It was going to be a long trip back home after a week on the West Coast, so the young man settled himself on the plane and picked up a book.
Exhausted from a whirlwind visit with his old college roommate, all he wanted to do was to stretch out his long frame and read to pass the time. He wasn't thrilled with the thought of having to make two plane changes, but he decided to make the best of what promised to be a boring day. The weather was spectacular and takeoff from Los Angeles was prompt. He knew for certain that he'd make his connecting flight in Texas.
He hadn't, however, counted on the constant chatter of a little girl sitting next to him.
It didn't take long for him to figure out that she was traveling alone. Initially, he nodded his head and answered her questions, but, when she spilled her orange juice he knew it was time to close the cover of the novel and give her the attention she needed. There would be no isolating himself.
After he cleaned her mess and got her settled again, the two of them began to chat. It was then that he discovered why she was unaccompanied. A child of divorce, she had been visiting her father and his new wife for a month and was now winging her way to the Southwest. She had hated the 30 days spent in California, didn't get along with her stepmother, and never, ever wanted to return. It was obvious that she missed her mother and grandmother and she talked nonstop about them. The loneliness didn't need to be explained. Her face spoke volumes.
At the approximate time of landing, the plane began to circle repeatedly over the airport, but there was no indication it would be touching ground. A routine occurrence at the major airports, he didn't give it a second thought. He was relaxing during the final moments before landing, relieved that the first leg of the trip was over.
So deep in his thoughts, he almost didn't hear the captain's voice competing with the din of the engines and the cacophonous cabin. It was only when a deathly pall settled over the passengers that the seatmates looked at each other with alarm and heard a most unsettling message.
The plane's flaps weren't operating properly, and the captain was declaring an emergency situation. The passengers were to follow the stewardesses' instructions, and to prepare for an unusually fast landing. They reviewed how to use the slide to exit the plane and everybody crouched over, arms gripping legs, heads down. The captain and crew maintained a steady stream of calm professionalism, but it wasn't enough to still the passengers' wildly beating hearts.
Panic set in and the little girl began to cry, "I love you, Mommy! I love you, Mommy," as the young man put his arm around her shoulders and rocked her, telling her that he was there to help her, and that everything would be all right. He didn't believe it, but she didn't need to know that. He was too terrified to think. If it was so traumatic for him, a 27 year old man, what was it like for a 12 year old who had no family with her? If he acted confident, surely the power to play the role would follow.
Crying and calling out, she held onto him for dear life as the plane descended in dizzying speeds. Thoughts of his own family streaked through his mind, but he couldn't allow himself the luxury of removing his focus from her. He calmly reminded her of what she needed to do and reassured her that she would see her mother again. Did she believe him? Could she sense his terror?
After what had felt like a lifetime, the wheels touched terra firma. Intact. Unhurt. The entire incident took 15 minutes, a quarter of an hour he would never forget for the rest of time. Passengers bolted upright, looking outside to reassure themselves that they had survived what could have been a horrible disaster.
After the cheers subsided and the captain, with audible relief, thanked his crew and the travelers, the girl turned to her adopted guardian and gave him a bear hug, whispering, "Thank you for being my friend," before running into the arms of the two most precious people in her world.
Why were they brought together on that particular flight to become seatmates? A frightened child needed a protector in a crisis situation, and an unassuming young man, who didn't know he had the valor to sustain them both for 15 minutes, was provided.
The young man?
Late that night, my son, my hero, came home.