The year, 1986. My career as a hotel consultant was going well. I have always enjoyed my job, as it requires travel every few weeks, and that has kept life interesting. Travel that year was challenged by the fact that I was a single mom and trying my best not to be away from home for long periods.
I recall, as if it were yesterday, the job assignment. I was in Palm Springs with my boss. We were studying the potential for a proposed hotel project in that swanky resort town and our work had gone well. On the last day of our fieldwork, we had celebrated by taking a tram ride up the mountain that towers over the town. We had a drink at the top of the mountain, and it was at that point that my boss confessed that she was afraid of heights, particularly going down, and didn’t think she could do it. Long story short, we asked the tram conductor for a little bench. By sitting her on the bench, she could no longer see out the windows, and we made our way down the mountain in one piece.
I had planned to leave that day. My boss was staying for one more day for meetings. So, we said our goodbyes and I made my way to the airport for the trip back to San Francisco.
It wasn’t long before I was eating peanuts and sipping a Coke, smiling at the memory of my boss huddling on a bench, her hands over her eyes, on our trip down the mountain. How come she never mentioned this when we were flying? Weird.
It was about that time — you know the time. They’ve just served up your drink and that is typically when the turbulence sets in. I remember the first jolt and grabbing my drink with both hands, a sideways glance at the passenger next to me, to see if she was panicking. She wasn’t. OK. Good. I took a deep breath and a sip of my drink, trying to feel like those everyday commuters look — calm, bored, impervious to their surroundings. The second jolt was stronger and this time, one of the overhead compartment doors fell open. The stewardess (they were not called flight attendants back then) did not come to close it. At the same moment, the pilot was heard over the loud speaker, asking the stewardesses to take their seats until further notice.
I looked at the stewardesses sitting at the front of the plane. They looked calm. Good. Excellent. I quickly drank the rest of my soda so I could quit worrying about it, and stuffed my napkin inside of it to keep the ice from spilling out. Breathing. Calm. Not bored. Will have to work on this. Wish I had more peanuts.
And it happened. With a sudden jolt, the plane started rocking back and forth, and then began a way-too-fast decline. Oh God! My seatmate and I exchanged glances. It was official. We were terrified. I looked at the stewardesses. Their faces looked calm, but their hands gripping the arms of their seats was a dead giveaway. I pulled my already tight seat belt a bit tighter. Breathing. Far from calm.
It was probably just a few seconds. Felt like forever. As our rapid decline continued and true panic was setting in, the oxygen masks fell from the ceiling above and we were given instructions to put them on. I remember my eyes tearing up and my hands shaking. No one was speaking. Everyone was staring at the stewardesses, waiting for our next instruction. I reached over for the hand of my seatmate and she did not hesitate to take my hand. It was then that the pilot announced that we were making an emergency landing in Los Angeles. We had hit a wind shear which caused a sudden loss in altitude, which caused the need for oxygen, and it was over that fast. Oh thank God. Before we knew what happened, we were making our approach, and everyone started clapping their hands. My seatmate and I couldn’t. Our hands were stuck together like crazy glue and we weren’t letting go. Not yet.
We departed the plane, everyone talking way too fast, laughing with a tinge of hysteria, patting each other on the back, although at the same time, no doubt, thanking the dear Lord that we had survived this ordeal. No cell phones to call loved ones. Noticed some people putting cigarettes in their mouths, holding their lighters at the ready, in anticipation of getting off that plane.
We were each diverted to other planes and I never saw my seatmate/soulmate again. I remember boarding the second plane and it was practically full. I had to go to the rear of the plane and spotted a vacant middle seat. The aisle and the window seat were occupied by businessmen. They had removed their suit jackets; ties loosened. Calm. Bored. The guy in the window seat was sleeping. We hadn’t even taken off yet!
“I’ll have a gin and tonic. No ice and no tonic, please!”, I said, in my most professional, calm voice. The stewardess gave me a look, but didn’t say a word. The aisle-seat-man ordered an orange juice, mumbling something about being on a special fast. Turns out, he was suffering from one major hangover, as was window-seat-man, and all the other men that surrounded us in those rear rows. Very quiet group.
I never stopped talking. Poor aisle-seat-man. In the short flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, he heard my entire life story. I couldn’t shut up. I remember him staring at me, occasionally dabbing beads of sweat from his own forehead with his napkin and taking sips from his orange juice. Every now and then, he would acknowledge something I said with a polite “Hmmm” or “Uh-Huh”. He listened to every detail of the “plane accident”. He heard about my divorce. He heard about my children. He heard about my job. He now knew where I lived and what my hobbies were.
We finally made it to San Francisco. As I stood in the baggage claim area, aisle-seat-man approached me, this time, with a tall, pleasant looking man in a gray suit and tie. By now, aisle-seat-man and I were on a first-name basis. “Hi Rich! I’m so sorry to have talked your ear off!” He smiled, looking a bit healthier now that he was on solid ground. “No problem, Sue. I enjoyed talking to you. In fact, I’d like you to meet someone. This is Walt. He’s my boss. I told him that I think the two of you would get along great.”
I laughed, and shook Walt’s hand in greeting. Walt smiled back and said, “I was wondering if we could offer you a ride home. I understand you live in Mill Valley. That’s on my way.”
This was the very first business trip of dozens, that I chose to park my car at an airporter near home and take the bus in. Any other time, my car would have been parked at the airport. It was pouring rain outside. I had just survived a near catastrophe. I had been drinking gin with no tonic. I looked at this man and decided in about a minute flat that he looked harmless, if not downright dashing! “Thank you. That would be terrific!”
When Walt dropped me off, he asked if he might call me and I said yes. It was the 1980′s! We were wild and crazy back then! He called the next day. The rest is history!