Of plane rides and people with poor senses of humor

My, oh, my, the things that happen when you are stuck in an airport. The frustration, the helplessness, the annoyance and the uncertainty, not to mention the anger, grief, shouting and tears. But amidst all that, you find people who let it all wash past them, are happy to just be on the journey and maybe offer a bit of respite and enlivening entertainment to those more weary than themselves.

I met a lot of these people today:

- The couple at lunch next to me. He was reading her People magazine, over her shoulder, and commented on an article. Normally, something a female companion would enjoy, when her man takes an interest in something of hers, however he commented without fully reading the article, thus making himself look rather foolish. Her good-natured ribbing of his poor reading comprehension was very amusing.

- Another couple, from Arizona, returning from a trip to the Cayman Islands. Their outbound flight had been bumped from gate to gate, from one end of the airport to the other. Given that both were pushing 70, they were not really happy about walking, but were laughing and smiling despite it all.

- The female Joker. Imagine Jack Nicholson’s character from the 1989 Batman movie, sans white and red face paint, but still with the hideously curved grin. Add in a pair of obviously fake breasts and a tummy tuck, and this woman had more plastic on her than any of the planes sitting out on the runway.

But the most amazing people were the ones sitting around me on the final leg of my journey; the ones who shared the waiting, both in the terminal and on the plane. As we boarded, more than two and a half hours after our scheduled boarding time, it was obvious that most of us were beyond caring anymore. We had spent hours in hot, smelly, overcrowded airports and were just glad this was our last flight of the day and it was taking us home. We might still have another hour or more to sit on the plane, but at least we were getting out of Atlanta. Hartsfield is the most evil airport I’ve ever known and we had come through its worst.

Or so we thought.

Normally, it would take about 20 minutes to load a plane of the size we were on, but this special day, where the booking crew was scrambling to clear a four hour backlog of passengers, with dozens of cancelled flights, it took nearly 45 minutes to fill the plane. I don’t know if employees were out waking people and putting them on a plane just to get them out of Atlanta, but that is sure how it felt as passengers continued to enter at a trickle after the first 15 minute rush. More late arriving passengers meant even later arriving luggage forcing an ever increasing delay in take-off.

But finally, after all of that, the cabin door was closed and the plane began to move back from the gate… but not for long. The cabin announcement system crackled to life, our illustrious, and probably equally annoyed pilot, relating to us the bad news we were returning to the gate.

I expected a mechanical failure, something leaking or flames blowing out of an engine. Maybe the weather at my destination just took a serious turn for the worse and we were grounded. Could there possibly be a sick person on the plane? Nay, for we were told that our further delay was to wait for human remains to be loaded on the plane.

Again, we’re all tired. We’ve all been worn out by the stress of the day. Most people just want to get home as quickly as possible, but had already been so delayed, that one more item in the hold became the silliest reason to turn around. We laughed, long and hard. So loud in fact that the voice over the PA system faded to a murmur in the background. I don’t think any of us heard anything after the words ‘human remains’ and we really didn’t care to. The absurdity of it hit us all the same.

However, I happened to be the first to put words to the absurdity. As usually occurs, my brain came up with a comment that it just couldn’t hold in. It was one of those statements that you wrestle with, because you really don’t feel bad about having the thought, but you don’t want those around you to stare at you in disgust for the next hour, either. Also as usually occurs, the humor in the statement overcame any thought of holding it back, so quietly, to only those people in my immediate area, I say, “What’s this guy in such a hurry for that we have to wait? Its not like he’s got any place to be soon.”

Most laughed. Several went so far as to cackle. I was with some fun people, and they got a whole lot more fun over the next 10 minutes. It was as if my comment broke open the long pent up laughter that everyone needed. Jokes started coming, one after another, from all corners of the plane. People all the way up in first class were turning around to see why those of us packed in the back were laughing so hard. People in the back were leaning forward, straining to hear what provoked such laughter.

“Where are they gonna put the guy? There aren’t any seats left!”

“Why don’t they just slide him down the isle!”

“How do you collect that at the baggage claim?”

“What would happen if that got put on the wrong plane? Can you imagine being the courier having to deliver that to someone’s house?”

Watching the casket, if you could call a cardboard box that was a foot tall, two feet wide and seven feet long a casket, made for the best joke of all, yet again one of mine. “Look, it even says ‘Fragile’ on the side!” Really, it said, “Handle with Extreme Caution” but my version was much funnier.

There is always one guy in a crowd, and thankfully this time it wasn’t me. The laughter began to subside when the bitter man a few rows back started tossing line after line, obviously trying for humor but taking it way beyond what most people would laugh at. He was just trying way too hard.

“Well, we’ve already got a body ready since we’re going to the site of the latest airport disaster.” Could be amusing if it were not true, that our destination was the location of the most recent deadly airport disaster.

So the casket was loaded and we were ready to go again. As we pushed back from the gate once again, the jokes moved focus to what could possibly happen to make us return to the terminal yet again. Nothing all that funny and most were a stretch to reality, but then again, we had already stepped outside the bounds of our collective experiences, so why could it not happen again?

Someone did mention that we would have been quite rude had relatives or friends of the deceased been on board. Quite true. Thankfully, there did not seem to be anyone on the plane who knew the individual whose body was now residing in a cardboard container. That wasn’t much comfort to the man sitting directly behind me though:

“What if that person had died defending our country. Anyone who would laugh at jokes about someone like that is sick.”

There always has to be someone just ready and waiting to spoil some good fun. Now, obviously this gentleman felt that what we had been doing was quite wrong. He is more than entitled to his opinion, and while his comments were made with the best of intentions, the truth is that he was missing a major reality of humanity, namely that death loses its sting when you can laugh at it. If death is the end, then it is tragic. If death lands you in some place worse, then you chose poorly. Otherwise, death is simply a transition from a place where life isn’t great, although it can be very good, to a place where it is great. What is sick is to not laugh at death as that is what it truly deserves.