A Fort With Wings

Once upon a time, flying in an airplane was as exotic as an African safari.

People who went places other than their grandparents’ house, it seemed to me, lived in a distant kingdom, drank cocktails with lemon twists, and flew around the world with old maps and leather luggage.

You were part of a special club if you flew before airline deregulation. Travelers dressed up for the event, and they were treated like Grace Kelly the minute they got to the airport. Stewardesses fell all over them with cocktails and peanuts and pilots flashed their winning smiles.

Today, flying is nothing more than boarding a Greyhound bus with wings.

Everyone has their favorite complaint when it comes to the friendly skies, whether it’s the lack of sustenance, the inhumane security lines or the puny seats.

My favorite complaint is the overhead bins.

What is it with people and those overhead bins, anyway? Do they see them as some sort of personal space that entitles them to misbehave? Or have they never gotten over being 10 years old and having a box under their bed that holds their marbles and frogs?

I was boarding a plane one winter day, and it was bitterly cold outside. I had almost made it onto the plane when the line stopped. There were only a few people ahead of me (and 100 people behind me) so I couldn’t imagine what the holdup was.

A few minutes passed, and our teeth were chattering, so I nudged ahead a bit to look around the corner and down the aisle of the plane.

Sure enough, there was a man standing in the aisle monkeying around with the overhead bin as if he were rearranging the cupboards in his kitchen.

Oh, he was taking his regulation carry-on and trying out different positions in the bin, but nothing seemed just right to him. He stood and contemplated this pressing issue as if he were working out the mathematical formula for gravity in his head.

It was barely tolerable for the first three minutes, but when five literal minutes went by and he was still standing there rearranging his bag, I was ready to stuff him in the overhead and click the door shut.

The rest of the passengers were standing in the frigid hallway, and they all must have just left church because I saw little chance of revolt. We’ve all become so accustomed to the horrors of flying that we often tune out and appear nonchalant, even with icicles growing in our nostrils.

Mr. Overhead Bin was now busy rearranging his coat over his bag, but first he had to fold it carefully like he was creating an origami. It took him several minutes to accomplish this, but by the time he’d finished, he decided he actually needed something from the bag that he’d literally just tucked in and put to sleep.

There was steam shooting from my ears.

It is true that we call forth in life those situations that have the most to teach us. Impatient people, for example, will always find themselves behind slow drivers or the brand new clerk at the checkout line.

I seem to call forth crazy people in airports.

By now, the troops behind me were getting restless, and I asked the flight attendant if the snowmen behind me might be allowed to board and have Mr. Overhead Bin play with his marbles after we’ve all been seated.

With a big plastic smile, she looked at me and said, “I’m sure he’ll finish up in a second.”

I was clearly on candid camera.

It is true that the overhead bin space is the No. 1 reason passengers get into fights with each other and with flight attendants. It’s only gotten worse since many major airlines began charging for the first checked bag. The airlines are making big money with this fee, but it has certainly heightened tensions when passengers board.

When we were young, everyone liked to have their own little space – like a fort in a tree or a corner of the attic. I think passion for the overhead bins stems from this need to have something we can call our own wherever we go. In the crush of humanity we can declare to the world, “This is my seat and my storage compartment!”

The real culprit of the flying experience is other people’s obliviousness. It’s like we’ve forgotten we are traveling with hundreds of other human beings, and our needs become paramount at the expense of others. We have forgotten the rules of flying etiquette, which should begin with no tuna subs on board. (Especially ones with onions.)

The second rule of etiquette should read, “A plane is not your backyard fort. It’s just a plane.”

You can build Spanky’s clubhouse when you get to the hotel.