Late again. It’s 10:04 pm. I had hoped to be halfway home by now, but we’re still sitting at the gate. An issue with the jet-bridge. I won’t crawl into bed next to my already-sleeping wife until well after midnight. My mouth tastes like airport food – a combination of greasy cardboard box and preservatives. My nostrils still harbor that airport bathroom smell. I have a mark on my cheek from a run-in with a fellow traveler’s backpack. I’ve been on the road all but two weeks since Valentine’s Day. It’s getting old.
I’m in the window seat of the exit row. The perk of the extra legroom is offset by the surprisingly scary quiz I receive from the overzealous flight attendant. She looks like your grade school lunch lady who accidentally put on a navy blue uniform. Only not as friendly.
“What do you do in the event of an emergency?” She glares into the eyes of every one of us seated in the row, pausing to make sure we catch her direct eye contact.
“Uh… open the door?” says my seat-mate, sarcastically.
“Are you sure?” she says, knowing that each of us has read the safety briefing card with the same rigor as the warning label on a Hot Pocket.
We sit motionless.
“What if you see fire out there?” she prods.
“Leave it closed?” answers the guy in 21D. The tone of sarcasm replaced by genuine doubt.
“What about smoke?”
“Closed?” Our cautious guess.
“Debris?” she continues.
“Closed?” At this point in the questioning, we’re looking for the bare light bulb hanging above our head and the ropes tying our hands behind the chairs.
“What about strange faces?” she rattles.
“Strange faces?” We’re dumbfounded. She answers for us, spitting the words in a forced staccato.
“Not long ago, a plane landed and came to a stop on the tarmac. Hijackers stormed the plane. A person in the exit row panicked and opened the door. The hijackers came aboard, took the plane, and killed a passenger.”
She paused for effect.
“We don’t open the door for strange faces. Ever.”
She left without saying goodbye. We sit in stunned silence. Then, I hear 21D mumble,
“I know what strange face I’m afraid of.”
Flying used to be fun, but all the joy is gone. Replaced by mild irritation and angst. So now I need to wash the icky off of me. I close my eyes and remember last Monday night.
We were in Cincinnati squeezing in some vacation time in a rare off-the-road week. I decided to take Jake to his first big league game. I’m not a huge baseball fan, but taking your kid to the ballpark is a father’s right of passage. A must-do. I talked my brother-in-law into coming along, taking his boys and a friend.
Being that Jake is only five years old, I didn’t expect much. Maybe three innings and $412 worth of snacks before he got bored as a stump. As a preemptive strike, I bought a bag of peanuts from a vendor outside the stadium and stuffed them into my cargo shorts where they mingled with a packet of fruit snacks and some gummy worms. Unfortunately, as I was describing both the wonder of salted-in-the-shell-peanuts and the value of “snack smuggling” to my child, he tripped and fell and skinned his knee.
Blood = tears.
My kid was already crying and we hadn’t even made it inside the ballpark. I imagined this could ruin the whole night for him. My every attempt to take his mind off the pain failed miserably. I shrewdly used his bawling to distract the ticket taker from noticing the peanut warehouse in my left pocket. He gladly pointed us to the first aid station. On our way in, we grabbed our “Let’s Go Reds!” free souvenir towel.
At the first aid station, Dr. Mike, one of the team’s trainers, patched up Jake’s knee. He let the boy apply the Neosporin using a giant Q-Tip, and covered the whole mess with a bandage the size of movie theater curtain. Jake’s mood improved immediately. Towels and baseball gloves in hand, we found our seats.
We were on the lowest level behind first base, about 30 rows from the field. From this vantage point, we had a prime view of the action, and some shade from the Mezzanine above. The cover also provided a nice echo when the first vendor came by 17 seconds later. That’s when it all started.
“Lemon Freeeeeeeeze! Getcha’ Lemon Freeeeeeeze heah!”
Jake’s pupils dilated. Never before had he seen the miracle that is roving snack sales. You could see the wheels turning. You mean the food comes to me?!?!?!?! It was as if he had witnessed the discovery of fire. I quickly distracted him with the smuggled peanuts, and held his attention after promising further sweets in return for adequate hot dog consumption. He buried himself in the oversized bag of nuts while I quickly made my way to the concession stand in search of protein before the inevitable onslaught of high fructose corn syrup in its various forms and shapes.
I returned several minutes later with hot dogs and giant lemonades for the whole crew. Jake’s knees were covered in peanut shells and he was grinning ear-to-ear. He grabbed his dog and took a huge bite. Then, almost instinctively, placed the rest in his baseball glove. ‘Cuz anyone knows the best way to store a ballpark dog is in your little league mit. The lemonade cup, which doubles as a wading pool on the weekends, was no match for the kid. He easily drank 29 of the 32 ounces.
With the kid’s belly temporarily satisfied, we got down to business. Time to teach the kid about the game. About five minutes in, I realized that baseball is far more complex than say, tic-tac-toe. It’s a game full of heady concepts. And, when explaining them all to a preschooler, one soon realizes the game lacks any semblance of comfortable logic. Sacrifice flies. Infield fly rule. Double-plays. It’s OK to run on a dropped third strike.
This night could get long.
And there were numbers all over the scoreboard. Runs. Hits. Strikes. Balls. Outs. Pitch speed. Batting average. Bail bondsman phone numbers.
And he soaked it all up like a sponge. Filled with awe. Overflowing with questions.
“What’s this guys, name, daddy?”
“The batter’s name is Drew.”
“Go Drew! Get a hit!”
And Drew Stubbs hits a home run in the third. The crowd goes crazy. Jake jumps up and waves the towel. Like he helped will the ball over the fence. Throwing high fives. Screaming. I half expected the kid to start taunting the poor Cubs fans.
The rest of the game was more of the same. He spent the better part of two hours stuffing his cake-hole, cheering on batters, calling out the pitch speed, and watching the giant scoreboard. There was another home run in the fifth, lots of action, ten runs in all.
Since we were spending the next day at King’s Island theme park, I tried to bail out during the seventh inning stretch.
“I thought you said there was nine innings, daddy?”
It’s all new. The first time. Grass as green as Crayola. Crowds cheering. Popcorn. Peanuts. Candy. Action. Lights. Why leave, daddy? Why leave? What else is there to do? What’s so darn important? Are you seeing what I’m seeing?
So we learned the art of late-game seat exchanges during blowout victories. And we learned the art of graciously getting bounced from said seats in the top of the ninth. As we walked out of the stadium, fireworks popped overhead, signaling a Red’s victory.
And so much more.
Now I’m hearing a familiar voice over the intercom,
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have started our descent into Nashville. The captain has asked for you to return your seat backs to the upright position, stow your tray tables, and power down all electronics. Your flight attendant will be coming by to collect any cups, cans and glasses.”
My seat mate is snoring in 21E, and hogging the armrest. Ms. Cruella StrangeFace just came by and gave me the “stink eye.” I’d better shut down my laptop lest the flight protocol police put me on the no fly list, never to experience air travel again. Honestly, this would have sounded like a godsend just 75 minutes ago. Pure bliss.
But not now. Not anymore.
I’m gliding through the air in a 140,000 pound chunk of metal, with a bird’s eye view of God’s creation. A miracle, to say the least. Something most of the world never gets to experience. Outside my window I catch a glimpse of a twinkling sea of jewels. Diamonds. Rubies. Sapphires. Amethyst. All on a black velvet background. Stretching out into forever.
Which is how long it’s been since I’ve noticed.