On the night of Sept.11th, on a late flight from Dallas to Portland, I made every bad assumption I could have possibly made, and I was wrong about every single one. God has a way of snapping my garter right when I need it, just when I am SO SURE I am right about someone and their evil intent. You see, that day, Sept. 11th, was a day of rememberance for Americans and most people around the world. It changed this country forever. Twelve years ago on Sept. 11th, angry Middle Eastern men took over U.S. jet airliners and crashed them – screaming at full throttle – into the two World Trade Center towers in New York, The Pentagon in Washington, and into a field in rural Pennsylvania. The death toll of Americans for that day alone was almost 3,000. On that day, after suffering such a major blow, we became a nation on HIGH ALERT, vowing not only to never forget, but to never let our guard down, either.
Our flight out of DFW was completely packed that night. As we were getting settled in, two very young, Middle Eastern-looking men hurried onto the plane. They were sweating and frazzled; oddly, despite the September heat in Dallas, they were wearing coats, and carrying small bags. When I picked up one of the bags to get it out of the aisle, one of the young men quickly snatched it from my hand. I urged them to take off their coats and put them in the overhead bins because it was already so sweltering in the plane with all those people and, besides, I thought it might be easier to spot a vest full of explosives under their clothes without coats covering them up. I must have looked panic-stricken, with that same strained expression I know I have when I am double-parked. As I scanned the faces of others in the plane, our eyes would lock and their eyebrows would shoot up, like, OH, DEAR, WHAT DO WE DO NOW? The young men did stash their coats and then sat in the two seats right next to me. They didn’t smell very good and they looked like terrorists, or how I would imagine terrorists to look, so, of course, IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING, that their seats would be right next to mine. Certain, by then, that they intended to blow up our plane on Sept. 11th with whatever they were carrying in that bag, I managed to ride for almost an hour with most of my weight onto my left butt cheek, almost pushing myself out into the middle of the plane as I leaned as far away from them as I could get. It became clear, however, that, if they did explode a bomb right next to me, I would be sucked out into the night sky no matter how much of my butt I had managed to wedge into the aisle seat. So, I sat there, wedged onto one butt cheek, awaiting doom, wondering, if the blast didn’t kill me, if hurtling through the sky would be as horrible as I’d always imagined in my head it would be, screaming, “AAAAAAAAAAAIIIIIEEE” all the way down. Would I die somewhere in mid-fall? Would my heart just give out? Or would I make it all the way to earth, splattering like a bug on a windshield? Would there be no more left of me than there was of those brave souls on Flt. 93 which crashed into a field in Pennsylvania on 9/11? Would there be just an imprint of me, my Chapstick and some loose change to prove it was me?
And then I had this thought: IF I INTRODUCE MYSELF AND THESE GUYS GET TO KNOW ME, MAYBE THEY WILL BE LESS LIKELY TO BLOW ME UP.
So, that’s what happened. And, boy, was I right about that, because, boy, was I wrong about them.
Turns out, these two young men were from India and they were headed to Portland State University to work on their Master’s degrees in electronics. They didn’t smell very good because they’d just spent 25 hours on airplanes getting from India to London to Dallas. And they were sweating so much because when their plane landed @ DFW, they only had 45 minutes to make it through Customs, catch the SkyLink to get to another terminal and race to the gate to check in for this last leg of their trip to Portland. They had run most of the way through the airport – IN THEIR COATS – to get there before the doors closed. They weren’t terrorists at all, just sweet young men a long, long way from home and now, here they were, sitting next to me. I knew their families would want them to get to know someone who would make them feel at welcomed and, so, for that moment, on that night, it became my job.
I told them everything I know about Portland, in particular, and the state of Oregon, in general. I told them about the sweetness of the people here that I enjoy so much and how there’s an undercurrent of kindness and politeness not always seen in big cities. I told them about all the things they could do in nature in Oregon, especially since Mother Nature seems to have smiled her prettiest smile on this state. I asked them about India and the Hindu religion and when I said I didn’t really know much about Hinduism except the Elephant God, Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, one of the young men pulled out his wallet and gave me a laminated drawing of Ganesh as a present. It’s in my pocket at this moment.. Right now, it feels like I will carry it forever.
I am not proud of how quickly I jumped to the assumption that these young men were dangerous. I don’t like it that I thought badly about them without even knowing them; that I made every terrible assumption so quickly and without knowing all the facts of their lives. I AM proud, though, of listening to the whispers God puts in my head every so often, snapping my spiritual garter just before I say something that could turn out to be really stupid or really hurtful. I am proud that I acted on that whisper and that I got to know them, AND THAT I LET THEM KNOW ME, when I could have just as easily stood up and yelled, “TERRORISTS, EVERYBODY! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!” and turned everything into a real mess.
These two sweet young men and I chattered away for two hours with only 30 minutes or so of that time being spent with my going, “What? Back up for a second and let me hear that sentence again.” People from India and Pakistan tend to emphasize a different syllable in some words than we do, making my brain screech to a halt and go into INSTANT REPLAY MODE. They were patient with me, however, and so, so kind, as was I with them. As our plane came out of the low clouds covering Portland and the city lights sparkled beneath us, we banked to the east for just a bit before banking back to the west and lining up to descend into PDX. Lower…and lower…and lower we came in for our landing. I turned to them and I touched each young man on the forearm. I said, “I know your mothers would want to know that you had met someone from Portland who made you feel welcomed and unafraid, that you could begin your new journey here with a feeling of friendship and acceptance.” They smiled at me. I smiled back. The wheels of our jet touched the runway. “Gentlemen,” I said, holding out my hands for them to grasp, “welcome to Portland.” They were gone from my sight very soon after that, and I was left to my own thoughts and that feeling of coasting in the Golden Glow. It’s not a new feeling, but it is rare and wondrous. And so, I say THANK YOU to Ganesh for removing one more obstacle between me and kindness. And, I say THANK YOU to my Creator for snapping my garter one more time. God knows me just well enough, I think, to keep me in sight, to make sure I don’t wander off and do something dumb. I am grateful for it. Humbled by it. Lucky me. What a feeling.