Saturday, October 30, 2004

A Flight To Remember

“Mama! Stop waving the napkin!” My momma was trying to get the attention of the young grass blade of a flight attendant like some toreador with epilepsy.

“Si, senora?” the young woman smiled a large, toothy grin.
“Vino! More vino por favore,” my momma squealed.
“Mama, these women are Chilean – we are not flying to Italy!”
“Ah leave me alone! They understand me! Everyone is Italian when it comes to wine!” The flight attendant poured the heavy cabernet El Gato Negro – the black cat – into momma’s glass. Momma’s eyes glistened like the light off the plastic cup.

“Gracie! Multi gracie!” She shot me a look as if to say, “See? Your momma’s not so stupid!” I rolled my eyes and turned toward the window and tried to get some sleep.

With the hum of the engines as white noise broken only by the tinkling of the drink cart, I began to think about my brother and how he came to live in Santiago de Chile. The memories of our youth were still fresh. Wasn’t it only last year we marched together in the “No Nukes” rally in Central Park? The mobs of people adding to the carnival atmosphere and the hope of what we thought we were accomplishing made us drunk.

We took the subway in and climbed up the stairway. The march had already started and we jumped in. I chuckled, barely audible, when I remembered how we ended up marching with the gay pride group, walking directly behind a banner that read: “We’re HERE! We’re QUEER! It’s NUKES we have to Fear!”

Yeah, in some file cabinet in a dark basement in Washington D.C. is my file, I’m certain, with a picture of me behind that banner.

Joe had always been active. He put his body in harm’s way when he boarded the freighter in Nicaragua in an attempt to stave off the U.S. blockade in the 80’s.

Joe and I had always been close growing up, but I hadn’t seen him in years. I was taking Momma to visit him and Sue, his wife. They had two little girls born in Santiago Momma had never seen. Momma was too old to travel alone, and I offered to take her down for a visit.

She finished the wine with a royal relish, placed her seat back and pulled the blue wool LAN Chile blanket over her. Soon she was snoring.

At sunrise I could see the Andes mountains greet the pink and purple morning sky like a drawn window shade. I knew we were close and soon the pilot’s voice burst open in rapid fire Spanish announcing that Santiago was not too far off.

I nudged Momma who woke cursing in Italian (she always did!)
“Momma, we’re here!” I said to her calming her down.

The anticipation was thick; the landing, customs, the reunion, meeting her grandchildren for the first time.

We taxied on the tarmac straining to see what we could from the window of the L-1011 as its wings bounced, seemingly tired from the long flight.
It’s so odd how airports seem to go out of their way to not look at all like the rest of the country it inhabits. It’s as though they import the same trees and row housing and ratty looking gulls for every airport in the world.

We watched as they began to remove the luggage like some surgery on a great whale. The men pulled bag after bag loading them onto a 1950’s era Ford flatbed truck that still ran on leaded gasoline. The drivers wore bandanas around their faces for protection from the wind and fumes. I leaned back and closed my eyes thinking about how tired I was.

Suddenly a large oak of a man with night black hair and pock marked face and large Brillo mustache came striding back. I presumed he was the pilot; his gait had the determination of a man who never smiled and who lived for the official moments of life the way a bride and groom live for the honeymoon.

He stopped at our row.

“Senor Ramsey?” he said, curtly but in an official manner.
“Huh?” I looked up at him still a bit deaf from the recent cabin decompression.
“Senor, please come with us.”

I stumbled out of the seat into the aisle over Momma who was looking for the flight attendant to see if she could get more El Gato Negro oblivious to the pilot or the fact that we had even landed.

I held the railing of the steps, counting the tapping of my feet in the aluminum steps, listening to the metallic sound like rainwater in a puddle. My mind was blank with fear. Where were they taking me?

We climbed aboard a 1930’s style diesel bus; dilapidated and patched like old jeans from other discarded bus parts. Once on board, the flood of olive green and the smell of sweat and tobacco was overpowering. The leader was an officer of some sort. He stepped forward, slung his M-1 rifle to the side and smiled a five o’clock shadow smile.

“Senor, alli, por favor.” He pointed to the hangar. His breath smelled like a vineyard left to rot in the summer. I looked around at all the military wardrobe and hardware – all U.S. issue. The bus lurched forward rattling like a coughing fit, until my eyes were vibrating at the same frequency of the bus. Things looked like a failing TV picture tube, twisted, angular and blurry.

We pulled into the hangar and the officer motioned me forward with his shoulder. The gun strap slipped off and he had to make a quick move to keep it from falling. For a brief moment, the movie Missing played through my head. All I could remember of the movie was all the bodies. There were so many bodies that they had to store them on the roofs of buildings. Would my body – decapitated and with no hands or feet – be found floating down the Rio Mapocho through the center of Santiago like all those others years ago?

My mind raced for another language. Like a supercomputer, I began to dredge up my high school Spanish and conjugate verbs as if my life depended on it. We stopped at a spot where there were more guards, more guns and dogs. They had momma’s bag looking like road kill sprawled open; they were all standing around looking concerned. They asked me in broken English to open the bag.

Ayuder, ayudo, ayude, ayudamos, ayudan … my mind continued to conjugate.

I opened the bag and the guards asked me to open a package by shoving it under my nose politely but firmly. They found a bottle of talcum powder that had broken open in transit, and a few of the guards were dipping fingers and tasting the powder.

Drugs? The thought hit me like that first moment when you dive into a cold pool. “They think I have drugs!” I thought. The drug sniffing dogs must have smelled the powder and alerted the guards that something in this case was amiss. “Just say no to talc…” I joked weakly, but no one understood the humor or the English. Since I had checked the bags in, they were registered in my name. The police read the manifest, found my name and called me off the plane.

The thought of going to a Chilean jail suddenly flashed a flood of adrenaline through my body, to the point where my insides actually hurt.

More conjugations. “How do I say ‘take the old woman…it’s her suitcase… not mine!’ in Spanish?” was all I could think of. Toma la vieja… Toma la vieja…

It was not my finest moment.

The guards laughed at the gringo now sweating like a bathroom mirror before them. They tasted the talcum powder, decided that this was not a drug and that I was no drug lord and sent me back to the plane, very graciously I might add. Clearly they were enjoying the discomfort I was in.

I trembled like a poplar in a storm, trying not to recall my brief review of high school Spanish and trying not to recall how I almost sold out my own momma.

I sat down in the seat. Momma was now worried and her face had a “What happened? What did they do to you?” kind of look, though she never uttered a word. I could see the concern traced in the creases of her face.

“Gimme that!” I said as I grabbed the last of her El Gato Negro and gulped hard. The alcohol wasn’t strong enough. Every pore of my body was sweating now as I retold the story to momma, who would gasp and nod in all the right places. We even laughed when I told her about how I even had thoughts of giving her up were it not for my own ineptitude with Spanish.

Finally we disembarked.

“Let’s see,” I thought as I tasted the warm tropical air, “tomar…toma…toman…tomamos , no es mio… yeah, that’s it.”

MB 2003


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