As our flight lifted over the city, he thought he could pick out which house was his friend's, the one with the swimming pool—among house after house with pools sprawling in the paisley pattern of subdivisions below us. Then he claimed he could make out the tracks that he and his dad had made in the nearby desert with their dirt bikes. Yeah, that was the place they had gone: "It was so cool."
Twenty minutes into his cheerful, continuous, and revealing chatter, I was not so surprised when my seatmate said,"...and that's why I'm a drug and alcohol baby." However, I had been surprised when I had first eased myself past the man sitting on the aisle to get to my window seat, and he had piped up, in a breaking voice, "So where you going?" He was just a kid, an overgrown kid of twelve, I found out shortly.
He was flying unaccompanied and cross-country to see his "birth mother." He told me right off the bat. From an airline-issued plastic bag hanging around his neck, he pulled out various boarding passes and schedules to show me his destination. But the slippery pieces of paper defied easy re-insertion into the bag. I finally offered to hold his packet of gum, which he also clutched, hoping that with both hands he could get his documents straight before they slid down the aisle or under other seats.
"I've met her before," he continued, as he finished rearranging his travel documents. He casually chatted about the birth mom's various "challenges," but how she was all straightened up now, so he was going to spend a month with her this summer. Then he pulled out his smart phone and began showing me photos and videos of various car wrecks that had happened on the dangerous intersection near his home.
As our mostly one-sided conversation continued, I could see other passengers glancing our way, though whether in curiosity, irritation (they were trying to connect with their own smart phones or tablets), or sympathy for me or the boy or both, I couldn't tell. And I didn't care. I was taken by his ingenuousness.
From clues in his chatter, I could make out the benevolent influence of some adults in his life. They probably couldn't control his garrulousness and his fixations (e.g. car wrecks), and they couldn't undo some of his family history, but someone had tried to overlay these qualities with some firm precepts and manners. Without any vehemence, but as if rehearsed many times, the boy condemned driving under the influence, drugs, driving too fast, not looking carefully before crossing the street, and making fun of other children. With the flight attendants and me he always added please, thank you, no thank you, yes ma'am, no ma'am.
I could also guess from his stories what were the likely agents of his education. Teachers, of course—he mentioned that he was sad that the best teacher in the world was moving to another level and he wouldn't have her again. And family—another Mom and Dad he mentioned turned out to be his grandparents, whom he lived with now. I never understood which set of grandparents, or whether there was a non-birth mother or stepmother, or why or when his father had died. The boy didn't hide, sugarcoat, or dramatize his reality, but it all came out in a circular fashion. His father hadn't "passed on" or "passed away." The boy just mentioned, in a casual and incidental clause in a much longer and unrelated story, "My dad's dead." Just like one of the people in the car wrecks.
I wondered if he had any worries about our own fate. In the first few minutes of the flight, he had chatted about air pressure in airplane cabins and the aerodynamics of airplane wings.
"I like science class," he added by way of explanation, but it was all theoretical knowledge and possibly a bit of bravado. With the very first change in engine noise, he abruptly stopped his own story to ask, "What's that noise? This is my first plane ride," he confessed, "so I don't know all these noises." I offered him the window seat several times, but he refused, only sometimes craning around me to look out, and quickly settling himself back.
We both worried about his connecting flight. I reassured him (without being certain myself) that the airline would have someone to take him from one gate to another, but there were other complications. He explained that this airline did not allow unaccompanied minors to travel on the last flight of the day to any particular destination, and this was his third try in a week to make the trip. Two previous flight delays had meant a missed connection, a last flight of the day, and a cancellation of his whole trip. When our flight began losing time due to thunderstorms, he confided that he didn't have any money to pay for a motel room if he couldn't make the next flight. I reassured him the airline would put him up if necessary (would they?), and that to make his connection in time, he might even get a ride in a special cart across the airport. That seemed to allay some of his worries, but there was one last problem to face.
As our flight began its long descent, he became quite flushed and sweaty. No more chatting, and no more peeking out the window around me, even though interesting ground features came into view. Finally we touched down, and he ventured two comments that displayed his touching mix of bravado and candor—"Good landing," as if he had experienced hundreds, and "I'm so glad I didn't throw up." I agreed on both counts.
The flight attendants reminded him to stay in his seat while the other passengers exited. I knew this was routine, but still it somehow felt like he was getting left behind. While filing out the aisle, I turned around to wave one more goodbye to him, and, as if he had forgotten his manners, he chirped back, "Nice meeting you!"
On another recent flight I sat next to two young brothers traveling alone. Curious, when I came home this time I did some reading on the Internet about these young voyagers. More and more minors make these solo flights, according to a 2007 New York Times article, “American Airlines alone flew over 200,000 in one year; Southwest, 100,000.” Though generally routine, the flights pose some perils. The article recounted one mix-up where a boy had missed his connection by falling asleep in the terminal, and somehow another boy was sent in his place. And my young friend had revealed to me some of the worries and fears these children might harbor.
Why so many children flying alone? Many reasons, of course, some a factor of our relatively affluent nation. Parents can afford for their children to attend distant summer camps or visit extended relatives. But as I read on, I realized that despite all our "connectedness," there is also a whole lot of brokenness in the world, and some of this accounts for these young travelers. Marriages break up, and families break up, and every year countless adults spend money to fly their kids, solo, cross-country, to meet up with the exes, the other parents, or the birth parent.
The children who can make these flights are in some ways the fortunate ones. My seatmate revealed that his family had saved up a long time for his trip. And as I write this, I can't help but think of other families who are just now sending their unaccompanied children on even more difficult and costly trips. I live near the Mexican border, where thousands of minors have been crossing without their parents into the U.S. They, too, are flying—albeit on foot or in car or van—flying from danger and hunger, and looking for safety and far-away relatives. They, too, come out of a brokenness. Whole countries, and whole systems of governance and distribution, can be broken. I've realized that there are so many children, some with every advantage and some with many strikes against them, bravely traveling alone, all over the world.
But it's my voluble and chipper young companion I've been remembering most, since I've come home. I wish him good times this summer, and safe travels always, whether crossing the street or crossing the country.
Lisa Kay Adam works as a museum curator, and sees writing as another form of curating—selecting, arranging, and preserving for others various aspects of the human and natural world. She has previously published work in Nature Conservancy Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and several print and online journals.