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Air Devil 

If you really want to know what modern life is like, and where each of us is headed in the very near future, spend some time at the airport. Do as I have recently — spend three weeks in airports — and you’ll be lucky not just to come home alive, but to care that you did.

Damn that 9/11! Not only has it made flying, already a hellish nightmare, a quadrupled hellish nightmare, but you can’t even say what you want to about it without people thinking you’re being callous, unpatriotic and ungrateful. Taking it too lightly. Not upset enough or respectful — where’s the flag on your lapel? It might sound like you’re trying to make a joke!

Trust me: The day you fly from Portland, Oregon, to Miami, Florida, by way of St. Louis, Missouri, you’ll forget that jokes exist.

It’s not your fellow passengers who make you crazy in the friendly skies, although any one of them, particularly those with “small children,” has the potential to snap your rubber band at any point in the flying ordeal. Having made considerable public fusses as a toddler myself, I’m prepared to overlook all but the most egregious behavior in Tiffany, Brandon, Taylor, etc. It’s their parents I can’t fathom.

Couples of America, listen up: A screaming baby is bad, but a talking 2-year-old is worse. Am I clear? They don’t belong in public spaces; they should be seen and not heard. I know that most of you are strung out beyond the capacity of tireless mules, trapped in “workplaces,” mortgages, soccer games and sex lives, but if Caitlin and Conor simply won’t stop squawking and shrieking, take your cue from the animal kingdom and cuff ’em upside the head. It did, and does, wonders for children. Either that or a dollop of scotch around the gums.

I think this is what my grandmother gave me in July 1958, as my brother and I went with her from Pennsylvania to Colorado on the train. We arrived in St. Louis in a heat wave — 104 degrees. I had a bloody nose, and we waited for our connection for what seemed like years. As a child, I wasn’t easily stifled, but somehow my grandmother did it: My memory fades and wakens to the sight of Mount Manitou, Cripple Creek and the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. The ancients drugged themselves ritually for this reason, of course — to get over humps.

Nevertheless, as I say, it isn’t your fellow oppressed and tormented slaves-on-their-way-to-the-mines who drive you nuts as you face a whole day in a jet-propelled missile, hurtling through space in a roaring canister, of which you’ve seen so many, so often, blown into fiery pieces. No, it’s the inability of anyone employed by the airlines to tell you the truth — that is to say, the facts of the situation. This is their job — that is, not to tell you. They know, and you know they know, and they know you know they know, that your plane won’t be going anywhere. You won’t arrive at your destination when you thought you would. This might or might not complicate your life, but, plainly, it isn’t complicating theirs. This is why you want to kill them.

Oops! Did I say that? A sign in Miami warned me that it was “forbidden” not just to transport, but to “discuss” knives, weapons, terrorists, etc., while shuffling to your doom in an over-lit, metal-and-plastic shopping-mall-cum-madhouse. Good citizen that I am, I arrived duly at all my scheduled departures a full two hours ahead, as instructed, only to find in each case that I was the only one who had. How do you kill hours at an airport even when they aren’t frisking you, opening your pants and lolling around with guns? Again, I’m wholly sympathetic, eager, anxious, even, to meet A Nation Challenged halfway. But when you’ve gone through security for the fourth time because, waiting in vain for your flight, you’ve needed some Fritos or a pack of M&M’s just to stay alive; when the guards start calling you by your first name and ask if you’ve picked up any knives or scissors in the 15 seconds since they last saw you; and when you know that your plane isn’t going anywhere in the first place — well, you want to smoke, don’t you?

Hear this: I’m through defending the public’s right to smoke in times of crisis, as any journey on an airplane necessarily is. It’s the same thing with hospitals — when else would you want to smoke except when gazing into the jaws of death? For God’s sake, they gave Mata Hari a cigarette before they shot her. But no, God forbid, not anymore.

Look around you the next time you’re trapped between a duty-free shop, a vending machine and the fast-food troughs of any airport, and see how many healthy choices you can make when it comes to stuffing your face and quelling your nerves. Caffeine, liquor and fat are your options, but please, help keep this airport a smoke-free zone! Smoke only in designated areas!

Fine — where are they? This varies from port to port, but generally they’re in bars or in cages, where I found myself a week ago, with about 20 minutes to spare between three-hour flights, puffing like mad with 50 other smokers in a small glass enclosure, a sort of smoking aquarium, right in the middle of the traffic to the gates.

“An idea whose time has come!” I cried, suddenly aware that I was back in St. Louis. And there we sat, all 50 sinners, sucking in smoke, coughing, choking and providing an important civic lesson, allowing everyone who walked by us, amazed or outraged, to adopt an air of moral super-iority.

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Peter Kurth

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