"That was the moment that I realized I was on the flight from hell"

The concept of the Mile High Club took on a whole new meaning for me this past summer. Life as a parent is full of joys, as we know, but also has more than its fair share of trials and tribulations. Such as flying with an inconsolable child. My heart goes out to our fellow passengers. But I promise you, whatever they had to endure was NOTHING compared to my suffering as the grown-up in charge of a small screaming machine, trapped in a tiny tin can one mile up in the sky.

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Photo: Mikael Andersson

The other day, when I sat looking through some pictures from this past summer, it felt great to be reliving so many amazing moments with my wife and kids. Sunny, happy pictures and brilliant memories that remind you that life is pretty good, in spite of everything. Then suddenly I came across this picture:

Photo: Josefine Andersson
Photo: Josefine Andersson

A look says more than a thousand words…yes, I know that’s not actually the saying. But maybe it should be.

Now there’s a quite story to tell about this picture (besides the fact that I seem to be wearing those novelty glasses with a large plastic nose attached). This picture was taken by my wife, just seconds after we landed back in Sweden after our fantastic no-expense-spared vacation in Spain. Just after my initiation into the Mile High Club. Sadly, not the classic quickie-in-the-plane-rest-room version, but the more hardcore parent version.

Let me tell you about that flight.

My wife needs to sit by herself – zonked on tranquilizers and with my awesome noise-canceling headphones clamped over her ears.

My wife is terrified of flying. So terrified that she’s no good to anyone from the moment we arrive at an airport until our plane has landed safely at its destination. Thus it falls to me to take complete responsibility for our kids on every flight we take, since she needs to sit by herself – zonked on tranquilizers and with my awesome noise-canceling headphones clamped over her ears. These headphones are like a life preserver for your acoustic nerves – they magically filter away all kinds of cabin noise. Everything from stressful aircraft noises to the terrible sounds that sometimes emanate from your fellow passengers. Including the sound of a child crying. Perhaps especially the sound of a child crying.

Check-in had gone smoothly and we were finally in our seats on the plane, ready for take-off. Unfortunately, the pilots announced that we’d missed our take-off slot and would now have to wait over an hour for the next one. Meaning we were facing at least four hours until we landed instead of three. Just the kind of news you don’t want to hear. It was then that Sammie (sitting beside me in the photo) decided to have a full-on meltdown.

The first surge of screaming made my hairline retreat an inch or so closer to the back of my neck.

I’ve blanked out the details of how it all started, but I think it had something to do with Sammie desperately not wanting to wear her seat belt. She tried to squirm out of it, anyway, with me clutching the buckle in an iron grip. She gave me a hard stare that signaled her intention of making a big deal out of this and started yelling at the top of her lungs. And if anyone in the family is blessed with free-diver lungs, it’s Sammie. The first surge of screaming made my hairline retreat an inch or so closer to the back of my neck. I’m not kidding. I wasn’t sure how to react. One look at my wife told me she was blissfully unaware of the tumult. I was on my own.

That was the moment that I realized I was on the flight from hell.

The plane was packed with people of various ages, as planes usually are. But of course we were unlucky enough to be sitting six rows from the back of the plane and all the seats behind ours were occupied by an incredibly rowdy soccer team of 15-17 year-olds. When Sammie got started, they fell silent. I detected an indistinct muttering and some irritated sighing from a few rows back “…make that kid shut up…” was all I heard. That was the moment that I realized I was on the flight from hell. But the fun hadn’t even started yet.

If they ever make “loud disapproval” an Olympic sport, Sammie will have a good shot at a gold medal. After almost 20 minutes of non-stop yelling, my brain cells were so atrophied that I made the fatal error of trying to stop her bad behavior by taking away her pacifier.

We now had no pacifier.

This only achieved one thing: she went from 80% to Full Volume in less than a second. Of course, I tried to backtrack immediately by giving her back her pacifier, but Sammie was furious. She grabbed the pacifier and hurled it with all her might into the row of seats in front of us. Unluckily, the rubber part of the pacifier hit first, which accumulated the kinetic energy so it ricocheted with even greater velocity toward the back of the plane. We now had no pacifier.

I swallowed hard and asked my oldest daughter to turn round and ask the soccer guys if they could see the pacifier. She flatly refused. I can’t say I blame her. I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be requesting help from a rowdy soccer team (who already hated me/us) either. But I gritted my teeth, cleared my throat authoritatively and asked. The guys made a pretense of looking down between their seats, but couldn’t see any pacifier. What a pity! Now it was about damn time to take off.

There was a kind of buzzing in our ears and everyone drew a sigh of relief. Except me.

Sammie continued to scream as if she never intended to stop. I could see from the corner of my eye how the guys were squirming in their seats and whispering to each other. 45 minutes had passed and we still hadn’t taken off. At this point, Sammie suddenly decided to switch tactics. She abruptly stopped yelling, leaving an almost vacuum-like silence in our heads. There was a kind of buzzing in our ears and everyone drew a sigh of relief. Except me. Because I could see from the look in her eyes that the battle was far from over. This was just the end of the first skirmish. Sammie intended (and I shiver as I write this) to take me down – the long, painful way.

Instead of continuing at full throttle, she dialed down the intensity and entered the energy-saving mode of the deeply wronged, so to speak. If the earlier blood-curdling yelling had had an almost physical impact, this new, monotonous, low-intensity lament was mentally draining to the max.

I actually don’t remember much from that final hour up in the air.

Now, several months later, I confess to a certain admiration for her staying power. But at the time, at one mile above the ground, three hours in and with more than an hour to go until we landed, if the cabin crew had hauled out a parachute and offered to let me jump, I might not have said no.

I actually don’t remember much from that final hour up in the air. I have a vague memory of the team cheering loudly when the plane encountered turbulence somewhere over Germany. They were also singing something off-color given the circumstances. As I met my wife’s gaze for the first time during the flight, I saw murder in her eyes. I wouldn’t have given much for those players’ chances if she’d had her finger on a button to eject them from the plane. The rest of that last hour is just a blur.

Dad – a middle-aged, middle-class man with the stare of some poor soul who’d just had a back-room lobotomy.

Don’t ask me how, but we survived this catharsis. Ironically, Sammie’s excruciating wailing stopped the minute the plane landed. In an instant, she was her usual happy self and when my wife turned round to ask how the flight had been, it was the picture above that greeted her. A contented and all-things-considered cute little kid and her dad – a middle-aged, middle-class man with the stare of some poor soul who’d just had a back-room lobotomy. But I was alive. And that, ladies and gentlemen, deserves an award (if I may say so myself) which is why I’m taking it upon myself to re-define the rules of admission to the Mile High Club. Just like that.

As if those four hours had been some kind of party.

The strange thing about my wife’s fear of flying is that the anxiety and fragility she experiences during the flight immediately transforms into frantic energy and exuberance once we’re back on terra firma. She likes to kid around. She soon had her cell phone out, taking pictures. She squealed with delight when she saw the result and showed me what a LOL picture she’d taken. As if those four hours had been some kind of party! She wondered why I seemed so grumpy, which was frustrating when what I was really feeling was ice-cold fury. My blood may have been boiling, but my brain was fried. Which explains my thousand-yard stare, I guess.

Another interesting fact is that this picture was taken about 25 minutes before the screen of my cell phone was crushed to bits on the floor of a crowded and sweaty airport bus heading into the city.

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Photo: Claes Pettersson

Name: Mikael Andersson

Age: 40

Family: A wife (Josefine) and three children (Stella, Tintin and Sammie)

Lives: Hisingen in Gothenburg, Sweden

On parenthood: The most important thing for me is that my kids grow up as strong and independent people, that they feel free to be who they are, and are fearless and choose their own path. I want them to be nice and kind people, naturally. But most of all, I want them to live secure and happy lives. I want them to have as much fun as possible and never settle for less than they deserve.