Old Man and The Sky

I made a trip to the Midwest, and flew home from St. Louis in a plane chock full of vacation people. I sat next to a window over the wing, and watched the silver arch fade from view as we soared into the sky. My mind was tired. I remember this. I stared at a layer of angry clouds wondering if we would miss the storm.

An old man sat to my right. He wore a brown knit vest over a pinstriped shirt. He had rich, curly hair the color of the clouds, and he smelled of cologne and garlic. He tried to make small talk with me but I pretended to sleep, my nose red and runny on the cold scratched window, arms tightly wound around a red suede purse filled with tissues and cherry cold medication and lemon honey cough drops.

These details are fresh, beyond fresh, more than memories, as if someone took a sharp kitchen knife and carved them into my brain, because in that simple moment, the plane lurched and fell—how many hundreds of feet I don’t know—fell out of the clouds and toward the ground. The cabin filled with smoke. The plane leveled again, and it struck me that no one made a sound. We sat in wild-eyed fear. My hands gripped my purse. The captain’s voice filled the plane. He sounded afraid.

“Sorry folks, we have a situation up here in the cockpit and we’re taking the plane back to the airport. We’re going to turn around and fly at low altitude. The flight attendants will show you what to do. Please follow their instructions exactly. I repeat, we are turning around and taking the plane back to St. Louis.

I remember these words verbatim, like a prayer you recite every Sunday in church, like the first love letter you receive. The plane spat and curved and I heard people praying for Jesus to save them. I looked at the man next to me, the old man I tried to avoid, and he smiled at me and took my right hand.

“Don’t worry, honey. I’ve been through worse. The captain will get us home safely. Now tell me a little about yourself. Where do you live?

We held hands and chatted, the way you should chat with someone on a plane, about mundane things, my children, his wife, our favorite restaurants. I stopped hearing the prayers around me, almost stopped feeling the rumble of the plane, almost stopped smelling the acrid scent of smoke mixed with passengers’ vomit. The flight attendants walked through the cabin, stopping at each row to tighten belts and demonstrate the landing crash pose. The old man and I took our crash position, leaned forward, one arm hugging our body, the other hand-in-hand with each other.

The old man was right. The captain got us home. The plane skidded to a stop somewhere past the runway, somewhere in a field of tall grass, and we exited the plane quickly while firefighters rushed with hoses. I looked for the old man but couldn’t find him. I wanted to thank him, and tell him he saved my life. The pilot didn’t, not really. The old man did.

These moments of death seem to measure my life, maybe everyone’s life.

On the way home, I stopped at a light and glanced in my rearview mirror, ready to wink back tears. Red dark cherry lipstick smeared along my top teeth, in a Rorschach blotch of wonder.


Birdie Jaworski is the author of the Avon Lady memoir, Don’t Shoot! I’m Just the Avon Lady! as well as a collection of stories about living in rural New Mexico, My Tiny Vegas.

Categories: Airplanes, Death

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