The pre-flight Ritual was crucial. Even though Chad was flying in business class, he timed his arrival to the gate of the terminal just as the last passengers boarded economy. He casually stood in the back of the line—ticket in hand—holding up the newest edition of the New York Times, protecting himself from the gazes of the world; the large leafy pages spreading out like a shield.
After all, this was a battle—an unnatural squaring off between man and nature. And he had no intention of going to war against the elements without The Ritual.
Chad didn’t know what it was about the Economy class line that calmed his nerves. Maybe it was the excited laughter of the children ready for a vacation. Or maybe it was seeing the exhausted faces of their parents; their scowls were grounding—reminders that things could always be worse. He could be facing certain death without a full night’s sleep.
Before he knew it, he had reached the front of the line. The young woman working for the airline took his ticket, passed it through the machine, and handed it back to him. “Have a good flight, sir!” she said warmly.
As he made his way past the gate and into the tunnel, he felt his heartbeat pick up pace and his pulse race. His body was sending him a clear message: Don’t get on the plane.
But what were the odds that anything would happen. After all, he flew into Los Angeles the previous night, and the whole incident went off without a hitch—no turbulence, even! And he was nervous as hell before that flight too. Maybe he should have listened to the old man and gotten a scotch and water.
“It’ll take the edge right off!” the old man assured him. He had accidentally struck up a conversation with the geezer back in Chicago O’Hare. “I never forget to get a good belt of scotch before an overseas flight” he said, his eyes gleaming with boyish wonder, “been doing it for almost fifty years! And death hasn’t called my number yet!”
Chad was starting to think the old man might have been onto something. Two ounces of booze suddenly didn’t seem so bad compared to the butterflies in his stomach. But alcohol wasn’t part of The Ritual. It never had been. Maybe the old man’s ritual had worked for him, but Chad’s ritual was sacrosanct.
Newspaper, Text, Prayer. Last one on the plane, and first one off. Not a second longer.
The Ritual was the code by which he had survived up until now. Four-hundred and fifty four flights overseas. Nearly six million miles he had flown with the airline, but his fear was still the same as it had been the very first time. It was The Ritual alone that kept him alive this long. It was because of The Ritual that he had cheated death four hundred and fifty four times.
And so, after finishing his newspaper, Chad sent the standard pre-flight text message to his wife and two teenage sons—the same message he had sent out to them four-hundred and fifty four times before.
“I love you, boys. Take care of your mother while I’m gone. I’ll be back soon.”
Then, completing The Ritual that had served him well for so long, he placed his right hand on the plane and prayed.
He prayed for safety. He prayed for somebody to look out for his family in case anything happened to him. He prayed for his mother. And for his brothers and sisters that he hadn’t seen in almost three years. He prayed for the Cowboys to win their playoff game—but even he knew that this would make no difference this year.
He prayed, and prayed, and prayed—for anything and everything he could think of—until the stewardess holding the door finally approached him, her eyes glowing with reassurance.
“Sir, it’s time to board. You are the last one left, and we need to shut the door behind you” she said in a southern accent.
And so, Chad heaved a great sigh and obliged.
He carefully boarded the large Boeing 767-300ER, and settled into his window seat in the third row. And, after stowing his luggage in the overhead compartment, Chad turned off his cell phone for the final time. His last words came in the form of a text message.
My father, Chad Galbraith, was taken from my family almost fifteen years ago. His death was an anomalous incident for the airline: one of the small instances of “technical issues” coming to fiery fruition on the runway.
My father lost his life to that airline, figuratively as well as literally. After so many flights, and so many miles, he had aged considerably. He was no longer the young, muscular sailor he had been after the war. The recycled air and poorly-supported seats only sped up the aging of his war-scarred body.
Before stepping on flight 1881, my father was hunched, gaunt, and a shell of his former self.
On those flights, he missed out on my childhood, as well as that of my little brother. My mother, his once young, faithful lover—who used to write him daily during the war—had also aged considerably and grown apart from him after his two decades up in the air on business. She was still beautiful—she had aged like a fine wine—but he didn’t know her anymore. The last time they had been together, she was emotionally distant. Chad had long suspected that she had found someone else, but he kept it to himself.
On the days he was home—the fifty or so in the year—he lived surrounded by strangers that shared his name.
Flight 1881 is a distant memory to the airline. The free flight vouchers and money to cover funeral expenses went a long way with the grieving families in preventing a lawsuit.
Twenty-three passengers died on that flight. Twenty-three mothers and fathers; brothers and sisters; sons and daughters. Among these casualties was the man who raised me.
Fifteen years on, and not a day passes that I don’t think of my father. I couldn’t save him. God didn’t save him. The precious Ritual didn’t save him.