Death and the Expedited Boarding Process

Alright, so my dear friend of many years Jeff died three years ago this month, quite unexpectedly, all of 37 years old.  Jeff had a passionate interest in All Things Airline, and even now I feel his energy and his spirit closest to me when I’m around airports.  I went with him on his first trip to Europe, it was to visit him that I took my first trip to Australia, and we never tired of discussing the minutiae of where, when, and how best to get places.  “Did you know Aeromexico flies from Tijuana to Tokyo?” I would ask.  “I think I’ll take Turkish to Egypt so I can stop over in Istanbul.” he would say.  Whereas before I would have frantically called him to report a sighting of the Air France A380 in Washington, or e-mailed him Can You Believe?! when Icelandair inaugurated their non-stop service from Denver to Reykjavik, now I feel him beside me sharing the thrill, and I marvel at how easily we’re able to communicate here, three years into his Next Big Adventure.  In his memory, I write to share one of my favorite stories of a trip we took together, full, as always, of the hope that our paths will cross somewhere out there again.

After we graduated from college, I ran off to San Francisco and fell into an airline job, and Jeff joined the Peace Corps and was posted to Cameroon, where he spent nearly two and a half years. I had always wanted to visit Africa and could fly on most of the world’s airlines for next to nothing, and so a trip was planned. I flew first class on my own airline to Paris, and the crew spent much of the trip pouring champagne and caviar into me (if you can believe, now that you have to pay $6 for chips and salsa, there were ever days when we served champagne and caviar on the airplane), so I was rather hung-over when Air France deposited me in Yaounde, the capital city. Jeff met me at the airport according to plan, and we spent a few days in Yae-dae at the apartment of his friend. Jeff was posted in the north of Cameroon, and we meandered through the country; to Ngaoundere by train, to Garoua by crowded community mini-van, and around his post on foot or by motor scooter taxi. After a longer-than-scheduled stay at his home in Pitoa, where I spent days in the bathroom praying for deliverance from dysentery, we decided to fly from Garoua (just up the road) to Douala, the bustling port city from which I would shortly depart for France. Jeff immediately vetoed my plan to ask about an airline-rate standby ticket and insisted that I buy a full fare ticket, which, in any event, was not particularly expensive. He spent the next couple of days preparing me for our trip, telling me stories of his and other Peace Corps volunteers’ experiences with Cameroon Airlines. Our flight to Douala was scheduled to stop in Yaounde en route, and he warned me that Cam Air had a reputation for either skipping intermediate stops, or for making them without carrying on. The airline was apparently known for the fluidity of their schedule, and he made sure that I understood that just having tickets for our flight was no guarantee that it would operate as planned. The airplane might not make it to Garoua, he told me, and if it did it might not take off again for Yaounde, or we could luck into an unscheduled non-stop to Douala. There seemed to be a consensus among locals and foreigners alike that you just never knew with Cam Air, and so, once it was safe for me to take more than two steps away from a toilet, we packed our bags and cabbed it to the Garoua airport, fingers crossed.

The airport, which had the linoleum-floor look and feel of a small-town community center, was crowded with travelers and well-wishers and extended family welcoming committees anxiously awaiting arrivals on the inbound airplane. The departure “gate” was just a large expanse of floor separated from the tarmac by floor-to-ceiling windows with a set of double doors that more closely resembled the entrance to a local bank than an airport gate room. Shortly, two small trucks drove into view, each with a row of lights on its roof like you’d see on a police car. They took up positions at either end of the runway, lights dutifully flashing as if to tell the pilot of the 737 just beginning to materialize in the evening sky, “You want to land after this truck but before this one.” He did so, and the rickety, dirty airplane bounced across the rugged tarmac until it taxied to a stop some distance from the terminal. Air stairs were wheeled up to the front door and passengers soon disembarked. When the Cam Air official who had organized the disembarkation approached the glass doors that would allow us access to the airplane, Jeff grabbed me by the arm and firmly instructed me, “Stay with me. We’re going to run, and don’t let anyone past you.” A tad melodramatic, I thought, until the doors were opened and the prospective passengers raced to crush through them. There was no checking of boarding passes, no orderly procession one-at-a-time through the doors and across the tarmac, but rather a mad dash for the airplane, because everyone else knew what Jeff knew but I did not: flights are routinely over-sold, and everyone with a ticket is checked in and allowed a crack at any open seat. So 120 people, including children and infirm nuns, were shoving their way up the air stairs and onto the plane to madly musical chair over 100 seats. The twenty least assertive in the pack were simply out of luck and would have to wait days for the next flight (it wasn’t exactly the Boston to Washington shuttle; I think Cameroon Airlines had something like 6 airplanes in those days, including a 747 combi that flew to Paris a couple of times a week, eventually crashing there.). We elbowed our way to seats together towards the back, and when the man sitting on the aisle next to us stood up to put something in the overhead bin, another man dove into his seat, very nearly sparking a fist fight. Eventually all seats were filled, and the hapless slowpokes were ushered off the airplane and wished better luck next time. Before they closed the boarding door, though, the flight attendants determined that too much luggage was piled up in front of their jumpseats for them to able to sit in them, and so four more unlucky passengers were booted out of their aisle seats so the crew could sit. And thus we taxied out for take-off in what would become our Boeing-built coffin in even a minor crash, with three of four exit doors blocked by piles of luggage and no flight attendant sitting anywhere near an exit.

And off we went. It was a short flight, but we were offered guava juice and butter sandwiches from a tray by flight attendants bedecked in long, wrap-around dresses of the kind we saw on most women in town, the typically splashy African pattern peppered with the Cameroon Airlines logo and depictions of the pride of their fleet, the 747. Most passengers were bound for Yaounde, and the continuation to Douala was empty, departing on time with no reprise of the boarding battle we had fought in Garoua. I have no specific memory of our uneventful arrival in Douala; we stayed in a cute hotel down a tree-lined lane in an older, un-bustling part of town for a few days and I eventually boarded an Air France flight for Paris in a more traditional and less free-for-all manner.

Jeff’s death was sudden and shocking, made more gut-wrenching by the fact that we had been conspiring on when, where, and how to visit each other next mere days before he died. Like Jeff, I am not religious, and I am not sure what I believe about where we go when we die or what it’s like there. I do know that I hope he wasn’t in pain or afraid when he died, and I guess I just hope that he was able to get himself a good seat and maybe a nice guava juice on his way to whatever’s next.  Wherever he is and whatever he’s up to, I know he was probably enthralled by the process of getting there.


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