Some years ago, Maurizio and I were on our way home to Italy from the Greek island of Milos, It was late August, the season of high winds, the sort that plagued Odysseus and prompted Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter, fatally ticking off his wife, but that’s not my story.
We gathered at dawn at an airport scarcely larger than a garage, appropriate to the 12-seater we’d be taking to Athens. It’s a mixed bag: an imposing German business man and wife, a nervous English couple, two hip LA types “in film,” us, two Greek teenagers, and a bearded Greek Orthodox preacher. Wind whipped our clothes, but we’d all called the night before, as instructed, and had been assured that our flight was on. Not so fast. The airport manager announced (smugly, I thought) that our plane and pilot were two islands away, the wind rising, and our flight “probably wouldn’t go.”
I pointed out last night’s confirmation. “That,” he reminded me, “was last night. This is the morning.” The German said he had a meeting in Berlin. Shrug. The LA couple had a stack of connections. “You might miss them.” The English say nothing. This was before cell phones. The German asked for a phone to call about rebooking. No. The airport phone was for the airport. LA guy asked if there was a later flight. No, and furthermore, the wind might not let up “for days.”
Satisfied with our stricken faces, the manager said the decision was totally in the hands of our pilot. If he chooses not to fly, we don’t fly. “Well then,” announced the LA guy, “I hope we get a cowboy pilot.” Just then, on cue, a tiny dot appeared in the blue sky, heading toward us over the choppy sea. Our hero. The World War I flying ace, Cary Grant bringing the mail over snow-capped Andes in Only Angels Have Wings. Ground winds rocked our tiny plane but she landed solid, precisely on mark. Yes! And out comes Central Casting’s take on Greek Cowboy Pilot: Luxuriant black hair, Marlboro man features, Italian shades, bomber jacket and, no kidding, knee boots. Cowboy Pilot surveys his anxious herd, and satisfied that we adore him, announces loudly: “Give me coffee and we fly!” Yes, oh yes. All our connections are safe.
CP throws back a Greek coffee (What a man!), signs some papers with a flourish for the suddenly servile attendant, and climbs back in the saddle. By tacit agreement, we let the priest board first. But he’s crossing himself. Is this standard procedure, we wonder, or a Sign? Not a good sign. We’re silent. The plane has three seats in the back and then four pairs, each divided by an aisle. We seat by couples, teenagers and priest in the back. Those on the water side look out on white caps; opposite windows face a wildly whipping wind sock. Is this really such a good idea? Are the connections, meetings, work starts that important?
The door slams shut on our little flying box. CP revs the engine, the wings rock wildly, and we’re off, looking down on endless expanse of not-welcoming seas. No wonder Odysseus didn’t hurry home. Suddenly the teenagers erupt in laughter. Eight heads swivel back. OK, youth feels immortal, but what’s so darn funny? Then we see what they see: German business types, LA hipsters, silent English, and us, all four couples holding hands across the aisle.