For travel writer Mark Chesnut, the ability to take off and get away from it all was also a form of self-preservation. Raised by a single mother, Chesnut used his travels to escape the scrutiny and judgement the Southern Baptist matriarch laid at his feet, particularly when it came to his sexual orientation. She just didn’t want to hear about his being gay. But that didn’t stop Chesnut. He expressed himself through his travels and, as a young dreamer, he would create imaginary airlines and flights of fancy. Yet nor does it stop him from coming home again, when his mother moves to a long-term care home to be closer to her son. Here, we get on board
“No sir, you CANNOT have more peanuts!” the red-faced flight attendant shrieked, stabbing a furious finger into the air. “And no, I AM NOT going to give you a goddamned amenity kit. Sit DOWN sir, or I will call the pilot immediately!”
Surprisingly, the trouble-making passenger didn’t say a word in response. Actually, it wasn’t surprising at all, since there was no passenger. And there was no flight attendant either, for that matter. The irate voice and aggressive finger belonged to a twelve-year-old redheaded boy named J.J. He and I were immersed in a lively game we called “playing stewardess.” But our aircraft wasn’t a plane at all. It was a rusty, abandoned school bus that sat rotting in a field near my house. J.J. was always the bitchier crewmember during this game, screaming at invisible frequent flyers who had the nerve to complain about the vines growing through the windows or the rusty coils bursting through what remained of the scratchy seats. This was a first-class cabin, dammit, and the flight attendants deserved respect.
J.J. was my best friend in seventh grade and the first kid I’d met who obsessed about travel and airlines as much as I did. Our first encounter took place over the formaldehyde stench of dissected frogs in science class, thanks to a fortuitous alphabetical seating arrangement. People said we looked alike because we both had red hair, but we really didn’t. J.J.’s larger frame and more traditional redhead features (blue eyes, light eyebrows) didn’t match my slight build and higher-contrast dark eyebrows and eyes. What we did have in common, however, was a passion for air travel.
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Most people didn’t understand our obsession. Lots of people love to travel, after all. But most people only like the being there, not the getting there. They hate the airline industry, considering it a necessary evil designed to simultaneously transport you to your destination while torturing you with high fares, crowded planes, bad service, and lingering feelings of inadequacy because you never joined the mile high club.
To better understand the mindset that brought J.J. and me together, allow me to take you on a flight into the mind of a seventh-grade misfit wandering the high-ceilinged halls of a middle school set within a beautiful piece of English Tudor revival architecture. I didn’t have a lot of friends. Some kids made fun of me. But my once-yearly plane trips to visit my grandparents in Kentucky exposed me to a magical world, a parallel universe where pilots smiled at me and flight attendants doled out free food on trays decorated with sleek airline logos. Flight crews represented the ultimate in globetrotting sophistication, far outweighing the social standing of even the coolest kid or meanest bully in school. Oh sure, those kids wielded some power in the hallowed halls of our beautiful school. But they’d be lost and powerless in the glamorous concourses of Pittsburgh International Airport or Chicago’s O’Hare, where only I knew exactly how to get to the Ozark Air Lines gates.
Finding another person who, like me, worshipped the vibrant visuals and exotic glamour of the airline industry gave me a new sense of belonging—although I first discovered our shared passion because J.J. was a great liar. He claimed his father owned an airline.
“What, you’ve never heard of Catalines International?” he asked. “My father’s the president. It’s based at the Rochester Airport.”
I was a gullible kid so I believed him (I’d spent more of my childhood socializing with my mother’s adult friends than with kids my own age, so I still hadn’t grasped that many kids were expert liars—and remember, there was no internet that could be used for easy fact checking).
By the time I figured out the truth, we were already well on our way to becoming good friends, and there was no way I could ever drop the only person in the entire middle “school who cared about airlines and air travel. J.J. approached the world of air travel with all the spirit and competitiveness of a sports fan, and that pushed us even further. Our click was so potent, in fact, that it would soon lead us beyond playing flight attendant to deceptive impersonations and activities that, I believe, were downright illegal.
Reprinted with permission from Prepare for Departure: Notes on a Single Mother, a Misfit Son, Inevitable Mortality & the Enduring Allure of Frequent Flyer Miles, by Mark Chesnut. This material may be protected by copyright.