My father had not flown for a decade or so – perhaps even longer, certainly long enough so that he had no concept of the nightmarish array of security measures, police and bizarre check-points introduced since 9/11—as indeed who could?
But it was my niece’s bat-mitzvah and so we were off to California from Philadelphia. My mother had not lived to see it but my eighty-five year old father had. I’d promised to get him there, one way or the other.
I cautioned him about the strange New World of Flight. “Dad, the airports are different now. There are lots of new rules --no shampoo, no lotions, no nail clippers. You need to be careful.”
My former engineer father said, “You’re joking.”
“It’s not a joke, Dad. The government doesn’t allow liquids on board.”
Dad eyed me as if I were slightly insane. “You worry too much, honey,” he said.
I had reason to be concerned. My father had lost his left arm in a cancer surgery. While he never labeled himself handicapped, he was. The airport requirements of removing jackets and shoes while keeping one’s balance would be daunting—or so I feared.
At Philadelphia Airport, we faced the long hostile security lines. “This is what it’s like, now—it’s ridiculous,” I said as I helped him with his driver’s license.
“Country has to do what it has to do,” Dad reminded me.
“Not such a big price to pay to be safe. I think the line moves pretty quickly.”
Dad’s luggage triggered the airport security system. “Dad, what did you put in there?” I asked.
“Sue me,” he said.
We marched over to a tired security inspector. Sure enough, he’d packed huge bottles of lotion and shampoo and shaving cream and about anything liquid he could think of. He might even have packed mouthwash.
“That’s not allowed sir,” the stout woman informed my one-armed father, dumping all of it in the trash with little fanfare.
“Really, you’re wasting all this stuff?” Dad protested. “Do you have to throw it out?”
“Yes, sir,” she announced.
“He hasn’t flown in a while,” my husband informed the agent. The woman shook her head in disbelief.
She continued to rifle through Dad’s luggage. Out came a comically huge pair of scissors. The agent dangled the scissors in front of him. “These are definitely not allowed, sir. Scissors are illegal to take on a plane. Are you aware of that, sir?”
“Dad, what are you doing with scissors?” I almost screamed.
Dad addressed the agent in a soothing voice. “I am so sorry, miss. But I do need those scissors. I hope you understand, but I need them.”
The stout agent softened. She measured the scissors and allowed them to remain in his luggage. “You should follow instructions,” she told him, amused.
“Thank you. I will next time,” he lied.
The airplane itself was over-crowded and not so clean. My
husband and I settled in – discontented, filled with ire at airport security and ill-disposed towards one and all. All of the passengers looked woebegone and disgusted at the prospect of the six hour flight to California, unrelieved by free airline food.
Alone in this den of misery, Dad enjoyed himself. About an hour after the plane had alighted, he poked me. “Listen to how quiet this airplane is. What is this, a Boeing or an Airbus?”
All I heard was ceaselessly chattering passengers. By that time, I was about to clobber whoever was in the seat across from me who would not shut up. I dug out the airline magazine, and identified the aircraft for him—whether it was Boeing or Airbus, I detested it.
“Actually, it’s a Boeing 767.”
Dad took this in. “In early days of aviation, airplane engines were so loud it shattered ear-drums—it made flying unbearable. Flying was dirty and dangerous and noisy. And now, listen, just listen.”
We listened together—and I saw clouds outside.
“Those engineers, they know what they’re doing. And we’ll be across a continent in less than six hours. Centuries, people slogged across the continent—think how hard that was for pregnant women. Now, we’re just sitting here doing nothing, and we’ll land in San Francisco, safe and sound and snug in a few hours. You can’t do better than that, can you?”
“I guess not,’ I admitted.
When we arrived in San Francisco, Dad said, “Smooth landing.”
We trekked to the car rental- which first required an airport shuttle trains. Having left Philadelphia ten hours before, I feared my father would be exhausted—I certainly was.
Once aboard the airport shuttle, an automated voice announced the terminal name and came to a stop. My father’s bright eyes went wide. “It’s like the future,” he said. “This is so cool! The train even talks to you!” He was flying high.
My father’s joy was infectious – and even my tired husband laughed. Our fantastic shuttle reached our destination and Dad came gently back to earth. For his sake, I wished our journey had lasted longer.
At dinner, we sat at a table overlooking the moonlit Pacific, but my father’s thoughts were still in the air. “Such a fantastic trip,” he said. “So smooth and quiet, and in less than a day, we’re in California looking at the ocean. It doesn’t get much better than this, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t,” I said. “But please, no shampoo on the way back.”
He smiled and filled his glass of wine. “Honey, you just worry too much.”
This piece appeared in Airplane Reading.