Since I am an inveterate story thief, I have lots of these. I’ll be sharing them with you over time, in this recurring post series.
This story actually happened to a friend of mine named Judy, with whom I used to work, and it happened on the way home from a visit to our company’s headquarters in Vermont, several states away. Judy and I and another colleague were supposed to fly out of Albany, back to Virginia, but the Friday afternoon flight was overbooked. The airline offered a voucher for future travel to anyone willing to take a later flight, and Judy jumped at the chance; she had begun dating another employee who lived in Vermont, and their weekends were often taken up with traveling to see one another.
Lori and I took our scheduled flight. Judy took the later one. On Saturday I called her, just to make sure she’d gotten home okay.
We were at that time the only accountants in the Virginia office, other than one clerk and our boss, the assistant controller, and since Judy and I were young women living alone, we checked up on each other for safety. This was in the days when email existed, but was almost exclusively used only among university colleagues, because the only institutions with the funds to build servers were universities. Facebook wasn’t even a glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. Cell phones? don’t make me laugh. I used the phone in my apartment.
“Did I get home okay?” Judy repeated back to me on the phone, and laughed. “Well…”
She’d walked in the door of her apartment at 1 am, exhausted. First, her later flight had been delayed due to bad weather in Chicago. Then, after the passengers had boarded, the flight had been further delayed by unspecified “mechanical problems.” Twenty minutes stretched into forty, forty stretched into an hour and fifteen minutes. The flight attendants served complimentary alcoholic beverages; Judy took one. The hour and a quarter delay stretched into two hours, and the flight attendants offered another round of complimentary alcoholic beverages; Judy took another one.
Then, from her seat just behind the wing of the plane, she looked out the window to see two Delta employees in coveralls working on some component of the wing. She couldn’t hear them, but she could see very well what they were doing.
They were arguing.
One of the mechanics had opened up a compartment of the wing and was yanking wires out, speaking vehemently to the other. Once he’d finished yanking and yelling, the second mechanic shook his head violently, seized the wires and stuffed them back into the compartment. It took him several minutes. Judy, only partially pacified by her two drinks, watched him slam the metal hatch closed and screw it down.
Immediately after he had finished, the first mechanic unscrewed it and reopened it, pulling out the wires the second mechanic had put back and ignoring the second mechanic’s pulling-his-own-hair rant. As soon as he’d done that, the second mechanic shoved the other out of the way, and put each wire back, less carefully than he’d replaced them the first time. He slammed the hatch shut again, screwed it down, and before the first mechanic could do anything, the second one poked a finger into his chest and said something very rude to him.
Judy had no experience in lipreading, but there was no question what the mechanic was saying. Sometimes you just know.
The first mechanic shrugged. The second mechanic patted his hand on the wing twice, the way people do when they mean, “Okay, let’s go,” and the two mechanics walked out of Judy’s line of sight. Five minutes later, the captain announced over the intercom that the flight had been cleared for takeoff.
Judy, then swaying slightly from the effect of two Vodka Collinses, could only think to herself, “We’re all going to die. We are going to crash and I’m going to die and I’ll never see my family again. I’ll never see Charlie again.”
The flight was uneventful. But Judy was nervous all the way (wouldn’t you be?). And to this day, I get through nerve-wracking flight delays by telling myself, at least it’s not as bad as that time the airline mechanics were arguing over wing guts.
And I don’t feel particularly sorry for taking Judy’s story and telling it as if it were my own. It works better that way, especially when you can do the arguing faces. And if I had been less of a friend, not caring whether the course of Judy and Charlie’s true love ran smooth (Reader, she married him), if I’d been the one to volunteer for the later flight, this could have even been my story.
There are two lessons in this experience: One, take the later flight. Or the road less traveled. Choose the unexpected, because you never know what kind of great stuff might happen. And two, always make the good stories your own.
That’s what writers do, isn’t it? It’s what we do.
We steal stuff. All the time. We steal the best stories and make them our characters’ stories. We can change the details, we can leave out the irrelevant and play up the exciting bits, we can punch up the words. We can make the stories ours.
What’s the best story you can steal today?