I was flying cross-country on Universal. Actually, I don’t know the identity of the airline. My boarding pass said “Universal” but I had read that Universal had been acquired by United National. My paper coffee cup was printed with the name Intrepid. I sure did hope they knew who they were and where they were headed.
At night, you do not want to be near a baby. They cry. Crying nighttime airplane babies come in two flavors. One flavor, they cry all the time. The other flavor, they cry loudly as soon as you doze off, then they go radio silent once you are fully awake. But daylight airplane babies are another matter. On a flight without TVs, once you have read the Sky Mall catalog and opted not to purchase the collapsible Christmas Tea Cart with the flashing lights, there is not much to do. An eleven month old in the row immediately ahead of you can be a nice diversion.
The parents of this little boy, whose name I never did learn, were unattractive on a good day, and this was a bad day it seemed. The mother’s square, plain face was topped by dirty straw hair receding behind squarish black-rimmed glasses which no doubt were the epitome of style somewhere (my guess: Ames, Iowa). The strands were matted and dull, with wisps floating in the air and occasionally cresting over the head-rest, fluttering momentarily before my eyes. With my knees up against her seat, there was no escape from the hirsute dance. Her dress was in the style of early haus-frau.
Of course, her husband’s hair was worse, since he had none. His beard began mid-ear, all at once in a shock of misplaced tufts, then thickened and dove aggressively down his cheeks, terminating in a tiny goatee. His white V-neck tee-shirt showed his tattoos to great advantage. On his lap: the baby-boy, quietly sitting except for an occasional polite gurgle.
As children will, the baby finally tired of pulling on his father’s facial hair, clawed his way to his full height, and stuck his face, replete with sparkling eyes, between the two seats, staring at me with open mouth modestly framed by two trickles of clear drool. You cannot ignore an inquisitive infant’s gaze; you feel guilty. First, you stare back. You must; to ignore is impolite and your mind begins to attribute a non-existing sense of etiquette leading to fully formed disappointment behind those shining eyes. And since, eons ago, your mother advised that it was indeed impolite simply to stare, you raise an eyebrow. Then that leads to the wink. God save me, you cover your eyes with your hands, then pull them away. You smile broadly, and your smile is instantaneously echoed on that bright little face, accompanied with joyful squeals.
The father senses what is happening. His baby is bounding on his fat little legs on top of fat little feet resting on daddy’s big fat thighs, and is emitting little screeches of ever-heightening delight. The dad puts a gentle arm around the kid, under his rump, lifting him higher so that now his shoulders are over the headrest and you are fully cornered. You cannot stop playing NOW! What an insult THAT would be to the parents, not to mention the baby. Cannot have that. No sir-ee.
Yeah, kids are cute. SO cute that you can enjoy peek-a-boo for five minutes. So cute, that you can tolerate it for yet another five minutes. Like taking your sister to a dance, you realize that this drill is not headed anywhere, however. And worse yet, there is no known encore, let alone a promising denouement.
Now the little bugger is sticking his sticky wet over-sucked hand between the seats. He is reaching for me but his arm is far too short. Stupid kid! By now, he should know better, yes? What am I, Jean Piaget? Now the kid is straining, his squeals are turning frustrated, can’t have that either. I stick out one finger, almost within his grasp, then pulled it back with a smile.
I get the matching smile again, a positive gurgle. Repeat a few times. It is now clear he wants to grab my finger. Should I let him? He is not sneezing or coughing; how many germs could there be in that wrinkled little hand? What the hey– I extend my finger further, put it between the seats, let him grab onto it, a tiny warm and, okay I’ll admit it, a friendly endearing little grasp.
At that moment the dad turns his head and sees my arm sticking way out between the seats, invading his family’s space, touching and poking and Lord knows doing whatever else to his said baby.
Did you know that some airplanes have sky marshals on board, actually real police officers? Maybe they all do. Who am I, J. Edgar Hoover, to know such things? The one who removed me from my seat, separated me from the now-standing dad with an authoritarian and firm push, sat me down in a flight attendant jump seat in the rear galley of the plane, and who upon landing delivered me to the Phoenix PD was a taciturn young man, more slight than beefy, not at all my idea of a prototypical air marshal. But then again, he got the job done. As to my luggage, checked through to Seattle? Not his problem, he explained; if I had the brains to keep my hands off little children I wouldn’t have that problem either.
The arraigning judge, a man of my vintage with an air of common sense about him, was thoughtfully suspicious of the whole affair. After checking my credentials (lawyer, father, grandfather, no police record if you disregard that ridiculous DUI thing), he released me to my own recognizance after only one night in the town jail, the bailiff telling me that the judge would dissuade the dad from pursuing this obviously innocent mistake any further.
So, except for never again seeing my luggage (brand new Hartmann case, they never give you enough insurance to cover those), which seemingly walked out of the Seattle airport in the company of someone whom I hope at least had good taste and wore a 42-regular suit, all’s well that ends well, as someone once wrote. What am I, a regular Shakespeare, I don’t remember who….
Yesterday I was in the air again. Comes with the job. Kid in the row in front of me. Wanted to play. Big starry eyes, sweet smile. Waving at me. Tilting his head at me. Reaching between the seats for me. Expecting me to be his friend, his buddy, his playmate at least as far as Chicago. Well, I’m sure you understand. Not a chance. Let me read Sky Mall magazine for the third time– I may want to buy one of those lawn ornaments in the shape of a playful dwarf. Then here I am pretending to sleep. Now I am reading USA Today, something no intelligent person with an IQ higher than his waist-size should ever do.
The kid? Kept trying for hours. But not ME, kid. Not me. You can go screw yourself.