The flight attendant smiles and waves me forward. “Welcome aboard!” he says.
I feel my stomach turn over. The thought of flying doesn’t usually faze me, but after spending the past few days in Disneyland, my body is now systematically programmed to prepare for the impending set of twists, jolts, spins, and drops that generally follow such cheery salutations.
“Do you expect a smooth flight tonight?” I ask.
“Yes,” the attendant says. “The weather looks good all the way back to Seattle.”
“Excellent.” A vision of me peacefully sleeping en route begins to dance through my head but is cut short when a scuffle breaks out behind me.
“It’s my turn to sit by the window,” I hear.
“No sir!” a small voice counters. “It’s my turn!”
I turn to face Dalin and Makenna, my eight and four-year-olds, respectively. I’ve just taken them to the airport restroom as part of an ingenious strategy devised to keep them from needing to go again on the plane. To them, peeing mid-flight ranks somewhere between Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and Splash Mountain.
“You sat by the window on the way here,” Dalin says. He’s always striving to make sure everything is fair, especially when it works out in his favor.
Makenna coils her fists and squares off with him. “But you sat by grandma on the monorail!”
“That doesn’t count.”
“Just find our seats,” I say. “I’ll look it up.”
“Okay,” Dalin says, stepping around me. “Let’s race!”
As they begin to serpentine their way through the first-class passengers and into the surlier crowd where we’ll be spending the next two hours and forty minutes, I dig out my cell phone and start scrolling through all the photos I’ve taken over the past few days. Dalin pushing the rental stroller. Makenna pushing the rental stroller. Dalin riding Pirates of the Caribbean and sitting next to grandpa. Makenna riding Pirates of the Caribbean and sulking because she isn’t sitting next to grandpa. Instead of hosting precious shots from my kids’ first trip to Disneyland, my camera roll essentially serves as a digital evidence vault to help resolve thorny domestic disputes.
By the time I find the right image and catch up with Dalin, he’s about halfway down the aisle and blocked by an elderly couple who are grumpily gathering their belongings from the floor. It looks like one of their suitcases self-destructed. Or was hit by something moving very fast. “Where’s Makenna?” I ask.
He points towards the rear of the plane. “Still running,” he says.
In an overzealous attempt to snare a victory from Dalin, she must have blasted straight through the couple ahead of us. She also blasted straight past our row and was still picking up speed. I sometimes forget she hasn’t yet mastered the ability to read airline seat assignments or, more regrettably, to stop efficiently from a dead run.
“Makenna!” I shout. Dalin and I both cringe as she skids into the backside of an unsuspecting stewardess, who brusquely reroutes her back towards us. The elderly couple briefly suspend their cleanup effort to offer me a matching set of disapproving scowls.
“Sorry,” I say, as I step over a large bra and rumpled pile of socks. To avoid thinking more about their wrinkly underthings, I focus on Tamie, my wife, who is sitting several rows back and, as luck would have it, directly across from my seat. I notice the spot next to her is empty, which strikes me as odd, but am more bothered by the man sitting next to the window. He’s noticeably trembling and keeps anxiously looking over his shoulders, kind of like William Shatner did in that Twilight Zone episode where he tried to warn the other passengers that a malicious gremlin was destroying their plane but nobody believed him because he’s really bad at acting.
That poor guy, I think. He must be terrified of flying.
I re-focus on Tamie. “We made it!” I say, giving her a reassuring thumbs-up.
“That’s great,” she says. “Now can you—”
Ryker, our one-year old, suddenly springs from her lap. “Mah dee blah!” he shouts. He’s holding the torn remnants of an in-flight magazine in one hand and half of an air sickness bag in the other. He spins around and whacks Tamie in the face with both of them before she’s able to restrain him back into her lap. The guy next to them looks to me for affirmation as he futilely tries to scooch further towards the window, but I just give him a sympathetic smile and shrug.
That poor guy, I think.
As Makenna cheerfully makes her way back to us, I hand Dalin my phone. “It’s her turn to sit by the window. See . . .”
He takes the phone, scrutinizes the picture for authenticity, then hands it back to me. “Fine,” he says, looking at Makenna. “The middle is better anyway. It’s easier to get to the bathroom from there.”
Makenna curls her lower lip. “Dad,” she says. “I want to sit in the middle.”
I sigh. “How about you take the middle seat first, then you can trade later if you want?”
“Okay!” they both chant triumphantly.
“Great. You two get strapped in and I’ll get our stuff put away.” I take a quick picture of them together, for the record, then start scanning the overhead bins for space. Unfortunately, they’re already brimming with leather briefcases, designer handbags, and those fancy suitcases with wheels that probably all still turn in the same direction. This means there’s hardly any room left for my juice-stained duffle bag or grocery sack full of wet swimsuits or four tattered Build-A-Bear® boxes. Still, with a little creativity, I manage to get everything properly stowed for takeoff.
“What was that crunching sound?” Dalin asks after I sit down.
“I’m not sure,” I say, then immediately remember our daytrip to the beach and the collection of seashells my children painstakingly harvested and then entrusted to me for safekeeping. “Something was probably just caught in the engine.”
His eyes narrow. “Like what?”
“Like a hammer. Or a pelican. Or maybe a baggage handler.”
“But it sounded like it came from inside that bin you just body-slammed shut,” he says, pointing up.
“Well, it’s like this . . .” I say, which is usually the first thing I say when I don’t know what I’m about to say. “Airlines destroy nice things all the time and there isn’t anything we can do about it so we should just be grateful for all the great memories we’ve made and definitely not blame anyone specific if something we really wanted to bring home and put on a shelf and dust for the rest our lives somehow got crushed. Not that it did. Or will.”
Dalin’s mouth drops, but not because of my response. He’s instead staring at Makenna, who just pulled a wad of soggy pretzels from between her seat cushions.
“Look!” she says, pleased. “They serve treats on this flight!”
“Gross!” Dalin says. “I dare you to eat that!”
Before she has the chance, I instinctively scrape the mixture from her hand and stuff it into the front pocket of my pants. Sadly, it’s not the worst thing I’ve had to confiscate and put in there today. Not even close.
Makenna gasps. “Dad! You forgot to say ‘please’ first! You’re rude!”
“You’re right, and I’m sorry. They’ll bring you some fresh snacks after we take off. Okay?”
“But I’m hungry right now.” She sags forward and clutches her belly for added effect. Then, like manna from heaven, two fresh bags of pretzels miraculously drop onto her lap. Another two zip over her head and smack Dalin in the side of his face.
“Those are for you!”
I cower as I turn towards the voice, fearing that brusque stewardess from earlier has found our row and is vengefully flinging food rations at us. Fortunately, it’s Matison, my six-year-old and the missing occupant of that middle seat next to Tamie. Her arms are teeming with snacks.
“Hi, Dad!” she says. “Do you want one, too?”
“Sure . . . thanks,” I say, selecting a bag of salted almonds. I then remember we didn’t pack any bags of salted almonds. “Um, where did you get these?”
“By the bathroom,” she says. “There’s a whole cupboard full of them!” She dumps the remaining snacks onto her empty seat then pirouettes towards the back of the plane. “Come on, I’ll show you!”
Dalin and Makenna simultaneously unstrap, but I block their exit. “Sit down,” I say. “You, too, Matison. The plane is almost ready to take off.”
“But, Dad, it’ll only take a sec—”
Matison’s plea is cut short by a loud POP! and a subsequent bespattering of peanuts, raisins, and chocolate chips. I instinctively duck and shield my face from the blast, as does everyone else around us except for Ryker, who’s brashly standing amidst the pile of discarded snacks and shaking a ruptured bag of trail mix above his head like a crazed, two-foot terrorist. Thankfully, it’s a small bag and empties rapidly.
Matison springs over Tamie’s lap and sweeps the other snacks onto the floor before he can reload. “Mom!” she says. “You were supposed to be watching him!”
Tamie just sighs then systematically begins apologizing to our neighbors and picking up the mess. I promptly follow suit, hoping our combined earnestness will dissuade them from having us evicted.
Parenting was never supposed to be like this. In fact, Tamie and I had vigilantly planned against it. We read all the acclaimed books on raising children, established firm yet fair consequences for every known misbehavior, and trained to become the perfect family. Then, after five years of marriage, we actually had a baby. And then we had another. And then we had two more. And none of them, apparently, read the literature. They didn’t throw tantrums in the grocery store like we’d expected or scribble on our walls or bite strangers or animals or even each other. Instead, they regularly assail us with new and completely undocumented scenarios, like working together to steal and weaponize airline snacks. For example.
“Sir, you need to take your seat because we’re about to . . . oh, my . . . what happened here?”
I promptly finish sweeping a handful of trail mix fragments from the floor, stuff them into my pocket, then turn to face the stewardess. Without any relevant reference books to guide our decisions nowadays, we mostly just wing-it and then gather real-time feedback from the judgmental faces of bystanders and eyewitnesses. In this case, the stewardess’ mouth is slightly agape and her eyes and nose are scrunched together in bewilderment. Or possibly rage. It’s hard to tell at this point.
“Well, it’s like this . . .” I say. “My wife and I decided to take our family on a nice vacation to Disneyland because it’s supposed to be the happiest place on earth but it’s also really expensive so we decided to save a couple hundred bucks on airfare by having our one-year-old sit with my wife which seemed like a good idea at the time but then he escaped and somehow ended up with a bag of trail mix that had some kind of manufacturing defect and exploded before we could safely put it back in the cupboard by the bathroom. If that’s even where it goes. I don’t know.”
She ignores my response and nods towards both rows. “Are all of you together?”
“Yes,” I say. “Well, except for that guy at end. He’s a hostage.” I offer a lighthearted chuckle with hope they’ll both join me. They don’t. “Sorry about the mess,” I add.
The stewardess plucks an errant raisin from the top of my headrest and nonchalantly drops it into her apron pocket. “Oh, believe me, this isn’t the worst mess I’ve seen today. Not even close.” Her face softens. “Listen, I have four kids, too. They’re all grown up now, but I certainly remember days like this and feeling like I was the ringmaster of some wild and chaotic traveling circus. Not everyone enjoyed our shows back then, either. Including myself. I guess some of us just have a hard time recognizing the happiest place on earth, even when we’re securely buckled into the middle of it.”
I take a moment to contemplate the meaning of her words. “Does this mean you’re not going to kick us off the plane?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “You can stay.” She then smiles and turns to Matison. “Did you share those snacks I gave you?”
“Yes!” Matison replies. “Thanks, Melissa!”
“You’re welcome, Matison.”
I try to not act surprised that my six-year-old daughter is on a first-name basis with an airline stewardess and also that she is not a criminal. I assume my wife is performing the same act from across the aisle.
“Alright,” Melissa says. “Everyone sit down, check your seatbelts, and enjoy the ride!” She raises her hands above her head like she’s operating a rollercoaster.
My stomach flutters in anticipation of the impending set of twists, jolts, spins, and drops that undoubtedly lie ahead for us. Dalin, Matison, Makenna, and Ryker, however, all giggle and raise their own hands in merriment, as do most of the surrounding passengers, including the man in the window seat.
I take a deep breath and look over at my amazing wife, who offers a warm smile and a reassuring thumbs-up. And together, we raise our hands.