Flight Time… Part I

Keeping a kid focused enough to maintain positive forward motion is a tricky thing to do. You’ve no doubt heard the expression “herding cats” before and that might be a fairly good description except that I find the cats more predictable. Over the years I’ve discovered that the best way, often the only way, to get a kid or two to move in the desired direction is to give them a job. Thus empowered, they will stay on task, oh…. for at least thirty to forty-five seconds. That’s double what you can normally get!

“Okay Buddy, here’s what you need to do. All the seats are numbered and we need to find the ones that belong to us. Can you help me do that?”

With a resounding, “Yah!” and his mission thus given, he was off, down the isle to find seats 23A and B.

Again, I have some good stuff to say here about our carrier for this flight. JetBlue does something that I was deeply grateful to find out. Others may do it too, but I don’t know about them so I’ll just sing JetBlue’s praises.

They let you pick your seats when you book on-line with the aid of a little airplane diagram.

Even though I’ve done a good deal of flying in the past, I’m always a tad bummed when I find out that I’ll be sitting over the wing for the duration. The only thing worse is when you find yourself in the last row with the seat bolted permanently in the uptight dinner guest position. If you’re really lucky, it comes with the fuselage mounted engines just on the other side of the thin aluminum wall. I’ve actually had to turn on the subtitles for a movie I was watching because of this. The headphones simply didn’t go up high enough for me to hear the dialogue.

With this flight though, I had none of that to worry about. We were positioned perfectly, half way back from the trailing edge of the wing with Short Stack, naturally, in the window seat. Th view should be wonderful and I had even put us on the right hand side so that he might just catch a glimpse of the Space Center when we were nearing our destination.

As he kneeled there, face smunched against the Plexiglas, I was taken with how small he still was and, just for a moment, felt like I was being somewhat unfair to be dragging him off on this crazy excursion. The next twenty hours or so were going to be rough. Little sleep, lots of walking, crowds. What was I doing? Then… I saw Rick getting into his seat a few rows up. He spotted me too as he was folding himself in, stopped, smiled warmly and winked as he gave me a big thumbs up. That was all the validation I needed. The last shreds of doubt washed away in the shared enthusiasm and I set about getting the two of us ready for take off.

Short Stack and I had been over and over what he could expect for the flight. The unknown is scary after all, and the last thing I wanted was my four year old freaking out and trying to be worn as a hat while the plane climbed out. The crying kid on a plane is always a horror show and I wanted to be sure it wasn’t mine who was melting down. He’s not a scaredy-cat, but he really doesn’t like it when the unexpected occurs. He wants to know about it all, BEFORE! We had covered the seat belt, the sound of the luggage being loaded, the whine of the engines, how the seat in front of you can move a bit, even the “Ka-THUNK” of the wheels coming up that so often makes more than a few adult passengers’ knuckles go white when they hear it. He was all set and he was excited, right up until I belted him in.

“Daddy. I don’t think they make these seats for little boys.”

Much to my sadness, I saw that he was right. They don’t.

After all my hype of how cool flying was going to be, I looked down at my son and saw his problem. The very top of his little red head was almost exactly level with the bottom of his window. He had a perfect view of the wall, but nothing else. If he looked up and out, all there was to see was sky. Bummer.

Time to bend a few rules again, I see.

“Hang on a second, Buddy. I’ll see what I can do for you there.”

Quickly, I stared to rummage around for anything that might give him a boost. Since we were heading for tropical weather, I didn’t have much but I did manage to fold up my flannel shirt and his rain coat and cram them under his butt so he could just barely peek up and out when he stretched his neck to its full extension. I badly wanted to put him on my lap, but I thought that might not go over well with the flight attendants. He could see now. Barely.

Once we were all packed in, seated and ready to go, the plane pulled out and started to taxi to the runway. Finally, the excitement started to show on Short Stack’s face as he cast his gaze rapidly around the plane and relied on me to give him the play by play of what was happening out our window.

“Are we taking off yet?” His head swiveled like a crazed lawn sprinkler.

“Nope. We’re just getting to the runway.” This is where I got to shine with my airplane nerdiness. What my son is to rockets, I was to airplanes and I followed that passion all the way to my pilot’s certificate. The flying I do is strictly for fun and the planes are a heck of a lot smaller than the one we were in, but the principle’s the same and I knew what was happening in the cockpit and the tower and I gave him my best running commentary as we bumped along the taxiway.

“Ok, we’re probably going to hold short here for just a few seconds while the tower checks things out for us and then, when it’s our turn, we’ll pull on to the runway.” Eyes wide open and brain humming, he took it all in with rapt attention. Just like I promised, a few seconds later, we turned on to the runway, lined up and listened to the engines throttling up.

“Here we go!”

In what I hoped was a reassuring gesture, I put my hand on his knee and was rewarded with his own small hand pressed into its back. The roar of the engines blocked out any comments that he might have made but he was obviously loving this. It wasn’t a rocket, but at least he was in the air! Then… he looked at me with some concern and touched his ears. It was the cabin pressure changing and he had no idea what to do about that.

Whoops!

When I was a kid, I lived in a valley. It was a good sized valley and because of this, when you left our little city to go anywhere, you changed altitude quickly and steeply. Because of this, your ears popped. I don’t recall a time when I didn’t know what to do when the pressure started to build up and you needed to let it out. You just yawn, swallow hard or chew some gum or something. It was simple. My own son lives in very different geography. Our house is at sea level, or just slightly above. There are no nearby mountains, deep valleys or winding, climbing roads that snake up the backs of ridge lines. He’s a flatlander and lives his life at about thirty feet above the sea, unless he’s actually standing on the beach… Then it’s less.

No one likes to wait too long when it comes to popping ears so I looked for a quick fix and my eyes fell on his sippy cup. It’s an ingenious little spill proof device with an integral straw. It works very well, but you really have to suck on that thing to make it work. I had just topped it up and now handed it off to my ever more worried looking son.

“Here! Suck on the straw. That will help.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, he started slurping away and only stopped once to let me know that it was working. The plane climbed. Short Stack drank. We kept climbing. He kept drinking. And then… he was out, but the plane wasn’t. The poor kid had just slurped up a ton of water and was casting about in more than a slight panic.

“Here. Just do this. You need to yawn.”

Helpfully, I did some exaggerated yawns for him which he dutifully started to mimic… sort of. Rather than opening and closing his jaw like a guppy, he decided that it was best to just leave it hanging open. He did this for a long, long time which I found somewhere between humorous and unsettling.

“Ok, Buddy. You should be fine now. You can close your mouth.” He was having none of it. Not until he was sure. Until then, he was doing his best to look like a jet intake. I decided to let the humorous side of me win out over the unsettled one and let him continue his long, silent, solo.

“Ah haa-ha hoo hee.”

I replied with a stifled smirk as I looked at his tonsils. “What’s that, Bub?”

“Ah haa-ha hoo heeee!” He looked earnest in his statement, but Lord only knows what it was. Between the engine noise and the lack of any enunciation on his part, it was impossible to understand him.

“You’re going to need to close your mouth and talk normally, Short Stack. I can’t understand you at all.”

“I have to go PEE! Right now!

RED ALERT!

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And Away We Go… Part III

As I sat back in the waiting room chair, I noticed someone else obviously enjoying the play filled happiness so openly expressed by my boy. A few seats over, a man a little older than myself sat amongst scattered carry-ons and smiled as Short Stack posed Neil with his little flag, just next to the triumphantly returned Shuttle. I knew that smile. It was the unmistakable look of a father remembering.

When he realized that I was watching him watch Short Stack, he smiled a little uneasily and looked for something safe to say. “He’s got quite an imagination, hasn’t he?”

First comments with strangers are always a little tense. You never know how people are going to react these days, especially if they are alone with their young children. As a society, it’s been drilled relentlessly into our heads that everyone is a potential killer, kidnapper, or investment banker and you simply should never open your self up to potential danger. It is perhaps a safer way to live life, but it’s also, in my estimation, a far less fulfilling one as well. I think that as we seem to be stuck in this “watch your back” society, we have also become hungry for the chance to connect with our fellow planet walkers. Generally, I’ve found that if I make it clear that I’m approachable, things nearly always end up with me getting a new friend, even if only for the length of the conversation.

In short, I’ve never learned not to talk to strangers.

“Oooh, yah.” I shifted so I could chat more comfortably. “If it involves rockets, he’s a happy boy. If it doesn’t, well… he’ll make it into one. Just watch.” Short Stack obliged by busily turning his hands into a makeshift lunar lander and lifting off from the Sea of Tranquility with Neil balled up in his little fist.

Seeing that I wasn’t about to give him the “Who the hell are you?!” look or ignore him entirely, he straightened up as well and smiled broadly. “Looks like he’s got some serious focus there. It’s great to see a kid so into what ever makes him happy. My son was like that too. Now he’s at the Air Force Academy and loving it. It’s where he always wanted to be.”

The thing is, I love moments like this. I had no idea who this man was before right now, but I was about to find out. I’m a pretty good judge of character and posses a well tuned “gut” which I have learned to listen to very, very carefully and it rarely leads me wrong. This guy was dressed in a clean t-shirt, sweat shirt and shorts and if that was a bit overexposed for Maine in April, it could be easily forgiven since everyone in the waiting area was, after all going to the same tropical location. If he looked out of place here in New England, it was I who would look silly in Florida dressed in long pants and flannel. I also noted that he was guarding a sizable mound of luggage so he wasn’t traveling alone. Since I hadn’t seen his companion yet, I guessed that she was off looking through the duty free shops and that he was no doubt getting bored.

Bored is good. It makes people chatty.

His name was Rick, and he and his wife lived right here in Portland. For a day job, he drove for a national delivery company and on his off hours, taught children’s gymnastics. They, as it turned out, were going to Florida to watch their daughter compete in the National Cheerleading Competition. I found this out in all of five minutes of friendly chatting. He was just the sort of person I was hoping I’d run into.

For me, adult conversation has become a pretty rare commodity. As a stay at home dad, most of the topics that I get to cover each day are either space or bunny related. As Short Stack is fond of pointing out, “Lulu Belle is sorta’ into bunnies, but I like rockets.”

I do get to talk with my wife when she gets home, naturally, but if it’s before eight o’clock, it tends to be filled with a lot of interruptions from various short, household individuals. Topics are brought up but never concluded due to diapers that need changing, toys that need fixing or simply children who want you to focus on them rather than… anything else, actually. After eight, we are both so tired that forming coherent sentences and complete thoughts can be pretty hit or miss. Mostly, all we want to do is plug in and watch a movie together before our eyes cross and we shuffle off to bed.

I love to chat with new folks and although being my children’s primary care giver has been a far more rewarding experience than I ever expected it to be, I do miss meeting people and simply talking like an adult. When Rick’s wife showed up, she immediately took a shine to Short Stack and within a few minutes, my boy was telling her all about rockets, Space Shuttles, Neil and what we were going to see when we finally got to Florida.

For Short Stack, Florida had become a sort of mythical land, visited only by near magical means. It’s too far away to see and too far away to drive to (so far as I’m concerned) and although we had shown it to him on a map, geography and scale are hard to grasp when your primary modes of transportation are a tricycle and size six sneakers. To him, it’s simply a distant unknown land like Atlantis of Camelot. For most kids this Shangri La is synonymous with Disney World but Short Stack doesn’t have a clue about that. Far from having the Disney Channel, our home has been without television for long before he was ever born and I see no reason to change that now. Why would I want to risk overwriting his love of all things space with a seven foot mouse? What he wanted was to go to the Space Center and I’ll take that over “The Happiest Place On Earth” any day.

As our departure time got closer, I realized that I had a problem. In my care was my little boy who had been slurping away dutifully on a sippy cup full of water for the last hour and a half and it was just about time to strap him into a seat from which he would not be allowed to get up for a good twenty minutes. The safe money was in finding a bathroom now. The issue was that in addition to the boy, I was also dragging around a stroller, his backpack, my own ridiculously heavy backpack with my laptop in it AND my Man Purse™.

A brief word about the Man Purse™…

…I love this thing. Normally, I would scoff at taking an extra bag just to carry a few extra items. After all, I do have normal sized pockets, unlike ninety-nine percent of women’s pants. Seriously, what’s the use of having a pocket that’s an inch and a half deep? I don’t know why that put them on women’s jeans at all. Because my pockets are filled with all the things that most ladies would have in their hand bag, like my wallet, cell phone, money clip, used tissues, four pounds of change and three pounds of lint, I need a removable, backup pocket for child care related items. Actually, it has become a must for me. With two munchkins who are always seemingly in need of a snack, a drink, a change of pants, a new diaper, a rocket or a toy bunny, I’ve found it indispensable and have fully embraced the concept. Actually, I feel a little naked with out it. Selection however, was tricky.

A courier bag is really too big for what I wanted and most other commercial shoulder bags, let’s be frank here, look way to girly for me.

In their defense, I think they are supposed to appeal to girls, so that’s fair, but unhelpful for the Dad-On-Duty who wants to retain the façade of Mr. Toughguy. I needed something suitably manly AND useful. What I found was a genuine, WWII British surplus gas mask bag and it. is… AWESOME!

The pouch for the gas canister neatly holds drink for the kids, the main area is capacious enough for changing supplies and toys and there’s even an extra pouch for paper items… like plane tickets. Made from super heavy canvas with steel fasteners and brass grommets, this thing is near indestructible as well. The non-adjustable strap needs no adjusting and hangs right where your hand falls naturally, perfect for dealing with a gas attack from either German infantry or a stinky two year old. In all its glorious olive drab camouflage, it completely fulfills the manly requirement and if someone decides to make fun of me for it, I can always hit them with it. A satchel full of wet diapers can pack a whollop!

So… the bathroom. The bathrooms were in sight of where we were sitting, so it wouldn’t exactly be a trek to get there but I didn’t relish the idea of dragging all my stuff through the tiny doorway and setting it down on the questionable damp men’s room floor. Overhead, the safety announcement ran through the P.A. system on an endless loop.

“Please keep your luggage with you at all times and report any suspicious or unattended bags immediately.”

I looked at Rick and his wife and made a quick judgment call that they probably didn’t work for international terrorists. I mean, between the delivery job and the gymnastics, when could he possibly fit in attending the meetings? It was time to be a rule breaker.

“Hey, Rick. Could you do me a big favor?” I tried my best to look earnest and non-terroristy. “Could you watch our stuff so I can get Short Stack here to the bathroom before we board?”

“Yah, no problem. I’m not going anywhere.”

There’s something funny about all these rules we have at airports now. We know that someone put them in place for a reason, but it seems like, the more that are piled on us, the less likely we are to take them seriously. It’s certainly not uniquely an American trait, but it seems to be endemic to us. We’re an unruly lot and the fact that my waiting area friend was so happy to flout a regulation in the effort of helping out a stranger gives me some hope for this country. One should never take rules as being unbendable, I believe.

After returning, I thanked him and we chatted some more until it was boarding time.

“WE ARE NOW BOARDING ROWS ZURGLE-BURGLE THROUGH FLURZZBE FOR FLIGHT 234, DIRECT TO ORLANDO. PLEASE HAVE YOUR PASSES READY.”

“What did they say?” There was no hope of me figuring out what they just said.

“Eh, who knows?” Rick and his wife were already gathering up their stuff. “I always just get in line.” He added with a wry smile. “It’s just easier that way.”

I smiled back and Short Stack and I joined the throng funneling in though the doorway down to the ramp. As we walked along, I looked down at my son, trotting along happily before me, rocket backpack bouncing with each enthusiastic hop.

He was going for a jet ride!

He was going to Florida!

He was going to see rockets!!!

I caught a lot of other folks smiling broadly at him as his obvious enthusiasm and sweet nature contagiously spread behind him like a wake. He was off on an adventure and pleased to be doing so. I had a deep and real urge to say, “That’s my boy!” to everyone I could.

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