I was flying from Oahu to Portland, which is not my preferred direction for Hawaiian travel. My Lanikai girlfriends’ vacation had deteriorated into a mess of personality conflicts. And I was missing my kids, eager to get home.
Half an hour from Portland our descent began, and small children began to cry as the pressure built up in their little ears. One child, in particular, seemed to be in great pain.
“That’s a funny cry,” said my friend Bridget, who was traveling with me.
“It sounds like it really hurts,” I observed.
From somewhere behind me, I heard a man grumbling. Then: “JE-ZUS CHRIST! PEOPLE WHO CAN’T CONTROL THEIR CHILDREN SHOULDN’T TRAVEL.”
I stared at Bridget. “He did not just say that.”
She shook her head. “He said it.”
“HAVEN’T THESE PEOPLE HEARD OF THE WORD ‘NO’?”
“I’m about to fly over this seat,” I said through gritted teeth.
“I know, I know. Me, too.”
“Now, Steve, hush.” the man’s wife soothed him.
I twisted in my aisle seat. A woman a couple of rows back bounced her wailing baby. She gave no indication that she’d heard, though the sharp words were clearly intended for her.
I looked around. Nobody else was doing anything. I opened my book and tried to read but, as minutes passed, kept tracing my eyes over the same sentence. I felt jittery, as if overly caffeinated. I had the odd feeling that something, or someone, wanted me to speak. But the moment was past. I assured myself that next time I would speak up. Yet as the minutes dragged on, the nagging thought kept coming: How can I live with myself if I get off this plane without saying something?
After we landed and the passengers began to disembark, I surprised myself by turning to the man. “Excuse me,” I said. He spun around, semi-curious. “Hearing you talk about that woman and her baby like that . . . I found it very offensive.” Bridget stood beside me, nodding fiercely.
The man rolled his eyes.
“Now, ladies,” said his wife. Her voice was cajoling. “We’ve landed. We’re home now.”
“I was very offended,” I repeated. This wasn’t like me. I never pick fights. But I couldn’t let it go.
The man turned back to me and met my eyes.
“I … don’t … care,” he ground out, his voice thick with disdain.
I took a breath. “That’s obvious,” I threw his earlier words back at him: “If you can’t control your mouth, maybe you shouldn’t travel. If bumping up against the rest of humanity is so painful for you, perhaps you should just stay home.”
The man glared at me, paused a moment. Then: “Kiss. My. Ass.”
All around us, people were staring. I gathered up my things and turned away, then spun back around. “Oh, and by the way,” I began coolly, then leaned in and at maximum lung capacity informed him just what he, himself, could kiss.
People murmured, shocked, as Bridget and I made our way off the plane.
“I thought I started out quite civilly,” I said, stomping down the terminal.
“Yes,” Bridget agreed. “Your first three words were very civil.” Then we laughed, and it seemed like things might possibly be all right again.
“Excuse me,” I heard as we neared baggage claim minutes later. The mother from the flight was struggling to catch up with us, her tow-headed baby on her hip. She stopped when we did, reached out, touched my sleeve.
“Thank you,” she said, almost out of breath. Tears came to my eyes.
Her husband hurried up behind her. “I wanted to say something myself,” he explained, “but I was sitting there just telling myself, ‘Be the Dalai Lama, be the Dalai Lama, be the Dalai Lama . . . ‘” I nodded. Two men fighting at 20,000 feet? It was the smartest thing he could have done.
For a moment we stood in a small circle; in that moment, we were friends, a community. “Traveling with kids takes courage,” I said to the other mother. “Traveling with kids is hard.” We exchanged names and said goodbye.
I’ve thought about the young father’s words often over the past year, wondering if my reaction should have been more like his. After all, I’m following the Quaker path, and Quakers are peaceful. We don’t generally scream obscenities at fellow passengers. Yet, this act of near violence made me feel more at peace, more spiritually connected than I had in a long time.
The wisdom book of Ecclesiastes says: “There is a time for everything: a time to be born, and a time to die. A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.” A time to be the Dalai Lama. And a time to yell like a mother.