The construction paper Indian headband was festooned with crayon-decorated paper feathers, hand-colored in orange and brown. The boy under it had the whirlwind dishevelment of preschoolers, with boundless energy and activity pulling clothing awry, and he stood staring wide-eyed at the airport equivalent of a Disney character–the airline pilot.
His beleaguered mom, holding a baby on one hip while attempting to fold up a stroller, says, “He’s the one who will fly the airplane for us!”
“Police man!” The boy chirps. You laugh at that. The pilgrims–literally, in the pint-sized dynamo wearing crayon feathers–are flying: it’s the holiday season.
“I can help with either the baby or the stroller,” I say, realizing that I’m not even halfway qualified to operate the Byzantine affair of joints and latches that fold-up strollers have become. But I’ve also spent a whole flight day with baby puke or worse drying on my uniform, so I’m more willing to take on the stroller.
The average business traveler, typically posing as studiously bored and self-assured, couldn’t hold a candle to pilgrim mom, juggling kids, strollers, car seats and bags.
And that’s because unlike the straphanger biz flyer, the pilgrims are not simply going from point to point, conceding their presence to the process of travel–flight, in our case–grudgingly, and with neither wonder nor trepidation.
But in the kid’s eyes, wide and clear, there was the wonder of Thanksgiving, turkeys, family; who even knows what flight actually is, but it’s bound to be magic!
“Can I give you this?” I say, digging into my suitcase. I’ve been dragging this bulky thing around for weeks, figuring when the families start their holiday migration, I could give it to someone who could use it.
“It’s a car seat cover,” I say. “you don’t want her” I point to the little one still on her hip, smiling almost slyly, “car seat getting grimy in the cargo hold.”
And the cover has taken up most of the spare space in my bag. Darling Bride was going to throw it out, because our “baby” is now a teenager. I said no–not just to the throwing out, but also to my membership in the parent club concerned with such things. Cute baby, too. She deserves a clean car seat.
“Are you serious?” mom asks, looking over the bag almost perfectly sized for the car seat among her pile of hand carried bags.
Well, yeah I am serious. I actually need to get down the jet bridge myself, and get on with preflight, fuel loads, landing weight, takeoff thrust (we’ll use MAX and don’t forget the wet runway correction), weather enroute, systems downgrades and setting the jet up for flight.
But first, I can share a pilgrim moment myself.
“Well only if you want,” I say. “We always used this, and it even makes it easy to carry and retrieve from baggage claim.” I miss those days, our years of travel with our little one, a sweet girl like the one in her arms. Now she’s a teenager, 5′ 8″ and of course still wonderful as ever, but dads still get wistful sometimes about good old times.
“Sure,” she says. “Thanks!” I stash her car seat in the bag, zipping it deftly, though not as smoothly as her stroller disassembly but still. I attach the bag tag the agent hands me.
“You’re good to go,” I say, glad that my bag’s finally unstuffed. “Tell the pilgrims at your Thanksgiving dinner I said hello,” I tell the pre-schooler in the construction paper head dress. He still just stares, and I only wish I knew what he was thinking.
But best to get on board before the spell wears off, before he dashes off in perpetual motion, in flight, imaginary or real.
I’ll take care of the real part, I decide, walking down the empty jet bridge to the cockpit. We’ll take him, his family, the elderly folks in wheel chairs cued up at the gate for pre-boarding, the college students with their books and backpacks, military men and women; everyone–we’ll do more than just fly.
It’s a holiday pilgrimage to family and home, tradition, reunion, togetherness. More than just a flight, we’ll make a passage together.
Okay, as soon as they all deplane safely into the arms of family and friends, I’ll turn right around and retrace the flight path with more pilgrims, connecting them with the places and things that matter to them.
Crowded terminals, packed flights, cranky kids, beleaguered moms, family, holiday and finally home. That’s the flight of the pilgrims, an annual rite that often ain’t pretty, but always has it’s windfalls. Like my little headdress friend, and our mutual admiration for the costumes we each wore.
From now until sometime after New Years, air travel becomes more than just flight. Since I fly year round, I was going to be here anyway, but somehow there’s just more to it right now. Maybe it just seems more meaningful at either end, and maybe it really is. Could be sharing space with believers in pilgrims, or the mirrored reflections of such things in our own lives playing out anew in those making their way across the country this season.
Something to think about at level off. For now, time to get ready for flight.