“Oh, oh! We can’t have this!” said the flight attendant as she stomped down the aisle toward me. Passengers continued to board, but I heard her footsteps above the others. Clippity-thud, clippity-thud, thud, thud. I had just turned on the air adjustment above me and leaned my head back to enjoy my nice, airy aisle seat. Ahh.
The flight attendant leaned over the (not-yet-occupied) seat in front of me.
“I need you to move to 6B,” she said. “Go sit with your husband.”
“He’s my brother,” I said.
My brother, Sergeant Alvis Burns, was the victim of an IED exploding beneath his Humvee while serving in Iraq as an MP in 2005. The explosion killed the young driver of the Humvee and put my brother in a coma for 18 months. He suffered a traumatic brain injury.
He has come a long way in the recovery process. He had to learn to speak again as well as relearn the simplest everyday tasks many of us take for granted, such as dressing himself, getting out of bed without help, making coffee. His lengthy stay in the hospital, however, caused atrophy to his muscles. Although he can’t walk now, I believe he will walk again and Alvis works on improving every day.
This plane trip is another step in his recovery process. It’s his first plane ride (while conscious) since the 2005 attack in Iraq. He is traveling with me, my sister Jodee and our 82-year-young mom, Darleen~who sits next to me.
Boarding a plane is no easy matter for Alvis. He patiently waited and cooperated as the TSA checked every inch of his wheelchair and frisked every inch of his body. I know they’re doing their job, but it seemed ironic to me that a man with two purple hearts and who saved the life of an army buddy while in combat, is being treated with such suspicion.
The airline staff wheeled Alvis onto the plane in a special aisle-wide wheelchair. Once they realized Alvis could not sit in his assigned middle seat at the bulkhead, they helped him into the aisle seat, 6C. He needed the bulkhead seat closest to the aisle so the airline staff could get him in and out of the wheelchair. They sent Alvis’ personal wheelchair to the cargo hold.
The man assigned to 6C strolled casually down the aisle, then stopped dead in his tracks. If this had been a cartoon, you would have seen his spring-loaded goggle-eyes pop out of his head. Boing, boing. The sight of Alvis seated in his assigned seat caused him distress. Alvis, one of the nicest people in the world (and has been this way since he was born–caring and wanting the best for others) said, “I’m sorry. I can’t walk. I can’t move to the middle seat. I have to sit here; this is where the staff placed me.”
Mr. Goggle-Eyes, in a pressed, white shirt and gray slacks, seemed to have no quarrel with Alvis. But the flight attendants were about to get a piece of his mind. He railed at them at the front of the plane. I didn’t hear the words—but I saw the indignant body language and the angry facial expression.
Soon the flight attendant, a middle-aged “because-I’m worth-it” blowout blond, whisked down the aisle like a typhoon. “Oh, we can’t have this!,” she spouted off to no one in particular. She stopped, locked eyes on me, and said, “I need you to move to 6B. There’s been a seating error and we have an MVP who needs an aisle seat.”
She added a consolation prize, “I’ll give you bonus miles. This man is an MVP and he’s upset.”
I moved. It wasn’t worth debating who was more important to have the aisle seat. I wouldn’t have minded as much if she had said, “Would you mind moving?” But insisting I give my seat to someone “more special” because he has flown more miles? Is anyone too special to avoid suffering in the middle seat?
I squished into my middle seat in 6B. Think of it. The middle in school meant a C grade and the middle of nowhere is just that. When someone is fair to middlin’–they’re not fantastic, they’re so-so. And middle age? That’s the time of life when you have teenagers. Believe me, that’s not the time of life that brings joy.
I was happy I had Alvis beside me, but the claustrophobia and all the insecurities that come with the dreaded middle seat choked the serenity out of me. I wanted the aisle seat because I can head for the tiny restroom in the back without having to crawl over anyone. Even more, the aisle seat offers a sense of freedom and lots more oxygen for the anxiety-prone.
After I crammed myself into my seat, Alvis smiled and calmness returned. Window seat lady in 6A leaned over and said, “That was so nice of you to move.” Then she sniffled, snuffed, coughed and hacked.
I said to her, “Everyone is an MVP, not someone who has special status with an airline. In this world, we are all MVPs.”
She smiled at my tirade, and hunkered down beneath her blanket and focused her eyes on her Kindle.
People continued to board and I was impressed with so many of the passengers stopping at our row, having noticed Alvis’ Purple Heart U.S. Veteran ball cap. “Thank you for your service,” the passengers said before moving down the aisle, banging their carry-ons against seats.
As our flight got underway, 6A continued to cough and snuffle and gaggggggg-ahhhggg.
Oh my! How long will this flight be? What other situation in life places you this close to a stranger?
I regretted not taking huge doses of vitamin C before boarding.
6A pulled out a Rubbermaid lunch box container filled with who-knows-what. When she opened it, I couldn’t breathe. What is that ghastly odor? I had to stifle my horror at the sight of her chowing down on rice and cow guts or something equally as disturbing.
I counted the long, agonizing minutes I had to hold my breath until she finished eating. When she put the red Rubbermaid lid back on the container, an overwhelming joy came over me. When we landed in Phoenix, 6A sent a text to someone stating, “Pleasant flight.” I couldn’t help but see the text as her phone was practically in my lap along with her blanket.
When Jerry picked me up at the airport, I told him I’d be sick in two days. I was sure of it. “The germs were floating all over me throughout the flight,” I warned him.
“You sound like you’re coming down with something,” he said sympathetically.
But life is funny. I didn’t get a cold. I got shingles, instead. They do not feel good; I can tell you that. I don’t think this is something window seat lady passed on to me. Shingles is a result of having chicken pox as a child. The virus can lie dormant in the body until a time it feels like waking up and wreaking havoc. It decided now would be a good time for me.
I called the airlines to ask about the bonus miles and was assured they were added to my account. What I didn’t expect, however, was an e-mail from Tara at Alaska Airlines apologizing for the change of my seat assignment and assuring me that I am important.
You better believe it, Tara. And that’s all I have to say about that.
βω♥ Thank you, Alvis, for your service and your sacrifice for our country. You are my hero.