Nut Signs

Recently I was on a plane flight and realized, within a few minutes of taking my seat, that I wasn’t going to be able to relax in view of the passenger sitting next to me.  The “nut signs” — that is, the indicators that my fellow seatmate was just a bit off — were obvious.

jc_1200x750In this instance, the guy was doing some creepy, slow motion kung fu moves with his hands, like he was Jackie Chan underwater.  At first I thought he was just stretching, but then I realized, from his hand placement and arms movements  that were invading my seat space, that he was evidently practicing some form of martial arts, just without the kicks and the hai ya! shouts.  No normal person would be performing weirdly intrusive karate poses in the close quarters of a plane flight.  Since I didn’t want him to suddenly start using the kung fu moves on me, I decided the best option was to keep a close eye on him and skip the normal in-flight doze.

Any frequent traveler has learned to pick up on nut signs.  Once I boarded a Southwest flight and started to move into an open seat at the front of the plane, when a stern-looking older woman sitting in the next seat over warned me that she had already stashed her stuff in the area beneath the seat in front of the open seat.  What?  Who in the world would do that?  The stewardess heard her and came over to instruct the woman that she couldn’t take that inventive approach to ensuring her own leg room, but since it was a Southwest flight I had the option to sit somewhere else, and I took it.  Anybody who reasoned that they could freely take the storage space allocated to the next seat is obviously a nut, and if they’re capable of doing that, who knows what other off-kilter conclusions they might reach about appropriate plane behavior?

It’s just a risk you take on any plane flight, where you’ll be seated next to some random person you’ve never seen before and you’ll never see again.  Fidgeters, weepers, people wearing those flu masks when it’s not flu season, people grimly muttering to themselves — you never know what might constitute a nut sign.  One seemingly normal guy asked the stewardess to give him four cups of water, without ice, when the service cart rolled around, and then pulled out multiple plastic jars of powdery stuff from his bag and mixed a bunch of concoctions that he then drank in precise order.  Was he a ‘roid ranger?  Probably — but I wasn’t going to ask him to see whether he showed the quick rage that is a telltale sign of steroid use.

Sky And Sea


There is a float plane dock across the street from our hotel in Vancouver. When I was down at wharfside this afternoon one of the planes taxied along the water, reached skimming speed, then took off over the top of one of the freighters in the Burrard Inlet. Very cool, and fun to watch — although I’m not sure I’d want to be one of the passengers.

A Stewardess Story

Yesterday I flew from Washington, D.C. to Columbus, Ohio. On the flight I was seated next to an off-duty, but uniformed, stewardess — I think the current, correct name is “flight attendant” — who was heading back to her home in central Ohio. I took advantage of the circumstance to ask a few questions.

How do you become a flight attendant? This was a young woman who had gone through several majors before graduating from college with a general business degree and who wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do. Flight attendant seemed like a good option, where you could make some money before moving on.

IMG_4243What’s it like being a flight attendant? It doesn’t sound like much fun, really. She had spent an entire day in Reagan National Airport after one of her flights had been cancelled. I hate airports, so that would be a special kind of hell for me. Flight attendants spend a lot of time in airports, of course. It sounds like they don’t get a lot of time to hang out in exotic locations; mostly they are guiding their rollerbags through the same boring airport concourses and hotel hallways that the rest of business travelers know all too well.

Has she had bad experiences on flights? Absolutely. Recently she had to break up an escalating alteraction between two men arguing about whether the plastic windowshade should be pulled up or down. She had to settle disputes between weirdly animated passengers who were were fighting over precious overhead storage space and whether a coat and backpack could be moved slightly so a rollerbag could be put up in the bin. If you do much traveling, you’ll recognize these types. It’s unfortunate, but there really are a lot of assholes out there.

Worst passengers? Drunks. Some people show up for flights so intoxicated they can barely communicate, and others are so inebriated they have lost all inhibition. She has to make a judgment if she can manage the problem for the entire flight. If you’re obviously wasted, acting out, and on a three-hour cross country flight with her, she’ll probably talk to the captain. It is not unusual for the captain to come back and tell a drunk he needs to get off the plane. Most captains are good about that, she says.

Does she use the airplane bathrooms? Never! She thinks they’re disgusting, and will gladly hold on and sprint for a terminal restroom rather than being exposed to the germinacious bathroom activities of the passengers.

Our conversation was brief. She was exhausted, and so was I. We dozed off, and this friendly young woman sank into a deep sleep that continued long after I awoke to prepare for landing. It obviously was the gloriously thrilling life of a flight attendant.

The Mile-High Club App

I don’t have many apps on my iPhone, and I don’t keep up on what’s available, but I saw this story about development of an app that is intended to help people find willing, anonymous partners for sex among their fellow air travelers.

The app will be called Wingman. On planes that have wifi, the app would allow people to enter their airline and flight number, find out if there are other Wingman participants on their flight, and then enter their seat number and destination so they can set up a sordid tryst in the airplane bathroom, under the scratchy blue blanket, or in a no-tell motel when they arrive.

It’s another reason to bemoan the race-to-the-bottom morality of our era, and to wonder about how much of our technological creativity is focused on finding new ways to get lonely men to spend money on testosterone boosters, hair implants, singles clubs, and other things that supposedly will allow them to increase their chances of having sex. They say that a huge portion of internet capacity is devoted to porn. How much of the app world focuses on trying to hook people up?

Wingman also should remind us all of the need to avoid use of airplane bathrooms to the maximum extent permitted by kidney and intestinal function. Now we don’t have to worry only about the sketchy characters with questionable personal hygiene who are sprinting back to the bathroom with urgent looks on their faces, or the unsteady octogenarians who’ve been in the can for half the flight. Now we also have to be concerned that lonely, desperate people might be swapping bodily fluids back there, too. If you’re planning on using the bathroom on your next flight, you might as well board in a hazmat suit.

On The Road (Again)

Back on the road and in the skies today.  More time for me to appreciate the wonders of air travel, the sturdy beauty of our modern jet aircraft, and the inner workings of airports, with their finely timed dance of baggage handlers, runway workers, and cockpit crews.  More time for me to consider just how many people work for the TSA, and how much all of those blue-shirted uniforms and shoulder walkie-talkies cost, anyway.  More time for me to appreciate the simple joy of sleeping soundly in my own bed again, with my lovely wife beside me.

Hummers, Blockers, And Baggage Wranglers

Whenever you travel by plane, you’re inevitably going to be introduced to certain personality types that make air travel so . . . interesting.  Here are three that I experienced in my recent journeys:

The Hummer.  On one flight I sat next to a man who hummed constantly.  I’m sure he wasn’t aware he was doing it, and he probably also wasn’t aware that he couldn’t carry a tune in a sealed Tupperware container.  His dissonant humming — what song was it, for God’s sake? — quickly became as annoying as the buzzing of a persistent fly that ignores repeated swatting attempts.  I debated whether it would be polite to ask him, through gritted teeth, to please stop humming.  Fortunately, he fell asleep.  Never were snores so welcome!

Blockers.  Blockers are those distasteful folks who, as soon as the plane arrives at the gate, spring from their seats and consciously block the other side of the aisle as they remove their luggage from the overhead bins.  If you wait politely for them to move aside so you can get out and get your bags, some do — but more often these selfish turds will put their luggage down in the aisle and expand their blocking zone.  On one flight a female blocker had her roller bag extended behind her, blocking two rows, and was talking loudly on her cell phone to boot.  From the murderous looks of fellow passengers, I’m confident I was not the only person to conclude that the woman was a misanthropic, self-important jerk who, in any just world, would suffer an embarrassing, ego-puncturing pratfall as she exited the plane.

Baggage Wranglers.  Baggage wranglers waddle onto the plane overloaded with carry-on materials.  They blithely ignore the “two carry-on items” rule — the most unenforced rule in the history of the world — and thrash down the aisle, bags banging against headrests and roller bags jamming against seats.  If you are in an aisle seat, beware:  baggage wranglers are oblivious to your existence as they search for precious overhead space to store one of their 50 carry-on items.  My knees and shoulders were clouted repeatedly by over-stuffed gym bags, full-to-bursting plastic sacks, and laptop cases during the boarding process for my flights, without a single apology from the clods carrying them.

Most Americans seem to be decent, polite people.  Why do those qualities so often seem to be left behind when people travel?

Art Deco Plane

Some of the older planes at today’s gathering at the Griffing Flying Service airfield had more panache than their modern counterparts.  The older planes were like the Apple products of their day, where attention was paid not only to engineering, maneuverability, and speed, but also to style and packaging and presentation.  This plane, with its bright aluminum frame, sharp colors, and sleek propeller assembly, had a very distinctive art deco feel — with the emphasis, perhaps, on the art.

Beyond The Clouds

For years, I asked my secretary to always book me for an aisle seat when I traveled by air.  That way, I could stand up as soon as the airplane stopped at the gate, efficiently collect my carry-on satchel, and get out more quickly at the end of the flight.

Lately, however, I’ve let this requirement slide.  As a result, I’ve had a few trips where I’ve sat in the window seat — and I’ve found I often enjoy gazing out at the scenery sliding by far below.  Maybe standing immediately and striding purposefully off the plane with an air of enormous self-importance doesn’t seem as crucial as it once did, or perhaps I’m just more capable of appreciating the view.

Today, I sat in the window seat on a flight from Columbus to Philadelphia, and was treated to a beautiful view of an interesting cloud formation that inevitably made me think of the lyrics to Both Sides Now.

Like A Kangaroo’s Pouch

On one of my flights today, I clipped a pen to the magazine holder sack on the rear of the seat in front of me.  You know — the one that holds the in-flight magazine, the instruction card on what to do in the event of a water landing, and the SkyMall catalog.

The pen fell into the inside of the sack, and without thinking about it I stuck my hand in there to fish out the pen.  It was humid and sticky inside the sack, and kind of disgusting.  I immediately retracted my hand, like I’d received an intense electric shock, and I never did reach the bottom.

It reminded me of the pouch of a kangaroo.  I read somewhere that a kangaroo’s pouch is warm and wet and sticky — not surprising, since it’s where a baby kangaroo spends most of her time.  The pouch on the back of the aircraft seat similarly isn’t given a lot of attention by the cleaning crew.

In fact, as we were leaving the aircraft, I noticed that the cleaning crew folks were wearing the sanitary gloves, to protect them as they fished old newspapers and discarded plastic cups out of the seat sacks.  That probably tells you something.

The Approach To Vancouver, From 20,000 Feet

I’m on the road today, traveling west to Vancouver.  The view out the airplane window on the approach to the Vancouver Airport is breathtaking — for us Midwesterners, at least.  You pass over a series of mountain ranges, including this huge peak, before finally encountering flat land near the coastline.

How odd to see snow-capped mountains in the middle of June!

Those Too-Tight Airplane Seat Belts

Apparently everyone who flies commercially in America these days is either a supermodel, an elf, or a child under the age of nine.

I say this because, without fail, when I finally plop down into my seat on the plane and fish out the seatbelt buckle halves from under my butt, I need to significantly adjust out the seatbelt straps.  My God, what stick figure could have used this seat on the incoming flight?  I always end up feeling a surge of shame that my middle-aged spread is grossly out of step with the rest of the country.

Interestingly, visual observation of American airports does not indicate that most air travelers are members of the fairy kingdom or just returning from the photo shoot for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.  No, the people hitting the Sbarro and TCBY stands with such gusto seem to be about as beefy as your standard American.

That means there may be another, more nefarious explanation.  Perhaps American exercise clubs, diet food manufacturers, and weight-loss supplement suppliers pay the crews that clean planes between flights to tighten every seat belt to 28-inch waist size, to encourage Americans to vow to lose some weight and use their products?

Snakes In The Trousers

Lately there have been a series of curious stories in the news about people trying to smuggle rare animals and birds by storing them on their persons.  Such conduct violates the Lacey Act, which prohibits the smuggling of exotic animals.

The weirdest attempt, in my view, was by a man in Miami who tried to board a plane with seven — seven! — snakes in his pants, as well as three tortoises.  The guy had the snakes and tortoises in nylon bags in his slacks.  It is not clear whether the creatures were drugged so that they would remain immobile during the flight.  In any case, the man’s illicit pants cargo was detected by an advanced imaging technology machine as he went through security.

It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to try to smuggle seven snakes and three tortoises in your pants, but just imagine what it would be like to sit next to the guy on the plane and notice his unusual trouser activity if all of those animals suddenly started moving around.

A Small Business That Took Off

The Griffing Flying Service in Sandusky, Ohio is a small business that took off and became a crucial part of commerce along Ohio’s north coast.  Since the 1930s, Griffing has operated a combination flying school, airport, and charter service that caters to the Lake Erie islands and provides a key travel option for island visitors and residents alike.

Waiting to board on the Griffing air strip

If you walk in the front door of the Griffing terminal building, you will immediately see colorful scraps of cloth tacked to a bulletin board, with handwritten information reporting on milestones — like “first solo” — achieved by flight students.  The rest of the operation has a similarly down-home, relaxed feel to it.  The pilots are friendly and will load your baggage for you.  If you are a regular traveler, the receptionist will keep your name and passport information on file from year-to-year to make the reservation process easier.  When you fly with Griffing, you really do fly the friendly skies.

Aboard our 8-passenger plane to Pelee Island

The flying experience at Griffing also a lot of fun.  You fly in propeller planes that offer a totally different sensation than flying in a jet.  You aren’t shielded from the experience by a huge, soundproofed plane and plush seats.  Instead, you are close to the ground, feeling the plane picking up speed as it bounces down the runway and lifts steadily into the air.  The pilot isn’t locked away in a closed cockpit, he’s just a few feet away, doing his pilot thing.  (On some flights, I’ve even sat in the co-pilot seat for an especially close-up view.)   On our trips to Pelee Island and Rattlesnake Island, the planes have never gotten more than 1000 feet off the ground (or over the lake, as the case may be), and when the plane banks and comes in for a landing, you feel the pull and the drop to the runway in your gut.

Anyone who has never flown in a smaller plane should give it a try sometime.  Griffing Flying Service is a good place to start.