Martin entered the hatchway of the 747 and was greeted by a pretty, young flight attendant. She asked to see his ticket, noted his seat assignment and directed him to it. He had checked the only bag that he’d brought. All he had with him was his suit jacket, which he had draped over his arm and a paperback novel that he had purchased at the duty-free store. It was a murder mystery. He hadn’t even paid attention to the title, just picked it up, noted the price, and bought it. It would be something mindless and simple to read, something to pass the time in the air on his way to Milan.
He stowed his suit jacket in the overhead, took his seat next to the window, and buckled his seat belt. The captain radioed across the intercom that they would be taxiing for takeoff shortly and that everyone should find their seats. Martin looked around the airplane. It was only about half full. He looked out the window at the wings as the pilots ran through their preflight checklist. He watched the ailerons move up and down, the flaps move in and out. He heard the droning of the engines. He reached up to the air vent and turned the knob clockwise to open the flow of air a little bit. He wasn’t afraid of flying; he was a fairly experienced traveler, albeit on short domestic flights for various business trips. But the one thing he hated about airplanes was takeoffs and landings. He knew statistically that air travel was among the safest means of transportation in the world, but he also knew that statistically accidents happen within the first half an hour of the flight, usually at takeoff, or the last half an hour of a flight, usually at landings.
He wasn’t a white-knuckle flier, he didn’t get air sick, but he couldn’t help but feel a little nervous at every takeoff or landing. The intercom chimed twice, and Martin looked up to see the seat belt sign and no smoking signs illuminated. Shit! He hadn’t even thought of that. All flights on American Charters, both domestic and international, were classified no smoking these days. Maybe he should have waited the extra day and took the Lufthansa flight. At least they still offered smoking sections. Oh well. He would be able to last the four hours to Chicago, grab a quick cigarette, and then last the eight or nine hours in the air to Milan. That would be a bit taxing, but he would buy a pack of gum to soothe him for those times when he really wanted a cigarette.
The plane began to move backward and then pulled forward onto the taxiway to move to their position in line while they waited for takeoff clearance. It didn’t take long. A couple of minutes later, the captain announced that they received takeoff clearance, gunned the engines, and away they went. Martin looked out the window as the scenery rushed by. The plane was picking up speed at an amazing rate. No sooner had he thought it than the nose came up off the ground, the gear was retracted into the belly with a disconcerting thump and they were airborne. His stomach took a dip, turned over, and for just a moment he was queasy. It always happened. That first three seconds the plane becomes airborne there’s a curious dip, and everyone’s stomach flip-flops just for a moment. He was sure it had something to do with Bernoulli’s theory of flight and gravity straining to hold the plane to the ground but had no idea how it applied beyond his rudimentary concept of celestial attraction. After that, the plane settled and so did his stomach. About a half an hour later the stewardess came by and asked him if he would care for champagne or orange juice. He really wanted champagne, but he ordered the coffee and the Danish instead. He started to open his book, but thought better of it. No, he would wait until after Chicago. The nine-hour flight between Chicago and Milan would be the time to read his book. He asked the stewardess if there was a newspaper anywhere on board; San Jose Mercury News, USA Today, something that he could read. She said she thought there was and she would get it as soon as she took the other drink orders. Martin settled back, laid his book in the seat next to him since it was empty, and waited for his newspaper.
His plane took off in Chicago O’Hare Airport at precisely 3:00 p.m. He would be in his airplane somewhere between nine and ten hours depending on the jet stream. He would read for a while, and then go to sleep. And hopefully when he woke up, he would be in Malpensa Airport in Milan. Martin settled back into his chair and began to think of his destination, Venice, Italy. Although he had said the day before that he didn’t want to go on vacation, that it was something he wasn’t going to enjoy, he couldn’t help but be excited a small amount. Venice was someplace he’d always heard of, seen pictures of, seen in the movies but had never been there himself. Actually, he had never really been anywhere to speak of, unless you counted McPherson, Kansas. He laughed to himself as he recited the line,
“’I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto.’ That’s right Dorothy,” he mumbled under his breath as he settled back in his seat, “Venice is just about as far away from San Jose as the Emerald City is from the farm.”
It was perhaps the most unique city in the world; no cars, no buses, no motorbikes; just boats, bridges, and streets upon which to walk. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all. It was the most romantic city in the world. “Romance!” Martin snorted to himself. Romance was the last thing on his mind at this point, but there were other things. He didn’t know precisely what to expect, but he had begun to anticipate his arrival. Maybe, just maybe, he would enjoy himself after all.
The flight was largely uneventful. The only excitement, besides a few untoward turbulence was the woman two rows back who had her three-year-old son with her. He had gotten airsick and, of course, vomited all over everything. Vomit is a rather mild word for what the boy did… it would be fairer to say that he erupted! The stench had nearly made Martin airsick, but he had merely excused himself for ten minutes to the bathroom while the mess was cleaned up. Some of the other passengers were not so fortunate, and the chain reaction that ensued the stench, fell like dominoes across the weaker stomachs in the cabin and several more passengers retched as well. A sickly sweet perfume hung in the air for most of the rest of the flight but it bothered Martin only slightly as he tried to get some sleep.
They landed in Malpensa Airport at midnight his time, nine in the morning Italian time. The plane taxied to the far end of the runway and stopped. A motorized tram pulled up to the airplane and extended a gangway to the opened hatchway. The passengers debarked down the gangway, boarded the tram, and settled in for the short drive to the airport concourse. Martin looked around him; it seemed excessively gray and gloomy. The trees were almost devoid of their leaves and the sky hung heavily and perilously close to the ground. He wondered if that must have given the pilots a fit of anxiety at the landing? Everywhere there were soldiers milling about, some of them with automatic weapons and German police dogs.
“Good grief!” He thought to himself. “Where am I, Russia?”
He scrutinized one of the soldiers. He was young, impeccably turned out; what American soldiers referred to as swacked, perhaps eighteen, thin and frail, and had a deadly serious look on his face. Who wouldn’t be serious with a nine-millimeter machine pistol at sling arms on his shoulder? Martin wondered if the weapons were loaded? It was a ridiculous thought. Why carry a weapon if it was not loaded? Martin caught himself trying to remember the nomenclature of a nine-millimeter automatic weapon. How many rounds a minute it fired, the muzzle velocity. He used to know such things, before Elizabeth had taken out all the joy of marriage and living in general. She detested not only cigarettes and tobacco but also anything that had to do with outdoor life including guns.
Martin had learned to be an avid hunter and gun enthusiast while going to school in Kansas. The rural country side was alive with pheasant, quail, dove and other game birds as well as deer and rabbits but Elizabeth equated hunting with outright murder and besides, meat could be purchased at the grocery store. One did not have to go out into the uncivilized wilds and hunt it down like some sort of Neanderthal! Martin sneered. And what did she imagine was so civilized about the stockyards and butcher houses? She liked a good Porterhouse or T-bone steak as well as he did. Did she think that it came from free-range cows that simply wandered in of their own free will to the back lot of Safeway and with a wiggle of the manager’s nose, became hamburger and ribs? She was a farmer’s daughter, how could she be so ignorant? Or was it that she simply had, had enough of unshaven, unwashed men drifting in from the fields stinking of sweat, beer and blood with dead animals slung over the shoulders or tied to the hoods of their trucks, and wanted a life style that was a little less bucolic? Well, men were men, weren’t they? He felt his blood rise in his veins. Why didn’t she just castrate him while she was at it? It wasn’t like he was doing anything illegal or out hunting down Bambi and Thumper for God’s sake!
“Signor?” The young soldier questioned.
“Huh?” Martin asked.
“Via… di la.” The young man pointed toward the baggage claim area.
“Oh, uhm, sorry.” He mumbled.
He would have to pay more attention to what he was doing, or supposed to be doing. These guys didn’t look like they had a whole lot to do except shoot wayward tourists and judging from the solemn looks on their faces, the bag limit was more than one stray American businessman a piece!
He entered the concourse with the rest of the passengers, and moved to the carousel area and waited for his luggage to appear on the mechanized conveyor belt. He waited, perhaps another ten or fifteen minutes before his hard side Samsonite bag appeared with all the others. He picked it up, matched the luggage tag and started toward the customs area with his passport in his hand and his bag in tow. The single file line was long but seemed to be moving rather quickly. When it came his turn, the Italian official asked him if he had anything to declare. He stated that he did not. The official looked at his passport, stamped it and waved him on.
“Well, that was simple enough.” Martin said. “I wonder what the procedure would have been if I had something to declare?”
It seemed to him that customs in Italy was amazingly lax. There wasn’t a setup like you would find in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport for example, or New York, or even San Jose. It was simply a fold up table set off to the corner of the inner esplanade with a couple of immigration officials stamping passports. There were no booths or roped-off areas. It shocked Martin that it was so easy to get into this country. And what was even more shocking was that they only gave his baggage only a cursory look. He could have had anything in there. Then he remembered the young soldiers with their automatic weapons. They might be more show than substance, he did not know, only a true professional would but he had to admit they were a rather effective visual deterrent. Oh, well… what was he complaining about? At least he didn’t stand for an hour waiting in line while they searched every article of clothing in his suitcase.
The travel agent told him that he would have to take a bus into Milan to the train station and from there, catch a train to Venice. The booth to buy the tickets for the bus would be to the far right side of the airport lobby she had told him. He crossed the lobby, looked to his right and found the queue where bus tickets were sold. When he came to the head of the line he asked the clerk if she spoke English. She said, “Si.”
“I need a ticket to the Milan train station.” He said.
She handed him his ticket and told him the price, which he didn’t understand but he didn’t think it could be more than $5.00, so he pulled the money out of his walled and handed it to her. There was a momentary panic when she saw the $5.00 bill and she asked him in broken English if he had any Italian Lira.
“No.” He replied.
The young girl mumbled something unintelligible, grabbed her calculator and punched in some numbers, grunted and then made his change and handed it to him along with his ticket.
“Where do I go?” He asked.
“Follow, follow!” She insisted as she pointed to the people pouring out the side door.
There was a group of people, mostly Italian, standing outside waiting for the bus and when it pulled up, they crowded to the doors and tried to push on all at once. Martin was a bit confused. He was used to standing in line like all Americans and quickly realized that the bus was going to fill up before he got on.
“Well,” he thought to himself, “when in Rome…”
When the Lion Smiles © 2011 by Mitchell L. Peterson
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