My beautiful daughter-in-law threw her arms up and yelled:  “Thank God!  Not a moment too soon!” when I told her Rodent and I would fly back to Norfolk the next morning.   We’d delayed our flight three days due to bad weather.

A winter storm tortured DC, Boston, Baltimore, NYC and a wide swath of the Louisiana Purchase, and Delta Airlines had tempted folk to reschedule three days forward by rescinding its change-fee, so we readied to leave LA on 13 February, a holiday-packed weekend.

For only the second time in 15 years, my son volunteered to drive us to LAX.  His six-year-old twin boys shrugged goodbye and turned back to their Legos.  What did we care?  It was sunny, it was noon, it was a short flight, we were racking up our frequent flyer miles, and I had a couple bananas and a baggieful of red grapes in my carry-on.

Row 33 was the last row on the plane.  Advantages:  we were Really Close to the toilets and to the stewards’ gossip.  Disadvantages:  we were Really Close to the agonied, foot-shifting toilet queue, and we overheard the steward’s intercom messages to the Captain.

Rodent and I quickly got used to pans whacking in the galley behind our heads, but we paused dramatically at a steward’s cryptic message to the Captain:  “We need someone to talk about what’s going on here.”

I’d been happily counting my grapes, not noticing that we’d been fully-planed and sitting for 15 minutes after scheduled take-off.

The Captain came on the intercom, saying:  “There’s a leak in the Business Class toilet.”

The combined brains of Coach passengers held the same thought, or worse:  “Let ’em pee in Coach.”

The Captain continued:  “Mechanics are working hard and understand the time factor.  Though it sounds like a small problem, if the leak continues it might cause the water to go below to the Black Box and electrical systems which could—with the much colder temperatures during flight—freeze and cause problems.”

Forty minutes later we launched, and a happy tailwind had us in Cincinnati just in time to board our flight to Norfolk.

Cincinnati is not LA.  It is a hellhole of chill.  Not that it’s the only place in the USA that patiently provides four months of sub-zero temps and snow.  Oh no.  But this particular evening, near the cusp of St. Valentine’s Day, we had really ached for some sign of spring—Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction notwithstanding.  Hunkering down into our winter coats, caps and gloves, we tramped up and down a byzantine (ok, Rube Goldberg) passageway, stairway and bridge to our silver bullet, and—incredibly—comfortable seats in the fourth row.

My bum generously gripped in soft leather (was this Business Class?), I smiled at Rodent who looked a bit pale but game for the rest of the ride.  For the first time ever, I gave careful attention to the Safety directions.  At last someone had printed up a leaflet with bright, simple cartoons for each Safety step.  I am now able to explain how to grip the levers of exit doors A and C at the front of the plane, though not how to actually open the doors.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the Captain announced, “I might as well explain what is going on.”

Had I been counting grapes again and not noticed that we’d been sitting 20 minutes past take-off time?

He continued:  “The external air cart that starts the engine isn’t getting air.  It’s frozen.”

My brain decided to go walkabout and sit with the man behind us who, according to his female seatmate, was her husband and an airplane pilot.

He was explaining to her:  “An external air cart blows air into the engine to get it started.  It needs heating up.  Some private planes have an auxiliary power unit that bleeds off air to start the engines, to move it to the side of the engine.  It doesn’t take much to move the air.  But the unit’s expensive.”

I thus intuited that some commercial airlines choose to have external air carts, one which was being heated so that it could blow air into our lifeless engine.

I decided to worry about whether the Norfolk police would have towed my outdated-license-plate- stickered car from the driveway, as they had told my neighbour two days before.  This was a worry I could get my head around.

The plane began moving in reverse the way my now-dead 13-year old stick-shift Datsun B210 felt and sounded when going in reverse whilst the emergency brake was on.

The Pilot Behind Us was saying:  “That’s one of the pushers.  They use pushers so they don’t have to use reverse thrust.”

Right, I thought, and wondered if I’d really rather have reverse thrust, and whether the pushers themselves needed external air carts to get us down the runway at a lively speed.

As luck would have it, we were now moving forward, and the Pilot Behind Us was telling his wife about the signficance of full flights and terrorist attacks, and the comparative power of ship engines and airplane engines.

Announcement from Captain:  “During the wait, we seem to have got a little icing on the wings, so we’ll just shoot over to the de-icing fluid.”

Pilot Behind Us:  “Smaller planes have heaters on them, but they’re expensive.”

Possibly a bit mad with his info-power, he added:  “Hope they don’t do like they did in Greensboro where they sprayed so much de-icer it cooled down the engine, so we had to wait for the engine to warm up.”

Rodent was asleep, doubtless dreaming about the pipe he hadn’t been able to smoke for the last ten hours.

And then Cosmic Birther Of All Radiance And Vibration smiled.

She had us up in the air staring down at a silent lava flow of jewels, the Cincinnati night traffic.  Then we were beyond the city and into space, contemplating a sky smatter-rich with stars.  Next we knew, the PBU was identifying a glitter of bracelets below:  “Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel……Hampton Bridge Tunnel….”

We were home to an airport of lush green potted plants all along the walkway and a sign cheerfully announcing:  “Underground Parking.  Lots.”  (I assumed that meant Norfolk Airport has lots of underground parking.)

We were about to undertake the most dangerous trip of the day:  the cab ride home.


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JUDY PRINCE, a retired college teacher and union activist, now lives half the year in Norfolk, Virginia, and the other half in Darlington, UK.  She has published articles in the L.A. Times and the Virginian-Pilot, and was a Chicago Dramatists Short Plays Competition finalist.   She is now at work on a play about Shakespeare the woman, and recently launched Frisky Moll Press with the poetry pamphlets of Robin Hamilton (Anacreon translations) and Patrick McManus (On The Dig).   Her own poetry pamphlets have been published by Phantom Rooster Press (2006 and 2009). Prince's work is included in the first James Kirkup Memorial Poetry Competition Anthology (Red Squirrel Press, UK, 2010). Her Poems2 is reviewed in SPHINX 12, HappenStance Press .

35 responses to “Another Bad Air Day”

  1. Simon Smithson says:

    “we paused dramatically at a steward’s cryptic message to the Captain: “We need someone to talk about what’s going on here.”

    Oh my God… I can only imagine what must have been going through your head at the time…

    • Judy Prince says:

      Indeed, Simon. I always wonder if truly frequent flyers have been there/done that enough to not freak out. On one especially turbulent flight, my seatmate, a former cargo plane pilot, kindly said: “This is mild compared with what we flew through nearly every day.” He may’ve been trying to stop my automatic and increasingly louder singing of “Amazing Grace”, but bless his heart anyway.

  2. Uche Ogbuji says:

    You got lucky. A colleague of mine was on a flight from NYC to Athens, when they had to make an emergency landing in Italy due to a leak in the toilet. Then again, he has some monstrously bad flight kharma. I always tease him that he must have been a fowl hunter in a past life.

    • Judy Prince says:

      Nice coinage, Uche: “bad flight kharma”. And oh so Britwit: “he must have been a fowl hunter in a past life.” 😉

      The bird connection….aha! At LAX whilst waiting to board, Rodent and I kept remarking about the large (unmoving) raptor perched atop the connecting tunnel to our plane. Had to’ve been a “scarecrow” so birds wouldn’t approach and get sucked into engines.

      All things considered, I’m glad I’ve got my senior rail card for UK travel, at least.

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        Yeah, I’ve seen those mock raptors somewhere else, too. I think it was perhaps SFO. I remember thinking “are they kidding? These are Silicon Valley birds around here. They’re not going to buy that dummy unless it’s tricked out with animatronics like Owl in the Disney 100 Acre Wood ride”

        I envy you your UK rail discount. UK trains are mad expensive. When we visit family in Luton a big chunk of our travel budget goes to ThamesLink fares to London.

        • Erika Rae says:

          In Oklahoma, those mock raptors come on a swivel. I see them when we visit the in-laws. It freaks me out as I’m driving *on the ground*. I’d make a fabulously stupid pigeon.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          On a swivel makes a lot of sense out where the wind comes sweeping down the plains. Animatronics on the cheap, I deem.

        • Judy Prince says:

          You’re a hoot, Erika: “It freaks me out as I’m driving *on the ground*. I’d make a fabulously stupid pigeon”–HA!

          An aside to you and our dear Uche: Raptor-keepers at LAX need to get out the WD40 bcuz they’ve got one NO-MOVING raptor out there. “Swivel” is nowhere in its physical lexis, more like Monty Python’s eminently whackable dead parrot, my friends. The least the raptor-keepers could do is paint its nails orange, or jam a Miss Piggy wig on its head, or maybe administer beak Viagra.

          Time to stop, Judy. Move on to more cheerful thoughts like income tax prep.

  3. Judy Prince says:

    HA! But p’raps, Uche, we should apply the Mullah Nasruddin “See–it works!” logic. Will you tell the story, or shall I?

    Re mad expensive rail cards in the UK: EVERYTHING’s expensive there, certainly relative to the USA.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      I’ll do the spinning, if you’ll do the telling. I’ve always wanted an excuse to loose the inner dervish.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Quite Sufi-cient for my own (storytelling) desires, Uche.

        I’ve heard the story two ways; here’s my favourite:

        The Mullah Nasruddin, beating as hard as he could on a drum, is yelled at by neighbours who ask what on earth he’s doing.

        The Mullah says, “Keeping wild tigers at bay!”

        A neighbour shouts over the drumming: “But Mullah, there are no wild tigers within a thousand miles of here!”

        The Mullah smiles and yells: “See–it works!”

        Spin, oh brother, spin!

        • Rodent says:

          Drums, schmums — what if they’re deaf tigers?

          Now salt … your salt is one of your essential minimals, feeds the androgynous politically correct inner person, but.

          Why there are no tigers in Bagadad. That Nazradin knew his onions.

          No vampires either. All those cloves of garlic, must work, since there are neither vampires nor tigers in Bagdad, Mz. Prince.

        • Judy Prince says:

          You might be happier, dear Rodent, telling the story of Mahatma Gandhi and his sandal.

          You get 2 creds for “Drums, schmums—what if they’re deaf tigers?”

          Fifty thousand more creds, and you get a free flight to LA.

          Go for it, Dude!

      • Rodent says:

        “the story of Mahatma Gandhi and his sandal” — I sometimes wonder just how many sandals he had to throw out the train window, before anyone noticed.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Well known that Mahatma G carried extra pairs of sandals on each train ride for just such occasions. But, dear Rodent—-tell the story!!

      • Rodent says:

        “the inner dervish” — sufi, petal, sufi. Not quite the same thing. Like the difference between “rastafarian” and “Jamaican”.

        A Rude Boy

        • Rodent says:

          Ooops, sorry, Uche, there was meant to be a GRIN after “Jamaican”, but I put the “g” between angle-brackets, and forgot how the hmtl translator hadles that.

          (And apparently no preview mode for comments?)



        • Judy Prince says:

          Well, come on, then, Rodent: Give us the story of Mahatma Gandhi and his sandal!

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Hey, Judy did her part, and I’ve been doing my part, so I’m dizzy enough to head into WHOAH territory. One of the most important pillars of transcendent connectedness, whether in Rasta, Sufi, or other, is that specious distinctions generally come from outsiders 🙂

          Rastafarianism isn’t the same thing as Jamaican citizenship, of course, but having been several times, in Nigeria, in North London, and in New Jersey, been engaged seriously in analysis by Dreads, I have observed that the philosophy never seems to separate itself very much from the geography. There are nuff bald-heads in Jamaica, but that doesn’t contradict any of my points to Irene 😉

          Note: one day for TNB I’ll have to assemble as much as I can of a remarkable, hours-long discourse between me, my cousin, a couple of former Israeli soldiers, and a few Rastafarian on Tottenham Court road.

          As for the myriad, and I do mean myriad mystical traditions which intersect in some way the indistinct concept of Sufism, these don’t work very well with dividing lines. Zikr embraces hospitality, courtesy, meditation, dancing, story-telling, poetry, music, and much more, and at least in my own personal experiences, there isn’t one box over here for this one, and one box over there for that one.

          And rightly. And thusly. And so…

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Ooh. You know, I realize I might have pushed cheek all the way to presumption, there. When I spoke of “outsiders”, I really meant me. I am outsider to everything. Shameless stalker, but outsider, nevertheless. Jackanape of all trades; master of none.

        • Rodent says:

          Yeah, right, Uche. I’m Deeply Offended, but. Seriously Annoyed. Choked with Chagrin.

          I was, till ah red the above, going to say that your elegant and illuminating excursus on specious distinctions made my embarassment at the glibness of my original remark entirely worthwhile, but now I won’t say it, so you’ll never know what I thought. So there.

          Only be molified if you get down to presenting your write-up of the Tottenham Court Meeting. Sounds interesting.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Yeah, we want the Tottenham Court Meeting written up, Uche—as well, of course, as the Mahatma Gandhi sandal-throwing-out-of-train-window incident hyperbolically and hyper-perambulatorily significant [preferably pecked out with SpelChek for our dear Rodent].

          Soon we’ll want to illuminate TNB pages with poem offerings from Rumi who strikes me as a soul brother of that drum-beating, tiger-frightener Mullah Nasruddin.

  4. Zara Potts says:

    Great piece, Judy. Being a nervous flyer, I read everything about aviation with a keen eye, and so I really enjoyed this, but was a little scared at the same time!
    I was on a flight a couple of years ago from NZ to Australia when half way across the Tasman, the pilot came on the intercom and almost yelled ‘Everybody must get into their seats NOW.”
    He did it twice and it freaked me out badly!!

    • Judy Prince says:

      Thanks, Zara, most kind comment!

      That pilot on your flight from NZ to Australia was a graduate of the well known Tasmanian Devils School of Aviation. Just one of their regular Pilot Politeness lessons. The intercom near-yell “Everybody must get into their seats NOW” is because he’d been displaced from his seat by disoriented midflight Aussies, and really it’s best for the pilot to be seated during flight, if at all possible. My own feeling is that I want the pilot to be seated, and I want to be seated in his lap. Apparently I have control issues. Next time, just sashay up to his little cabin, rip open the door, and give him a big SMOOCH! My guess is he’d exempt you from his next near-yell command.

      • Zara Potts says:

        Hah! Good advice! Actually, the fear of flying can have some unexpected bonuses. I remember catching a domestic flight once here in NZ, and before I boarded the plane, I must have been standing in the air corridor looking particularly nervous because the pilot came out and took me into the cockpit. They strapped me into the jump seat and I was able to stay in the cockpit the whole flight – from take off to landing. I wasn’t nervous for a second when I saw how relaxed they were. It was quite amazing, especially when they showed me how turbulance works, by deliberately flying into it. The poor passengers at the back must have wondered what the hell was going on!

        • Judy Prince says:

          Kinky, Zara! Inquiring TNBers want to know every detail of that flight, fer sher! Especially the part about them showing you how turbulence works….oh yeah.

        • Zara Potts says:

          Jinkers! That does sound a bit dodgy doesn’t it??

        • Judy Prince says:

          Indeed! Did they teach you the “Everybody must get into their little jump seats NOW!” yell? That was prolly in the second chapter of the TDSofA textbook.

  5. Erika Rae says:

    Let ’em pee in coach. That should be a movie title!

    Lovely piece. You have such a nice way with words, Judy.

    • Judy Prince says:

      Thanks much, Erika, especially coming from Da Gurl For Humor Writing!

      Yeah, “Let ’em pee in Coach” does prove that years of poem-writing pays off. 😉

      How goes the book?

  6. Irene Zion says:

    Wait, Judy,

    Your husband’s name is Rodent?

    • Rodent says:

      It was originally “Dormouse”, but I decided to change it to “Rodent” when I began hanging out with the Bagdad Tigers. Thought it would give me a bit of street cred, but.

    • Judy Prince says:

      There you have dear Rodent’s xplanation, Irene. Makes perfect sense.

      Now tell the nice woman about Mahatma Gandhi and his sandal, dear R.

  7. Judy Prince says:

    Oh me, oh my. You’ve caught us out, Irene. I’ll let dear Rodent xplain it all to you (I never understood it, m’sel’).

  8. Judy Prince says:

    Since Rodent’s gone on to Rodent things, I’ll tell the Gandhi story.

    As Mahatma Gandhi boarded a train, one of his sandals slipped off and fell onto the track. The train began to move, and he was unable to retrieve it, so he took off his other sandal and threw it close to the first one. When someone asked why he did that, he said: “Now the poor man who finds the sandal on the track will have a pair he can wear.”

    Rodent recalls the story as Gandhi throwing a sandal out the window.

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