Not long ago, I flew from Boston to Chicago. Generally I enjoy flying, but this flight was the best I'd ever been on. I know that these days it's not uncommon for flights to be tense. This one actually started out that way, but by the end, I couldn't stop smiling.
I was in the aisle seat of an extremely crowded flight. The plane seemed to be filled with grumpy people.
"Can we get going?" a man said from two seats back.
"No, I'm in the window seat," I heard from someone else. Meanwhile, a man in front of me grew sweaty and red-faced as he tried to stuff all of his things into an overhead compartment. I was traveling light and got settled quickly. As I looked around, suddenly someone started talking to me.
"Excuse me," the woman next to me said. "My name is Jackie, and this is my very first flight, so I'd like to get to know the people I'm sitting with. What's your name?"
Before I could answer, the guy next to her chimed in. "First flight huh?" he bellowed as he tried to loosen his seat belt. "Well, I'll tell you, I fly nearly once a week, and I've never had a problem. You have nothing to worry about," he chuckled heartily. "My name's Don, and if either of you ladies have a question, just ask me."
"Thanks so much Don," Jackie said as she settled herself for takeoff. I tapped her shoulder and whispered: "My name's Laurel. I've flown lots before so I can help you out, too, if you need anything." She smiled, then sat back and closed her eyes a minute. She was very petite. Her feet barely touched the floor and she had room in her seat to move around in. It occurred to me that someone had planned our seating arrangement well. As tiny as Jackie was, Don was quite large. His seat belt looked like a rubber band around his waist, and his head was above the top of the seat.
"Usually I travel first class," Don boomed at me, startling Jackie out of her relaxed state. "These seats are way too small for me, but it's my own fault. I took my time making my reservation. This is all that was left." Right after he spoke, the captain came over the speakers, telling everyone to prepare for takeoff. Jackie started breathing quickly.
"Oh boy," she said. "Here we go." She squeezed my hand. I'm not she was even aware that she'd done it. As we took off, she kept her eyes closed and I saw tears roll down her cheeks. I looked over at Don and saw that he was getting his hand squeezed, too. He saw her face and after the scream of the engines became a dull roar he spoke again.
"You know what I do when I get nervous or tense, Jackie?" he asked in his gruff voice.
"What's that, Don?" she said, her voice quivering.
"I sing." he said simply.
"You sing?" I said.
'Sure! Singing is the best way to get your mind off of something," Don said. "Sometimes I sing 'Happy Birthday' if I can't think of anything else." This made me smile, and I saw that Jackie was smiling, too, as she wiped the tears from her eyes.
"That's funny Don, but I don't think I could sing," Jackie said, blowing her nose. "I'd be too embarrassed."
"Hey, come on - it's easy!" Don said. "I'll start. How 'bout this one?" And he began to sing: "Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream...." He really put his heart into it.
All of a sudden, Jackie started singing, too. "Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream...."
So I had to join in, too. I couldn't believe I was singing in the middle of an airplane. But there I was, next to giant Don and little Jackie, belting out the tune as if it were something I did every day.
When we were done, the rows around us erupted with applause and laughter. People started talking to one another, and somewhere behind us I heard a child starting his own round of the song.
"See? Wasn't that more fun than you've had in a while?" Don said.
"I feel better," Jackie said, her eyes still wet. "Thanks."
"We can do it again later, if you like," Don said with a smile. Soon we got our drinks and little bags of peanuts and ate them together, talking about where we were from and where we'd been. We talked the rest of the flight. It was the first time that had happened to me.
I've thought a lot about that flight, and I have a suggestion for the airlines: Why not have a singalong during times of turbulence or when there seem to be a lot of anxious passengers? Someone could sit at the front of the plane with a guitar, or maybe an accordion, who could be called upon to perform as quickly as one can call for a flight attendant. He or she would also take requests. They would have be able to play anything from "Rock the Casbah" to "The Girl From Ipanema." Those who prefer quiet could sit in a different section of the plane.
All right, maybe that's going too far. But the fact of the matter is, I enjoyed that flight more than any other. I made friends and, at times, forgot I was in an airplane. I know it's silly, and I get funny looks when I tell people this story, but now sometimes when I get a little tense, I sing. And then I laugh, because I think of flying.