The Fifteen Year-Old and the Terrorist (part five)

This is the last installation of a five-part story.  

“Hold my hand or I will die,” he said once more. And I did. I inched my hand across and grabbed his. My palms were sweaty. My mouth was dry. And I just stared straight ahead and held the man’s hand while he kept saying, “We are all going to die. We are all going to die…” over and over and over again.

Truly, there is no way to adequately describe the fear that gripped me. Each time a flight attendant passed, my seatmate ordered more to drink. I sat quietly scared that I might do something which would cause him to detonate the bomb in his black bag. I was sure now that was what he carried. And I contemplated my mortality. I would never go to college. I would never write a book. I would never have sex or get married or have children. I would never see my family again. I couldn’t even write them a note because HE was holding my right hand, and there was no way I was going to let go of his hand. There were too many lives at risk. As I sat there, I bargained with God: “I will hold this guy’s hand if you will just let us live. Please God, let us get to London safely.”

With every shot the guy’s words became more slurred. And then he seemed sleepy. He leaned his head against me. He stank of sweat and alcohol and middle-aged manliness. His scraggly beard repulsed me as much as his breath. And his hands were overly-friendly at times. But I just sat still in my seat, praying.

When the flight attendants passed, I tried to covertly get their attention, but they ignored me. And I couldn’t think of anything to say, anyway. “I think this guy is going to blow up the plane,” would have tipped him off. So they went about their business serving drinks and collecting garbage, and I sat in terrified silence.

And then the man burped. It was horrible. The belch of a violent stomach. And a foretaste of what was to come… and he vomited all over himself.

And then all over the floor.

And then all over the flight attendant who came to help him.

And all over the guy across the aisle.

And then he passed out.

And now I was trapped against the window with a puddle of vomit at my feet, a drunken man unconscious in the seat next to me, and a flight crew struggling to decide what to do next. Oh, and the guy was still holding my hand.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned on the fasten seatbelt sign. We will be on the ground shortly.”

As we began our descent into London I struggled to keep my composure – and my lunch. I held my nose in one hand and the guy’s hand in the other. He was out cold. The flight attendants did their best to clean up the vomit on the floor and the other passenger, but they could do nothing for me. And then we were landing.

Was he really a terrorist? I don’t know. He was clearly troubled. I also think he enjoyed scaring the crap out of a fifteen year-old. He didn’t hold his liquor well, but he drank like a frat boy. Was he truly scared that he was going to meet his maker? Did he forget to detonate a bomb? Was he doing reconnaissance for another mission? What was in that black bag?

Or was he scared of flying?

It took many years for me to think that perhaps this man was just really scared of flying and needed someone to hold his hand. And I will never know.

As we deplaned the man was whisked away in a wheelchair with his black bag on his lap. And I headed off with my grandfather’s hand securely on my shoulder. My thoughts turned to Phantom of the Opera tickets and the Tower of London, and the adventure of a lifetime ended with the sedate dignity of London.

But the melodramatic words of a fifteen year-old turned out to be true: it was an adventure and the start of a lifetime of travel.

The Fifteen Year-Old and the Terrorist (part four)

This is a story in five parts.  

Today:  Part Four

My grandparents are wonderful, generous people. They also love to travel, and for two Midwestern, Depression-era kids they have had amazing opportunities to travel this little planet. When my mother was a child they considered moving to Egypt where my grandfather had a job offer. When I was eight or nine they brought me amazing souvenirs from their trip to China: satin, embroidered pajamas and a gorgeous doll. But the best souvenirs from any trip, in my opinion, were the postcards. I know now that Grandma was being frugal, but she always brought me packages of blank postcards with beautiful photographs on the front: the Great Wall, German castles, charming Swiss villages… I had a box (from China) where I kept all of my beautiful postcards and the money they gave me, too (how I loved the Japanese coins with a hole in the middle). Combing through my box of treasures was an adventure itself. It’s no wonder I grew up longing to travel!

As we boarded the plane in Leningrad (as it was still called), I felt that my great adventure was ending. Not that we were headed home. My grandparents had planned three days at the end of our journey for relaxation in London, and I was thrilled. But leaving the USSR for the UK seemed safe and secure.

I was wrong.

We flew from Leningrad to Helsinki where we had several hours to wait for our plane to London. As we sat I was mesmerized by the Muslim man sitting in the waiting area. We had studied Islam in school. I knew about Mecca and prayer rugs and the strict rules of Islam for men and for women. The man was dressed in long flowing robes and exotic baggy pants and looked like someone out of Lawrence of Arabia. Then he took out a prayer rug, placed it carefully on the ground, and began chanting and praying. I was transfixed. So was the entire waiting room. I stared as this man said his prayers, rolled up his rug, and went back to reading his book without looking the least bit embarrassed. I was shocked. Simply walking across the waiting room made me feel self-conscious. To display my faith and to create such a stir – well, I would have rather died (or so I thought).

We boarded the plane, and it turned out that the prayerful man was seated next to me. My grandparents were several rows behind us. As we took off, I watched Helsinki shrink below us and mentally bade farewell to the adventurous part of my trip. But my Muslim friend had other ideas. He smelled vaguely of alcohol when he sat down on the aisle, and I thought that was a little odd since my Social Studies teacher had said that Islam forbade drinking. But I didn’t think much of it until the beverage cart came around. He ordered several bottles of alcohol at a time. And the flight attendant didn’t bat an eye. She came around again. Again he ordered several bottles of alcohol – the hard stuff. Then he called her back and even more shots were delivered. I had never drunk alcohol before, but I knew this was not normal behavior outside of Animal House.

As the man became more and more drunk, his behavior also became erratic. He was trying to read, but it was clear he couldn’t concentrate. He had a black bag at his feet with which he kept fussing. And then he asked me to hold his hand. Actually, it was a command.

“Hold my hand or I will die,” he said.

I wasn’t sure I had heard him. “What?” I asked.

“Hold my hand or I will die,” he said again. Yep. I had heard him. And the fear coursed through my body. After all, just six months earlier a huge plane had blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland. And I watched the news. They thought it had been Islamic terrorists.

I have a good imagination, and suddenly it was clear: this man with his black bag and his massive drinking was going to blow up my plane. I started to sweat. I just stared at him.

To be continued...