Flying Blind: Entering Enemy Territory to Do What (You Think) is Right

04/08/2011 09:39 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2011

I've never been in the military, but my covert operation to reclaim my child in the late 90's felt similar to the psychic g-force that must accompany a soldier making his first blind descent into the Kabul airport. An avowed pacifist, I squirm using the military analogy but I can't help admit it fits, albeit uncomfortably.

Like the soldier, I flew into the unknown, my sanity dependent upon someone else's seemingly indifferent construction of well laid plans and absolute luck, in this case not a commanding officer by my obviate lawyer. The stakes were clear: succeed and my son continued to live with me in Seattle. Fail, and my son would live a world away in the Deep South.

As a self-righteous twenty-something, I recall spouting Ghandi to a patient hotel guest where I worked. After enduring my "I could never harm another being" homily, he simply replied, "Wait until you have kids," as he turned to flee my naïve rhetorical barrage, to which I issued some "holier than thou" rejoinder. While I readily admit that, far from the soldier's plight, my assignment was not life threatening, my "Eddie's Father" existence with my ten year old son, constant companion and closest friend, hung in the balance.

I'm writing aboard a Seattle to New York flight, my only decision today when to close the Sunday New York Times and pop open my keyboard, about 4,000 words due before we set down at JFK. I'm in the middle of a crazy six weeks, about 35,000 air miles as I course the hemisphere for my travel writing assignments. (You can read my soft adventure travel column, "Life's A Liability Release," in the travel section.)

I love working on airplanes, focused environments with few distractions but, though the great majority of my flights go smoothly as a sleeping toddler, I'll stake my flight from hell to get my kid against that of anyone who remains alive to talk about his. I'm glad my demonic flight occurred pre-911, because my ineluctably agitative state would surely have raised TSA suspicion today.

Prior to taking this red-eye nightmare, I'd not slept for four days, since my son's mother declared on my message machine, "No need to go to the airport this afternoon to collect [our son]. He's going to live with me now. He says to tell you he's fine, he loves you and will speak with you later."
(Click here to read previous posts about how my shabby parenting plan and interstate relocation led to this custody coup.)

I'd purchased three tickets the day before we flew: my own, my son's return and my brother's, without who's support I surely would have stumbled into hysteria. Two roundtrip, first class tickets and a one way purchased within 24 hours totalled almost $5,000, an prohibitive sum on my teacher's salary, but one I was able to cover thanks to the generosity of my new in-laws, who's full backing must have been tempered with ambivalent concerns about the depth and toxicity of this quagmire their daughter had recently stepped into.

They were not alone in their confusion. I knew my recent marriage catalyzed my son's mother's rash decision to upset our domestic status quo. While visiting at Thanksgiving, my son, who'd stumbled while playing, ran straight past her to seek comfort within his stepmother's embrace. As the everyday parent, I can but conjecture how this aversion seared the woman who'd brought this scrape-kneed and sobbing little boy into the world.

Normally, I would have thrilled that my slightly bruised child had sought the comfort of his stepmother but this particular, played out on neutral turf in a friend's house, was lost on either the principal players or the dozen mutual friends settled throughout the living room. My wife, son and I formed the nuclear family, my son's mother a mere out of state guest invited in for Thanksgiving dinner.

One month and four days later, I played the interloper, descending into unwelcomed, even hostile territory, an environment where I explicitly warned to remain out of the state. Yet here I was, ignoring any consequence to put right, in my mind, my son's destiny to grow up in my household. To grow up elsewhere, especially in the deep south I'd been raised to despise by my progressive, northern mother, proved anathema to me.

True to my opinion, the first person I encountered confirmed all my biases about the south, character straight from central casting: my lawyer. Far from my pious youth in that hotel lobby, not only was I now quite willing to harm anyone who inflicted pain on my child, I was also willing to combine forces with an overtly racist and socially regressive legal bully to construct a deceitful ruse to wrest this child from his loving mother.

I don't remember much the morning before the encounter. My brother and I'd checked into a hotel (which would prove most fortuitous) and I'd paced for a couple of hours in anxious stupor, exacerbated by the red-eyed haze of an all night flight. Timing remained critical; our flight out of the state was scheduled for just four hours hence.
Waiting to set our mission into action, I confronted my lawyer's infuriating use of tardiness to assert his absolute control - "there was now a chance he might not be able 'make it' today," his secretary shocked me - a parry he'd thrust repeatedly several weeks later in the courtroom to my astonished horror.

Sleepless, my adrenaline surging and my anxiety peaking, the current level would prove miniscule when compared with unforeseen events later this day, I remained dependent upon a meglomaniac in possession of a private agenda.

So I waited like the fresh recruit, hostage to a thousand negative variables, but in possession of no legitimate information about just how insanely the day would unfold.

To be continued...