Strangers open up to strangers

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 8, 2013

On a recent flight — one of 20 that I’ve been on in the past two months — I wrestled my carry-on into the overhead bin and collapsed in a seat on the aisle.
I was hoping to get lucky and have an empty seat beside me to stretch out in. Apparently, a flight attendant read my mind.
“We have a full flight today,” she announced, “so please place smaller items under the seat in front of you and leave the overhead bin for larger items that won’t fit below.”
An image flashed in my brain: Me, curled up, sound asleep and grinning in the overhead bin.
The image was short-lived.

“Excuse me,” said a young man, nodding at the window seat beside me. “That’s me.”
I climbed out and he climbed in, shoved a backpack under the seat and buckled his seat belt.
He was wearing a Miami Heat hat. I started to say I wanted the Pacers to beat the Heat in the playoffs. But before I could speak, he pulled his hat over his eyes and began to snore.

Fine. Some days I want to talk. Other days I don’t. This was definitely a “don’t talk” day. I’d done nothing but talk for weeks, it seemed, and I did not want to talk anymore. Not even about basketball. I just wanted to sit back and enjoy the ride.
An older woman — yes, slightly older than I am — took the seat across the aisle and started reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” on her Kindle. The print was big enough for me to read it, too. Not that I did. Or would.
Finally, all the bins were shut, all seats were filled, all rules and regulations and instructions were recited. (Personally, I think anybody who has to be told more than once to buckle a seat belt or shut off a cellphone shouldn’t be allowed out in public, let alone on a plane.)
And once again the miracle began, as some 200 wingless, earthbound creatures “slipped the surly bonds of Earth … and touched the face of God.”
Those words are from “High Flight,” a poem by John Magee, an American who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and died at the age of 19, in a midair collision in World War II.
I memorized that poem in high school, years before I ever boarded a flight, and I still think of it most every time I fly.
I was trying to recite it from memory, but got distracted and decided instead to eavesdrop.
The woman across the aisle had quit “Fifty Shades of Grey” to listen to a woman on her right describe a diet on which she hoped to lose 30 pounds.

One row up, two young men were discussing commitment.
“She wants to get married and have a baby,” said one.
“Gonna do it?” said the other.

“I don’t want to lose her,” said the first. “But I don’t know if I’m ready to get married. And I’m not sure if I’ll ever want kids.”
Behind me, a young woman was pouring her heart out to the man beside her, and wondering if she should quit her boring job and go back to school to become a teacher.
What struck me about those conversations is they all took place between total strangers who talked honestly, listened closely, offered good advice and actually seemed to care.
I hoped God was listening.

In a different seat, I might’ve asked for more details about “Fifty Shades of Grey” or the diet to lose 30 pounds.
I might have told the commitment-phobic guy that you can’t always be sure about everything in life, but you need to be dang sure about marriage and children.
Or I might’ve said to the young woman behind me that life is too precious to waste it being bored, and the world surely needs more good teachers.
But they didn’t need me to say anything. They figured it all out together, without me.
Sometimes you don’t need to talk. You just need to listen.
Flying is not the only way to touch the face of God.

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