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Public at Large

Potatohead the Terrible

By Marty Lelugas

I think it’s somewhere around the 25th straight minute of baby scream that I realize I don't like Southwest Airlines as much as I thought I did.  Low fares are nice and all, but this is ridiculous.

To be fair, I suppose this child could have booked passage on any airline that connects Omaha and Chicago, but something inside me told me this wasn't the case.  This kid knew I would be on this flight.  Somehow, he knew. I can see him, twisting a mustache that won't exist for another 15 years (and then only if he was really lucky), face green from the reflected light of his monitor, waiting for the alarm bell inside his head to tell him I booked my ticket, probably that annoying “ding” sound from the Southwest commercials. Waiting and plotting, with his tiny baby fingers hovering over the mouse, poised and ready to click. Let’s be clear on something: this child looks nothing like the baby from those eTrade commercials. When I daydream of ending that kid, I feel dirty and wrong. Airplane boy elicits no such guilt.

This kid seriously will not shut up.  And the worst part is, his parents don't even seem to notice.  Can't they hear these sharp, repeated wails?  It’s like being inside the dolphin exhibit. I mean, really inside it. Dolphins (babies) can be okay and all, but my inability to communicate via sonar means we will never be friends.

Man, this kid is ugly. He’s Mr. Potato Head without the interchangeable parts. Those bright red lady-lips would be a marked improvement. I bet his parents’ friends don’t have the heart to tell them the truth. Poor bastards. Better an ugly baby and a good-looking adult than the other way around, I guess. Gotta keep things in perspective. I am certain I will pay the price for thoughts like these when I have children of my own. But when my kid is making a fool of me on a crowded airplane, at least I’ll have the decency to make eye contact with the disgruntled passengers. We’re living in a society, after all. But that’s a problem for future me. Present me is getting pissed.

I glance around surreptitiously, willing this child’s parents to notice my look. It’s casual, and I’m sort of hiding it, but it’s clearly meant to trigger some kind of a response from the morons who created this thing.  Nothing.  Yeah, just keep reading your book, Chief.  Twilight, I am sure. Real intellectual stuff. Pretend like you don't hear a thing.  I'm sure you're a fantastic dad.

I look around at some of the other passengers, taking care not to pause too long on anyone in particular, just your standard "hey this guy is probably just being mindful of potential terrorists" type glance.  None of these other idiots seem to notice anything either.  How is this possible?  I cannot be the only person put off by this. I glance at Tiffany, but she is buried in her book, where I was a few minutes ago, before this damn kid got inside my head.  I don't hold this against Tiffany—there are few babies capable of doing wrong in her eyes. But I have to try anyway. I nudge her, shrug my shoulders, offer half of an eye roll.

“You believe this shit?”


I lower my voice. “This kid has been crying for the entire flight.”

“Oh. Yeah. Just tune it out. Where’s your iPod?”

Where’s my iPod? Madness! “I think I’m going to kill this kid’s parents.”

The corners of her mouth curl slightly, but she says nothing more. Am I being mocked? Probably. Tiffany turns serious again. This look is meant to placate, not sympathize. I am on my own. The power of the cute baby. And this one isn’t even cute.

A friend of mine whose dad is a pilot for Southwest once told me that the pilots and crew for the airline often refer to themselves as "city bus drivers in the sky."  Now I know why. These people must have honed their baby-ignoring skills while keeping their heads down and their eyes forward while the panhandlers came creeping around the bus stop. Now those same creepers fly Southwest and check in for their flight 23 hours and 59 minutes before it takes off. They hold that “A” boarding group pass like it’s the Holy Grail. We’re all so impressed with your online check in skills. Have you ever caught a passenger sneaking a peek at your ticket, making sure that you weren’t ahead of them with A36 while they held A35? This sort of thing matters to the Southwest passenger. And why are they all in such a hurry to board this godforsaken flight, anyway? You’d think they were giving away prizes to whoever queued up first. People have constructed tents and unrolled sleeping bags. They have cook fires going. It’s a 50 minute flight! Sit in the middle for once, it builds character.

Normally I don't get irritable on planes. Though I’ve never been on an intercontinental flight, I’d like to believe a book and a ginger ale could get me across the pond with ease. Speaking of which, why is it that people only drink ginger ale on planes? I’ve never seen anyone under 50 order a ginger ale anywhere except on an airplane. Is Canada Dry in bed with the airline industry??

Time to bring out the heavy artillery.  I stand up and head to the bathroom.  We have officially moved beyond polite scans to open scowls.  A staunch believer in the power of the tough look, my face clearly reads, "Shut your child up or I will be forced to get physical."  But the tough look requires eye contact. And, of course, these two are so ashamed of their failure as parents that they can’t look me in the eye.

I return to my seat just as my ginger ale arrives. I feel that my “Thank you,” complete with slight head tilt and faint nod towards the demonspawn, says nothing while saying everything. Yet, Kurt—our genial, perky flight attendant whose sexual orientation has doubtless been the subject of many post-flight debates—is oblivious to my cunning.

I go back and forth on the charms of the Southwest Airlines flight attendants. Albeit, mostly back. Clearly a corporate mandate exists requiring them to liberally pepper sarcasm and wit (in the loosest sense of the word) into their pre-flight spiels. Some do it better than others. On the one hand, at least they’re trying, and I do appreciate [insert corporate buzzword] thinking when it comes to customer service. On the other hand, I don’t ask my cab drivers to reenact scenes from Police Academy. Not even the really good ones where Mahoney sets up increasingly absurd scatological pranks on Captain Harris. Just get me from point A to point B and let’s call it a transaction, shall we?

Twenty minutes later we land in baby silence. I am unnerved. Potatohead the Terrible, evil genius. It’s that time on the flight I love the most, when the doors open and everyone piles into the aisle to stretch their legs, collect their bags, and grumble openly about why it’s taking the people in the front so long to get off the plane. It’s like a traffic jam—no one is ever quite sure how or why it’s happening. P the T behaves perfectly while the adults on the plane pull out cell phones like teenagers after a grounding. “We’re on the ground, I will call you in five minutes when we get our bags.” That was a necessary call, and thank you for sharing it with all of us.

I stand up exactly as Potatohead’s parents are shuffling into the aisle. They keep their eyes downcast. Cowards. But Potatohead the Terrible’s red eyes meet mine. I’m frozen, transfixed—Han Solo on Jabba the Hutt’s wall. I swear I see a smirk on the misshapen lump that is this kid’s face.

Two days later, Tiffany’s phone beeps.

“What’s this?”

“Oh, I forgot—I sent you an Outlook reminder to check us in for the flight tomorrow. We take off in exactly 24 hours. If we check in now, we’ll be in the A group.”

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