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Vacation (cont.): U.S. Air Flight No. 98, June 15, 2003, Or Did You See Us on TV? 

U.S. Air Flight 98 out of Philadelphia to London took off in a cloudless sky and the pilot announced good weather all the way, including London, at a pleasant high of 73 degrees. Some two hours over the Atlantic Ocean, the pilot notified us that the plane was returning to the U.S. because of "mechanical difficulties." We weren't going back to Philadelphia either, but to Boston, which was closer. The aircraft turned quite evidently around and increased speed. The older folks started reviewing the films of their lives, but the boisterous teenagers on their first trip to Europe were only momentarily dismayed. They soon resumed their high-spirited conversations.

I walked over to the galley where the flight attendants huddled, looking rather glum. I asked them if they'd ever experienced such a sudden return and one of them said, "I've been flying a long time; it's never happened. We've had mechanicals before, but we always went on." I returned to my seat determined not to tell Laura. We listened for awhile to the plane, an older Boeing 747 (I think) that sounded an awful lot like an old car about to lose a vital part. The movie of my life was failing to unroll, being replaced instead by shorts of recent plane disasters, of which there was no shortage in my mediatized memory. There was a scheduled movie after dinner, but dinner was cancelled. An attempt to bring on About Schmidt looked promising, but no sooner had the title appeared than the video system quit working. No question about it, some bad-ass failure was working its way through the innards of the jalopy. After an hour of silent fast-flying, the pilot returned to announce tersely that we were returning to Philadelphia not to Boston, because Philly had bigger "maintenance facilities." Therefore, we had a bigger problem.

I almost cheered when we landed in Philly, but I was not reassured. Dozens of emergency crews, their blue lights flashing, met us. Still, it was ground. The earth. Place humans were meant to be. I had every intention of bailing out of the plane once they opened the doors, no matter what they said. What they said was that the problem would be fixed in "half an hour," and that anyone wishing to "terminate the flight" could have their money refunded. There was no offer of another flight. Anyone who didn't "terminate" would have to stay on board where dinner was going to be served. It was the last possible moment to serve this particular dinner, said the chief attendant, because it had already been heated. So we stayed, don't ask why. Maybe it was the promise of dinner. Doomed people everywhere have been known to go to their doom because they were promised dinner. History crawls with them. They've made a fateful choice: the chicken or the lasagna. The doom was lagniappe.

The half hour passed, then an hour, then another hour. At the front of the plane, an intense bunch of techies looked like they were going deep into the computer that kept beeping and flashing like a dying electronic whale. Enough! We grabbed our bags and made for the exits. "Ladies and gentlemen," the pilot said, "the replacement part has arrived. We will be resuming our flight to London in 20 minutes." We sat down again, monuments to the sheep-like nature of modern humans. The crew started passing around $100 vouchers good for any U.S Air flight in the future, provided that we did not hold the airline legally responsible for anything, including detainment of upward of three hours on board a defective aircraft. We had the good sense to refuse the vouchers, just in case there was some law against keeping people trapped that long. At the very least, we could do the respectable thing: sue. That's how we Americans celebrate not dying. The video system did come back and they showed The Hours, a suitably depressing piece of Hollywood trash that must have had Virginia Woolf turning over in her watery grave. At least we hadn't joined her there. We doubled our dose of sleeping pills instead and landed in London unconscious but still embodied.

The first thing we planned to do in England was to visit Virginia in her resting place and apologize for Hollywood and U.S. Air.

Next week: What Virginia Woolf said.

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