Couple of rows up from me on a crowded plane, a plum-faced baby squalls, demon-possessed. Its rubbery arms flail like an octopus under a sashimi knife. The parents avoid eye contact from everyone on the plane, including each other. But the red tips of their ears tell a different story, and I know, because I’ve Been There. Some animals kill their young. I just nod to myself and remember. My kids are terrific travelers.
But it wasn’t always that way. Oh, no.
Mid-June, many years ago now. Moving day. We were at DFW airport, ready to fly to northern California, the Bay Area, our new home. The weather was typical Dallas summer: hot as habaneros, dry as a saucer of toasted dust. A three and a half hour plane ride to 72 degree daytime highs sounded just fine.
The older son and I were reading the fifth Harry Potter book together. Order of the Phoenix had just gone on sale that day, and the airport was a surreal blue sea of identical book jackets. There were more Harry Potter hardcovers at the airport than Bibles at a north Dallas Baptodome. Young or old, pre-teen, pilot or priest: every nose was buried deep in a copy of that book, and apart from the rustling of paper leaves it was dead silent.
Aboard the plane, my wife, our toddler and my mother were sitting together some rows up ahead of me, with our cat tucked under the seat in a kitty travel bag. I had it easy. I sat with our seven-year-old, our heads pulled together as I quietly read Harry Potter to him. The continued cries of a toddler somewhere up ahead were successfully ignored in favor of Hogwarts. That is, until my mother suddenly appeared in the aisle.
“I think your wife would like me to trade places with you. Now.” I bent sideways into the aisle and saw Marci’s fuzzy hair sticking up over the back of her seat like Bride of Frankenstein. Was that the foot of our 18-month old son sticking up through her tangle like a fleshy hair pick? Uh oh. I got up and gave my mom my seat.
As I walked up the aisle past enough copies of Order of the Phoenix to fill a small bookstore, the wailing grew louder. Marci’s panicked face turned toward me. “I can’t get him to stop crying!”
Clearly, our youngling just needed to move around. I took crying little Geran for a walk through the plane. Nothing doing. He let his stumpy little legs go limp and screamed as I dragged him through the aisle.
I tried bouncing Geran on my knee. Giving him some milk. Tickling him. Talking soothingly. These had about the same effect as a mosquito standing at the mouth of a Howitzer would have on the trajectory of the shell. He kept crying nonstop. I don’t think he peed the entire flight—any liquid we poured into him came streaming out of his eyes and nose.
Meanwhile, Kishka the cat remained quiet under Marci’s seat, stoned on kitty sedatives. “How’s the cat?” I asked Marci, raising my voice above the level of Geran’s hollering.
“She hasn’t made a sound,” she said. “Been asleep the whole flight.”
“Do you think we could…?”
“No!” My wife gave a small laugh, just this side of hysteria, as Geran’s crying intensified. “I wish we could. No, we couldn’t possibly. Could we?” That’s how desperate we were at this point, sitting there avoiding eye contact with everyone else on the plane and contemplating giving cat sedatives to our toddler.
We were saved from potentially poisoning our child by the mere fact of having used up the last of the cat sedatives at the start of the flight. And the flight attendants refused to fill Geran’s baby bottle with red wine. So we gave up. We put the squirming, squalling little guy on the floor beneath his seat with a selection of small toys, hoping he would amuse himself into quieting down.
“Look, Geran! A toy! A little motorcycle! A plastic hamburger! Look, it’s My Little Pony! A rattle—want a rattle? How about a rubber duck? Take the damn duck, already!”
He was only 18 months old at this point, and pre-verbal. So visualize the next two-point-five seconds in slow motion Instant Replay:
Geran launches his chubby body off the floor and into his seat like a tiny pommel horse Olympian. Momentum plus piston-legs pole-vault him up the back of his chair. It’s the wind-up: he pinwheels his right arm in mid-air, and in a shot worthy of the World Series, hurls a plastic toy motorcycle with incredible force over the back of the seat. The small two-wheeled projectile cuts through the air with a blurred yellow wake. The toy smacks into the forehead of the middle-aged Asian woman sitting just behind us, knocking her senseless, cross-eyed, and thankfully too dazed to bring a lawsuit.
“That’s it!” I cried, grabbing my son by the back of his cotton one-piece. “You have lost all privileges as a human being!” I flipped him around, overpowering his surprisingly muscular contortions, and manhandled him into his car seat, where I buckled his five-point harness and cinced him in so tight it was amazing he could even draw breath.
And yet, he managed.
Oh, how that child could draw breath, like Superman blowing out a raging fire in a Metropolis office tower. Geran let loose with a banshee screech of such staggering intensity it blew the hair off my forearms and caused the plane to lurch. And he didn’t stop. His face turned so red I thought his head would pop off. He wailed so loudly and constantly he must have been drawing air in through his butt in a constant loop, like an air-raid siren warning that we were under attack.
As far away as ten aisles in front of us, frowning women and men turned in their seats and stared back to glare at the Bad Parents. Marci sank down and put her hand over her face in shame, but I just couldn’t take it anymore. I unbuckled my seatbelt, stood up and raised my hands in surrender, crying out to the plane for all to hear:
“It’s my fault! I’m the bad father! I made him! I admit it! He’s mine, you hear me? He’s MINE!”
I sat down, exhausted. Row after row of knowing parents and experienced travelers nodded their heads in satisfaction and returned to their newly-minted hardbacks of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Not another word was said. Within minutes, Geran wore himself out and passed out in his safety seat, to sleep peacefully for the rest of the flight.
And when we landed in San Francisco, he awoke and smiled, and cooed and burbled and waved joyfully to everyone as I held him up to my shoulder. He blew bubble kisses to all as we passed up the aisle, and when we reached the flight attendant at the front of the plane, she cooed at him, and said, “My, what a happy little boy! Why, he’s just an angel! An angel!”
And he was.