“Hold my hand or I will die,” he said once more. And I did. I inched my hand across and grabbed his. My palms were sweaty. My mouth was dry. And I just stared straight ahead and held the man’s hand while he kept saying, “We are all going to die. We are all going to die…” over and over and over again.
Truly, there is no way to adequately describe the fear that gripped me. Each time a flight attendant passed, my seatmate ordered more to drink. I sat quietly scared that I might do something which would cause him to detonate the bomb in his black bag. I was sure now that was what he carried. And I contemplated my mortality. I would never go to college. I would never write a book. I would never have sex or get married or have children. I would never see my family again. I couldn’t even write them a note because HE was holding my right hand, and there was no way I was going to let go of his hand. There were too many lives at risk. As I sat there, I bargained with God: “I will hold this guy’s hand if you will just let us live. Please God, let us get to London safely.”
With every shot the guy’s words became more slurred. And then he seemed sleepy. He leaned his head against me. He stank of sweat and alcohol and middle-aged manliness. His scraggly beard repulsed me as much as his breath. And his hands were overly-friendly at times. But I just sat still in my seat, praying.
When the flight attendants passed, I tried to covertly get their attention, but they ignored me. And I couldn’t think of anything to say, anyway. “I think this guy is going to blow up the plane,” would have tipped him off. So they went about their business serving drinks and collecting garbage, and I sat in terrified silence.
And then the man burped. It was horrible. The belch of a violent stomach. And a foretaste of what was to come… and he vomited all over himself.
And then all over the floor.
And then all over the flight attendant who came to help him.
And all over the guy across the aisle.
And then he passed out.
And now I was trapped against the window with a puddle of vomit at my feet, a drunken man unconscious in the seat next to me, and a flight crew struggling to decide what to do next. Oh, and the guy was still holding my hand.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned on the fasten seatbelt sign. We will be on the ground shortly.”
As we began our descent into London I struggled to keep my composure – and my lunch. I held my nose in one hand and the guy’s hand in the other. He was out cold. The flight attendants did their best to clean up the vomit on the floor and the other passenger, but they could do nothing for me. And then we were landing.
Was he really a terrorist? I don’t know. He was clearly troubled. I also think he enjoyed scaring the crap out of a fifteen year-old. He didn’t hold his liquor well, but he drank like a frat boy. Was he truly scared that he was going to meet his maker? Did he forget to detonate a bomb? Was he doing reconnaissance for another mission? What was in that black bag?
Or was he scared of flying?
It took many years for me to think that perhaps this man was just really scared of flying and needed someone to hold his hand. And I will never know.
As we deplaned the man was whisked away in a wheelchair with his black bag on his lap. And I headed off with my grandfather’s hand securely on my shoulder. My thoughts turned to Phantom of the Opera tickets and the Tower of London, and the adventure of a lifetime ended with the sedate dignity of London.
But the melodramatic words of a fifteen year-old turned out to be true: it was an adventure and the start of a lifetime of travel.