Trips that end with sitting in a crowded, hot, and noisy airport terminal make me cranky. The trip had begun with carefully packed suitcases, full with enthusiasm. The end of the trip is always the opposite.
No one was happy at the departure gate. Delays in boarding, children crying—we all know the temperaments flying around in such a place. But the atmosphere on the day I flew home from seeing my baby grandson in Europe switched abruptly.
Silence, yes, silence lay over us all as we watched the airline officials escort a group of twenty foreigners onto the plane, ahead of those first class passengers.
Foreigners. Heck we were all ‘foreigners’ in Europe, tourists to the bone. But these people were truly from another country.
They walked with quiet dignity through the gangway. Tall, elegant, regal. We could only guess that they were from some African nation from their clothing and black skin. We watched them disappear into the plane.
That was when people woke up, started questioning what they had seen. The mixture of their voices and tones was like gravel pouring onto a metal plate.
Someone in the movie industry once related how crowds of extras were directed to sound and say in any scene that involved an angry mob. They were supposed to say “Rhubarb” in different tones and speeds. That would produce the mob sound without involving any dialogue.
“Rhubarb” sounds erupted all over the gate 34, until the general boarding began.
I discovered that my seat was next to one of these foreigners, and quite honestly I didn’t know what to say to him. He and I were stiffly still in our narrow seats, avoiding eye contact, touching on the armrest. ‘Who are you?’
Nine-plus hours of non-stop flights are torturous when sitting in the cheap seats. Sleep became impossible when the four toddlers a few rows up began tag-team wailing. Screaming.
Just as I started to nod off, a woman’s voice jarred me awake. I looked over to the foreign woman as she explained to her group what the custom cards were. That was when I truly looked at the man sitting next to me.
Not a man, but a boy, about fourteen. He was tall, with long elegant fingers, arms and legs. He was strikingly handsome and strikingly gaunt. He made eye contact with me, and we both smiled. His eyes were yellow tinged and blood shot.
As the plane began its descent, he tried to ask me where I was going, in barely understandable English. He proudly announced that he was going to Caleefornee to live with his father.
The foreigners remained on the plane until the rest had exited. As I waited in line to pass through customs, I observed this boy and his group being escorted to a private room to be processed. They were refugees being relocated with family in America.
Later, I saw his suitcase and boxes at the baggage claims. Barely held together with rope and duct tape, they had his name and destination: Oakland, California.
A lesson in being humble rolled over me, and I could only look down at my feet.