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Doug Clark: Air travel requires humility, taste for sawdust

Tue., Sept. 21, 2010

I’m back from a whirlwind trip to North Dakota during which I experienced the worst thing to ever happen to me on an airplane.

That’s saying a mouthful, too.

Once while using the chemical toilet on a flight to Turkey, I dropped my keepsake HBO reporter’s notebook (filled with vital interview notes) into the cobalt commode water.

A mixture of revulsion and fascination washed over me as I watched my black glossy notebook, with attached fancy pen, perform a perfect little cannonball into the pretty blue liquid.


Oh, what I would have paid at that moment for even one rubber glove.

Just bringing this all up again makes me want to take another bleach bath. But it should also prove what a veteran I am to the indignities of air travel.

At least I thought I was.

Then came this journey to North Dakota.

Quite frankly, after watching the movie “Fargo,” I had hoped never to set foot in that flat, oddball of a state.

But my nephew, Stephen, and his beautiful bride, Tamara, got married last Saturday in Grand Forks.

And when it comes to family there are certain things you just suck up and do.

Like giving up a kidney, say.

Or even going to North Dakota.

Fortunately, when it comes to travel, my lovely wife, Sherry, and I work together like a well-oiled machine.

She takes care of the minor details like booking the flights, ordering the rent-a-car and arranging for hotel accommodations.

My job is a little more complex. Besides packing my suitcase, I’m responsible for coming up with wisecracks about all the idiots we meet.

But this trip had me a little apprehensive.

See, I had my right knee scoped last month. It still swells up and aches. And as everybody who has ever flown knows, legroom is an alien concept to the airline industry.

As it turned out, however, we were able to use my gimpy limping status to beg our way into some of the less-crappy seats.

Take our flight home Sunday from Minneapolis to Spokane.

We were seated in row 5, which on this particular airplane allowed for full and glorious leg stretching.

Ahhhh …

The cost was high, however. Sitting there also gave us a direct view of the swells in first class.

For the entire three-hour flight I had to stare at this woman as she received the spa treatment just one row away from me.

Hot towels, glasses of wine, a pita wrap sandwich, a bowl of apple slices …

Meanwhile, all I got was a complimentary apple juice and two cinnamon sawdust cookies.

It was like having to live in a singlewide trailer parked right outside the Heavenly Gates.

I felt like waging some class warfare and stealing her Kindle.

Yeah, it was bad.

But it was nothing like what happened on the earlier flight from Grand Forks to Minneapolis.

That time we weren’t so lucky. We landed in Row 1, which put my knees practically a’knockin’ against the unforgiving bulkhead wall.

No leg stretching this time.

I had no choice. The only relief came by angling my sore wheel out into the galley aisle.

That’s when the nightmare happened.

The flight attendant – a small, young man with a bodybuilder’s physique – clonked his shoe into my intruding foot.

He walked over and bent down to talk to me.

Before he could get a word out, I explained about my knee and the surgery and the swelling and the …

“You go right ahead and stretch it out,” he said in the compassionate tone of a nursing home caregiver.

“My grandfather has the same thing.”

Your, uh, what?

Isn’t it amazing how a single word can flip your entire universe upside down?

Get me a walker. Order me a case of Depends.

Call me Gramps.

I turned to Sherry.

“Did you hear him?” I stammered. “The dude thinks of me like his grandfather. Not his father. His GRANDFATHER!!!”

Sherry nodded. She was enjoying my discomfort waaaay too much.

“I heard,” she finally replied. “And he obviously thinks I’m your daughter.”

I may never fly again.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by e-mail at

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