Hands of Strangers

Stepping aboard a Russian-made airliner in China, I chuckled: A full-sized refrigerator, vintage 1930s, with coils on top, stood in the aisle beside the entry door. I reminded myself, this is 1981.

A lone flight attendant handed out hard candy, which refused to be unwrapped.

The on-board lavatories are few but -- you should excuse the expression -- commodious. Between Beijing and Shanghai, I had occasion to be seated in one. It was the size of my dining room. The turboprops just beyond the aluminum walls were unsynchronized, which produced a 'beat frequency' in deafening waves -- ''ee-yoo-oh-ee-yoo-oh..."

Dark insect-like creatures seemed to be marching in irregular formations all over the floor. Concerned with hygiene more than entomology, I stooped low and squinted. Nothing to fear.

Metal filings.

"Pagodas and Palaces, Temples and Tombs." That is the title of one of the speeches I gave on my return to California. My memories of China are vivid and personal. Even more so, the airline flights.

In aviation terminology, 'glide-slope' is an invisible straight line in the sky that forms an oblique angle with the runway at the touch-down zone. Glide slopes strike runways all over the world. In China so do airliners. There must be no word for 'flare' in Chinese. I looked out of my window at the top of the wing, expecting to see the landing gear sticking up like a fence post.

Take-offs in China were no less memorable. On at least one flight, our plane left the ground with a third of the passengers still finding their seats.

I smirked at my seatmate. "Does it trouble you that our flight is in the hands of a pilot who only makes $75 per month?"

"Does it trouble you," she quipped back, "that our flight is in the hands of a pilot who believes in reincarnation?"

Airline travel, according to Neville Chute, is the worst of all ways of going anywhere. That was in the fifties, before deregulation. For most journeys we have no choice.

Welcome aboard.

Which is worse, a wailing, drooling, clamoring child or a 'thumper'? -- you know, the fellow behind you who, baffled by its latch, slams the tray table repeatedly against the seat, just as you are dozing off.

On one flight recently, I was surrounded. I am not making this up. I had a crying child on one side and a leg-spreader on the other, a tray-table pounder in the seat behind me and -- get this -- a leg-swinger in the seat ahead, nudging his heels against the soles of my shoes at irregular intervals.

Not that airline people don't try to make flying tolerable. Nevertheless, whatever distractions they employ to put enjoyment into flying succeed more fully in taking 'flying' out of the whole experience. Thus you enter a regrettable restaurant, a tubular theater, a noisy lounge. Hardly a jolly adventure in the sky.

No wonder there's no wonder. The last thing they want you to contemplate is your plight in flight. Powerless and passive, you must accept the reality that your personal safety is in the hands of strangers, which, while not a predicament unique to commercial aviation, becomes nevertheless intensified during the takeoff roll or the landing approach -- if you let yourself think about it.

Best not to believe in luck, either. Yours might be good, but how can you be sure of the strangers sitting in other rows? Shared fate means that when somebody else's number is up, so, too, is yours.

Conversation aloft -- the one means by which prolonged confinement inside a jet might be improved -- seems to degrade by the decade. Here, too, strangers play a part. Prepare to be disappointed.

On a trip during the seventies, for example, I sat beside a retired railroad engineer. For thirty years, he hauled freight through Cajon Pass. I wondered if he might have been the godlike figure up there in the cab of that thundering locomotive who waved back at me in my childhood.

"You read 75 PSI over here," said the old man, pointing to an imaginary pressure gauge. "You know you've got yourself a good train!" I was eager to hear more, but for the next four hours, he gripped both arm-rests and gazed straight ahead.

A fashion designer occupying the seat across the aisle had definite possibilities. She was wearing designer jeans. Just to get things going, I told her I was a "futurist." She gave me an indifferent stare. Among my predictions back then was the rapid demise of the denim fad and a return to hosiery and heels. I told her that, hoping for some good-natured dissent.

She puffed up a pillow and turned out the overhead light.

During a Dallas to Los Angeles flight once, I introduced myself to a plump but otherwise comely executive of a cosmetics firm.

My routine opening gambit is seldom without efficacy. "Make this trip often?" I asked.

She put down her fashion magazine. "My best friend!"

"I beg your pardon?"

"He wasn't fooling around with just anybody. It was my friend since college!"  (The reader will be correct in assuming that the expression "fooling around" serves in place of a more adult expression.)

There would be no dozing on this trip. By the time our flight reached the Continental Divide, my ears smoldered with unsolicited details of a lady's love life and betrayal. During the plane's let-down, she stopped talking long enough to touch up her lips and lashes.

"Do you think I should fire him?" she asked unsmiling.

Between New York and Los Angeles, mostly on red-eyes, those withering midnight passages, it became my distinguished destiny to meet every living comedian whose last name starts with the letter "D" -- Dangerfield, Diller, Diamond -- or whose first name starts with Jack -- Jack E. Leonard, Jackie Mason, Jack Paar.

My sister saw me off at LAX one night. There, waiting to board, was my favorite stand-up comic: Jackie Vernon ("To look at me now, you would never believe, I used to be a dull guy"). His electronic visage had appeared so many times in my livingroom that I greeted him like the old friend he seemed to be.

"Excuse me, Jack," said I, apologetically. "I don't believe you've met my sister."

"No," he said, turning toward the jetway.

Comedians do not make interesting conversation in the sky. I'm an authority.

The evening flight from Rochester through Buffalo to White Plains was always packed on weekdays. Seat 13-B beside me was the only empty one on the plane. I checked my watch. Two minutes to departure. I could hear the baggage doors slamming.

How splendid, I thought to myself, then sighed. On a stuffy commuter flight, the currency of gladness comes in small denominations.

Suddenly there came into view a red-faced chap in a rumpled suit, staggering down the aisle. He dragged his carry-on bag against the seated passengers and hollered at the cabin crew for a drink. The man was huge. I shifted toward the window.

"I'll hang that up for you," said the flight attendant.

"Aren't you sweet," sneered the man. He collapsed into the seat beside me, banging his leg against mine. I earnestly hoped he would not notice my existence.

"What's that you're readin'?" he asked with his scarlet nose next to my temple.

"Airline maga -- "

The man lurched for the passing stewardess. She quickened her step, thigh barely beyond his grasp. "Make that bourbon, honey," he yelled.

The plane pulled away from the gate. My eyes scanned a paragraph without comprehension.

"What's that you're readin'?" he asked again, this time simply taking the magazine out of my hands.

"Help yourself," I said sincerely.

He jammed the magazine into the seat pocket in front of him.  "What do you think of Spinks?" he asked in a voice that could be heard throughout the plane.

"Boxer, right?"

"That goddam Leon!" he shouted. "He don't wanna go up against Norton.  Shit."  An avalanche of racial epithets followed.

People in the seats ahead cringed. So did I.

The plane began its slow taxi. I confronted the thought of sharing my fate with a bigoted dipsomaniac who would doubtless draw unkind attention from the Administrator of Luck in the sky.

"You don't know who I am, do you?" asked my tormentor.

"Sorry, no."

He shouted his name in my general direction.  It did not register at first. I raised my eyebrows and smiled, pretending otherwise.

"That's right.  I am 'The Great White Hope'! Put 'er there."

My knuckles folded sideways inside his grip. For several days, each time I took pen in hand, I would be reminded of that handshake.

He explained in slurred speech that he was a 'contender' -- not just could-a been, was a contender! Most recently this fellow had participated in a prize-fight with someone named Ken Norton. From the context, I deduced the match had not lasted long.

"Shit, you can hit 'em, but they don't hurt!"

While the flight attendants gave the safety briefing, I thought back to the last boxing match I had seen: I was in the audience of horrified millions who witnessed a grim tragedy on their black-and-white TV.  It was a Saturday afternoon in the early sixties.  The referee held back a few seconds before stepping in.  Benny "Kid" Paret died that day in the ring under the pummeling of Emile Griffith. I renounced whatever interest I then had in boxing. Sitting next to this guy, I felt anything but a renewed attraction to the sport.

"Bitch owes me a drink!" he said, turning abruptly in his seat and craning his neck. Any moment, I expected my seatmate to storm the galley for booze.

"What do you think of Ali?" I asked.

"Clay, you mean."

I nodded, of course.

"Cosell always talkin' about Ali this and Ali that. He don't know shit. Get me back in shape, you'll see what I make of Cash-yuss goddam Clay."

"Back in shape?"

"Don't pay no attention to this," said he, slapping himself on his not inconsiderable midsection. "Give me six months, 15 miles a day, some work with the weights. I already got a gym lined up -- hey, where'd that broad go? Then you give me a shot at Clay. "

The plane's engines spooled up for take-off. The fellow in the seat beside me fumbled with his seatbelt, filling the cabin with epithets. As the plane pitched up during 'rotation,' he froze, eyes glazed. The wheels came off the pavement and thumped inside the fuselage. He swallowed hard, eyes wide.

"Landing gear," I explained. The plane climbed into the leaden overcast typical of Rochester. Several minutes passed.

"What do you do between fights?" I asked.

Beads of perspiration appeared on the man's upper lip. "Huh?"

I repeated my query.

"Public Relations," he uttered with effort.

Without warning, the self-proclaimed heavyweight contender gasped and elbowed my upper arm. "What the hell was that?"

I tried to follow his eyes, which were fixed on the seatback ahead.

"That noise!" he exclaimed.

A grinding sound from under our seats came to a stop.

"Flaps coming up," said I. "They let the plane fly slow and -- "

"You a pilot or what?"

"Only light planes."

"Like Piper Cubs and shit."

"Cessnas, mostly."

The boxer shook his head. "Never get my ass in one o' them. Takes three doubles to get me on one o' these!"

"What about the ring?"


"Getting in the boxing ring. That's something I would be scared of. Aren't you?"

The man blinked his eyes slowly. "Yeah, but I keep my feet on the ground!"

In but a few minutes, the seatbelt sign came on, and the pilot announced the beginning of our descent into Buffalo. As we emerged from the clouds in a steep left bank, I pointed at the city below, turning as if on a giant phonograph beyond the tip of our wing. My companion in the sky declined to look out the window.

"Make this trip often?" I asked.

"Gotta fly all the goddam time," he grumbled.

"They'll be putting down the wheels about now," I said. "Otherwise it takes full power to taxi."

The flight attendant came by to check our seatbealts. She crouched in the aisle. "Sorry, Mr. Bobick," she said. "But the leg from Rochester to Buffalo is too short for beverage service.

Suddenly I remembered: Bobick, Bobick -- yeah, Duane Bobick.  I took another look at his face.  Wait'll I get to the office.  Not a comedian this time, guys.  Hey, I sat next to the immortal Duane Bobick himself!

"Are you continuing with us to White Plains?" asked the flight attendant.

"Not a chance," Bobick grumped.

Our airliner touched down and taxied to the gate. Duane Bobick turned to me. "Don't make no sense," he said sheepishly.

I thought for a moment. "Not all fears are irrational," I said.


Over the years, I have had many occasions to recall that flight. I re-discover my own apprehensions every time I step aboard an airliner or read a front-page story about commercial aviation's fiascos.  "Tell you the truth, I'm none too keen about airliners, myself," said I wearing my best grin. "Give me a Cessna anytime."

He hauled himself up into a standing position. "That don't make no sense, for sure!"

"Why did you take up boxing?" I asked. "Uh, just curious."

Duane Bobick held up two fingers and stared intently at them. "First," he scowled, "because I'm stupid."

I declined to comment.

"Second," he hollered for the whole plane to hear. "I like to hurt people!"

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For an epilogue to the Duane Bobick story, see Tribute for a Heavyweight.