37,000 Feet Over Salina, KS – Fiction

37,000 Feet Over Salina, KS

By Mike McCue
Illustration by Dave Dawson

I hate to fly. When someone feeds me the line about how “more people are killed cutting their fingernails than in airline accidents,” I’m hard pressed not to tear off the speaker’s arm and beat him to death with the bloody stump. Flying is a very uncomfortable and unnatural undertaking for me. Every little bump and shimmy experienced while airborne is a harbinger of fiery death, the beginning of the plane’s plummet from the sky like the metallic whale it is. However, my full-time legitimate job (surprise! I make no money writing these gems) requires that I travel great distances on occasion. Even I can see the impracticality of taking a train from Boston to California.
So what is the solution?
And drink I do! By fortunate coincidence, or benign act of God, my company buys airline tickets at full fare. Nine times out of ten this enables me to upgrade to First Class; wider chairs, prompt service and, most important of all, FREE DRINKS. I scribbled these first few lines as my first drink of the flight was ever so lovingly being placed beside me. I was off to San Diego via US Airways Flight 31, Boston to LAX with a stop in Pittsburgh. Below me lay the lower stretches of the Hudson. Before me lay a flight into numbness.

Unfortunately, the hop from L.A. to San Diego was a puddle-jumper, so not only would the drinks vanish, but the plane would have all the power and sound of a 6 HP lawn mower. It was imperative I anesthetize myself in the time allotted me. Since it was only 8:30 AM, the morning started with a mimosa. Contrary to my modus operandi, I didn’t have my first drink while awaiting takeoff. I was distracted by engaging in some creative math, determining how much of the company’s per diem money I could pocket by not eating over the next four days. I wondered if they would believe I needed to spend $75.00 on maps. The first drink evaporated in my hand, prompting the steward to raise an eyebrow and causing the “uh oh, he’s one of those” look to cross his face. He knew I was going to keep him busy.

About this time, I launched into a fun game with the passengers around me, though they actually didn’t know they were playing. I tried to see how many of them would act against their better judgment and, using me as an example, start drinking just after dawn. It is a true test of WILL when you turn down free drinks, especially when you are among the elite dozen of a plane’s manifest with such privileges. The fellow next to me fell first, doubling up my second mimosa order. The adjacent seats are always the easiest.

“Are we celebrating or commiserating?” my fellow traveler asked.

“We are medicating. Don’t you know this plane is going to explode into tiny vapor drops somewhere over Salina, Kansas?”

“Nonsense, don’t you know that more people die in maulings by half-starved mountain lions than die in plane wrecks?”

I was so amused at his choice of analogies I allowed my companion to keep his limbs. I chuckled, took a swig from my glass and pulled out a piece of fiction I’d been working on for several years.

“What’s that you’re working on?” my inquisitive friend pestered.

“Just some vacant tripe about the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. In the end Jerry Hall becomes Queen of England.”

The questioner nodded his understanding.

“You know, my father was among those who jumped Mick Collins in 1922 in West Cork. We had a writer around to see him only a few months back.”

This was an interesting development. Michael Collins was the leader of the Irish Free Staters who reached the agreement that gave up Ulster to the British in return for the independence of the southern 26 Counties. Eamon de Valera, later president of the Republic of Ireland, and at that time leader of the group opposing the loss of Ulster, made Collins the scapegoat for the divided Ireland. The creation of this atmosphere led to his assassination. I went on to interrogate the traveler at some length.

By the fourth round, the steward decided he’d better get some food into me. I shuddered at my meal choices. For some reason, at least in First Class, airlines feel compelled to offer menu choices which rival French restaurants. Crepes suzette, soufflé, vichyssoise, etc… Why the hell can’t I ever get a doughnut? Or a hamburger? I passed on the entrees and asked for four plain bagels, no butter. And another mimosa.

The fountain of information to the left of me, who at some point identified himself as Liam Casey, let me in on a little secret.

“You ever heard of the Valhalla ?”

I had. The Valhalla was a boat used to smuggle arms out of Boston to Ireland, destined for the arsenal of the IRA. It was intercepted off the coast by the Irish Navy with logistical help from U.S. federal authorities. A few Boston Police officers who had turned a blind eye to these goings-on lost their pensions over that one.

“Well, I know someone in the San Diego area connected with that little boat ride that the Feds didn’t nab. Still pretty active, too.”

As interesting as this was, watching the “lavatory occupied” sign had become a higher priority. I cursed my choice of a window seat. Soon Liam would too. The ensuing frequency of trips back and forth to the facilities would create another dilemma. Since I was convinced death was mere moments away because of the plane’s inevitable violent return to Earth, I became consumed with the notion that I didn’t wish to die in the toilet. So the visits were hurried, not an easy undertaking considering the occasional pitch from turbulence.

Returning from my inaugural trip, I flagged down the steward, asking for yet another aperitif. He told me that I couldn’t have any more mimosas. I stared at him incredulously. Dear God, I thought, I’m being shut off! I quickly went over the federal statutes against assault while on a US flag carrier. Fortunately, the attendant went on to explain that I had drunk all the champagne available on the plane. So, it still being before noon, I switched over to Irish Coffees. It also seemed apropos vis-á-vis the conversation. Without being asked, the steward brought double shots.

That settled, it was time to return to my discussion. I was interested in what Liam was saying purely out of personal gain. What were the chances of meeting this “activist?” I smelled a story, a legitimate PAYING article.

“He’s not one for giving interviews,” I was told.

The rest of the plane ride consisted of me giving guarantees of anonymity and Liam return rebuffs. Finally, after “last call” before the plane landed, Liam gave in.

“I’ll introduce you. But that’s about all I can do. If he doesn’t want to talk beyond ‘hello,’ well, that’s the way it’ll be.”

That agreed, we made plans to meet in San Diego the next night. Liam was staying in Los Angeles to attend a xxx convention or some damn thing. In a rather unusual display of good nature, I asked the steward for his name and the address of the airline’s customer relations department. I proposed sending a letter commending him on his service. He handed me the information on a piece of paper which I crumpled and thrust in my pocket. The next day when I was sober, I threw the paper out.