Flight Attendant Tales: Volume One
In this post I will begin to tell stories from real events that happened to me during my years as a flight attendant. Here are two.
The Story of Jimmy Brazell
In May of 2011, I was finally able to use my Chinese work visa for the first time to go to Beijing. I love going to new countries and this seemed a bit exotic even for me. I was stunned at the unfettered creative freedom given to the architects of the newest buildings in this Communist country and the ubiquity of freshly poured infrastructure. It was in stark contrast to Delhi, whose animals, feral and domesticated, roamed the dusty chaotic and barking traffic, yet is often lumped together with China as a power rising out of the Third World. I made it to the Great Wall, surely on most privileged people’s bucket list, and could see first hand that the Chinese had always been ambitious builders.
On the flight home I happened to embark on a conversation with a backpacking sort of young man, just about eighteen years old, who told me that he had been working in China for the past year teaching English at what I think was a Christian school (I am unsure of this; I have a difficult, though perhaps prejudiced, time believing the Chinese allow Americans to start such projects there). Anyway, he introduced himself as Jimmy and we became engaged in a spirited conversation about many things metaphysical and religious. I admit I may have started this line of talk by a few provocative questions. We moved our discussion to a place where we wouldn’t disturb his seatmates. Jimmy certainly had a Christian worldview; though he said he “disliked religion” and his emphasis was upon Jesus.
I was impressed with the fact that, unlike many Texan Evangelical Christians I have met in my past, Jimmy was not just respectful of, but was intent on understanding my own world view, my own moral code and how I developed it, the ramifications of my sexuality, and my own (complex and inappropriately expounded on here) ideas about religion. When a highly devout person is as interested in listening and understanding as talking, I find their impact is more compelling as an advocate for their own point of view. It creates mutual respect and lessens the feeling of “otherness”. I like that because it seems to me there is too much sense of “otherness” in this world.
Upon disembarking, Jimmy did something that had never happened in my entire flight attendant career. Apparently, after our discussion , he had been inspired enough by our conversation to write an eight page letter to me during the remainder of the flight. Surprised in the extreme myself, Jimmy looked a tad embarrassed as he handed it to me and then made his way out. I was expecting it to be a bit proselytizing at the best and imploring me to be saved at the worst, which might have tainted my memory of our spirited conversation. What I found in the letter, however, was neither. He told stories of his own life, had tried to find bridges between our views, and had expressed how much joy and appreciation he felt for his own life and struggles. He shared his facebook information and hoped we could keep in touch.
We did, in fact, make facebook contact, but soon after, Jimmy headed up to Montana to work at a camp for the summer, and we did not communicate too much after that. Apparently, on the last day of July, the group of counselors, to celebrate the end of the camp (at least that session) headed up to a natural swimming hole in the mountains, replete with it’s own waterfall. Jimmy, thinking it would be interesting to see what the waterfall looked like from the other side, attempted his way over. He was not seen for another six minutes when his lifeless body either resurfaced or was recovered by another swimmer. Traumatized, his friends had to carry his body back down the mountain.
Two days later, I was sitting at my computer looking at facebook and saw an item on my news feed from Jimmy regarding a death. I clicked on it, sad for Jimmy if he had lost one of his friends, only to discover that it was Jimmy himself who had died. I glanced over at the letter he had written me, looking so fresh there, placed between a couple other letters on my desk. I was in shock. After a few hours had passed, I decided to see if I could find out a way to contact a family member on facebook. I found his brother and messaged him to explain who I was, to tell him about the letter I had in my possession, if he would like me to mail it to them, and of course, my offer my best attempt at an expression of sympathy. He wrote back soon after, had shared my message with Jimmy’s parents, and they all agreed that they would very much like a copy of his letter. They said that Jimmy had intended the original to stay with me.
I was told they read the letter aloud at his funeral.
I have never been a parent. But I know that when you are a parent you give up many things to bring someone into the world. One must not just feel invested in the child, but amazed at the life that has come from you and/or depended on you to show them what they need to find their way. Then you send them out into the world on their own. How do they impact society when you are no longer around? When Jimmy wrote that letter, it turns out he was not just writing to me. In the end, he was also writing to his Mother and Father that he was doing just fine, engaging in and being a force for good in the world, and becoming the kind of man they would be proud of.
Jimmy’s letter remains on my desk, and it may always stay there. It serves to remind me of the precious fragility of life and the importance of ideas over more petty matters. I periodically communicate with Jimmy’s father.
Sometimes flight attendants hole themself up in the galley and occasionally even make aggravated statements like “Ugh! I hate these people!”. Unfortunately, not enough flight attendants make an effort to find interesting people doing interesting things. Maybe just one per flight. I’m really glad I spoke up to Jimmy that day. He would have remained an anonymous face whose story I never could have told because I wouldn’t have known. How many anonymous faces pass through your life?
Although the letter he wrote me is too long for this post and filled with sidebars and addenda, I would like to share his last communication with me. This is not because of the kind word he had for me; it is because of the directive he gave me just before he signed his name:
wow! that is an excellent picture of you at the great wall!
The Misjudgment of …..A Friend
I would first like to make clear that this story involved a….um, friend, yes, that’s it. This did not happen to me. Certainly, I would never exercise such bad judgement, even if poor and in love, for what he did was against American Airlines policy at the least, and surely some parts were downright illegal. I presume for his sake, however, that the statute of limitations applies since this occurred in the late 1980’s. I know he learned his lesson!
In a Third World country like the Dominican Republic of the 1980’s, people do what they have to do to get along. My friend was in love with a Dominican man who was just so resourceful and he involved my friend in a couple of lucrative, but sketchy schemes to pick up some extra cash.
The first Grand Scheme involved rum running; not unlike the patriarch of America’s Royal Family, Joseph Kennedy. He would buy around ten bottles of Barcelo Rum for three dollars each, take them back in his suitcase, write “spirits” (vague enough!) on his customs declaration, and wait until about 200 gathered on his living room floor. Then he would cart them off about ten blocks in Queens to a local Dominican grocery store. He would enter through the back door and sell them all for 9$, or a profit margin of $6/bottle. (Let’s see, 6×200=$1200). It is doubtful that the grocer had a liquor license, and certainly, many other laws were broken here as well. My friend was naïve in the extreme.
The second Grand Scheme involved the transportation of consumer goods in the opposite direction. The upper West Side of Manhattan in New York has a huge Dominican neighborhood. Many Dominicans have moved to New York to work and earn enough money to support their families back home who are living under difficult conditions, to say the least. Even if one has some money in the Dominican Republic (DR), many consumer goods are either unavailable, in short supply or of poor quality. Flying back and forth to the DR as many as six times/month my friend, was a natural courier. Before each trip, a gentleman would drop off a suitcase or garment bag of some sort, filled with pampers and dishwashing soap and clothing items, etc… and my friend would take it down to the island for dropoff. For his trouble he was paid $60 for each delivery. To make certain that he was not taking drugs, my friend would take the parcel completely apart to check the contents. This was going fine for quite a while. He would tell the other flight attendants that he was bringing things down for his Dominican friend, and they would tell him in no uncertain terms, that this friend was using him! Sensible enough.
Well, one evening he received a simple grey garment bag, which he easily disassembled and promptly put back together. The next day he arrived at the airport, in uniform, ready for his trip and placed the said bag on the X-Ray machine. The security screener recognized him, smiled and nodded hello. Then her brow furrowed, she stopped the belt and paused. “Um, what’s with the gun?” My friend laughed. “No, really.” He then looked up at X-ray screen to find himself staring at the perfect silhouette of a revolver. One can imagine what might happen in our post 9/11 world: not only would my friend be promptly unemployed, perhaps charged, but he might even make the evening news. As it was, his heart dropped through the floor. Under less than a minute, this very nice boy was spread eagled against the wall being frisked by the Port Authority Police. “Do you have a license to carry a weapon in the state of New York?! Who packed this bag?! Where is the gun?!” He meekly explained that he was carrying the bag down to the islands for his neighbor who lived across the hall (oh, loathsome lies!). They tore open every compartment in the garment bag looking for the gun which they couldn’t find. This gave my friend some solace in that at least he hadn’t been lax in his effort to check for drugs. But the police were only getting more aggravated, and as each minute passed came another minute when a fellow flight attendant, or worse, a flight attendant supervisor, could approach security curious about the commotion. This would have easily been the end of my friend’s career. Even excepting the gun, carrying a bag for your neighbor is a fireable offense.
Finally, the officer digging through the bag yelled, “Got it!,” and he pulled out a beautiful revolver with a cream colored handle. My friend’s heart now sank even further, down through the bedrock. Doomed! But the officer gazed intently upon the weapon. He opened the cylinder and peered down the barrel. He then closed it back up, aimed it at the wall away from any people…and pulled the trigger. Out popped a flame. It was a revolver that had been converted to a lighter. For some reason which my friend did not quite understand, this changed the situation entirely in the minds of the police. I suppose you don’t need a license to carry a lighter in the state of New York. They insisted on keeping the gun but let my friend go. He walked quickly away toward Crew Operations awash in relief and amazed that not one fellow employee had witnessed his ordeal.
Needless to say, the days of sketchy money making schemes were over in a flash for my friend. One does not tempt fate twice. Upon return to New York, however, he called up the man who provided him with the package each week, irate. “There was a gun in that last bag you gave me!!!” The man insisted there was not. “I saw it with my own eyes!,” screamed my friend. “I was nearly arrested!” The man turned to his wife on the other end of the line and asked her if it was true. “Oh no!,” she said, “Eets no gun! Eets a lighter!”
To this day, my friend wonders how differently his life, and all those lives he has touched over the years would have been different had that been a real gun.
Should I remind you again, this was not me? I was my friend…