My bag was checked, my carry-on was overflowing with magazines and my ticket was ready to be taken. I staked a place against a pillar and stood there waiting for Zone 4 to be called. Ten minutes passed. Then another ten minutes passed. I checked my watch on a regular basis with the same impatience I might push an elevator button, erroneously assigning a similar thought process that this act just might move things along at a faster pace.
“Wah wah wah wah wah. Wah wah wah Flight 935 wah wah maintenance wah wah wah,” came from the overhead speaker.
I tapped the closest passenger and asked her if she understood the announcement.
“Yeah, the plane that’s here has a maintenance problem. They’re trying to find an alternate while they attempt to fix the one at the gate. Something about being grounded if the alternate plane isn’t the same model because this crew's only trained on a 737.”
“He said all of that? Oh well. There goes my Charlotte connection seeing it’s, um, in thirty minutes.”
“Oh, he said you might want to go two gates over to Special Services if you have a connection.”
“He said that too?”
The woman shrugged and went back to the latest issue of People Magazine. I gathered up my things and headed over to Special Services to finagle a rerouting, swapping my true destination of Sarasota for neighboring Tampa. It meant my parents would have to drive forty minutes north to retrieve me. It meant my luggage was just as likely to end up in Phoenix as it was to end up in Sarasota. Most importantly, it meant I didn’t have to spend an extra 9 hours at the Philly airport for a departure with yet another potentially missed connection. I worked my way off the Tampa standby list and right into a cozy middle seat of aisle thirteen. My eyes were closed and I was asleep well before wheels up.
“Hello from the flight deck. We’re on our final approach to Tampa. It’s a balmy 89 degrees outside and it looks like we’ll have a nice landing. Clear skies the rest of the way. Just perfect. Flight Crew, please prepare the cabin for landing.”
I started to tidy up my space, tucking away magazines and gathering up my trash for the stewardess to retrieve as she strolled the aisle in search of litter. The passengers on either side did the same. The man to my left directed my attention out the window to a dot on the landscape that, according to him, was Busch Gardens. And the woman to my right provided motherly advice and instructions to her three sons sitting on the other side of the aisle.
“It’s your Captain again. I have some somber news to share with you folks this evening. We have a passenger on board and I’m sad to say but he was unable to join us in the main cabin. Our flight is transporting a fallen soldier back home from Iraq. That man in uniform you might have seen on board? He’s Captain Smith and he’s escorting the fallen soldier back to his family. Once at the gate, we ask that you permit Captain Smith to deplane first. Additionally, it is customary that no other cargo be removed from the plane until the casket has been taken off. With that said, please be patient at baggage claim. There will be a delay. Thanks for your understanding.”
A deafening silence fell upon the plane. No one was shuffling or darting for a last minute trip to the bathroom. I bit my lower lip hard before reaching into my bag to retrieve one of the extra napkins I’d snagged earlier at Starbucks. I could feel my eyes start to water and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to keep it in. For the first time in my life, the true cost of war was within reach and it made me sick. No longer was the death toll of servicemen at a comfortable distance. Now, it was merely a few feet away.
We taxied the runway in silence and pulled up to the gate. People patiently remained seated as Captain Smith departed. The air was stuffy and warm because the engines were turned off so as to avoid disturbing the people waiting plane side on the tarmac. Not a single passenger complained. Strangers spoke to one another in hushed tones in search of comfort as they gathered their things and headed for the jet way. I slowly followed the stream of people at a pace that all but halted in the terminal. I looked around and saw that almost every passenger had decided to linger. They were pressed tightly together in front of the panoramic window looking down at the family and servicemen awaiting the casket. Complete strangers silently stood there packed in and watched an unknown person who died well before he should have be welcomed home.