Flight Time… Part II

I have a certain phobia about kids and airplanes, which originates from a long flight I was on to Europe many, many years back. We were aboard a 747 and if you’ve never been on one, let me tall you, those things are truly massive. They are so big inside as to almost seem unreal. They have not one, but two isles which divide the seats into three rows. On the window sides, there are three seats. In the middle, they are five across. On this particular flight, I was in the most windowless seat possible: dead center. It was a very full flight and there was no hope of me finding a less hemmed in spot to spend my many hours over the Atlantic, and resigned to this fact, I tried to convince myself that it wouldn’t be too bad. That’s when the clueless dad traveling alone with his young daughter showed up.

The little girl was perhaps two or so and the father was talking to her as they took their places in the seats directly in front of mine. I was mostly engrossed in my own preparations for the flight and so, wasn’t paying that much attention to what he was saying until a horrifying sentence cut though my thoughts like an errant Exacto through a fingertip.

“You’re a big girl now, right? You don’t need diapers now, do you? Right?”

Heywhatsaywhatdidyousay?!?!?

What really scared the beegeebees out of me was the way he said the last, “Right?” There was a serious lack of conviction when he spoke that word. In truth, it sounded more like pleading than reassurance.

This did not bode well.

It was dinnertime when the inhabitants of the surrounding seats found out that, no, in fact she was not a big girl and that, yes, in fact she did need diapers. The odor of tinkle started to waft though out the area and we did our best to pretend that we didn’t notice the small army of flight attendants armed with roll after roll of paper towel as they tried to clean up the mess and deal with a semi-apoplectic father who was obviously way outside of his comfort zone.

Things were going as well as could be expected and I was doing my damnedest to block out all the action and associated Lysol and other odors that went along with this flying superfund site. That’s about the time the little girl, who was utterly unphased by the entire episode, decided to pitch in and lend a hand with the cleanup efforts. This consisted of grabbing a big handful of wet paper towels and… dumping them over her seatback.

“All gone!”

The wadded up towels landed with an audible plop directly onto my meal, of which I had taken not single bite. If the plane had been in a dive and pulling over eight G’s, I seriously doubt that I could have crushed my body any deeper into the upholstery in my effort to maximize my distance from the offending sight on my tray table.

The entire episode was, as you can see, seared into my memory and the image of the soiled seat cushion being removed, to be stored who knows where, is still vivid in my mind.

I did not want to be the doofus father. Not ever.

Though Short Stack is easily twice the age of this little girl from my past, he’s still a munchkin, and when a four year old tells you that they have to pee, you have possibly fifty to sixty seconds to get them to a lavatory. Possibly much, much less.

My head whipped up to look at the seat belt sign which was still illuminated with its smug little circle with a line though it. We were still climbing and who knows when it was going to go off. I looked back at the bathroom door and the flight attendant who was sitting opposite it.

CRAP!

I waved.

She didn’t see me.

I waved again with more animation and either managed to catch her eye or at least be too obvious to ignore.

With a less than enthusiastic demeanor, she unbuckled her belt, stood up and strolled the few feet to my seat. She looked like she had been doing this job for a long, long time and she was looking pretty burned out.

“My son needs to use the bathroom. Right now.”

I was doing my best to impart the urgency of the situation by attempting to make my eyebrows disappear into my hairline and do a grimace/smile. I would either look like I meant it… or deranged. Either one, I felt, would work. What ever the case, what she said next was spoken with the weariness of a veteran of the service industry whom has seen this sort of thing go very badly before. Possibly to her. Possibly more than once.

“The seat belt sign is still on, so I can’t tell you that it’s okay for you to get up… The bathroom,” she pointed to the rear of the plane, “is right over there.”

And with that, she returned to her seat and buckled back in. If that wasn’t an invitation to break a rule, then I really don’t know what one is.

Having received my tacit clearance to get my kid to the rest room rather than soak a seat cushion, I immediately tucked Short Stack under my arm and made a run for it. After a fitful moment of trying to get us both in the miniature broom closet, the door latched and everything taken care of, crisis was happily averted, we returned to our seats just in time for the captain to come on the PA and let us all know that though we still wouldn’t be allowed to smoke on the flight, we could now get up and move around the cabin.

It’s all in the timing.

The rest of the flight went far better. With the green light from the cockpit, I happily let Short Stack free from the restraints and gave him my most stern, “I’m not kidding now” look when I explained that he was in no way allowed to put his feet on the seat in front of him. When the flight attendants came through with drinks and snacks, he actually laughed out loud with pleasure at the notion. He was in great spirits and so was I. It was going to take us about three hours to get to Orlando and it would be right through the heart of what at home, is nap time. Here, now, with a good night’s sleep under his belt, a grand adventure begun and free orange juice and pretzels being delivered to him at thirty-five thousand feet, there was no chance that he was going to be nodding off.

Zero.

The good news was he was having a ball and on his best behavior. Short Stack is a great kid (if I do say so myself) and I rarely shrink from any opportunity to take him somewhere or do something with him. Normally though, there’s an added variable. One that makes things… unpredictable;

His little sister, Lulu Belle.

She too, is a dream to take off gallivanting and we’ve had some really fun times together as well. Both kids are a lot of fun, follow direction well and tend to be well mannered… until they’re together. That mixture can be explosive.

The difference of how you interact one with a child versus corralling two or more is night and day. One on one, you are sharing an experience. You are listening and they are telling you things. They ask you questions and you give informed answers. You can almost see the knowledge moving from you to them. Then they point out something that you totally missed and you see how amazing they are. It’s a wonderful experience. When it’s two of them together, your role switches directly to referee. Your number one job is no longer to listen, but to keep one of them from smearing a peanut butter and honey sandwich in the other’s hair and failing that, to get the one with the honey dripping into their eyes cleaned up while sending the other to the time out chair and making sure they stay there. Being an only child myself, this is all unfamiliar ground to me and I admit, I’ve found the work more than a little challenging. Being solo with just one, either one, feels like a walk in the park now.

Looking down at Short Stack, quietly playing with his Shuttle and other toys, I missed my daughter, but simultaneously was reveling in the notion that for the next four days, it was just us guys. Just we two.

As we closed in on the end of our flight, I craned my head over my son’s and looked out the window… and there it was. Sticking out into the sea, just off the Florida coast was the unmistakable barrier island that is the home to the U.S. Space Program. It was Cape Canaveral. No doubt.

“Look Buddy! Look! Somewhere down there is the Space Shuttle! It’s right below us!”

I jabbed the window repeatedly with my index finger and he, snapped out what ever he was imagining at the moment, pressed his nose flat in the hopes of seeing the unseeable.

“Is it taking off?!?!” There was some real worry there.

“No, no! Not yet! That doesn’t happen until tomorrow… well… today… but much later.” Again, I remembered that we were arriving just in time for the launch. There would be very little downtime and sleep was going to be illusive. We’d be down there, right there, later tonight.

There was a lot to do before then and not that much time to do it in.

As we came in for a landing, Short Stack dutifully started draining his sippy cup again in the effort to deal with his popping ears. When that was emptied, he resumed his venus flytrap pose. The touchdown on the runway was nice and smooth and as soon as I deemed it safe, unbuckled him so he could again see out the window.

“Is that really Florida?”

“Yup, it sure is.” Palm trees scooted past as we taxied to the gate.

“Really? All that? That’s all Florida?”

I’m not entirely sure what he was expecting, but I assured him that it was indeed Florida and that, yes, I was sure.

“Oh.” He thought for a moment and then resumed scanning out the window. “But where are all the rockets?”

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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