. So, I ask the cow to raise her seat to the “upright position.”

She flashes a look at me that clearly shouts: “Screw you, you miserable jerk!”

So, I need to slide into my space with my body leaned back at a 45 degree angle. My back is too stiff for such a position, but I have little choice. The pain is agonizing, but I finally fall somewhat into place and I cram my knees behind the seat back in front of me, purposefully jamming them as hard as I can into the back of the cow in front of me. She tries to twist and turn, to face me, and give me that vile, hateful look of hers, but she’s already strapped down and she’s crammed against one of her fellow travelers and she can’t twist back toward me.

I snort out a little laugh at her and wiggle to get my butt somehow squared away in my seat and suddenly realize that my elbow is caressing the large bosom of the woman squeezed in next to me. Horrified, I turn to apologize to her and see the broad smile spread across her face. She winks at me and slides a leg up against mine. I pretend not to notice any of this, but I know and she knows that my face is bright red.

I struggle to find the strap that I am, by regulation, supposed to use to bind myself into my pen. It’s simple to find the piece hanging down into the chute next to me, but when I reach for it, a big bull viciously kicks my hand. I look up into his eyes. It’s the mean animal that I earlier kneed and he’s still ready for a clash. The little calf has disappeared, but I can hear it bleating painfully somewhere behind me. I turn away from the avenging bull and look for the strap on my other side. It’s tucked down between the wall of my pen and the hip of the woman next to me. I go searching for it and my traveling companion moans a little and wiggles closer to me. I tug at the strap and it comes free. Somehow I managed to get the two ends of the straps to meet up at the big, hard buckle and they clang together.

I assess my situation. My clothing is twisted in odd directions and my underwear is wrinkled at odd angles and is cutting into me in a terribly uncomfortable way. I’m now perspiring wildly. It’s very hot and stuffy and my own body odors are mingling with those of others and, worse, with the aromas of cheap perfume and cologne. My knees don’t have enough space and are crammed into the seat back that forms part of the pen of the mean cow up ahead. My shoulders are wider than my pen space. One hangs out over the chute to my right and the passing herd keeps banging into it. The other shoulder is stuffed tightly against this cow to my left and she is pushing her shoulder back against mine.

I need to blow my nose, but to search for a tissue in my side pocket only means another encounter with the teasing, in-heat cow beside me. I’ll figure something out a bit later when no one is watching me.

Finally, after all the animals are in their pens and the loading chute has cleared, one of the official herders comes by and tells the woman in front of me that she must raise her seat-back to its fully upright position. With a great huff, she gives my knees some freedom. Pleased, the herding agent moves away and the big cow in front of me releases her seat-back and it crashes down against my knees. I yelp and the big cow chuckles. I bang my hands into her seat-back, hoping to jar some sense into her. I see her head fly forward in whip-lash. I’m pleased, but the big bull behind me, with whom I’ve been tangling, smacks me in the head and mews at me.

“That my wife, you jerk. Whatta you think your doing? Wait ‘til I get you off this plane, you prick. I’m gonna punch you silly.”

I slump down in my seat so the guy can’t smack my head again. The woman next to me has unbuckled her strap-downs and she climbs on to her seat and kneels so she can look back at the bull behind me.

“Leave him alone, you mother,” she shouts at the guy. “Your stupid cow of a wife won’t put her seat-back up and this poor guy hasn’t got any room at all. If she doesn’t put her seat up, like she’s supposed to, I’m going to go up there and slap her silly.”

Jesus, it was really getting out of hand. I imagined that they’d kick all of us off the flight. It would be no skin off the airline’s back. They had dozens and dozens of people they’d over-booked, who they couldn’t cram into the plane, and they’d have no trouble filling our pens with other cattle.

I asked my woman defender to sit down and told the guy behind me that we’d settle things in Portland. A mean looking flight attendant had come to our section of the pens and she was giving us all a cross, challenging look. The woman in front of me put her seat-back up and the woman next to me sat back down and rebuckled herself into her pen. She patted my knee with a hand and then left it resting there. The airline agent saw that things had returned to a peaceful state and, after sneering at us, she left.

By this time, the entire cargo load of cattle was bleating and mewing, anxious already to be released even though we’d not even left the ground yet. It was more than dangerous to cram this many cattle together, into such a small space. Animal humane societies would not dream of letting it happen. There would be lawsuits and someone would be greatly embarrassed. But, here in this situation, it was both legally and morally acceptable. After all, we are only people!

The flight itself was painful. Cattle need to pee. Jesus, do they! Every time a cow or steer or bull in our aisle of pens wanted to move toward the cattle peeing area, all the other animals had to somehow make way. Of course, the seat back in front of me was fully reclined and nearly in my lap. Getting out of my pen, so one of the cows to my left could slide out and go down the chute to wait her turn to relieve herself, was not an easy task. It meant repeating that move where my back is bent at an odd angle backwards and I needed to do a strange version of the limbo dance at an age when limbo dancing is no longer possible. Yet, somehow, I did it.

The airlines no longer feed the cattle. They do provide some water or juice. If one wants to eat something there is twisted licorice available at $4 for a small packet. Wholesome! Scotch, gin or beer is available at a ridiculous price. It’s better to just sit as patiently as possible and wait for the hours to go by.

I ask an attendant for a set of earphones so I might listen to music on the in-flight sound system.
“Oh, my,” the attendant giggles at me, mocking my stupidity, “we haven’t had a working sound systems for years. Everyone brings iPods aboard now. Don’t you have one?”

Actually, I did, but it is in the bag I packed into the overhead compartment four rows behind me. I have no intention of going back that way and passing the angry bull sitting behind me. I’m just not up to it. I sit down, examining my watch, time and again, to see how close we are getting to Portland.

Now the cow in 30B has fallen asleep and her head is leaned against my shoulder. She is snoring quite loudly. I sit stone-still so as not to awaken her. It is more peaceful with her sleeping, even with the snoring. However, the ass behind me doesn’t agree. He slaps my head again.

“Can’t you get your bitch to shut-up?”

“She’s not my bitch,” I murmur back at him.

“She’s awfully snugglely for a woman who ain’t your bitch,” he says with a snicker. The woman in 30A giggles. So does the skinny steer in 30D, just across the narrow aisle. I look over at him and try to show some displeasure. He winks at me and blows a kiss.

Oh, god, it’s a friggin’ nightmare and the plane is still two hours out, bumping over the mountains of Montana. My body is throbbing with pain because it is being asked to do unnatural things. I try to sleep. A feeding cart, being pushed swiftly up the aisle by an uncaring attendant, bangs into one of my knees, which has slumped outward and into the passageway. I yelp, the way my dog does when I accidentally step on him in the dead of night.

“Keep your knees in,” the attendant says, with no sympathy at all for the fact that she nearly shattered one of them.

Babies are crying. One is screaming violently. Several people loudly send out hushing signals. The skinny man to my right has reached across the chute and put a hand on my right arm. Nervously, I look over at him. He winks again and holds his packet of red, twisted licorice out to me.

“You want a piece?” He asks with a broad smile.

“No,” I shout loudly, “not at all. Not ever!”

Behind me, the bull stirs awake. He reaches forward and smacks the top of my head again.

“You’re worse than a kid,” he growls. “Can you keep quiet and let a guy sleep?”

It’s like the song of an angel when the pilot’s voice comes out from some unknown place and tells us all that we are beginning our descent into Portland. All tray tables and seat backs are to be raised and all carry-ons are to be restowed. What lovely words! They come with redemption and healing.

The woman in front of me doesn’t raise her seat-back. I wait patiently for several moments. Finally I lean forward and speak through the crack between her seat and the seat next to her.

“Ma’am,” I say politely to the crack, “your seat-back is to be raised down.”

“Screw you,” she shouts at me, “and keep quiet.”

“But, ma’am,” I plead, “the pilot has said that….”

The back of my head is smacked again.

“Don’t talk to my wife, you freak. Leave her alone. I can’t wait to bust your ass!”

A flight attendant is wandering down the aisle, checking to see that all seat belts are fastened and all seat-backs have been raised to their fully upright positions. On her way toward us, she tells several people to return their seats to their proper position. Two rows short of mine, she stops and turns and returns to the front of the plane. Behind us a flight attendant is doing the same chore. Two rows behind me, he stops and returns to the back of the plane. The plane is descending. I want desperately to raise my legs and to restore the flow of blood to them.

All the way to the ground, the old cow’s seat-back remains inclined and in my lap. The plane thuds against the runway and the engines reverse. I hear bags shifting in the over compartments above me and I visualize the pretty woman’s hat being crushed by my bag as it slides forward. Oh, just another cost of travel – another inconvenience – another small causality.
At the gate, we are free to remove the straps that have bound us down and we are allowed to rise up to standing position; but the seat-back in front of me is still reclined. The cow who sat there is now standing in the aisle and she is looking back at me with a smile. I give her a pleading look, but she only turns away with a smirk and reaches out her hand to her husband, urging him forward – over and around and through – the people who are standing in the aisle in front of him.

My two penned companions and I realize it will be better to remain seated. We’ll let the herd move out and then we’ll try to disembark in something of a civilized manner. Perhaps, if I delay long enough, the raging bull will grow impatient and decide his violent encounter with me is not worth its wait. My back hurts and my knees are locked, but I sit quietly and wait.

Finally, with the plane nearly empty, a flight attendant comes by and sees the seat-back in front of me reclined at more than a normal position and shouts an apology and raises it for me. I slide my feet out from under the forward seat and raise my knees carefully. They make a violent, cracking sound and the friendly cow next to me winces. The flight attendant offers to help me rise. I let her take my arm and she steadies me as I make the abnormal twists of my body that finally release me from the small pen. The pain – in my back, my hips, my knees and my legs – is excruciating, but I am free at last.

My bag is the last one in the overhead compartments. I retrieve it and begin the journey up the chute to the ramp through which we will struggle before reaching our ultimate freedom. It is a long, painful walk. I am the last of the animals to leave the plane. The flirt who had traveled next to me, and caressed my arm and leg, is long gone. I step out into the gate area, nervous about encountering the huge, raging bull. He is not there. Patience has indeed worn him down and impatience has wooed him away. However, there is a tiny, tidy woman showing a travel companion the battered, crushed hat that she had so proudly purchased in a little shop in Minneapolis. It was forever ruined and she was dismayed. I heard her plaintiff murmur.

“I didn’t think anyone would be so foolish and inconsiderate as to push a heavy, big duffle bag up against such a dainty, delicate and lovely, little hat.”

I quickly moved my carry-on to the hand away from her view. I slid by her quickly and moved with new vigor toward the moving walkway that would allow me to escape into the great unknown.

1 comment:

  1. Are you walking home?

    In 1978, I was flying the red eye from Chicago to D.C. on a brand new L-1011 or DC-10 (can't remember which except I'd never been on one to that point). I ended up in an aisle seat next to someone much wider than the middle seat he occupied. I saw no arm rest to shield me from being up close and personal. I chalked that off to bad design on this new airplane. He had gone to sleep immediately and we never said a word to each other. I was too concerned with hurting his feelings to complain about his girth to a stewardess (nka flight attendant). I had an absolutely miserable flight and could not sleep with the pressure on my left side applied by the snoring Arbuckle. When we landed at Dulles, my "companion" stood up and PUT THE ARMREST DOWN! Live and learn, but I was livid.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Let's do a post-election get together when you return home.