I am a novelist. An observing and curious mind prompts me to look through the lens of “what if” for answers to the big questions of life. Sometimes “what if’s” are long in coming. Other times they smack you in the head before you know what happened…
It was Wednesday, August 11th. I was in seat 28A on Delta flight 1192, waiting for take-off at Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC.
“Hello, this is Maggie, your flight attendant, and we are experiencing some unexpected delays due to weather conditions…” She continued but my heart skipped an immediate beat to a youth dance in 1971.
“Mike, where did you find that looker you brought to the dance?”
“My older sister. Don’t even think about it.”
“I like dancing with older girls.”
He shrugged, a little disgust evidenced with a nod of the head.
I nervously ventured forth and, being fickle, lost my heart on the dance floor to “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes.” She thanked me, whispered something to Mike and left.
“Where is she going?” I asked.
“No guys old enough.”
“What does she do?”
“Stewardess for the airlines,” he replied.
“Hello, this is Maggie again. It looks like we will be at least another thirty minutes. We have complimentary headsets for those who would like to watch a show. We’ll turn the video monitors on momentarily, then…”
The “what if” advanced in my mind as my heart sought rescue from the awful truth which was easily melting my manly composure.
I last heard from Mike in 1973. He was enjoying a McDonald’s burger in San Salvador, he had written me in the letter that arrived to General Velasco’s socialist-controlled Republic of Peru that day in April. I was starving for any kind of food that resembled a hamburger, but enjoyed the typical jesting as he also wrote about another girl who was keeping in touch with him; a “win” he had over me from another dance the prior year.
We assumed we would reconnect back home in Southern California after our volunteer duties in Latin America, and just maybe I’d get another chance to dance with his sister. I’d be an older and wiser man then.
Mail call on a June night in 1973 caught me off guard. I opened a card my Mom slipped in an envelope. It simply showed his smiling face with this under the photo: “In Loving Memory of Michael Alan Carlisle.”
“Hello, this is Maggie again. We know you are eager for more information, and just as soon as we can we will report the cause of the continuing delays. Thank you for your patience.”
Memory is a funny thing. Sometimes on the surface it dances across the mind without a minor delay. Other times it just sits and broods, inviting you to fix the unfixable.
I looked out through the glass separating me from the downpour which had grounded us and saw Mike, and the 1970’s, and his sister, and time evaporated as tears squeezed from eyes that had seen a lot of changes since then.
She passed by 28A. Though older, she was also energetic and graceful, revealing something in her eyes, smile, and manner recognizable…
“This is Maggie again. Federal law requires we return to the gate after three hours. We apologize for this inconvenience she said,” as the plane rolled back to Gate 19.
We’d be given a chance to stay overnight or continue on waiting for final clearance of flight 1192 to take off again later. My heart raced as I got closer to confronting the death of a young friend, confront my own mortality, and revisit all I once felt as a young man.
In minutes I stood before her. Eyes searched and recognition sparked as I asked, “Are you Maggie Carlisle from Newbury Park?”
Her eyes filled instantaneously as a shy girl inside her nodded, tried to smile, and finally squeaked out “yes.”
“I’m Jim Pratt, Mike’s friend,” is all I could muster. Awkwardness followed as she and I recalled the dance, and Mike seemed to stand there as well, instantly bringing it all back to both of us.
Wiping at the tears she said, “I’m sixty now.”
I nodded. “Fifty-seven.”
We briefly caught up, I offered my love for her mother, still alive, the other siblings; all friends of mine.
“I think I’ll catch up on my sleep here in DC rather than take the flight back with you guys,” I said casually as if forty years had not just slipped by. I then walked away, found a cab, a hotel and slept.
I dreamt of Mike that night and blubbered all sorts of youthful stuff about life, love, and important stuff. Nothing political.
When I awoke I imagined a dialogue I’d have with him if he were to step off a flight from 1973 instead of the casket he was delivered home in.
“Saw your sister last night,” I’d start with.
“I know,” he’d answer. “A dance?”
“No, at the airport,” I’d say.
“So how are things? Much changed at home since I’ve been gone?”
“You wouldn’t believe it,” I’d answer.
“Catch me up,” he’d reply.
James Michael Pratt is a New York Times bestselling novelist and non-fiction author, CEO of PowerThink Publishing, public speaker, Op Ed writer for The Daily Caller, and Founder of Reagan Revolution 2. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.