I’m sitting in LAX waiting to fly home after doing something I’ve never done before, which was to follow a whim and a gut-feeling to fly from home (Seattle) to LA to hear a live performance by a young talent named Jeremy Buck. But that’s a different post – this post is about the young boy I met on my flight out here yesterday. I never got his actual name because conversations between adults and children of speaking age, but not yet of an “age of reason” can be tricky things. You don’t want to come off as creepy.
So let’s see – the airline was Alaska, so I didn’t witness any pets being “accidentally” frozen to death or passengers bloodied whilst being dragged from their seats (sorry United – you know you suck). But what I did see as I approached my aisle was a young Hispanic boy, probably 8 years old – that wonderful-terrible age for boys where they are just beginning to get a whiff of machismo which makes them insufferable, but not so much they don’t still openly love their moms and want soft things to cuddle when they sleep. So this is our little guy – the main character of this story-post. Small, brown, wiry. Wearing a Seahawks cap that appears to be stiff-new over neatly trimmed black hair – finishing off the picture, a nice pair of cross-trainers, and clean, neat clothing. I could also see he also had a blanket and Seahawks plush bear in his lap as I approached.
I was in the window seat, and our young man was sitting in the aisle seat, looking down at his lap with the bear and blanket. I tapped him gently on his shoulder and told him I was in the window seat. He looked up at me with innocent, and impossibly black eyes that looked so sad. I thought perhaps he didn’t understand because he just sat there. Then I said, “could you please stand up so I can get by?” and he quickly unbelted and complied. (I found out later that children who are traveling on their own are instructed to stay in their seats at all times – I did not know this when I first met our young man. Nor, for that matter, did I realize he was traveling on his own at this point.)
So I thanked him, and seated myself next to the window. He sat back down and pulled out an iPhone 7 Plus and proceeded to make a phone call. There was not a lot of talking happening on our end so not much found its way to my ear, only a few sentences. I was trying to not pay too much attention. Then, I began to hear the distinctive sound of reluctant crying. At this point, it’s just beginning, so I can’t yet tell it’s coming from him. He’s trying to be so brave. After about another two or three minutes, I am able to tell that the distressed and distressing sound is issuing forth from my young row-mate. I hear him say into the phone, “what are you trying to say to me right now? I can’t understand…” through hitching sobs. He says “okay” and “okay” again with a sad resolve and disconnects the call. At this point, I look over, touch the top of his arm and ask if he’s okay. From the call, I gathered that he has lost something so that’s what I say. And that’s all he needs to give him permission to just go ahead and cry it on out! Apparently, his Dad was putting him on the plane to LA (final destination Puerto Villarta) from Seattle, and in the confusion at the security check point, his backpack was left behind. I never got all the details of what was IN the backpack, only that it was very important. At that age, it’s not a big stretch to imagine it probably contained all his most valuable treasures. Especially since this looked like a parenting exchange or a visit to Grandma’s or something for which he would have packed his very best stuff.
He told me his tearful story, at one point producing a pic on his phone that was taken of him earlier by someone standing behind him. Probably his mom. And there it was in the photo – almost bigger than the boy himself, his backpack in all its glory. The bewilderment in his eyes from the juxtaposition of the image of his beloved object overlaid onto the horror of its loss was painful to witness as he helplessly angled the phone so I could see. I assured him that most things that went missing at airports were simply going off on an adventure of their own and that his backpack would likely make its way back to him soon. I regaled him with tales of my past trips and lost luggage, and how things had actually been returned to me after having gone walkabout for days and traveling to places I’d never even been. His eyes grew really wide when I told him about how one time, the airline even had someone drive the lost article to my house. I saw a flicker of hope before incredulity took over, but I deftly countered his disbelief with an assurance that I was, in fact, a nobody and that the airlines did this any time something was lost – no matter to whom it belonged. Even if it was a kid, and maybe even ESPECIALLY if it’s a kid. About this time a young flight attendant came back, looked me in the eye and said “can I help you?” and I just sort of looked at him, then he looked at the attendant call button, which was definitely on, unbeknownst to me. I looked at it and said, “Oh! did I press that by mistake!? I’m sorry.” But our little guy spoke up softly then. “I pushed it.”
Flight attendant asked the boy what was wrong, listened for about a half-second, then said he’d make a call and see what he could do. I knew this was code for “I’m outta here – there’s nothing I can do.” But of course, I didn’t say that to our boy. Another flight attendant came back and assured him that if he had his parents call, they could get with lost and found and hopefully get the bag back. The boy looked even more despondent as he explained that his parents didn’t speak very good English and it was probably not going to happen. She patted him on the arm and left.
When she was gone, I wrote down my business email address and my phone number with the words “lady on the plane” and gave it to our little friend. I told him that if he had any trouble getting his bag back, to have his mom or dad text me that photo of him wearing it and I would make as many phone calls and send as many emails as it took to see they were reunited. I figured if it came to that, I would get his name and other important details from his parents as I was still hesitant to ask the little lad his name because of the times we live in. Anyway, I guess after all of my ‘luggage tales’ this made him feel a bit better and he went to sleep shortly after take off.
About an hour later, the snack cart makes its way back to us. Our little guy is sleeping now. I order a cheese and fruit tray and go to pull out my credit card to pay. The Alaska Airlines flight attendant looks at me with a big smile and says, “I’m buying this for you today to say thank you for helping with our young passenger.” I’m a little stunned and kinda shake my head a little – I don’t really understand. I didn’t DO anything. I was kind to a child without being creepy. And for that, I get free cheese? I don’t say this, of course, only say “that’s not necessary” and continue to go for the wallet, but she makes a little “shaky shaky” of the cheese tray as if to say, “please” – so I pull my hand back from going for the wallet and take the tray with a thank-you instead. She also leaves a snack pack for our boy. He groggily looks at me later and I point it out. Uninterested, but wanting to be polite, he picks it up, rests it on his leg and goes back to sleep.
We enjoy an uneventful remainder of our morning flight into LA. We land safely and begin the lengthy process of taxiing and de-planing. He’s going on to Puerto Vallarta, as I find out while sitting there, and he’s been instructed strictly to remain in his seat this time. He gets on his phone for a bit as we wait for the 31 aisles in front of us to deplane. He’s speaking Spanish, so I don’t know what he’s saying. When he disconnects his call he looks at me with the biggest, warmest and most beautiful smile and says “they found it!” I smiled back at him, genuinely happy that all was right in my new little friend’s world. I called back the flight attendant who gave me the free cheese to tell her the happy outcome as well, and watched as that same smile cross her face too. Then he added, still beaming from ear-to-ear, “the only bad thing is, I’m grounded!” The flight attendant and I looked at each other and shared a little laugh. And there we all sat together for a “moment” that seemed somehow unhitched from the wagon of time. Tightly knit strangers connected by the wanderings of a little boy’s backpack. It was a beautiful mini-moment of rightness.
I felt so blessed by it. I almost felt badly for taking the free cheese.