“Our first plane got in late and I had to run with her in my arms all the way across the airport to our connecting terminal,” my friend Timberly said as she offered up the tale of her experience flying alone with her eighteen month old daughter for the first time. “Plus, she was in desperate need of a diaper change that had to happen before we got on the plane, so I had to change her right there in front of the gate before we were rushed onto our next plane.”
“Sounds like a hell of a lot of fun,” I responded.
“If you think that was fun, you should have been there for her complete breakdown on the flight home. As hard as I tried, there was nothing I could do to calm her down. I was totally out of snacks, though I’m not sure if that would have helped anyways,” she continued. “Plus, on the second flight back she had an explosion in her diaper and I had to change her in that tiny ass airplane bathroom.”
“How the hell do you do that?” I asked, not really expecting an answer. I already knew the answer. There was no answer. You just figure it out. Plus, my kid weighs like twice as much, and the logistics of her attempt would never translate. Hell, I’ve changed Jack’s diaper on the top of the back of the toilet in the bar bathroom stall at the Crescent Moon on more than one occasion, so I knew exactly what to fear in the cramped confines of the friendly skies. It wouldn’t be fun and more than likely I was going to get shit on me. I sat back in the shotgun seat of my wife’s Hyundai, closed my eyes, and prayed that I wouldn’t have to figure out the airplane bathroom diaper change later that afternoon. After all, it was barely an hour flight. So, I had that going for me, but I also knew very well that my son’s ass has impeccable timing. Still, I hoped for the best.
I had plenty of snacks, a small blue paper gift bag from my wife filled with a “life vest” as she put it, and plenty of time to catch our flight, but that conversation earlier in the week was still fresh in my mind. The fear was slowly creeping up from my gut into my consciousness as I kissed my wife goodbye and grabbed my son and my suitcase from the car seat and the trunk respectively. My parents had secured a cheap fare from Omaha to Chicago for me months ago, wanting to take advantage of the last few months of Jack’s ability to fly for free on my lap. Jack was more than excited. He had been enamored with planes flying overhead since the summer, and he definitely seemed to understand what I was talking about when I told him we would be going on an airplane. When he woke up that morning I asked him if he was ready to go with Daddy on an airplane in the sky. He nodded yes emphatically, in the way that he had started doing in the past week, focusing all of his synapses and energy into the up and down head motion that seemed to take all of his concentration to pull off. I smiled at his adorable affirmation, but I was somewhat less enthused than he.
With my son my only real responsibility these days, I had no reason to decline the ticket. While the Professor enjoyed some rare time alone in Omaha, Jack and I would be flying together, in one cramped coach seat on a jam-packed Southwest Airlines flight from Omaha’s Eppley airport to Chicago’s Midway. This Stay at Home Dad show was hitting the road for the first leg of what would end up being close to a month away from Omaha for the holidays. I slung the backpack full of toys, treats, diapers, and distractions over my shoulder, watched my wife drive off, grabbed my son’s hand, and with a deep, calming breath, led Jack through the revolving door into the airport. After succumbing to his desires to go through the slowly spinning door a third time, I snatched him into my free arm and headed for the ticket counter to obtain our boarding passes.
I offered up proof of my paternity and proof of Jack’s age in exchange for my boarding pass and his, checked my suitcase, and watched Jack flirt with the woman at the counter for a few seconds as I set my mind towards the task at hand–getting through the security checkpoint. My big, dark beard and titanium hardware in my right leg were enough to make air travel more than a mild inconvenience as it was, never mind the nineteen month old with the desire to wander, or the newly instated travel protocol that had thrown the entire country into a hissy fit for the past two weeks. Based on all of the rumors and eyewitness reports flying across the internet in the last day, needless to say I was ready to be molested and I encouraged Jack to get ready for a fondling of his own.
“Let’s hope my penis looks bigger than yours in the full body X-ray,” I smirked to Jack as I took off my belt and emptied the contents of my pockets into my backpack as we approached the checkpoint.
“Enis,” Jack responded, pointing to the front of his pants and lightening the tension that permeated from the cluster of TSA agents ahead of us.
I took off Jack’s coat, followed by my own as I tried to wrestle his blanket and stuffed monkey away from him to place into the plastic bin with both of our pairs of shoes. Jack was taken aback by this infringement of his civil rights, and immediately started screaming for his “bee-bee” and his “ooo-ooo-onkey” as I tried to direct him through the line. An older woman in line behind me made it known that she thought taking away a baby’s stuffed animal and blanket was absurd. I gave her a polite smile trying to convey that I agreed with her but that a bearded Armenian such as myself can’t risk breaking bad on the TSA. Jack wasn’t happy and I feared that this was just the beginning of what would be a miserable few hours, when suddenly we were able to bypass the full body scan and the pat down and were thankfully hustled through the metal detector without even a suspicious glance at my beard. I led Jack past the smiling attendant to the other end of the conveyor belt to finally retrieve his monkey and put an end to his despair.
“Luckily you weren’t trying to smuggle anything in that little fuzzy bastard,” I said to him as I sat him down on a nearby bench to put his shoes back on before gathering my thoughts, my belongings, and getting dressed. “You got lucky this time, little man.” I laughed at the up and down nod he gave me and the relative smoothness of our passage through security, as I fastened my belt and tied my shoes. It was actually the best TSA experience I had had in years, despite the media hoopla and the toddler obstacle. In fact, the baby had actually trumped the beard. If all aspects of air travel with a child were this easy, I had nothing to worry about.
Of course, I was still worried. The ease of movement through the security checkpoint had left us with at least two and a half hours to kill before boarding, and something told me relaxing with my traditional pre-flight beer or three was going to be out of the question. I was ready to keep him occupied on the hour long direct flight, but I hadn’t considered the hours before boarding that might prove challenging. I knew his patience was going to be pushed to the limit, but before I could even allow myself to get anxious about it, I got lost in the sweetness of his amazement at the planes outside the windows. “OOOOOOO!” he would yell as he pointed to an airplane or a luggage cart or a gasoline truck. “Coooooooool,” he continued as he climbed onto a chair and pressed his face against the terminal window leaving a spot of drool in his wake. He’d pull his lips back from the glass and slowly emit a fully formed “Wow,” his warm breath fogging up a tiny oval on the tinted airport window.
We spent the next hour and a half running from one terminal window to the next, repeating the process, Jack climbing up and down every empty chair in the vicinity, running across the terminal from gate to gate trying to catch a glimpse of something new, a chorus of “ooooos,” “cools,” and “wows” emanating from my tiny midget as he scurried through the relatively empty airport attracting the gazes of various fellow travelers. With each scamper across the terminal, I stole a glimpse of the airport bar, thinking back to my non-baby days of air travel, growing thirstier with each pass. There had to be a way.
Not wanting to break into the as yet unopened care package in my backpack until absolutely necessary, or at least until we were on the plane, I led Jack to the little magazine shop where I purchased a copy of Rolling Stone that I was sure to not have a chance to read, and a package of never fail peanut butter cheese crackers that Jack grabbed off the toddler height shelf.
“Coooogies,” he said as his face lit up at my willingness to buy the bright orange treats for him.
Knowing that the crackers would buy me some stationary time, I headed straight for the bar and ordered an overpriced draught. With Jack in one hand and my beer in the other I scoped out a nice corner table underneath a television and set Jack in a seat with a cracker. He devoured half the package before my third swig and was ready for more exploring.
“Ooooooooooo,” he said dramatically, pointing all the way across the airport at something I didn’t even see.
“Yeah, that’s pretty sweet,” I replied trying to hurry my beer down my throat, but still trying to taste it. “Here, have another cookie,” I said. He brushed it off and pointed again. He was no longer hungry. That wasn’t a good thing. I had counted on snacks to occupy him for the entire plane ride, but I already had to go all in with peanut butter crackers before we even lined up to board. This didn’t bode well for anybody.
I frantically searched my backpack for something that might offer me at least a chance to finish my beer, never mind the upcoming plane ride. I uncovered a toy motorcycle and one of my old yellow Matchbox cars that he had been attached to for the past week. He took the toys but had no interest in sitting still, so I set up a barricade with a few empty chairs trapping him in the corner of the bar. I knew it wouldn’t last, so I chugged the rest of my beer in a hurried gulp and carried Jack out of the bar area right before his patience ran out and right after he shoved the car a few feet away from us sending it rolling across the terminal. As soon as I set him down, he was off again speeding awkwardly to the other side of the terminal like a mouse on a mission. I caught up with him right before he attempted to go back through security, and dragged him unwillingly back to our gate where the line to board was just starting to form.
I ate one of the radioactive looking orange crackers while I tried to find a comfortable position to stand in with Jack and a bag on opposite shoulders. We waited to board while Jack finished the second cracker I was trying to eat, crumbs dropping onto both of our shirts. I then let him press buttons on my Blackberry, a final act of desperation on my part. Jack was reaching the end of his appetite and his patience and we still had an entire plane ride ahead of us. I prayed that my wife had packed a miracle inside that care package in my backpack, or at least some chloroform. I feared the worst. Like comic book cells, flashes of my near future flooded my brain. My well behaved Baby Bruce Banner was going to turn into the Incredibly Annoying Hulk at thirty thousand feet. I was going to be “that guy” with “that screaming kid,” that would ruin the entire flight. I wished I would have had time for another drink. The trepidation lodged in my gut. I tried to smile it away.
“Are you ready to go on the airplane?” I asked Jack in a voice I never thought I’d use before I became a Dad, as he attempted to call a seventeen digit and letter phone number. He dropped my phone to focus on his response, another emphatic, concentrated, up and down nod. I double checked to make sure I had everything and then handed the attendant our boarding passes and headed down the ramp to the boarding doors. Jack’s face lit up and his excitement was almost contagious enough to squelch my anxiety as we stepped from the chill of the Omaha winter air to the stifling warmth of the plane cabin.
I squeezed my way down the center aisle carefully maneuvering so as to not smack anyone in the head with my backpack or Jack, noticing the smiles from fellow passengers as we passed. They were either the result of Jack’s cuteness, or from their sense of relief that we were not sitting by them. I guessed a little of both, and worked my way to the back of the plane where I snagged an aisle seat in the last row hoping to luck out and possibly get the row all to ourselves.
“Please be sure to take any available overhead space as this is a full flight,” said the flight attendant over the PA system, immediately squashing my hopes, followed by a college aged passenger who snagged the window seat. He was the only black guy on the flight and I was heavily bearded and had a 19 month old antsy child on my lap. If there was any chance for an empty middle seat, the two of us in the back row held the golden ticket. I offered my theory to my row mate and he laughed heartily as we both crossed our fingers. Despite the threats of a full flight, we looked across the aisle at each other as the last few passengers claimed seats elsewhere, exchanged smiles, and settled in to perhaps the only non-full row of our flight. We shouldn’t have been so secure in our comfort.
Soon enough, a late running and final passenger boarded and headed directly for our back row. He was disheveled and carried quite the carry on haul. After a brief argument with the rear flight attendant who eventually forced him to check his oversized bag, he took a look at the three of us already in the row and squeezed his way in between us. His disdain was quite apparent as he struggled to get comfortable in the middle seat as Jack fumbled through the seat pocket in front of me, pulling out each item and tossing it aside. I tried to cast a sly glance over at the dude in the window seat to gauge his reaction to our new row member as the middle man buckled his seat belt with a sigh and immediately closed his eyes.
I gazed around our immediate vicinity and caught a few surrounding passengers trying to hide the fact that they were looking at Jack. Hey, I totally understood their glares. I’ve been there. When you don’t have a kid on a plane with you, the last thing you want is a kid on the plane with you. Hell, I used to cringe at the sound of someone else’s germ-ridden kid coughing up a lung in the cramped quarters of a flight. I’ve sat across the aisle from a three year old that obviously shit their pants. I’ve been kept awake on a red eye flight by a baby that never seemed to stop crying in the row directly behind me. I too was once childless and extremely anti-child. The only difference now was that my wife and I were a bit lax one night, almost two years ago, in the birth control department. I wasn’t any happier bringing a toddler on a plane than the rest of the passengers. But, I was the one that had to deal with him. I was the one that had to find ways to entertain him for a solid hour in a cramped third of a row so as not to disturb their precious flights. I was the one that would have to figure out how to change a poopy diaper in the airplane lavatory if it came to that. So, as far as I was concerned, the rest of them could just suck it up, face forward, and mind their own fucking business.
At least my fellow passengers, the middle man included, could just close their eyes, pretend Jack wasn’t there, fall asleep, and wake up in Chicago. I on the other hand, had to be “on.” Because I had once been in their child free flying shoes, I had a deep desire to step up my game to keep Jack in check for the duration of the flight just to prove to them that it could be done; that the presence of a young child doesn’t have to equal misery at forty thousand feet. Turns out that Jack and I were both up for the challenge, but it wasn’t easy.
Shortly after takeoff, I noticed a smell. I looked around and brushed it off until I smelled it again a few minutes later. Flashbacks to my friend’s story crept into my consciousness while visions of a harrowing trip to the toilet closet behind me started to become more of a reality in the near future. Of course he shit, I thought. Things couldn’t go that smoothly for me, could they? I lifted his butt to my nose and gave it a quick sniff before I slyly checked the inside of his diaper with my finger and prayed that it wouldn’t come out soiled. It didn’t. Phew. I settled in and read the emergency pamphlet to Jack before placing my drink order with a much too talkative flight attendant who I had just overheard bitching a little too loudly to her partner in the galley behind us about a female passenger a few rows in front of us.
Then, I smelled it again. I thought for a moment that it could have been the sneaky gas of a fellow passenger in our general vicinity before I caught a few of them tossing quick glances at Jack. I played dumb and gave his diapered ass a sniff again. No shit, literally. But if that odor was any indication, and if it was in fact coming from my son, it didn’t bode well for the rest of the flight. I ignored the wafts of fecal fumes when they returned again a couple of minutes later as I tried to distract Jack with the picture of Santa Claus on the Sky Mall magazine, pretending that the smell wasn’t coming from the boy on my lap. At that point, hopes, prayers, and denial was all I had between me and a mid-air diaper disaster. Farting, I could handle. I took my plastic cup of orange juice and ice cubes from the flight attendant, trying to hide the fact that I overheard both her disdain for most of the passengers on the flight and her odd story of her planned sexual escapade for that evening’s Houston stop over, and tried to snag a few sips before handing it over to Jack to spill all over the two of us. I sat there uncomfortably, shirt covered in O.J., trying to contain Jack’s desire to explore the cabin, while I continued to send good thoughts to my toddler’s intestines.
I waited as long as possible before breaking out the “life vest” care package that my wife had stowed in my carry on backpack along with all of my regular childcare necessities. Inside were two cards with sweet notes of encouragement, a Ziplock bag of peanut butter “no bake” cookies, and half a dozen small toys from the Target dollar bin that kept Jack’s attention for about three minutes apiece. Now, that doesn’t seem like much, but when you have to keep a one year old child occupied and quiet on your lap for sixty seven minutes with nowhere to go, every second of distraction helps. Between the toys, the cookies, two rounds of orange juice and ice cubes, and the contents of the seat back pocket in front of me, we were good to go all the way up to the pilot’s announcement that we had begun our final descent. After that, I just had to allow him to stick his meat paw hands in my mouth and giggle hysterically for fifteen minutes, and then we were ready to deplane. I was amazed with the lack of drama: no crying, no temper tantrums, no running aimlessly about the cabin, no annoying of the passengers next to us, and best of all, no shitty diapers. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Jack never ceases to amaze me.
The flight back home was even better, with the now veteran flier Jack entertaining a much friendlier crop of flight attendants and nearby passengers. While other babies on board had unceasing breakdowns, Jack’s behavior had my fellow fliers fighting for his attention. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d let him fly the plane or if he took the middle aged flight attendant into the bathroom to become the littlest member of the mile high club. I know I definitely lucked the fuck out with this one, though I don’t know how much credit I can take for him. He always manages to exceed my expectations. When it’s all said and done, time and again, he shoves my worries back in my face with a stellar performance.
In the future, I hope to remember these instances where he has surprised me. I hope I can keep being proved wrong by my son. Hell, I hope that someday I won’t have to be proved wrong. With each new trial or adventure, I’m learning to start to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m learning to more freely offer him the credit that he deserves. I’m learning more about my son and what he is capable of. He is slowly displaying that more often than not he is worthy more of my trust and positivity than my assumed worries and fears. If I can remember that, perhaps when it really counts further on down the road, I’ll be able to prove something to him.
A few days after our trip, Jack woke up screaming from a nap. I ran into his room to find him standing in his crib with his pacifier in two pieces in his hands. He had bitten the nub off the plug, the third such instance in the last few months. This time, however, it was the last one. I called my wife at work and told her the news.
“Well, I guess we’re done with pacifiers,” the Professor responded.
I knew getting rid of the pacifier was an eventual necessity before it was too late, but I wasn’t sure if he was ready. I’d seen how he reacted to just the mere possibility of having to take a nap or go to bed without one. There were even times when he was awake that you’d have to force him to give it up to much violent protest.
“Okay, but that’s your call. I’m not sure I’m on board with this decision,” I said, wondering more and more if it was Jack that wasn’t ready, or me. “You can deal with it,” I continued.
Once again, I feared the worst. I figured we’d have to listen to him scream himself to sleep for the next four days, and make several late night trips into his room to pacify him back to sleep ourselves. I saw lots of tears, frustration, and anxiety in the forecast. I envisioned a completely ruined weekend.
I talked to him as I was changing his diaper and putting him into his pajamas that night. We had one of our first Father-Son heart to hearts. I told him what was in store for him at bedtime. I told him there was no more pacifiers for bedtime. I told him that it was time to go to bed like a big boy. He gave me one of those real serious nods.
It shouldn’t have surprised me that he went to bed without a peep. There was no whining, no crying, no screaming. He went right to bed “like a big boy.” He napped the following afternoon without incident as well. The next night, it was more of the same with Jack very easily letting go of his long time crutch of a pacifier, while I let go of something entirely different, and started to see my son as that big boy who could handle himself and his challenges a lot better than I was giving him credit for.