Featured Image: Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows, knitting stars for BBC Radio.
I am a traveling misanthrope. I don’t like talking to the person sitting next to me on an airplane, nor do I share my personal travel plans with people sitting across from me at a flight gate. I’m the passenger sitting a few gates away from my actual departure station, with headphones on, face hidden behind a book or magazine. I am, in other words, a TSA person of interest.
I like anonymity when I travel. Second only to amusement parks, airports are the perfect people-watching spot. There you have traveling masses making their way from one end of the country, or the world, to another, bringing their fashions, prejudices, and baggage in tow. Oh, how I love to find a boot-wearing cowboy from the Midwest looking lost at an Atlanta terminal. How riotous to find a gaggle of gays from New York en route to Fort Lauderdale for a beach weekend. Or how fun to discover a Washington Republican cruising the public restroom. Once, I’m proud to say, I ran into and was heavily cruised by a porn star on his way to Orange County, CA (yes, I followed him!) at Newark’s International Airport.
Such are the pleasures of a traveling voyageur!
And yet, not all is pleasant or fun on a journey. I’m the passenger who upon arrival at the gate finds himself looking around at my flight companions thinking, “So this is who I’m going down with,” disappointed at the lack of eligible gay members of the Mile High Club. Not that I carry a membership card, but I always wanted to apply. Before boarding, I pray to the gods of flight-attendants that my seat is not next to or behind a child, a family of four, teenagers, or a team of cheerleaders. I’d rather sit next to the washroom door before finding myself in a middle seat surrounded by the last group.
I’m also that persnickety traveler who’ll feign a physical ailment to sneak to the front of the boarding group in order to find a space in the over-head compartment and silently chant incantations to draw the hottest guy on the flight to sit next to me. Somehow, I need to work on my chanting more.
Earlier this year I flew to the wilderness of south-east Ohio to visit my nephew; he’s about to wrap up his freshman year in college. His parents and I journeyed to the frozen north to see him play in a basketball game. The flight to Columbus was uneventful. We arrived to a landscape covered in snow and temperatures alarming enough to cause shrinkage in the most confident of men. The weekend was fun. I got to see my nephew’s deplorably kept dorm room; I watched him play in a close game of basketball they ultimately won; and I got to embarrass him in front of his fellow team members as any good uncle would do. I adore that kid.
Things turned for the worse on our journey back to Miami. Upon arrival back in Columbus, we found our flight delayed “due to poor weather conditions,” and a gate packed with fellow travelers lacking in manners and patience. Absent, as well, was a gaggle of gays making their way south to Florida hoping to defrost or letting it all hang out at one of our beaches. This was upsetting to me as Columbus, OH is the epicenter of gay life of the state. Where were my gays?!
Two hours later, as we finally started boarding the plane, I found my seat next to window (as I prefer to fly), with my traveling backpack stowed in the overhead compartment (yay!) and my work tucked under the seat in front of me. I plugged my bluetooth headphones to my ears, ready to listen to podcasts all the way through to Miami, ready to knit and listen as we raced back to sunnier, warmer climes.
My traveling companion on this journey was an efficiently self-contained woman. She didn’t carry anything she did not need and anything she brought with her fit neatly under her seat. As she fastened her seatbelt, she pulled an iPad out of her carry-on bag, and she buried herself in documents she marked with an Apple Pencil.
After take-off, I took my knitting work out of my bag and began to settle on what I hope would be two hours of quiet knitting. As I threaded the yarn around the Maori fish-hook to keep tension, the woman next to me turned, smiled, and said, “Just like my grandmother knitted.”
Normally, I would smile politely, nod, and pretended I was absorbed in what I was doing and listening — discouraging any further attempts at conversation — but I could not let this statement get away from me. I don’t know any Portuguese style knitters, and to find someone who has a direct link to the craft not only is a rare find but one to be exploited.
“Are you from Portugal?” I asked the woman in 18B. She shook her head and said, “Brazilian. My mother’s family came from Portugal. My grandmother used to knit. I still have her needles somewhere. She tried to teach me when I was a little girl. I never took to it. I wish I had. It’s so relaxing.”
I nodded enthusiastically. “It is!” I found myself saying, as if I was part of a cult and I wanted to recruit the woman in 18B to my cause. “I’ve only just begun knitting, but I love it. I can’t seem to make myself stop.”
The woman on 18B nodded knowingly. I could tell she wanted to return back to her iPad and her work. I wanted to know more about her grandmother. “She knitted blankets and shawls. She would spend the afternoons sitting on her chair knitting and talking to her friends or my mother.” This was back in Brazil, in Sao Paolo, where she lived. She had learned to knit from her mother, who learned from her mother.
“And did she thread the yarn around her neck or through a shirt hook?” I wanted to know.
“A hook, of course. Everyone in Portugal uses a hook. They’re passed down from mother to daughter or given as gifts. I have my mother’s hook. She gave it to me as a gift many years ago.”
The flight captain thought it prudent at that time to interrupt our conversation to warn us about turbulence coming up. He told us in a voice that sounded alarmingly calm, that we would be experiencing some bumps along the way down to South Florida. He advised us that we’d be climbing a few thousand feet to avoid the worst of it, and that we should remain seated with our seatbelts fastened.
18B and I continued to chat throughout the flight. She told me about her daughter studying in Ohio University, I told her how and why I began knitting. I knitted along, adding stitches and rows to a toque I was knitting for another nephew. I was impressed with 18B’s penchant for learning, studying, and life-long learning as she told me about studying in Oxford and attending adult education courses back home.
Our conversation dwindled eventually. We’d run out of polite conversation, and we returned to out solitary tasks. The flight became bumpy at times, as the captain promised, making me drop a stitch here and there that I would later have to pick up and mend after binding off.
Then it hit: turbulence like I’ve never experienced before. As we began our final approach to Miami, we hit an air pocket that made the plane drop a few thousand feet. People screamed. Someone began to cry. And in the back of the plane, a few rows from where I sat, a woman began to chant, “Praise, Jesus! Thy kingdom come!”
The plane began to be tossed around like a balloon, and for the first time in all the years I’ve travelled by air I began wondering, Am I going to go down with these folk?
It was a harrowing twenty minute approach to Miami International. We continued to bounce along, climbing and dropping, shaking, and bumping against invisible bumps hidden in thick clouds. At one point, 18A and 18B held hands, reassuring ourselves that all was well, that all would be well, that the flight crew knew what they were doing and we were in good hands.
We approached MIA blindly. It wasn’t until we broke through the clouds over Miami’s downtown that the plane settled for its final approach and minutes later we touched down on safe-ground. The cabin broke into applause when we landed, and I found myself going along with the rest of them, and the woman around 21D who kept praising Jesus and His kingdom come. For once, I was glad to be one of the passengers I’d go down with.
The woman in 18B and I parted ways at the gate, where my sister and her husband waited for me. They both looked upset but glad to be home. I waved good bye to my traveling companion, who disappeared in the crowd waiting for the terminal tram. When my sister asked me who that was, I told her, “An angel. Someone who kept me company and made sure we didn’t go down.”