Strangers on a Plane

I keep vowing to write more during vacations, but this time my plans were thwarted by obstacles — good and bad. On the plus side, my wife and I walked about 60 miles in nine days, which was exponentially more steps than I anticipated. On the negative side, I began the trip with the worst case of poison ivy I’ve ever had, a battle that used up hours of my time to treat my arms and legs with the equivalent of a full bottle of calamine lotion. And on the last night of the trip, I endured the worst stomach illness of my adult life, resulting in a night in the bathroom (thankfully it was a nice bathroom) instead of on the streets of Barcelona. Notably, that ended my Seinfeldian streak of not having vomited for the past 13 years.

There’s a lot to write about with this trip. But I do have something I put together, before we even got to Spain, about a funny little incident on the plane ride to Madrid. Enjoy:


The black cellphone slipped off my lap and thudded onto the blue carpet of the jet as it flew in the darkness over the Atlantic Ocean west of Portugal.

I had no reason to worry. The phone was encased in a black Otterbox, a plastic shell that wards off danger like a magnetic field. And anyway, the phone is two-and-a-half years old, and my wife has a next-generation version of it, so if it did break it wouldn’t have been a major pecuniary loss.

Of course, the phone was fine. Its midnight free fall through space at 39,000 feet was cushioned by the cloth surface a couple of feet below.

I was sitting in row 19 of the Airbus A330, headed toward Madrid with my wife to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. The man in row 18 was napping with his seat all the way back, so I l had to lean to my right and then twist to my left to fumble around for the phone.

I found it, then mechanically pressed the power button to light up the display and confirm that all was OK. It did, and I thought that would be the end of a minor inconvenience.

But one row back, there was alarm, maybe even a hint of panic.

“Something crashed into the floor.”

The woman in seat 20B, the seat directly behind me, had heard the sound of the phone falling — which for me had been just an annoyance — and interpreted it entirely differently.

“Huh?” asked the woman’s traveling companion, an elderly man. Like most of the other passengers in the darkened plane, he had been snoozing, a welcome break from his constant sneezing, coughing and snorting which doubtlessly was heard by everyone else in coach.

“Something crashed into the floor — I heard it,” she insisted.

Perhaps she had no way to know that it was just a phone hitting the carpet. Perhaps for her it really did sound as if something had failed mechanically in the underbelly of the plane.

I could not see her, but I like to imagine she peered past her companion to see whether a gremlin was on the wing, ripping out wiring and pulling aluminum panels off.

This woman had been afraid there was something wrong with the plane since it was still on the ground. After we had taxied to the runway, the plane shuddered slightly as it was readied for takeoff.

No one thought anything of it. Except for her.

“Something’s wrong,” the woman had said, her voice little more than a whisper. She spoke with what sounded like a faint New England accent but was hard to pin down.

This was followed by a smooth, perfectly executed takeoff and flight.

After I retrieved my phone and overheard her paranoia, I thought for a moment about turning around and saying, “It’s OK. It was only my phone. The plane is not going down,” but I chose not to.

I wanted to see how long of a ripple this little event — a phone falling a couple of feet in a darkened jet plane — would have.

It turned out to be quite a long ripple. A few minutes later, as I began to write this, the woman mentioned the sound again. She clearly was still wondering whether it was a portent of imminent doom.

For me, that comment sealed the situation as one big game, a strange kind of experiment in chaos theory. There was no way I could intervene in her universe and dispel the mystery.

She will never know what made that sound. I’m fine with that because I suspect that on every flight she takes, each unexpected sound is an omen.

This woman could never imagine that I overheard her and then wrote about it on the Internet for anyone to see. But here it is.

It offers a lesson in the skewed perception of shared events, a concept that Kurosawa brilliantly illustrated in the movie “Rashomon.”

I really hope that’s one of the in-flight movies on the return trip next week.


Epilogue: “Rashomon” was not part of the fine in-flight movie selection, so instead I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1951 film “Strangers on a Train,” whose title I poached for this post.


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