OUT OF THE BLUE
Remember to pack humor
By Elliott Hester
Recently, while serving passengers aboard an A-300 Airbus, I was
startled by a strange discordant sound. The sound alerted my post-9/11
flight attendant sensibilities and sent me scurrying from the first
class cabin to investigate.
pushed past the curtains, entered the main cabin and stopped dead
in my tracks. The sound repeated itself. Again and again and again.
It was loud. Thunderous. A sound that turned my skin into gooseflesh
and left my jaw unhinged. I had responded to the infectious sound
From a standing position at the front of the cabin, I gazed upon a
sea of chuckling faces. Strangers, squeezed together in coach class
proximity, were watching the in-flight presentation of the movie "Legally
Blonde." And they were laughing like high-altitude hyenas.
Perhaps 100 people stared up at the television monitors, oblivious
to the gloom that has permeated airplane cabins for the past four
months, unmindful of fortified cockpit doors and F-16 escorts and
the threat of terrorism that necessitates these things. This was flying
the way it ought to be. Raucous laughter woke sleeping passengers,
who immediately reached for their headsets.
One woman laughed so uncontrollably that tears ran from her eyes.
She doubled over (an act that on any other flight might have required
the use of supplemental oxygen) and nearly fell from her chair.
I stood in the front of the cabin feeling good. Really good. In recent
months, passengers and crew have been afraid to laugh on airplanes.
Many who - weren't afraid found it difficult to do so. Laughter seemed
inappropriate considering the in-flight horrors that occurred on Sept.
11. But maybe it's OK to laugh now. In fact, we need to laugh now.
Laughter - coupled with the passage of time - helps heal the wounds
of tragedy. I learned this lesson well after a family tragedy on New
That morning I woke with a mild hangover, expecting to hear bad news.
Perhaps terrorists had commandeered another aircraft. Maybe someone
boarded an airplane with an explosive suppository. I crawled out of
bed, turned on the television and prayed that CNN would allay my fears.
Thankfully, it did. There were no airline-related catastrophes reported
Then the telephone rang. A relative called to tell me that my father
had died. She found his lifeless body reclining on his living room
sofa. He had been watching television when his arteries apparently
closed down for good.
A few days later, I flew to Chicago for my father's memorial service.
Ironically, the service was scheduled on the very day that should
have been the happiest of my life. My first book had just been published
and I appeared on two local TV news shows that morning. At noon I
kicked off a six-city book tour with a reading at Border's Books in
downtown Chicago. A few hours after the reading, I stood in front
of yet another microphone and read my father's eulogy.
Allow me to take one step backward.
When my sister arrived at Borders to hear me read, she was carrying
a satchel. Inside the satchel was a box. And inside the box lay the
cremated remains of my father. He had been ecstatic about the publication
of my book and I was heartbroken because he would never hear me read
from it. But now, due to a comedy of errors involving Federal Express,
a busy funeral director and family logistics, my father managed to
attend the reading anyway.
When I finished, a Border's manager approached and offered condolences.
Not for the reading, mind you. He was referring to my father's death.
"I'm sorry to hear about your loss," he said.
"Thanks so much," I replied. "But my father was with us at the reading
"I'm sure he was," said the manager.
"No, no - he really was," I said.
"I'm sure he was here in spirit," replied the manager, laying a gentle
hand upon my shoulder.
"No, really," I insisted, pointing to my sister's satchel. "He actually
attended the reading. His cremated ashes are in there."
The Border's manager covered his mouth with both hands and gasped.
His eyes grew as large as satellite dishes. He bore the comical expression
of a cartoon character who'd eaten something he -wasn't supposed to.
I -couldn't help but laugh. After realizing it was OK for him to do
so, the manager laughed along with me. My sister, who had been crying
in the Self Help section of the book store 30 minutes earlier, laughed
too. It was the first time we had laughed since arriving in Chicago.
That laughter helped get me through one of the most difficult days
of my life.
It's impossible to feel bad when you're laughing. At the precise moment
of convulsion, sorrow shuts down like a generator with a blown fuse.
This is what happened that afternoon at Border's. The same thing happened
during my return flight to Miami.
Eyes filled with tears, I sat in a window seat staring at passing
clouds and thinking about my father. But when the startled face of
the Border's manager popped into my mind, I laughed for the remainder
of the flight. I laughed, and I felt better.
As airline passengers endure long lines at check-in counters and security
checkpoints, as we are subjected to bag searches and shoe removal,
as we trundle through crowded airport terminals on our way to crowded
airplanes, let's not forget to bring our sense of humor.
Sometimes it's the only thing that gets us through the day.