While Rome burns

Back in 1991, I flew to Manhattan to speak at a meeting of the Horticultural Society of New York. I had a great time. And the return flight from Newark to Charlotte stands out in my memory, because that particular trip was — for the first and last time in my experience — underbooked. As for the passengers, I don’t know how all the camaraderie began, but soon, we were all sitting up front being entertained by one of the stewardesses — who had launched her theatrical career as one of the Old Gold Dancing Cigarette Packs of TV fame.

Her stories about breaking into television, and the problems of learning the dance routines, were marvelous (“Honey, you try prancing about the stage under hot lights and electrical cords, dressed as an open cigarette pack — including three or four smokes sticking up from the pack proper!”). I had no idea that experience would be the last good time I would have in the friendly skies.

The next year, I flew to St. Louis for a garden-writers’ conference and had problems with my luggage: One of my suitcases went to Denver and took two days to make it back. When all the luggage arrived, the bottom of one suitcase was ripped and the other stained. I began to learn that the dark side of flying might be eclipsing its “lighter” image.

In 1995, I made four flights. In all cases, the food was bad, the air was foul, and the time it took to board the plane was interminable. Passengers were allowed two items of carry-on luggage, but the only folks who came in under the limit were the pilots, the crew and a few of the rest of us. Everyone else acted as if they were boarding a rural bus going from Pieote to Mexico City — hell-bent on carrying five goats, four camp stoves, three chickens, two pigs and a tree (minus the partridge).

In 1996, I again flew into Charlotte from the New York City area — this time on an overbooked flight. Every seat was full, and the overhead racks strained under the weight of carry-ons. Upon landing, the stewardesses calmly asked everyone to remain in their seats until the plane had settled at the gate. Immediately, of course, three-quarters of the passengers rushed up to crowd the aisle.

Then, from far back in the plane, a very large woman carrying two very large suitcases simply began to charge forward — pushing people left and right as she careened up the aisle. Paying no attention to their outraged protests, she continued to slam like a bowling ball through the first-class cabin, and was the second or third person to disembark.

I turned to a lady standing next to me and told her that, in all my flights, I’d never seen that happen before. “Honey,” she replied, “in five years, they’ll be cooking chickens in the aisles.”

The next year, I flew to Portland for their spring garden show. My wife and I had to literally run from one flight deck to another: The ground crew had lost contact with the cabin stewardess, and they had locked the door of the plane, with five people still in the “umbilical cord.”

(And by the way, I, for one, am tired of acting like Oliver Twist when the peanuts come by — being hungry as hell and forced to ask, “Please, ma’am, may I have some more?”)

Last month, I flew to Seattle in a packed-to-the-gills plane. The first 15 minutes were fine. Then, from across the aisle, came the shrieking cries of a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. Their sobs were joined by the pleas of their mother: “Oh, please, Bobby, stop crying. That’s right, Jimmy, we’ll be home soon.”

Bobby and Jimmy continued to cry for more than an hour. Finally, a stewardess came by and asked if something was wrong. Could she help? “I don’t know what to do,” said mom. “They’re both usually so bright and so good — perhaps if you would watch Jimmy while I took Bobby to the bathroom?” The stew agreed.

When mom left, Jimmy immediately shut up. Upon mom’s return, it all began again. They cried from Atlanta to Seattle, and all you could hear from mom were occasional bleatings of, “Oh, please be good!”

What they needed was for the captain to come out, threaten to lower the cabin pressure, then open a window and throw them out!

Upon landing in Seattle, I asked the stewardess about the deportment of the children. “There’s nothing I can do except ask the woman to try to exercise some control, and you saw how that worked,” she said. “Unless she’s a direct threat to the flight’s safety, I can do absolutely nothing.”

Then, on the flight back, the air was full of germs, as dozens of people coughed into the cabin air — without one of them so much as covering their mouth with a tissue (or, heaven forbid, a handkerchief.)

Oh, well. Perhaps American will buy Delta, which will then buy United. And each time, in order to save money, the new owners will make further crew cutbacks.

Finally, in yet another move toward economy, Wal-Mart may buy everybody out. Then, from your window in a giant cargo plane (with maybe 600 seats), you’ll be able to look out a tiny porthole and think you see the sun. But the sun is gone, replaced by a bright-yellow smiley face!

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