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Fear of Flying

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After a hectic week in Mobile, Ala., I plop into my cramped airline seat, hoping to delve into Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" during the short flight to Atlanta. But my young seatmate immediately begins chatting.

"Ma'am, can you tell me where I can find the headsets for the music?" he asks, pointing to the small hole on the arm of his seat.

"I don't think they offer them on a short flight like this" I tell him. "But your iPod headphones will work."

Embarrassed, he tells me he doesn't have one, and I confess that I don't either. We laugh. Instantly, we're kindred non-techies in a technological world.

"This is my first flight and I'm nervous," he confesses. "I've been in prison for the last eight months. I was arrested for riding my motorcycle without a license."

I'm uncomfortable hearing his life story, but he seems to need someone to listen. "Seems like a long sentence for such a minor offense," I reply.

"Yes, Ma'am. It's because of my record. This was my fifth time behind bars. I've been headed down the wrong path all my life. They said my mom wasn't doing right by me and took me away from her when I was a baby. My dad carried me to South Carolina, but he didn't want me either. He left me with my aunt who took me in 'cause no one else wanted to raise a white kid in a black family in a poor black neighborhood. I learned how to fight about the time I learned to walk. I grew up mean."

"That must have been rough," I sympathize.

The plane banks to the left, and he points excitedly out his window to a large octagonal building. "Look down! That's the prison. It looks almost pretty from up here, but it sure wasn't pretty on the inside. I ain't ever going back there again."

From then on, words pour out. He explains that his other stints were in prisons for low-risk offenders where they had freedom to move about the complex. This time, he was sent to a maximum security prison built to warehouse rapists, murderers and sex offenders. "At first, I was scared. Real scared. I was locked up in a two-man cell with a lifer who had no chance of parole."

I shudder. How could such a slender young man fend off so many hard core criminals -- particularly lifers with nothing to lose? I have better sense than to ask.

He reads my thoughts. "I know how to take care of myself," he assures me. "Have since I was six. But it sure got me to thinking. I don't want to end up like them. If I get picked up again, even for a traffic ticket, I could get sent away for life."

We chat about all the things he's missed while in prison, the wars in the Middle East, the recent elections, mostly his three adorable children, a boy, 10; a girl, four and another boy, two. "My little girl is a really beauty, isn't she,?" he says, pointing to her picture.

"They're all beautiful," I assure him. "You must have started young."

"Things happen," he laughs. "I gotta' do right by them now. Don't want my boys growing up like me."

"Do you have a job waiting for you back home?" I ask.

"Yes, Ma'am. "They're holding my job at the still, but you know how that goes."

Once again, he's surprised me. "At a still?"

"Yes, Ma'am. We distill 100-proof whiskey, then sell it to distributors who add flavors and cut down the strength," he says. "I was working the second shift from 3 p.m. 'til midnight, but since I can't get driver's license, I don't know how I'm going to get home after work. The buses stop running at 6 o'clock."

When steward asks for drink orders, I order a Diet Sprite. My seatmate declines. "It's free," I whisper. "They only charge for alcoholic drinks." The young Army private sitting across the aisle orders a Coke, and my friend follows suit.

"Anything for you, soldier," the steward says, smiling broadly.

The two men chat across me about an ad for an upcoming Extreme Boxing Challenge in the private's open newspaper.

"That's what I want to do now," he says. "I've been fighting all my life. Might as well make some money from it."

"Enlist in the Army?" I ask naively.

"Nah. They won't take me. My record, you know. I meant extreme boxing."

He talks about cleaning up his life -- again. The aunt who raised him wants him to move back to South Carolina to live with her, but he doesn't want to. "My cousins sell dope," he says. "I don't want to get mixed up in that again. Besides, I want to make it up to my kids for being away so long."

When the plane lands at Hartsfield-Jackson, we motion to the young private to get in line ahead of us. Although I want to ask him if he's just returned from the Middle East or is about to be deployed, I don't have an opportunity. Either way, his life is laid out for him.

My seatmate marvels at the crowd on the concourse and follows closely behind me and the young soldier down the gigantic escalator to the cavernous transportation hub. When we reach the terminal, we are greeted by a group of USO volunteers who burst into applause when they spot the private. Other travelers join in.

I glance from my seatmate to the young soldier. In many ways, they are alike. Both are young, slender, tall. Handsome. Fit. But that's where the similarity ends. The private risks his life so others may live in freedom. My new friend is struggling to save his own.

I pray both will have safe journeys.