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Flying Lessons

THE LOUNGE at the Los Angeles International Airport was crowded, and I was surprised and relieved when I entered to find nearly an entire row of chairs empty. I made for the center of the row and dropped a too-heavy carry-on (Will they notice that it’s oversized? I wondered) on the seat next to me while my husband deposited his hand luggage on the other side. Across from us the chairs were also unoccupied, except for a man in his late 30s and, slumped in the seat to his right, a much older man who appeared to be dozing.

The younger man was tall, face burnt to reddish-brown leather under a weathered white cowboy hat. Western boots, a plaid work shirt, and well-worn jeans set him off from the other travelers waiting for their flights, laptops open on business-casual legs. Father and son, I thought as I pulled an apple out of my bag and opened a paperback. Then, as inconspicuously as possible, I looked over the top of my book and began to study the two men whose presence had discouraged anyone from taking a seat near them.

The older man was as thin and limp as a length of old rope. The brown of his skin was cast with yellow as if the blood had drained away and been replaced with muddy water. Over his long-sleeved shirt he wore a button-less cardigan. His dark, cotton work pants were so faded from washing that it was impossible to determine their original color. At his feet were two tattered duffel bags and behind his back a pair of dingy pillows.

From time to time, the younger man adjusted the pillows, attempting to pull the older man to a more upright position. The father would open his eyes for a moment and then, exhausted by the effort, he seemed to will himself to breathe. I leaned toward my husband. “The old man is dying,” I told him. He, too, had been watching. Around us other eyes were intent on magazines or engrossed in TV news or computer screens. Although more people had crowded into the lounge, our two rows remained islands of space— almost as if they were protected by an invisible fence or a wall of glass.

A deep breath, almost a rattle, shook the old man’s body. His son jumped to his feet, readjusted the pillows, looked at his watch, and began to stare into the distance as if listening for a voice. Uncertainty agitated his features, and he took a few steps toward the flight desk. Then he began to pace—five or six steps toward the desk, another half-dozen back to his father’s side. “I’m going to ask if I can help him,” I whispered to my husband.

“Wait a minute. Let’s see what he’s going to do,” was his answer.

‘May I Help?’

Less than a minute went by. Again, the man looked at his watch. Then, his expression a combination of fear and determination, he strode toward the flight desk. As he approached, the briskly efficient clerk turned from her computer and disappeared behind a door, leaving the man to hurry back to his seat and resume pacing and staring toward the boarding area.

“Good afternoon. May I help you with something?” I asked him in Spanish. Surprised, relieved, he held out the wrinkled papers he had been clutching in his left hand. “Well, yes, señora.” He explained that he and his father were flying to Fresno, but they hadn’t heard a call to board the plane.

“Well, let’s go over to the counter to find out what’s going on,” I said. As we walked, I introduced myself and asked where he was from. “Mexico,” he told me, adding, “but I’ve been living in Washington for the past 18 years. I work in the fruit orchards up there.”

“Eighteen years! You must speak English really well by now.”

He gave an apologetic shake of his head. “It’s not so easy to learn English when you are working in the fields.” There was no complaint in his words, just acknowledgment of the way life is. For a second I wondered if his were the hands that had picked the apple I had tossed so casually back into my bag. I wondered how many bushels of apples, boxes of pears, he had to pick to buy two plane tickets. And why was he going to Fresno?

Maybe his father had other children there, laboring in the fields or tending gardens—children who couldn’t travel to see their father before he died. But how had the son gotten his father into the lounge without help?

The clicking of high heels announced the return of the airline clerk, professional smile masking her surprise at my companion’s appearance. She took the ticket from the man’s calloused hands, and the smile disappeared into open-mouthed shock. “That flight was called half an hour ago. They’re just about to close the doors. Tell him to get on the plane!” Voice rising with every word, she started to tear off the stub and pointed him to the door. “Just a minute,” I told her. “His father is flying with him.”

“Well, go tell his father to hurry up! They’re going to close the doors.”

“His father can’t walk. I’ll ask my husband to help.”

An Internal Duel

Hurrying to our row of seats, I explained the urgency to the man who, disconcertingly, seemed to trust that I was going to make everything work out. One on the left, the other on the right, my husband and the man lifted the father to his feet. Then, as if in a parody of a scene from an old episode of Gunsmoke, he flung his arms around their necks as they dragged him to the boarding gate. I followed, threadbare pillows spilling from battered duffel bags.

At the boarding gate, the clerk’s expression of shock turned to one of outright horror at the dilemma facing her. On one hand, the old man was incapable of boarding the plane himself, and the son was incapable of carrying his father and the two pieces of hand luggage through the corridor and onto the plane without my husband’s continued help.

On the other hand, security regulations would not allow an unticketed passenger to enter the plane even for the few minutes needed to get the man into his seat.

In her distress, the clerk, whose basic kindness seemed to find itself at odds with the procedures manual, scolded me. “They should have called for a wheelchair. Why didn’t they ask for a wheelchair? Tell them they should have called 24 hours in advance to request a wheelchair.” It was useless to point out that these were not people who were accustomed to flying, that they didn’t speak enough English to ask for a wheelchair, that they wouldn’t have understood that options existed that could make life less of a struggle. These were people whose greatest strength is simply to endure.

The clerk set a chair for the old man at the entrance to the boarding gate. At almost the same moment, a customer-service representative from a competing airline raced past the flight desk, pushing an empty wheelchair. Our clerk chased after her. “Let me borrow your wheelchair.”

The representative refused. “You can’t. I signed it out.”

Imploring. “But I need it.”

Another refusal. “You can’t have it.”

An angry hiss. “I need that wheelchair.”

A stubborn denial. “I’m responsible for it. I have to return it.”

It might have been the representative’s determination to follow the rules to the letter that exasperated our clerk and, in my eyes, transformed her into a superhero. She grabbed the front of the wheelchair and pulled. The rival, surprised, held defiantly to the back. The two women tugged back and forth, until, victorious, the clerk wrenched it away and rushed to our group. Within seconds, she was pushing the old man onto the plane, his son trailing, almost running, as he clutched pillows and duffel bags.

When she returned—and returned the wheelchair to the red-faced representative—she couldn’t resist reminding me, “Next time tell them to ask for a wheelchair 24 hours in advance.”

Crisis over, she had regained control. The room itself seemed to exhale. Once again, all was normal.

A Lesson in Trust

It seems such a small drama. Two men are taking a plane. They need help with translation, and someone helps them. They need a wheelchair, and someone brings one. They get on a plane and fly to their next stop where they will have other needs and where God will provide for them at the last moment, but exactly on time. Behind them they leave . . . what?

At the flight desk, they encounter a woman whose heart seems encased in regulations. She fights an internal duel with the rulebook and, in the end, she acts from her own essential decency. Her experience with the two men leaves her shaken but stronger.

To my husband they give a chance to redeem his initial reluctance to act. Like Simon helping Christ to carry his cross, he stepped in to carry a burden that at first he had chosen to ignore.

In me they leave the indelible memory of the serenity with which the younger man put his problem into my hands. He seemed to trust that God would find a solution and that I was going to be it. They leave me humbled at the privilege of being present at a time and place where I was available to be used by God. Years later, they leave me still with a desire to pray for them.

I choose to think that the other passengers in the lounge that day might have been hampered by their inability to speak Spanish. They might not have known how to offer help to two strangers or to overcome their fear of getting involved. To them is left to ponder the pure and dutiful and protective love of a son, the commandment to “honor thy father” come to life.

I walked back to my seat in a row now as crowded as before it had been empty. Fingers still skipped over keyboards, TV news still hummed, eyes still skimmed paperbacks and newspapers. But one voice spoke to me as I threaded my way to my chair. It was that of a middle-aged woman, eyes barely lifted from the book in her lap. Perhaps she spoke for the others who had observed in silence when she whispered to me, “Thank you.”