My Air Tran seatmate on a flight from Pensacola, Florida to Atlanta fiddles with his seat belt, then points to the small hole on the arm of the seat. “Where are the headsets for this?” he asks.
“You can use your I-pod cord,” I tell him. “I don’t think they offer headsets on a short flight like this.”
“I’m nervous,” he confesses. “This is my first flight. I’ve been in prison for eight months.”
I must look startled.
“Traffic violation,” he says, by way of comfort. “I was caught riding my motorcycle without a license.”
“Seems like a long time for such a minor offense.”
“It’s because of my record,” he answers. “This was my fifth time behind bars.”
Once again, the handsome, neatly dressed young man has caught me off guard. He seems ready to say more, but is distracted by the roar of the engines. He grips the seat arms tightly and worry lines march across his smooth-shaven face.
“Don’t fret,” I tell him. “Flying is fun once we’re airborne.”
“Is that a normal sound,” he asks, clearly agitated by the change in the tenor of the engines.
I assure him it is and then, to distract him, say he reminds me of a young cousin. “I bet he started out better than me,” he says. “They took me away from my mom when I was one. Said she wasn’t doing right by me. My dad took me to South Carolina, but he didn’t want me either. He gave me to my aunt to raise. I grew up tough. And mean. I was the only white kid in a black family living in a black neighborhood.”
“That must have been rough,” I sympathize.
“Yes, Ma’ham. But it made me strong.”
We chat about what’s going on in the outside world—the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the squabbling in Congress, the economy, particularly the lack of available work. “Do you have a job waiting for you back home?” I ask.
“Yes, Ma’ham. “They tell me they’re holding my job at the still, but you know how that goes.”
I try to keep my expression in check. “At the still?”
“Yes, Ma’ham. We distill 100-proof whiskey, then sell it to distributors who add flavors and cut down the strength,” he says. “I was working the second shift from 3 p.m. ‘til midnight, but without a driver’s license, I don’t know how I’m going to get home after work. The buses stop running at 6 o’clock. If my ex-wife is still on that shift, I’m hoping she’ll give me a ride. But I doubt it.”
He looks to young, but I ask. “Any children?”
“Yes, Ma’ham. Three. A boy, ten, a girl four, and another boy two. My daughter is just beautiful.” He breaks into a wide grin, the first I’ve seen.
I ask to see pictures, but he has stored them in the overhead rack and the seatbelt sign is on. “You must have started young.”
“Things happen,” he says, flashing another grin.
As the plane banks over the outskirts, he points to a large round or octagonal building far removed from any developed areas. “That’s it,” he says. “That’s where I come from. It looks almost pretty, but it sure wasn’t pretty down there.”
He tells me that his other times in prison were at work-release camps for low-risk offenders. This time, because of his extensive record, he was sent to a maximum-security prison, built to keep rapists, murderers, and sex offenders off the streets. “The other prisons were different,” he says. “They were work camps. We slept in one big room like a dormitory. This time I was locked up in a two-man cell with a lifer with no chance of parole.”
I shudder and wonder how a slender, young, nice looking man could fend off the bad guys—particularly lifers with nothing to lose.
I have better sense than to ask, but he reads my mind. “I can take care of myself,” he assures me. “But it sure got me to thinking. I don’t want to end up like him and lots of the others there. If I get picked up for even a traffic ticket, they could send me away for life, that’s how strict they are in Florida.”
A steward interrupts our conversation, asking if we want something to drink. I order a diet Sprite. My seatmate declines. “It’s free,” I explain. “They only charge for alcoholic drinks.” He quickly asks for a Coke.
A young Army private sitting across the aisle orders a Coke too. “Anything for you, soldier,” the steward says. My seatmate and I smile at the private who is reading a newspaper opened up to an ad about an upcoming Extreme Boxing Challenge.
“That’s what I’m going to do now,” my seatmate says. “I’ve been fighting all my life. Might as well make some money from it.”
“Enlist in the Army?” I ask.
“Nah. They won’t let me. My record, you know. I was talking about extreme boxing.”
He talks about cleaning up his life—again. The aunt who raised him wants him to move back to South Carolina to live, but he doesn’t want to. “My cousins sell dope,” he says. “I don’t want to get mixed up in that again. Besides, my father tells him there are no decent jobs there. He’s thinking of moving to Florida to look for work.”
Our forty-five minute flight is right on time—an anomaly at Hartsfield Jackson in Atlanta. But as we make our approach, my seatmate tenses up again.
“The engines get really loud as we touch down, but they’re supposed to,” I warn. He smiles, gratefully, but intensifies his life grip on the seat arms. When the pilot cuts the engines, he breathes a sigh of relief. “I could get used to this flying,” he says. “My girlfriend wants me to go skydiving on New Year’s Eve, but I don’t know about going that far.”
“Well, you’ve taken the first step,” I tell him. (My meaning is double-edged, but I’m not sure he catches it.)
We let the young private in line ahead of us and though I want to ask, I don’t have a chance to learn if he is coming home or being deployed. No matter, either way, his life is laid out for him. At least for now.
My new friend has a long layover and asks what he should do with the time. I suggest he explore the terminal’s shops and restaurants. “You’ll have to go back through security again,” I explain, “but you have plenty of time.”
He follows me onto the underground train leading into the terminal. At the top of the escalator, we emerge into the lobby where USO volunteers are welcoming incoming service men and women. As “our” private on our plane approaches, they clap. Other travelers join in, and soon there is a crescendo of applause.
I look from one young man to the other. They are close in age. Tall. Handsome. Fit. I know nothing about the private. Did he grow up in a stable, loving home? Or, like my new friend, have to swim upstream all his life? One is risking his life so others may live in freedom. The other has just regained his. I pray they use it well.