We heard the whine of the hydraulic servos and the solid thump of the landing gear retracting somewhere beneath us as the plane climbed higher and banked to the southwest. The seatbelt light went dark and the intercom crackled to life.
You may move about the cabin, the pilot intoned.
Our flight to Dallas was underway.
Across the aisle a man opened a book and began making notes. I hadn’t brought along anything to read, not even a paper. I was late to the airport and skipped the kiosk at the boarding terminal. Now I discovered the in-flight magazine was missing from its place in the seatback in front of me.
I glanced sideways at the man again and tried to make out the title of the book he was holding. The book was turned in such a way that I couldn’t.
I did notice a Bible beside him, resting quietly, the way Bibles do.
The man adjusted himself in his seat, and I saw he was reading something called Israel and the Minor Prophets.
The minor prophets.
Who were they? What were they like?
Loveable bastards, probably.
Down the aisle one of the flight attendants made her way, offering headphones for our movie. The attendant was about my age, a seashell blonde in a red pantsuit, with a smile full of braces.
I said thanks and took a set of phones and plugged them in.
As usual, it was one of those movies you’ve never heard of; a plotless mystery with no-name actors, set in a high school somewhere.
It was a loser from the get-go.
I grew restless and slid off the headset.
Rummaging once more in the seatpocket, I found a trifold, laminated card. The lettering was in red ink, and there were ominous illustrations and diagrams.
I propped it in my lap and began to read.
Boeing 757 Safety Instructions
Important Safety Instructions
Exit Row Criteria: For the benefit of all passengers, Federal Law requires that passengers seated in exit rows meet the following criteria:
§ Attention: if you are seated in an exit row and cannot understand crew commands or the information on this card, please contact a flight attendant.
§ Aufmerksamkeit: wenn Sie in einem Ausgang nehmen Sie Reihe heraus können nicht Mannschaft Befehle verstehen setzen, oder die Informationen über diese Karte, bitte mit einem Flugbegleiter in Verbindung treten.
§ Attention: si vous êtes assis dans un sortez la rangée de sortie ne pouvez pas comprendre des ordres d'équipage ou l'information sur cette carte, contactent svp un préposé de vol.
Hm, oui. C’est bon. No doubt the attendant had made some mention of this - somewhere between the oxygen mask demo and the speech about using a cushion as a flotation device.
We were well over the Gulf of Mexico, though all I could see were clouds, snowy layers stretching like white beaches beyond the long curvature of the horizon.
Tiny gunshots broke the moment. My headphones.
Back on went they went, and I threw myself into the movie again.
Someone had been murdered - a trite plot device, OK. A good man gone forever. All right. On the case was a fast-talking high-school dropout, a cynical young mensch who machine-gunned his lines like Bogart. The movie seemed fairly infused by the noir genre of the 40s. That hardboiled edge. There were trick shots, shadowy dissolves, dramatic high-contrast lighting.
Filmed on location, events revolved around the high school and a neighboring oceanside community, vaguely Californian in pedigree. I couldn’t place it.
After reaching up and twice adjusting the air nozzle overhead, I made a quick detour back to my reading.
If you are seated in an exit row, please ask to be reseated if you lack sufficient mobility, strength, or dexterity in both arms and hands, and both legs:
1. To reach the emergency exit and escape-slide operating mechanisms;
2. To grasp and push, pull, turn or otherwise operate those mechanisms;
3. To push, shove, pull or otherwise open emergency exits;
4. To remove obstructions similar in size and weight to overwing exit doors;
5. To exit quickly under stressful conditions.
Stressful conditions, indeed.
I hated flying.
A touch of heartburn flared, a transient dyspepsia.
I cast an eye across the aisle.
My friend was in a contemplative mood.
He tapped a finger to his lips, glanced at the ceiling. Now and then his pencil dipped to record some salient thought.
The engines were very quiet, a good thing at 10,000 feet. And their calming resonance served as counterpoint to a pulsing soundtrack, the wide screen having summoned me back to its flickering puzzle.
Those jigsawed seacliffs, that confounding beach town. The old brick gymnasium, the football field. The lonely pier. They all spoke to me, a language of nostalgia.
The narrative careened outdoors, into a velvety sunset; the hero raced pell-mell through winding, laddered streets, both hunter and hunted.
Well, I thought. That’s it. I have to find out where this takes place. This story. Where it was shot. If asked I would’ve sworn I knew every two-bit podunk from LA to Anchorage.
Now I wasn’t so sure; this town had escaped me. But I liked new places, and this one looked worth the while to visit, off the map though it may have been.
Turning the card over I smoothed its folds again and continued reading.
Exit Row Responsibilities:
1. Follow oral directions and hand signals given by crew members.
2. Locate the emergency exit.
3. Assess outside conditions. If opening exit poses hazard, do not open!
4. Operate emergency exit.
5. Deploy emergency chute.
I looked over.
The professor still had his nose buried in Israel and the Minor Prophets.
Prophets, I thought. Brother.
Did his highness know anything about emergency chutes? How about escape-slide operating mechanisms? And while we were on the subject, how about keeping his cool in a howling descent? How about that?
Unlikely, I decided. If things went sideways he’d cry for mama - like the rest of us.
The movie spun through a handful of narrative threads, finally weaving them together into an unlikely filigree on the steps of the high school.
Then theme up, and the credits began to roll. At last we were getting somewhere.
The film had been shot in San Clemente, sixty miles south of LA.
San Clemente, my hometown.
I’d attended that very high school, made out with freshman Mary Jo Curtis under those very same bleachers, piloted an old Triumph along those same hilly streets. And after having viewed it all through the camera’s transparent lens had found it an unfamiliar and alien place -
The ride was getting bumpy.
I tightened my seatbelt and ordered a double scotch.
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