An airline, a boy, and country

None of us were happy campers. We were all victims of Northwest Airlines, a company we had all learned to hate after years of dealing with their cruel, arrogant, and greedy corporate ways. Each of us had our own story: fares between towns two hundred miles apart as high as fares from the U.S. to Europe; lost and damaged luggage that Northwest refused to pay for, and on and on. Now we were huddled together on a small van, being taken to a half-finished, filthy motel ten miles from the airport where Northwest had reluctantly agreed to warehouse us for the night because it had failed to keep our connections.

I was impressed with my own story — Northwest’s lecture about how it was not responsible for my situation because the plane had begun taxiing when it had been delayed at my departure airport. Apparently once the plane left the gate it was my responsibility to make it arrive on time, and I was about to launch into my diatribe about how they had told me they were paying for my overnight out of the goodness of their heart, when a young boy next to me spoke up. He seemed about 14. In the dark I could not make out his features, but there was a darkness to his skin — Middle Eastern, perhaps, or Indian — American or sub-continent — something other than the rest of us irritated Caucasian travelers.

He was coming home on leave — obviously he was more than 14 — and his mom was waiting for him at the airport in Rapid City. She had driven 200 miles and had to be at work the next morning, so she had been forced to turn around and go back home while he remained stuck in Minneapolis because Northwest had refused to book him on a different airline or to a nearby city. He only had ten days, and this was going to cost him two of them.

All of us were sympathetic and a bit ashamed. We were inconvenienced; this boy was having time stolen from him. All of us, whatever our political persuasion, knew what being home on leave meant in these times of shapeless desert wars and car bombs. We could only imagine his mother, sitting in the airport at Rapid City, waiting to hug her son, and now having to wait at least another day to do so.

He finished his story, and we all continued with ours, though with a bit less gusto. I tuned out of the general discussion and began talking to the boy. It was a chance to speak with one of our young men who was putting himself in harm’s way for a national policy against which I had been thundering since the day that the planes had first lifted off on their way to drop bombs on mothers and children in Baghdad.

“I want to get to Iraq,” he said. “I’ve got to join my buddies.” It was that simple. Now, I’m not one to press and probe; I like to get people to tell their stories while keeping my own thoughts about those stories to myself. So I let his tale unwind as he chose to tell it. And what struck me was that his loyalty, fierce and honorable as it was, was to his friends, not to the government or the war. How could he let his buddies be alone over there? That was his only concern.

It was a sad and lonely lesson. This boy, literally barely old enough to shave, had been sold camaraderie, not policy. He had to be with his buddies, even if it cost him his legs or his life. I understood, and I admired him for it. Loyalty is at the heart of honor — loyalty to friend, loyalty to principle, loyalty to something for which one will endure risk and sacrifice. And he was driven by loyalty.

I thought of the beleaguered employees at the Northwest desk, who had just had to endure the anger and frustration of dozens of travelers and to mollify them with toothbrushes and vouchers for slummy hotels while the corporate executives slept or finished their late night dinners at some expensive restaurant. The woman who had waited on me had been Cambodian, if my reading of her name was correct, and she had done her best to parrot the company line while dealing with my high dudgeon. Even as I was ranting and complaining, I knew that I was shooting my words at the wrong target — she had a job far worse than mine, and was probably doing it only because there was no better way by which she could feed her family. Yet my anger was real, and she was the only face on an otherwise faceless situation.

What have we become, when the policy makers, both corporate and governmental, are so insulated from the effects of the policies they create? The boy next to me was ten days from shipping out to confront a faceless enemy in a war he didn’t even understand. He would be handed a rifle and put in a vehicle with inadequate armor, and sent off to confront other young boys about his own age who were on the receiving end of our government’s bombs, and now were trying to return the favor. The Cambodian woman at the desk, armed with the pitiful tools of a free toothbrush and voucher for a night at a slummy motel, was sent out to confront the anger of customers who had fallen victim to a corporate policy of unsustainable expansion. In both cases, the front line folks were being asked to bear the brunt of the anger of those who had been harmed by the policies made by people far removed from the realities of the effects those policies created.

I don’t mean to make a false analogy here. The young man’s sacrifice is, and will be, greater than that of the Cambodian woman at the Northwest ticket desk. But each is giving up his or her life and time to serve ends over which they have no say or control. And if those ends produce anger and, in the case of the young boy, physical danger for the front liners, so be it. There is a higher purpose to be served, whether it be corporate profitability or unwarranted governmental adventurism.

What saddens me is that we cannot get to the policy makers — not on a human level. Governmentally, we can throw the bastards out, and it appears that we will. But humanly, we cannot rub their noses in the effects of their policy decisions. We cannot make them feel, in their hearts and bones, the human effects of their policies. If GW had to spend one night in Humvee in Falujah, or a Northwest executive had to drive 200 miles and return home alone while waiting to put her arms around her son whose life might be taken from her before she ever saw him again, the policies behind the practices might change in a hurry.

But it will never happen. Money and power free folks from the realities of the street, and the people who make decisions have the money and the power. Concerns on the street are irritants, and nothing more.

Unfortunately, for those who must live with and in them, those concerns on the street are real life. I don’t want to shout at a young woman behind a counter because Northwest is running a shoestring operation to increase profitability; I don’t want to rant about a failed and immoral war to a kid who just wants to be with his buddies.

But I would like to grab some of the folks at the top and say, “Stop hiding behind these young people, mostly of color, and come out in the street and see how it is.” But it will never happen. All I can do is go to the voting booth and hope that my vote will actually be counted, and write emails and letters to low level functionaries at Northwest whose job it is to mollify angry customers like me.

It all comes down to the same thing: “Accept your free toothbrush and shut up.” Not the way to run a country or an airline.

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