A tale of chivalry and danger from the days when airline travelers could smoke on commercial flights.
Timing is everything. Some people’s lives depend on it, or result from it; it only takes a second to screw up the rhythm method of birth control, which is really just hope and well-timed discipline, and you end up with ecstasy and a child. The joy from one of those lasts a few seconds.
I hate seeing and knowing that an unpreventable act is going to occur. I know my drink is on the counter, I just refilled it, it’s hot in this kitchen. As I stir the risotto, I glance down at my glass, looking forward to taking a nice long sip between adding ladles full of stock to the skillet. I am not blasé about cooking risotto. I don’t just throw rice in a pan, add liquid, and stir all loosey-goosey, hoping and praying it comes out all creamy and delicious. I am raising my “risotto baby” carefully. I learned from a real live chef in Venice to use boiling-hot stock, and serve it immediately after it’s finished. The real trick, he said, is having your other dishes and your family ready at the same time. My risotto is so micro-managed that it wants to see HR immediately after dinner.
So when I lay my deep-bowled wooden stirring spoon on the rest, it’s that one second when my mind is focused on that spoon rest, and that I know that the risotto residue is going to dry quickly and be really hard to scrub off when I do the dishes later. It’s then that I forget about the location of my drink, and as I reach back for the Parmesan cheese, I feel my hand brush against my glass; the cold condensation wakes me up. I turn, and only try to stop its fall with my mind. My world switches to slo-mo as it falls and crashes to the floor. It’s lemonade, and in one of the glasses I brought back from Puerto Vallarta ten years ago. Glass and liquid spread like wildfire over my floor, and ice scoots under the fridge. I won’t go after it, but I will always know it’s there. Not only is this going to be hard to clean up, but I know that I will find something still sticky tomorrow, and I will miss that glass until they are all broken.
Mexico produces more than great glass and currently features gang killings, which are keeping tourists away. Some are creeping back out, like farmers easing their tornado shelter doors open after a twister to see if the cow is still tied to the post and it is safe to come out. But Mexico’s crime has been bad before.
My Uncle Jim was on a Southwest Airlines flight from Dallas to Brownsville, Texas, to visit my cousin Sean at boarding school. This was back in the day when not only was smoking allowed on planes, but also the cabin had a row of bulkhead seats that faced another row of seats, creating this special area for a cozy party-in-the-air. Once the plane reached a safe altitude, the flight attendants busted out the cocktails and you were free to smoke about the cabin. Southwest is really casual; I once heard the flight attendant sing the safety instructions to the tune of the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies.
Jim was seated in this very special bulkhead area and struck up a conversation with the couple facing him. Jim was a very handsome man, a true gentleman, well-dressed, with classic manners. He settled in his seat, lit a cigarette, and bought the couple each a drink. They thanked him for his kindness by telling him a tragic tale of victimization. The woman looked kind of pitiful, and quiet, but ended up doing most of the storytelling once her Scotch kicked in.
They were on their way to Brownsville to be presented with a plaque and an apology from the Mexican government for being shown a less-than-hospitable time while driving through the scenic Mexican desert in their Winnebago. To me, a slow-moving Winnebago has a sign in some sort of universally understood language on its bumper that says “Rob Me, I’m Stupid.”
Some banditos did just that. They commandeered the van, and held the husband and wife hostage as they careened down the deserted highway. Our couple feared for their lives and knew they had to make a bold move. Perhaps their captors were short, and it was taking both of them to operate the huge pleasure cruiser. Maybe one was steering, and the other was working the pedals. Our couple managed to untie themselves, and thanks to whatever amusing distraction the bad guys were involved with, they opened the side (or living room) door to the moving Winnebago and jumped out, rolling onto the hot, black highway at 35 mph. They broke limbs, were horribly scraped, and had to walk miles before finding help. They healed in a hospital and returned home to Dallas, vowing never to set foot in Mexico again. They only agreed to go get this apology and maybe stay for some complimentary chips and salsa.
The woman pulled out a cigarette; it was her go-to move when finishing a story, a meal, or sex. It was automatic, and so was Jim’s chivalrous, reflexive whipping-out of a lighter to flick the Bic and render aid to this poor lady. Altitude and pressure produce unpredictable results on inexperienced drinkers, and cheap lighters. As he leaned over and flicked the lighter’s switch, a flame about a foot high shot up and caught her hair on fire. The woman screamed, and Jim quickly switched to fireman mode and began patting her hair down, hard, until the flames were extinguished. Her husband was frozen in shock. How much more can we possibly take? The flight attendant came over to make sure that this rowdy group wasn’t endangering the other passengers. She lectured them as she removed their tiny, empty liquor bottles and shushed them as she walked away to apply more lipstick before they landed.
Jim was much more horrified than the woman was. He regretted that action and replayed it in his mind for years. If only he had hesitated and first lit the lighter in the air as a test. Takes only a second.
The woman very calmly placed her hand on top of her burned hair, and asked her husband to retrieve her carry-on from the overhead storage compartment. He did, and she removed a scarf from it, and then—she removed her wig. She wrapped the scarf over her head. Jim had wondered why her hair melted! Turns out she was mostly bald and wore a wig to improve her looks. I bet after that trip she packed a spare wig.
Thankfully the story had taken up most of the flight, and after Jim’s profuse apologies they felt no need to speak. He was left to nurse his cocktail and let his mind wander to thoughts of this poor woman, so bravely throwing herself out of a moving Winnebago to avoid being harmed in a foreign language, now reduced to accepting her award for bravery from a high-ranking government official, wearing a new dress and an old scarf. The roads aren’t safe, nor the skies; she might not ever travel again.
Yes, chivalry is not dead, and timing is everything. Hesitation usually results in regret, but so can fast action. Sometimes, rarely, it turns out to be the right thing. Dom Perignon prematurely popped the cork and invented champagne.
Image credit: Al Pavangkanan/Flickr