Denver to Chicago is a jaunt across town, an air-taxi to work and I have done it often. Occasionally there may be weather or equipment problems, usually nothing critical. It is a workday business, check in, wait. Board plane. Wait. Takeoff. Wait for the gong that releases you from your seatbelt. Study the research for this training assignment. Business flights are airborne study halls.
Before we leave the ground, some guy standing above me in the aisle wants my seat.
“Are you in the right seat?” he asks.
“Yep, here is my ticket.” I show him my boarding pass. “Obviously, they’ve double booked the seat,” I say. “Go see the flight attendant.”
He approaches the attendant and they hold a brief whispered conversation. The passenger is moved to First Class. The pretty blonde stewardess immediately blesses him with a professional strength smile and then plies him with strong drink. He is happy.
I am unhappy. I like First Class; it’s more comfortable and the food is better. With a slight change of timing, it could have been me up there.
Three quarters of the way into the two-hour flight to Chicago, the captain comes to the speaker, with his granular voice doing his best to sound like Chuck Yeager. I pay little attention. I’ve heard a thousand schticks from wannabe stage actors turned airline pilots. Out of the corner of my ear, I pick up the weather report for Washington, D.C. This pilot loves his theater and is dallying on the loudspeaker, giving us more information than we can ever use.
I turn to the very middle-class lady beside me and ask casually, “Where are you headed?”
“By way of Chicago?”
I order a gin and tonic. Pondering the possibility that this lady is on the wrong plane, I feel sorry for her. Certainly, her people waiting in Virginia will be disappointed when she doesn’t show up at the arrival gate and learn that she is trapped in O’Hare.
The guy across the aisle looks like a friendly sort. Even forgiving. I touch him on the arm.
“Where is this plane headed?”
“Washington,” he looks at me suspiciously, like I am a terrorist. I do not look dangerous. It confuses him. “Why do you ask?”
“Just checking up on these airline people. You never can tell when they are going to screw up.”
He squints, “Where are you headed?”
“Uh…Washington I guess.”
I lay back in my seat. How could I get on the wrong plane? This takes me back to the first grade in a new school. I am in the wrong classroom, dumb and disoriented, with not a friend in sight. Suddenly nothing looks familiar; strange plane, strange people, strange sky.
I turn to the Middle-Class Lady. “I’m on the wrong plane.”
She smiles. “You are not serious.”
“Yes ma’am,” I tap my watch. “I’m supposed to be in Chicago about now.
She starts giggling. The man by the window starts giggling. The man in front of me giggles. The man across the aisle watches suspiciously for hidden weapons.
“What are you going to do?” the lady asks.
“I am going to stop this plane…I’m getting off.”
I walk aft and find the stewardess puttering in the galley. “I’m on the wrong plane. Get on the radio,” I say, “and book me the first flight back to Chicago.”
When I return to my seat, the whole section is sniggering and bobbing their heads and looking at me sideways. I bury my nose in the inflight magazine. During the last half hour I fake sleep. You can’t be too cool.
A touchdown in Washington, the stewardess comes and speaks in a voice that carries well above the engine noise. “You depart through the rear door,” she commands, “there is a van waiting to take you to another United flight. Hurry, you have two minutes to make it.” More snickers. Laughing eyes meet mine as I run the gauntlet, toting my bags back through the plane.
A grim passenger agent stands propped against the rear exit hatch.
“Are you the guy that got on the wrong plane?”
“Yeah. The passenger agent screwed up. I’ve got to get to Chicago to work in the morning. I’m the star. I gotta be there.”
He looks at his watch, makes a face and looks at me.
I say, “I guess this happens pretty often, huh?”
He gazes at me over his nose. “No,” he says.
We dive down through the hatch and into the waiting van parked on the runway.
The tight-lipped driver is silent a.s we careen across the rain-enameled runways of Dulles International. I think, this is just like being caught in the wrong kindergarten class—and I know from experience that while it may takes weeks, even months, eventually the embarrassment will go away.
Jerry Vass spent a chunk of time in Telluride. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fl. He is the author of four books. For more information go to www.vass.com