“A ukulele,” said the Australian in the seat next to me, eyeing the instrument peeking out of my carry-on. “If we’re stuck here much longer, you’ll have to play for us.”
We had already spent two hours on the tarmac in heavy rain. Through the plastic window I had a view of black clouds and neon shards of lightning. But how long could a summer storm last?
I had read once (in an in-flight magazine, no less) that Pierce Brosnan always travels with a ukulele. The article noted that the ukulele easily fits in the overhead compartment, and that Mr. Brosnan enjoys jamming with musicians he meets on the road. The then-reigning James Bond claimed to have mastered the uke in an afternoon. I, of course, am no James Bond. Back in 2008, I was a total newbie. My purple ukulele was clearly a beginner’s instrument, and when played with gusto for more than five minutes, it warmed to emit a milky smell of factory glue. My halting versions of "Five Foot Two" and "Stairway to Heaven," accompanied by my enthusiastic falsetto, had only been heard by my neighbor who pounded on the wall in retribution.
“If we are still sitting here at nine o’clock, I’ll play a song,” I said, thinking there was no way we would still be sitting there. It was almost 4:15, and 9:00pm seemed impossibly far away. We’d be making our descent into Los Angeles by then. My ukulele, I was sure, would remain in the carry-on under the seat.
With continuous announcements of probable departure, Flight 357 dug in and waited. The Australian, probably inured to long journeys by his geographically remote homeland, was particularly unfazed. Anyone who goes through JFK International has already been acculturated to a certain amount of inconvenience. The stoic business traveler in the aisle seat kept plugging away at his spreadsheets. Surely we would take off soon. But no, we still sat there at 9pm.
While I protested that I was not ready for public performance, the Australian canvassed surrounding seats for musicians. And that’s how we met someone I’ll call Dapper Dan, who despite the summer heat was attired in a tweed vest, contrasting tweed pants and a newsboy cap. Dapper Dan traveled with a guitar, an ocarina and a melodica (sometimes known as a pianica). Much to my delight and anxiety, he began to speak music theory lingo. Quickly accessing the extent of my incomprehension, he asked: “Have you got a G chord?”
A few minutes under the tutelage of Dapper Dan, who clearly had gone to conservatory and was born to higher things, had me playing at a good clip. We were as ready as we would get. The Australian was now our producer, our very own Brian Epstein, and he collaborated on song selection. It was determined that we would do "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." I’d play rhythm, and Dapper Dan would play melody on the melodica. We’d do it twice through, and finish by repeating the chorus. Our Australian made a brief announcement and then led the cabin in singing.
Our Australian had a lovely voice. Slowly at first, and then with more gusto, Flight 357 got musical. A whole bunch of jaded, tired, inconvenienced people lifted their voices in song. You don’t believe me? A snippet was filmed by the stoic business traveler, who sang along in a strong tenor. You can watch it here.
Our encore was "Amazing Grace," which Dapper Dan quickly taught me. Again, the whole cabin sang along with feeling. They called for an encore, so we repeated both songs and then took bows.
In the Hollywood version of this story, the captain would have then announced our departure. We would have taken off with the whole plane singing "Up, Up and Away" (if that song could be played with only C, G, and D chords). But instead the energy of the group-sing dissipated as we were stuck on the runway until nearly midnight. Finally an announcement was made that we were low on fuel and that the pilot and cabin crew had worked beyond the federally-mandated sixteen hour shift. But not to worry, another crew was on its way. We would refuel. And then we headed back to the gate.
This is when things began to get unpleasant. There were conflicting reports of the arrival of the new crew. Ticket counters were closed and the carrier’s website was overwhelmed. A woman with two toddlers paid eye-watering prices for seats on another carrier. I lost the Australian, Dapper Dan and the stoic business traveler in the melee. By 5:30am our plane was taken out of service. Rumor had it that stand-by tickets were available, and I stood in long lines only to discover that all of the next day’s flights were overbooked. By 9am, two security guards were preventing anyone from touching the checked baggage that was piled in a corner, saying it would be sent on to Los Angeles. This is where I made a series of bad decisions involving shouting, incoherence, and profanity. And before I realized it, the security guard had his handcuffs out. But I had turned the tide. The travelers swarmed over the guards. Everyone shouted and grabbed their luggage. If it had not been for the intervention of a kind passenger named Maria, I would have been marched off to Airport Detention. Instead, I went home and managed to get a flight out 20 hours later.
Happily, excessive tarmac delay was redefined in 2012 to mean delays beyond three hours for domestic and four for international, adding some clarity to the DOT’s regulations, and was signed into law by President Obama. Carriers that do not comply face heavy fines.
But I recommend traveling with a ukulele. You might just get to jam with musicians you meet on the road.
Kron Vollmer is a writer and performance artist based in New York. She creates site-specific pieces, short films, theater pieces, radio plays and fiction. She has graduated from a purple beginner’s uke to a sturdy Kala ukulele and a 1920’s banjolele. She has even played for non-captive audiences.