Wednesday, January 25, 2012

First Flight

My first airplane ride was on a TransTexas goony bird from Louisiana to Texas. After I enlisted, the military put me up for the night in a hotel in downtown Shreveport. That night was long and lonely, with plenty of time to contemplate the irreversible nature of what I had done. Earlier that day, I pledged to give my all for my country, and I meant it in my heart. After the day’s manifold events—paperwork, physical exams, instructional sessions and the enlistment ceremony—I was sure I was not my own person any more, at least for the next four years.

The only other person from my hometown there was a pale red-eyed guy I had never gotten to know real well. He had a bad cough, but not bad enough to keep him out of the service. We sat together on the airplane—it was his first flight, too—and his coughing intensified as the loud and shaky plane gained altitude. I spent the time memorizing my service number and had it down pat by the time the flight attendant brought us a white box with a cheese sandwich and an apple in it. I reflected that the snack was a good combination: a slow digester followed by substantial roughage.

I also prayed a lot on that flight. My sub-verbal utterance went something like this: “O Lord, here I am embarking into the unknown, way up in the sky. I have a lot of fears, the most pressing of which is about this airplane. I pray that just as the song says, you have the whole world in your hand, that you have this TransTexas airplane in your hand and that you will set it down safely and soon in San Antonio.”

My companion was coughing and I was just saying amen when we did squeal down more or less gently at the Air Force Base. The new recruits on board were hustled onto a big bus and it was soon packed full of nervous, though prayed-up young men. They unloaded us at the mess hall at about midnight and served us our first dose of hash on toast. That’s not what they called it, but I choose not to report their colorful name for the dish. It wasn’t bad, though, as the cheese sandwich and the apple had not gone far.

We got yelled at for an hour or so. I heard most of what the sergeant was saying through the coughing of my companion. The main thing I heard was, “Listen up you people.” I had never heard that expression. I had heard “speak up” but never “listen up.” I tried to listen up real well, but when he said, “I could care less,” I began to wonder what he meant. Did that mean he cared a lot, so much that any other caring would be less? From the context, I decided he meant, “I couldn’t care less,” but I quit equivocating linguistically shortly, but never broke the habit, as readers of this column know very well.

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