A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Tray Tables Closed

“Do not inflate the life jacket before exiting the plane.”
Molly and Lizzy, properly strapped into their respective seats, were dutifully watching as the grouchy lady with the strangely immoveable hair mimed the act of blowing into the two red tubes on the life jacket’s shoulders, the ones to be used if the pull-cord thingy failed to deploy.  They might have preferred the story of Saturday at Blackberry Farm rather than the intoning of the location of emergency exits, but they weren’t complaining.  They’d just seen what happens when a grownup tries to read aloud juvenile literature during the Important Safety Talk: Mommy was chastised by the lady in the uniform.
Never mind that we’d heard it all before – four times already this week, in fact.  Never mind that our plane had already been sitting on the tarmac at Newark airport for an hour, waiting for takeoff in an invisible but apparently lengthy queue.  Never mind that the only chance for a water landing between New Jersey and Seattle would be in either Lake Huron or someone’s backyard Jacuzzi.
“The emergency light on the shoulder will illuminate in water.”
In my own defense, I’d been reading the picture book in a very quiet voice.  The two guys across the aisle were yammering away several decibel levels louder.  Nevertheless, the authority figure in Alaska Airlines polyester told me sternly, “It’s important that the children hear this.”
Given that the twins are only four years old, this seemed slightly preposterous.  I hate to underestimate my kids, but I wasn’t imagining them leading other passengers to safety across the blazing wings of a downed craft, all the while reminding everyone to remove their shoes on the inflatable evacuation slide. 
Then again, they probably knew the shtick better than those guys blathering about the weather.  After all, kids have amazing powers of memorization, when they are motivated.  In fact, watching the safety talk the first time around, on the red-eye out of Fairbanks, had given me flashbacks. 
When I was four and my sister Sarah was seven, our family flew to England.  I was mightily impressed by the idea of flying, and by the very fact of being on an airplane.  The folding armrests and tray tables were nifty.  The drink carts and tiny snacks were immensely appealing.  And the people in uniforms obviously knew everything. 
Thus, when the nice lady began explaining emergency procedures, I was riveted.  It hadn’t occurred to me that the plane might crash!  The idea was scary, but also exciting.  No one told me that the most probable outcome of a crash would be ignominious demise, so I assumed that all crashes resulted in complex rescue maneuvers.  I also assumed that a water landing was a relatively likely possibility.  Life jackets!  Slides!  Little lights and whistles! It sounded like fun.
I remember being a trace perturbed that my parents seemed to be only half-focused on the crucial information being dictated.  Luckily, Sarah and I were on top of things.  We took the shiny laminated cards from our seat pockets, and scrutinized the little pictures, arrows, and icons.  We craned our heads under the seats to find the life jackets, and peered at the ceiling for the oxygen-mask portals.  One phrase leapt out at both of us: “Secure your own oxygen mask before helping children and others who may need assistance.”
What?! Sarah and I looked at each other.  My God, we were on our own!  This turned the normal order of the world on its head.  I mentally vowed that I would not be categorized among the helpless.  I might be only four, but I would know how to put on my own oxygen mask, darn it.
Now I was traveling with twin four-year-olds of my own.  This fact alone gave me some empathy for the flight attendant.  Not that she had any clue about small kids; no one with children of their own would even think of interrupting the lyrical verbiage of Saturday at Blackberry Farm.  But as she put away her faded-looking props, she gave me a tired half-smile, and I suddenly felt a surge of fellow-feeling for her.  It struck me that the frustrations that had apparently turned her into a humorless harridan might not be all that different from the maddening stuff that sometimes made me recoil in horror from my own persona.  Her job, as it was supposed to be, was one of control, education, precision, safety, and responsibility.  Her job, as it played out day-to-day, consisted of doling out little cups of apple juice, wiping up unspeakable spills, patiently reasoning with whiners, and trying not to lose her temper when no one listened to her.  I could relate.  From now on, I vowed, I would keep my tray table folded and my seat back in the upright position.
Despite the passage of thirty years, vast technological advances, and all the added complexities of flying post 9-11, the safety talk seems to have changed remarkably little.  For me, this only underscored the futility of it all.  Why bother invest in modernized life jackets when the old ones will fail to save your life just as effectively?
On the first flight of this particular trip, the departure was at 1:20 a.m.  Thus, I was exhausted before we’d even removed -- and put back on -- three sets of footwear at Security (with accompanying insistent questions from the twins regarding what, exactly, might be dangerous about shoes).  By the time we boarded, I just wanted the blaring announcements to cease, so that I could coax both kids and my own flagging body into an approximation of sleep – albeit cramped and jouncing sleep.  Molly, however, had other ideas. 
I saw her brow furrow with concentration as she listened to the description of how the seatbelts worked.  She opened and closed her own several times, for practice.  When instructed to consult the card in the seat pocket in front of her, she had to undo the seatbelt again, in order to reach – it’s amazing how spacious Coach Class seats are when you are only three and a half feet tall.  I watched out of the corner of my eye as one small finger traced the hieroglyphic-like instructions. 
Now, three flights later, she was hearing it all over again, and listening more carefully than ever before:  seatbelts… exits… floatation devices… Finally, the disembodied voice got to the kicker.  “Secure your own oxygen mask before helping children and others who may need assistance.”
I caught Molly’s eye.  She gave me a look of great suspicion.  I knew that look.  I’d worn that look.
I shrugged and smiled.  Yeah, kid, you’re on your own.

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