People You Meet on Planes

I remember the first time I flew on a commercial airliner. I was 19 and on my way from Atlanta to Knoxville to visit my college roommate. I was absolutely enchanted with the experience of flying, and couldn’t wait to do it again. I loved the rush of takeoff, being slammed back into my seat and that magic moment when this enormous awkward machine became weightless.

Many years later, I had a job that required that I fly about 400,000 km / 250,000 miles a year. Every week I would leave home on Sunday (or the crack o’dawn Monday if I was lucky) and fly to a different city to meet with clients. Often I would repeat this every day till Friday, when I got to fly home. If there was a storm in Chicago or a tornado in Atlanta my carefully constructed week would shatter and I’d have to phone my bff, my travel agent. She bailed me out more times than I can count.

Like many business travelers, I was jaded, bored, tired of it all. I was impatient with the miles we crossed, anxious to be home.

One day I needed to fly from White Plains, New York to Charlotte, North Carolina. A routine flight, nothing to look forward to. As usual, I had an aisle seat, and some poor guy whose BFF was not a travel agent had the window. We didn’t even count the middle seats, which on this flight were filled with young men. All of them were about 18 years old, with newly shorn heads and serious expressions. The one next to me was studying a book about military insignia.

I never talk to strangers on airplanes. I gave that up shortly after my first flight. On this flight, though, I had no choice. This young man next to me began to tell me all about the adventure he was on. He and the others in the middle seats were marine recruits, on their way to Parris Island to be boot camp-ed. He was studying his book explaining how he could recognize the officers by the insignia they wore. He was so excited about his new life that he wanted to share it with me.

As I was learning all about officers’ insignia, the flight attendant came by with drinks and peanuts. My companion was thrilled. “Oh, man, are these for me?” I gave him my peanuts. “REALLY? Are you sure you don’t want them?”. I was sure. At that point in time I’d had enough peanuts to last a lifetime. He hadn’t, though–it was all new to him. He loved the rush of takeoff, and the view from the window–what he could see from the middle seat. He paid attention to all the announcements, and he counted the rows between us and the emergency exit behind us. “You never know…” When it was time for the nasty lunch, he was thrilled again. He was looking forward to the other legs of his trip. “I get to do this two more times today!.” How many times had I thought “oh, no, I have to do this two more times today…”

I looked at him, sitting there, just vibrating with excitement at the miracle of flying. All around him and his fellow recruits were people like me, jaded business travelers, who had seen it and done it so many times that the shiny had worn off and the wonder of flight was dimmed. I looked at him and thought that after two weeks at Parris Island he’s probably never be this innocent again. Or as transparently excited. I wonder where he is today.

As I left the plane, hoping I could make my connection, I exchanged knowing smiles with the other jaded business travelers, a little patronizing perhaps, about these young men. But still we all walked with lighter steps, lighter hearts, knowing that something special had happened on that flight–we had once again “slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.” And for a while, flying was a miracle again.

Kate McNally

Kate McNally

Born and raised in Atlanta, with degrees from UGA and UT Knoxville, Kate never lived above the Mason-Dixon line. That is, until she moved to Belgium. She now lives in the Belgian Ardennes, near Germany and The Netherlands, in an area where three cultures clash and co-exist. She used to have a stress-filled life, living in Washington DC and working as a management consultant all over the US and Canada. About 9 years ago, Kate and her husband Dan quit their jobs and moved to Europe. Now they teach English as a second language to business people there. They went there for two or three years. They're still here. Kate loves to cook, to travel, to paint and to write. She tries to do all of those as often as she can, and she shares tales of her life there in her blog. Kate says, "My blog is called 'Serendipity'. That pretty much sums up our life here in Belgium: serene with a little ‘dipity’ added. You’ll find here tales of our life as we sometimes struggle with other languages and other ways. You'll also find some paintings. And more than a few recipes, because I love to cook. My husband loves to eat. Perfect!" You can find her blog at