Is This Seat Taken?

I cannot remember the last time I flew on a commercial flight. Yes, we flew to Atlanta for the 2013 Final Four, but that was a chartered plane filled with Shocker fans and while we had to go through security, we were all so high on the tournament ride I couldn’t tell you if I took off my shoes or had to open my carry-on bag.

So, when I recently flew to Chicago, I was pleasantly surprised by the ease of travel with Southwest Airlines. My ticket to Chicago from Wichita was inexpensive, non-stop, plus I got to print my boarding pass 24 hours prior to my departure , my overstuffed red suitcase flew for free, and I got to choose my seat. Yes, choose my seat. While I overheard some passengers grumbling about not having a reserved seat, especially after it was announced our plane had arrived from Dallas with 60 passengers already aboard, I loved the idea.

No more reserved seat surprises. You know the ones, the sweaty, salami-burping salesman; the snoring elderly man with the dangerously close to the shoulder drool; the chattering, gossiping-about-people-you-don’t-know housewife; the deadpan teen who can only grunt when you ask them to let you pass or to help you with your bag; and the infamous kick-the-back-of-your-seat-all-the-way-to-Florida child who screams “no” in between kicks. No surprises on this flight. I got to choose my seat, therefore choose my flight mate or mates.

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t always had undesirable flight mates. I was sixteen when I took my first plane and I flew solo. I was nervous, but excited and felt like an adult. I wore gray corduroys, a sweater with pink and gray stripes and these awful earth shoes. My only carry-on was my over-the-shoulder purse that I’m sure contained a tiny wallet and root beer flavored lip gloss. My flight mate was a tall, blonde wearing a fox fur. She floated on a cloud of Chanel No. 5 and reminded me of the actress on General Hospital who played the character, Tiffany Donely (I was a “General fan” at the time). Of course, she’d flown numerous times, ordered a cocktail at 9:00 am, and proceeded to engage me in conversation from school to fashion to cities to visit in my lifetime, and shopping in Chicago. And, if I learned anything from that hour and a half flight next to Sharon Wyatt’s doppelganger, it was how to make a flight go quickly with interesting conversation.

I’m not one to sit by the window, nor do I need the aisle seat (although it does make for better leg room), so as I perused the empty seats that early morning headed to Midway Airport, I looked for only one thing: does he/she look like an interesting person to get to know in an hour and a half? I must say, I chose well. On the way to Chicago, I chose an empty aisle seat next to an older couple who looked hardworking, observant, and married. They began the conversation by asking if I was headed to Chicago or elsewhere? The reason for my trip? They were en route to Nashville via Chicago (ah, airline routes these days) to visit their granddaughter who was joining a convent. After a brief banter regarding the decline in the sisterhood, the rarity of knowing someone joining a convent, they asked what I did for a living. At the mention of Wichita State University, they told me they owned an eatery near campus, one that was quite popular with the WSU crowd. They introduced themselves as Ken and Carol Hertel, the owners of Barn’rds on Woodlawn. I told them they were the home of the best hot ham and cheese in Wichita. After thanking me for being a customer, they asked if I knew Dr. Jim Rhatigan. He is my personal cheerleader and the reason I’m with WSU. They are good friends and threw him one of his many retirement parties over the years. They are men’s basketball season ticket holders; although they give away most of their game tickets due to their time with the restaurant, so imagine the conversation that ensued. And the world gets smaller, as their granddaughter in Nashville is named Natalie. Departure flight mates: A+. I’ll be stopping in to Barn’rds to see them, soon.

My return flight was even more special. I chose the aisle seat next to a tiny elderly woman in a purple jumpsuit. Her auburn curls caught my attention first. Her eyes seemed to light up when I asked if I could sit next to her. She was returning from a month-long trip that began with a family gathering in Colorado, a wedding in New Orleans, and a visit to a sister-in-law in North Carolina. Did I mention she is 83 years young? She was looking forward to sleeps in her own bed and couch time with her cat. She patted my hand when I provided the details regarding my trip to Illinois and much-needed time with my sister and her family. We discussed hair color and how I managed to have straight hair in lieu of curls, how one pales sans lipstick, and faith. She carried a cherubim hand mirror and a “Jesus with children” compact, but I got the feeling her family is her true religion. At 83, she prays she can remain in her home for as long as possible and says she sets goals each year. Next year, the youngest grandchild graduates from high school and the following year, the second youngest graduates from college. She’d like to be around long enough to see them all graduate because education was something her husband stressed to their children and grandchildren. He has been gone for three years. The Chicken Soup for Your Soul in her ivory pocketbook focuses on angels. I can tell she misses him, but carries him with her, always. As the plane unloaded, I waited with her to ensure the Southwest people arrived with her wheelchair. She doesn’t really need it, except she knew she would be exhausted when she returned to Kansas. Plus, she had a long drive to Liberal, Kansas. Her son was waiting for her in the baggage claim. I hugged her tight and she told me she’d always remember me as Natalie Wood.

With all of the complaints regarding flying, from the long security lines, overpriced and lost luggage, fights on planes between passengers and crew, and the insensitivity of airline corporations and their employees, it is comforting for me to know that Southwest airlines still allows the opportunity for conversations between strangers. If your bags fly free, complimentary drinks and pretzels are available, and you get to choose your own seat on a plane, it would seem with the stress of flying at a minimum that most passengers would take this opportunity to engage with their fellow flight mates. At least, that is my hope.

In a world that seems to be spiraling out of control with hatred as its catalyst, in just one hour and a half in a flying machine one can be reminded of the old adage, “We are all in this together.” This post is not meant to promote Southwest Airlines, I’m only hoping to promote the pastime of conversation, especially with a neighbor, be it the family next door, the person next to you in the grocery line, the next cubicle, the pew in front or behind you, or your chosen or assigned flightmate. Again, life is a collection of short stories and the more stories you have or know, the more interesting this life can be. So, what will you respond when asked, “Is this seat taken?”

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