By Mark Gauert
I am a passenger in need of special assistance.
I have tickets. Two forms of photo I.D.
And two carry-ons, ages 5 and 2.
They board me right after the passengers in wheelchairs.
I carry the 2-year-old on one arm. I watch the 5-year-old sprint up the aisle ahead.
I am prepared for any in-flight emergency.
Over my shoulder is a bag containing diapers, baby-wipes, Desitin, baby powder, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, juice bottles, bananas, sippy cups, Elmo’s First Words books, Shamu puzzle, battery-operated Hedgehog game, a toy fishing pole with magnetic fish and a Florida Highway Patrol car.
It fits under the seat in full compliance with all federal flight regulations. (When I kick it).
We fall into our assigned seats. Two together by the window, one across the aisle.
The boys fight for the window.
“I want to see Mommy,” the 2-year-old says, peering out, hopefully.
“I don’t see her,” the 5-year-old says.
“She had to go back to work,” I say. “You’ll see her again next week when she flies out to meet us.”
“WAAAAAAAAAHHH,” the 2-year-old says, “I want to see Mommy.”
I am prepared for this. I yank the bag back out from under the seat, unzip it and hand him the Florida Highway Patrol car.
“Hey, how come he gets a toy?” says the 5-year-old. “WAAAAAAAAAHHH.”
I am prepared for this, too. I hand him the toy fishing pole with magnetic fish.
I leave the 2-year-old by the window with his patrol car, take the seat next to him and lift the 5-year-old and his fishing pole into the seat across the aisle.
They look at each other.
“Hey, I want fishy pole,” the 2-year-old says.
“I want the car,” the 5-year-old says.
“WAAAAAAAAAHHH,” they cry.
The lady across the aisle smiles. She’s young, bespectacled and too well-dressed to be sitting next to a 5-year-old on a domestic flight.
“What busy boys,” she says, looking over at me. “Traveling alone?”
“Yes,” I say, sighing, “all the way from Fort Lauderdale to Grandmother and Grandfather’s house in Albuquerque.”
She smiles, opens her novel and begins to read.
I envy her. A passenger in no need of special assistance.
* * *
We are about to change equipment.
“Welcome to Atlanta,” the attendant says over the intercom, as the plane sets down on the runway. “Please remain seated until the captain has turned off the fasten-seatbelt sign.”
The man in sunglasses behind me promptly stands up – before the plane has even slowed down – and opens the overhead bin above me.
He digs around for his jacket and shoulder bag, shoves everything else back in and then remains standing.
“Hey, I want to stand up, too,” says the 5-year-old, unbuckling his belt.
I am prepared for this.
“You sit down,” I say, rebuckling his belt. I divert him by hooking another magnetic carp with the fishing pole.
The plane rolls up to the gate, comes to a full and complete stop and the aisle fills with passengers. “OK, boys,” I say. “Now we can go.”
I stand up, turn around…
And, just at that moment, the guy behind me – the one who’d opened the overhead bin before the plane had even slowed down – decides to close it.
The door with its hard metal latch catches my left temple coming down.
“WAAAAAAAAAHHH,” I say, falling back into my assigned seat.
I can see nothing. Hear nothing.
Feel nothing but a red rip in the universe somewhere near the top of my head.
I thrash about for something to press to my head, and find the 2-year-old’s soft blankie. I press it hard to my temple, leave it a moment, then look down at a round spot of blood on it.
This is unexpected.
In my bag I have diapers, baby-wipes, Desitin, baby powder. . . . I am prepared for any emergency.
But I am not prepared to be knocked out. Not while I’m traveling with young children who can – and have before – wander off on their own.
Everything starts to blur around me in my assigned seat. I’m vaguely aware of the guy in sunglasses standing above me, as I bury my pounding forehead into the blankie again.
“Sorry,” I think I hear him say. “Sorry,” he repeats, louder – as if he wants me to reassure him it’s OK he just split open my head.
I can’t tell him that, or anything else. It hurts too much.
Then I see him moving on, with his jacket and shoulder bag. Up the aisle, toward the cabin door and his connecting flight.
I see the 5- and 2-year-olds getting up, too, moving into the aisle. Blurring in with people about to change equipment in Atlanta.
“Sorry,” the guy with sunglasses turns to say one more time, before moving on with the rest of the passengers.
Then I can’t see him, or my kids, anymore.
* * *
When I come to – it must not have been more than a minute or so – everyone is gone.
Everyone except for the lady with the novel across the aisle.
She’d seen what happened. She’d snagged the 2-year-old by his Barney shirt and the 5-year-old by his Marlins jersey before they’d wandered off down the aisle. She’d held them there.
“They’re fine, I can watch them,” she says. “Do you need a doctor?”
I did, but I told her I didn’t.
That would have been too much to ask of a stranger. Someone I might warn my kids about talking to, let alone trust. One I’d spoken only a few words to across the aisle of an airplane.
I needed to be Dad again. In charge of my kids. The face they knew was looking out for them, however banged up it might now look.
“OK,” she says.
I thank her in a daze, gather up the bag and the kids and we stumble out of the plane and into the first men’s room we find.
We take the handicapped stall because it’s bigger, and there’s a sink.
“What this?” the 2-year-old says, fingering the flimsy sanitary wrapper the last occupant had left on the seat.
“Don’t touch that!” I say, beginning to feel like Dad again. “It’s disgusting.”
Then we all peer into the mirror as I slowly lift the sticky hair matting the top of my head.
“Wow. . .” the 5-year-old says. “That’s awesome.”
I dab at it with brown-paper towels and pink hand soap from the dispenser until it’s clean. Then I change the 2-year-old’s diaper. It’s full, and the smell makes my head hurt more.
“Daddy got boo-boo?” the 2-year-old says looking up from the floor.
“Yes,” I say, “Daddy got boo-boo.”
“I give it kiss,” he says, pulling my head down gently and giving it a soft peck.
I can’t help smiling.
“It’s all better now,” I say.
* * *
We take seats at the gate to await our connecting flight. The boys soon get up and begin chasing each other from one side of the waiting area to the other.
Two gates away, the lady with the novel turns away from the ticket counter. She sees the boys playing and walks over.
“Feeling better?” she asks.
“Some,” I say. “I think we’re going to make it to Grandmother and Grandfather’s house, after all.”
“I can’t believe that guy whacked you, then just walked off the plane like nothing happened,” she says. “I mean, didn’t he see you were traveling with kids? What would have happened if he’d really knocked you out and your kids had wandered off?”
“I don’t know.”
“You should have talked to the attendant,” she says. “You should have done some paperwork. You probably have a case.”
I’d thought about it, but I didn’t get a real good look at the guy in sunglasses, for obvious reasons. And it wasn’t the airline’s fault that he was a jerk.
“Well, good luck,” she says.
I didn’t know how to thank her. A stranger on a plane. Someone I might have warned my kids about talking to. Someone who’d cared for them when I couldn’t.
“Give her a hug,” I whisper to the boys. “She deserves a big one.”
A bouquet of little hands go up around her.
She bends and giggles as first the 5-year-old and then the little one encircle her neck and squeeze.
“Bye-bye,” she says to each. “Take care of your Dad!”
“We will!” they say, as we watch her walk back to her connecting flight.
Then we sit and wait, until they call for the passengers in need of special assistance.
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