Just like old friends

THERE was no rain falling when we finally got to our seats after the plane was delayed half an hour. Then, just as the door was closed, seat belts snapped, and everyone waiting, the plane was drenched in a silver downpour that seemed as though we had parked under a waterfall. ``Folks,'' said the laconic voice of the captain of Flight 215 over the intercom, ``we're going to enjoy a little shower here for an undisclosed amount of time and then we'll be on our way.'' Laughter mixed with groans. The passengers buzzed. More delay. Instead of talking, people complained.

All the planes at the airport were immobilized as the rain fell and fell. When the spigot turned off, the captain said, ``First, the good news. The rain has stopped. The bad news is that we need to check a gizmo near the cargo door. We'll be under way in about another 15 minutes.'' Collective groans.

An angry man in a blue suit and maroon tie in Row 27 demanded to be allowed off the plane. He sputtered. He called loud attention to the very important meeting in Dallas he was missing. Stewardesses with imperturbable smiles gathered around him. No, he wanted off. Really off. They soothed and placated, reasoned and reasoned. He eased away from his anger. OK, OK. He sat down, loosened his tie.

Then as if everyone decided to make the best of flightless Flight 215, a collective calm settled over the plane. Twelve members of a traveling Brown University singing group hummed. They broke into song, something contemporary with a line, ``It's so easy to fly an airplane.'' While laughter rippled through the plane, the group sang quick, bright songs about the sun and moon and stars.

People began talking like friends. The man in a plaid shirt to my immediate left took out clean, white sheets of paper from his briefcase and began intricately folding them. I suspected origami. A woman three seats in front of me broke into knitting and chatter. I suspected a sweater. Two stockbrokers behind me compared the basketball skills of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. People talked like friends.

When the pilot gave the verbal thumbs up, cheers swept through the plane. The singing tapered down. We took off on the wings of time. Clean, white sheets of paper became a multi-pointed bird with flappable wings. The knitting went on all the way to Dallas. So did the talking and sharing.

In Dallas we went our separate ways, lots of goodbyes and handshakes.

``Strange flight,'' murmured a stewardess. ``Yeah,'' said another, ``really a good group . . . you know, really friendly.''

From Dallas I went to Richmond, Va., then on to Williamsburg. In the late afternoon, after concluding business, I stood near Market Square, an open grassy area just behind the Courthouse of 1770. At one time the area was a morning marketplace where the public gathered to buy produce, gossip, and talk like friends.

Now a light snow fell, a big-flaked, light snow falling on a gray colonial afternoon. I stood with a small, bundled crowd watching a fife and drum corps of young men march and play on the Square. Dressed in long maroon coats with wide blue lapels and shiny buttons, the corps played valiantly in the cold, the sound of the flutes muffled by the snow and cold. They marched back and forth in black shoes. Snow collected on their shoulders and three-cornered hats. Between marches one of the drummers swept a layer of snow off his drum with a bare hand.

The crowd was sympathetic and appreciative of the corps. We seemed to be drawn together, strangers becoming friends standing together in a light Williamsburg snow. Echoes of the old marketplace, I guess, or just the bond of time and place. We could have been Flight 215.

When the corps finished, we applauded, gloved hands thumping together. ``Wonderful,'' said a man in a fur cap next to me. ``Yes,'' I said, confessing that while they played I had felt a lump in my throat. ``I know what you mean,'' he said. Patriotism, heritage, history, stuff like that, we agreed.

While the crowd lingered, watching the corps de-snow themselves and their hats, the man and I stood there talking easily of time and place, just like old friends.

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