Strangers on a Plane No More

The flight was quieter than usual: a 757 full of strangers soaring from San Francisco to Chicago. In front of us, two lanky teen boys draped and slouched, baseball caps pulled low on their foreheads. They bobbed their heads and twitched their shoulders to the beat of their headphones and wordlessly passed a CD carrier back and forth.

Across the aisle from them, a woman with perfect posture smoothed her silver hair into place with white-gloved fingers. I could almost see an invisible violet-trimmed straw hat crowning her head. She read a magazine and then closed her eyes, her elegant features proclaiming "Please Do Not Disturb."

Behind us, a young father with an Irish brogue told his daughter "We're going to have to scamper to catch the next plane. Hope you have your running shoes on!" Then they, too, were silent.

When we landed at O'Hare, there was the usual rustle: sighs of relief, folks unsnapping their seat belts prematurely and leaping up to wrestle their carry-ons from the overhead compartments.

We waited. And then we waited some more, the aisle jammed with toe-tapping, finger-strumming strangers. The heavy air tasted staler than weeks-old bread. We were all way too close to each other.

We waited.

Behind me, I heard, "Sugar," the Irish-lilted word sweeter than the sweetener, "we'll have 20 minutes to get to our plane."

The captain's voice blared. "Sorry, folks, we're having trouble getting the jetway connected to the plane."

One of the teens moaned, "Man! Talk about lame!"

"Are you boys heading into Chicago for the big game?" the silver-haired lady asked. They were.

"Well, I'm from Chicago and I never miss a Cubs game," she told them. She described the pitcher's strengths, spectacular plays she'd seen, and her favorite players' stats. "Believe me," she said, "I could talk baseball until the cows come home."

The boys began pitching her questions, lobbing "Well, what do you know?" looks at each other.

"I'm from Oregon," one of the boys said.

"We are, too!" my husband exclaimed, and the man across the way said, "I go fishing in Oregon every summer! I have since I was a kid." We beamed at one another, compatriots unmasked.

"Speaking of home," the Irish gentleman said, "we're on our way. But we barely made this flight. I'm fearing we won't catch our next connection.

"I'm Pat, by the way."

That was when I noticed that the cabin air had softened, as strangers competing for oxygen became friends sharing space.

By the time the jetway was attached, we were clearing the aisle for Pat and his daughter. "Go, go, go!" we told them.

I hope all went well for them. I have a hunch it did. If you start out with a little airport glitch transforming a plane full of strangers into a small village, you've already made a few miraculous connections.

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