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Monday, March 14, 2011

Within 3 hours of Landing in Tokyo, We had to Turn Around...This is What Happened

We were suspended somewhere between Alaska and Japan, near the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, when the announcement was made. It certainly was one of those surreal experiences that you may daydream about but you rarely expect for it to actually happen. We were only 3 hours away from landing, which on a 13 hour flight, you were close to landing. Suddenly, cracking through the late night movie and across the comfortless dozing of the passengers, the intercom reported cooly.

"There will be a change in our plans. Apparently, a massive earthquake has struck off the coast of Japan and a dangerous tsunami is reported to be hitting Japan soon. The airport of Nerita is closed, so we are turning around and landing in Anchorage, Alaska. Sorry for the inconvenience. These are extreme circumstances. We will do our best to work with you through this."

There was a general mayhem onboard, alot of curiosity. People began to rumage about the cabin, not in desperation or panic, but perhaps for fellowship and questions. Of course, that's how I found myself walking around the plane, trying to eavesdrop on all the more assertive passengers who storm the poor flight attendants with question after question. One flight attendant was astonished. He said that this main international airport of Japan has never closed in all the 20 something years that he's worked. This had to be something epic. And unfortunately, all communication with Tokyo was inacessible. All that the pilots knew was that this airport was closed. And even communication with Chicago was little for they were being swamped with all types of calls. So it appeared that Anchorage was the ideal place to land for we had just enough gas to get there.

Sure enough, the little cartoon plane on the map screen that is shown on all international flights, careened around and now soared back in a northeast direction. Surprisingly, nobody really panicked and I was impressed with the level-headedness of the Japanese passengers. I mean, this was their home we are talking about.

I was eavesdropping on this one conversation even engaging in it, when me and this Cuban, a guy from Miami, began to talk. He was some sort of doctor and was on vacation with his family. I could understand only a half of what he was saying his accent was so thick, even though he'd been living in the US half his life, that and the fact that he was so short, I had to stoop to hear him. He was thinking that since he was a tourist, it would take longer for him to get through to where he was going and by the time he figured we'd be out of Alaska, his vacation time would be up. So as soon as he got to Anchorage, he was going to see about calling it quits on his vacation time. Alot of people shared in that sentiment.

The whole flight I was squeezed between 2 men from Taiwan. One was old, the other was young. They were both headed to Taipei. The old man was the little guy who sat quietly the whole trip either staring out the window or reading this interesting looking novel. At times he would close his eyelids and just sort of bask in the streams of sunlight that were pouring in through the window. I wanted to talk to him, thought that he might have some sort of inner wisdom about life...and when the disaster was announced...about all this. His english was poor and I liked the way his thick accent said "Orange Juice" when the flight attendant came around asking if we wanted anything to drink. When it was still day, and it was day a long time for we were traveling West with the sun, I noticed the way this old man would never watch any of the movies, the movies that I was sucked into because there was little else to do and they were actually good movies for the most part. No, his eyes were glued to the dream-like formation of the clouds and the way the sunlight would bounce on these cotton-candy castles.

The young Taiwanese man to my right, in the aisle seat was a law student in St. Louis. He was going to visit some of his family in Taiwan for spring break. His english was exceptional and I could carry full conversations with him. I could see that he was very sharp, but I also got the sense that he knew that he was very sharp. And people that know they are very sharp tend to be either extraordinarily conceited or they seem to swim in an aura of cynicism. Sometimes both. Not that this fellow was unbearable. Not at all, I had no problem with him and I liked him. Its just that real connection during conversation is kinda blocked. However, maybe some of this is due to my own ego wanting to prove itself. I noticed before he told me he was a law student, he broke open this book that only a law student would be studying, and it just so happened that this movie was being shown that had everything to do with the practice of law. I saw him get interested in it and slam shut his book as though he was thinking, "What's the point, this movie will tell me more than this book." And later, I found out that all of this was true. He was also going to Taiwan for only 5 days. So he was pretty resolved that when we landed in Anchorage, he would catch the first flight back to St. Louis.

Another talkative fellow that I met while wandering about the plane was this other American. We had this long spilled out conversation sorta in the area where the stewardesses hang out and talk about the passengers they don't like while they get ready to pass out pretzels. The American was from Kentucky or Southern Indiana to be precise. He was an engineer and traveling to Hong Kong for a business trip. He was wearing this awful looking Hawaiian shirt and had this bristly moustache and coke-bottle glasses; he was loud and gregarious. I've long held the conspiracy theory, that America dutifully manufactures characters that fit the "American-Over Seas" stereotype, and then sends them all over the world to represent our country as a whole. Why the government does this, I will never know. But he fit the bill exactly. He couldn't count the number of times his company has sent him to Hong Kong, but he goes on these business trips twice a year. He was a Methodist and I could tell was worried about his son in college who was "majoring in Psychology, but more into studying booze, girls, and drugs". I made the quip that he was probably learning more about psychology than he thought.

That's what I like about long flights. You get a short glimpse into all these strangers crammed around you. For a brief spell you travel alongside them, hear a story or two, and then you continue on to wherever it is that you are going. And you find that this is true, people are everywhere going places. Some are only wanting to get home, some are only wanting to get away from home, some aren't even aware that there is a home. Meanwhile we talk and stretch our legs about the cabin, we are suspended way up into the clouds, oblivious to the strange fact we are flying. And then something horrible happens that cannot be explained, and even deeper, something significant is felt that we are all just travellers sharing in the same path with the same questions dealing with the same tragedy, however touched by the same light.

As we flew into Alaska it was 1 in the morning. All was dark. But one of the flight attendants announced on the PA that off to the left the Northern Lights could be seen. We were fortunate to be on that side of the plane, so the two Taiwanese and I, stretched our necks around and sat open eyed to the mystic play of the Aurora Borealis. It was this greenish hue that danced above the horizon. It was one of those things that I've always wanted to see. And luck would have it that even before I stepped a foot in Alaska, I would get to see it. There are many things within Nature that I don't understand, its seemingly savagery of quakes and tsunamis, and its tranquil beauty and mysterious serenity. A friend of mine just sent me a letter about this question. I think we all share in this great perplexity, yet wonder.

...To be Continued...


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