July 24, 2009

One Year Ago: Home on Hell Airlines

July 25-26, 2008: Inspired by distant recollections of D.B. Cooper, I imagine myself purposefully marching six rows up and resolutely pushing up the long red lever to open the emergency door. In so doing, my body would be sucked out of the aircraft and into the soundless sky over British Columbia. Peace at last.

Exactly one year ago aboard an Air Canada flight from Ottawa to Vancouver, this was what I seriously contemplated doing, if only for a second. It was the first leg of our 18-hour return to Japan from Ottawa. I would have done almost anything to end the existential hell created by the incessant, high-decibel wailing emanating from my beautiful daughter, despite her small body.
I’m sure I’m not alone.
You read magazines stories on how to deal with children on airplanes, as the parent or as the passenger sitting close to them. You laugh at the jokes made by comedians on late-night TV about kids and air travel. You hear the stories of flying with children from your peers who have rugrats and think, “not me.” But when you’re experiencing it for real…

We had an absolutely awful experience. First, there was the early morning emotional toll of getting to the airport on time and saying goodbye to my folks. Lady E. was docile, sleepy, compliant…at first.

We’d already had the experience of coming over on the long haul from Japan, and we did our recon—baby websites, baby books, talking with friends and relatives, scouring the Internet for information on how to travel semi-comfortably with a small kid in a cramped titanium tube with 300–odd other people at 35,000 feet for hours and hours. We had an array of carefully selected toys to distract and disrupt. We had the snacks and the beverages. We had abundant patience on tap. But in the end we had…nothing.

As we crossed the skies over western Canada, Elena became more animated, then bored, then outraged at her confinement in my lap and arms. Too young to be enthralled by the TV monitor embedded in the seat two inches ahead, too pissed off to be placated by Mommy three inches to our left, she soon transformed into a roiling, slippery eel with wave after wave of rock concert-level screeching. I’m not talking about your usual toddler’s crying. I’m saying it was a deep-from-the-diaphragm, full-bore, maximum-volume keening that was amplified by the tight space and sound-friendly conical shape of the plane’s fuselage.

The poor Asian gentleman sitting to my right. There are no words to describe his patient suffering for that last hour during our descent into Vancouver International.

It was though Elena was merely inhaling the necessary oxygen that would enable her to blast out her revulsion over this mode of travel by screaming with such volume and resonance it was utterly soul-scorching. It did not stop. It grew worse as we started descending and the air pressure dropped. She couldn’t equalize the air pressure in her ears and refused to drink anything, thereby guaranteeing the dropping pressure would cause her further discomfort.

As Naomi and I both scrambled to do anything, ANYTHING to stop the pain, like reality TV show participants, we began to squabble amongst ourselves.

We would definitely have been voted off the plane. The eyes of those passengers sitting around us seared their hatred of our family like a tattoo on our faces. Elena’s red and violently twisting head was a beacon for attention. I was oblivious, repeatedly popping up and out of the seat, walking the aisle when I could, avoiding the air attendants, who, having seen this many times before, kept their distance lest I proffer our child to them in a desperate attempt for help.

When we finally touched down, Naomi and I had absolutely no semblance of civility as we stood up once the seatbelt sign went off. We wanted to escape the aircraft. We shouldered our carry-on bags and strapped on our kid, and as soon as we detected forward movement, began the relentless march to the exit, elbowing older people, kids, the infirm and the unlucky in a desperate dash for open space. Elena did not stop her screaming until we reached the terminal.

Is this form of torture worse than waterboarding? Of course not. But I think that it is perhaps a perfectly legal substitute. Something for people in the intelligence community to think about.

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