Jenny escorted us into the first class section. The pilot and co-pilot waved as we passed. I’m certain our round trip seats were worth more than my automobile. As we settled into their leather comfort, I took stock of our surroundings. The six rows of first class were empty, except for one man, who was seated back by the partition that separated us from the little people. He looked astonishingly like Ernest Hemingway, the writer who’d made a career for himself as a big game hunter, fisherman, and drunk. When he noticed me looking in his direction, he pulled a newspaper from his briefcase and fanned it out before him.
As Jenny and the other flight attendants worked through their well-choreographed dance of safety preparation, Birkman produced a small board game from his breast pocket. He was immediately engaged. The object of the game is to land small ball bearings in a series of holes that represent the facial features of a maniacally smiling clown. Birkman had the clown’s eyes in place by the time we began taxiing away from the boarding ramp. The mouth was presenting problems, however. “Master the principles of motion, Bill, and you’ll master the principles of heavy industry,” he said, tilting the game up sideways. This maneuver filled in two-thirds of the mouth, but dislodged one eye. “Heavy industry, that is, in the context of continuous food processing.” I nodded. The plane paused in the takeoff queue, and Jenny appeared with champagne. A brand I didn’t recognize, but a handsome bottle nonetheless. Birkman hardly looked up from his game as she poured the bubbly into two fluted crystal glasses and set them on our mahogany table trays. Though I generally abstain from alcohol on flights, I decided that first class might not fly my way again anytime soon. I grabbed the glass in two hands and took a tentative sip. It was drier than my memories of champagne, though those memories are flavored by Cold Duck.
Before I could open the in-flight shopping magazine, Jenny was back with more champagne. Birkman had already finished his first glass and accepted Jenny’s second offering with a slight nod. He was not to be distracted from the clown, which was lacking only one ball bearing for its mouth and one metal eye. I waved Jenny off the second
time — if I tried to keep Birkman’s pace, I’d be of little use to him by the time we reached Idaho. Jenny smiled as I waved. I tried to kid myself into thinking it was a smile meant for me and not for the sucking-the-corporate-travel-and expense-account-dry first class passenger I was at the moment. I pictured the two of us running across an alpine field somewhere. I looked at Birkman to see if he’d noticed our little interchange, but he was still engrossed by his game. He was only one ball away from smiling victory.
Before I could secure my champagne flute, we were careening down the runway. The exchange with Jenny had thrown me for a loop, and I belatedly began my pre-flight mantra:
The plane is sleek and sealed for flight
The skies are cold and clear
Thank God the pilot gave up Scotch
And now’s just drinking beer.
It’s a cynical little mantra, but the words are less important than the distraction they provide. Nightly news footage of airline crashes had made a considerable impression upon me as I sat on the couch between my parents in our Des Moines living room. As some wag once said, “It’s not flying I’m afraid of. It’s crashing.”
There was no need to worry. Before I knew it, we were up, up, and away, soaring out over the Bay, then banking madly to the east over the San Mateo Bridge. Traffic was backed up as usual, cars slinking slowly westward toward the Silicon Valley. As the plane angled north, San Francisco spread out below my window. Candlestick Park, the Hunter’s Point shipyards, the Embarcadero, the Pyramid, Coit Tower, the Marina, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Golden Gate Bridge, and finally the Pacific Ocean. It was my city now, and I was proud of it.
The rusty red of the Golden Gate gave way to the dull brown of the Marin hills. With nothing to read and no one to talk to, I fished Commerce Air, Mountain West’s in-flight shopping magazine, out from the pouch in front of me. The panoply of merchandise, hand-selected by the editors of Commerce Air from America’s finest catalog merchants (I read this in the foreword), was staggering. These were products designed to make the lives of busy executive travelers more convenient, more fully realized. America’s best creative minds were obviously not sitting on their hands. I read with amazement:
Every day you waste seconds, even minutes, tying and untying your shoes. Let’s face it. After the first time, tying your own shoes is no big kick. Enter The Shoe-Lacer, from The Pointed Picture.
Just insert your lace tips in The Shoe Lacer’s nimble synthetic fingers. It does the rest. You can adjust the tightness of your tie with the press of a button. The Shoe-Lacer also lets you choose your knot from over twenty styles, ranging from a simple bow to the complex Bosun’s Knot. Press another button, and this remarkable device tears into your knot, liberating your dogs almost instantly. The Shoe-Lacer available in white, green, or blue. $69, batteries not included. (Replacement fingers, $12 a set)
“Say adios to that one!”
“Do you have stock in Long-Flite?”
Wisecracking headcovers from Hamhocker Limited say what’s on everyone’s mind when your partner drives one out of play. They’re the last word in golf humor.
These innocent-looking acrylic knit headcovers conceal a sound-activated mini-cassette player. When a splash or knocking-wood noise registers, the player clicks on. You’ll hear:
“Ever consider tennis?”
“Listen to those woodpeckers!”
and other witticisms. The standard model comes with ten pre-recorded messages, including those above. The deluxe version lets you program your own. Choose from white, green, or blue. Standard headcovers, $49. Deluxe, $69.
Feeling good ‘down under’ can give you an edge on the day of that big presentation. But sometimes that favorite pair of tiger-striped bikini briefs makes its way to the bottom of the pile and just can’t be found. Enter Turbo Underwear.
Turbo Underwear, from Expressions, transforms your intimate apparel drawer into a brief and bra Grand Prix. Press a button and Turbo Underwear lifts and speeds your undergarments along at speeds up to 35 m.p.h. Loads up to 30 undergarments. Adjustable brackets to fit almost any drawer or armoire. Standard model available in white, green, or blue, $49. Deluxe model lined in red-satin, $69.
“Excuse me, Mr. Haley!”
Jenny stood over me. She looked concerned.
“There’s been some confusion, Mr. Haley, regarding your in-flight meal. Stella, from Travel Division, put in for a restricted diet Hindu meal for you. As the Pocatello flight is classified as a ‘snack-flight’ and our commissary does not stock Hindu snacks, no meal has been provided for you. Peanuts and goldfish crackers are available. As a service to you, a valued Mountain West customer, I would happily share my sandwich, smoked turkey & brie, with a thin spread of mango chutney.”
“Please. Call me Bill,” I said, twisting my mouth into what I hoped would be a disarmingly gentle smile.
“Alright, Bill,” she said, producing a smile that was shockingly authentic. “What do you say to the sandwich concept?”
I would never consider taking a morsel of food from your beautiful mouth, I was thinking. What I said was “I just had a couple doughnuts.”
“I’ve got it! I’ve got it! Look, Bill!”
Birkman held the game out to me. Sure enough, the clown’s facial features were all filled in. My boss was beaming. A call-button buzzed, and a diminutive male flight attendant strolled into our section from coach.
“Jenny!” he said, matter-of-factly. “The woman in 19B is gagging on her goldfish. Can you Heimlich her?”
“I’ll be right there, Elliot.”
“I’ll take my snack whenever you have an opportunity, Jenny,” Birkman said, tucking the clown game back into his breast pocket.
“Elliot? Can you fetch Mr. Birkman’s in-flight ration?” Jenny said, exiting first class.
“It’s right here,” Elliot replied. He set a foil-covered plate down on Birkman’s tray. “Voila!” he said, plucking the foil off to expose a baked potato, stuffed with a pinkish matter.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Elk liver pate,” Birkman said, lifting a forkful to his mouth. “An acquired taste, I will admit.”
The pilot’s voice came over the loudspeaker. “We are beginning our descent into Idaho, land of famous potatoes. Please prepare to fasten your seatbelts.”
“You wanna give me a hand with this, Bill?” Birkman asked, sliding his plate toward my tray. “I consumed too many doughnuts back at the shop.”
“That’s okay, Mr. Birkman. I don’t eat much red meat.”
“This is pink, Bill. But suit yourself.”
Elliot carried in small warm towels and carried away Birkman’s half-eaten potato. If Hindu snacks were stocked, I mused, what would they consist of?