I have had this pet theory for a while that extended air travel is the best way to get a preview of the totalitarian dystopia we will be enjoying in a few years. Strapped to a narrow and confining seat and bombarded with corporate advertising, strictly segregated by income, you are fed at determined intervals, drugged with alcohol and strings of movies, bathroom trips the only possible excuse to leave your pod. This time I flew a direct Narita to New York on United, but up til now I have only flown Northwest to and from Japan, since they were the cheapest and had the most flights. But as I learned somewhere over Alaska yesterday, Northwest has had a long history with the US military, having gotten their toe-hold in Asia during the American occupation of Japan, flying over troops and officers. (But not in the same seating sections.) What with life as it is, Northwest remained tight with the military, flying over our boys to ravage Korea, napalm Vietnam, stare down the Red Chinee and keep Imelda Marcos' shoe collection safe for democracy. The rows of crew cuts that usually block my view of the movie screen were conspicuously absent on United.
Another tweaking of reality I enjoy on airplanes is the editing of in-flight movies to remove any references to airplane crashes. One of the major plot points of "Get Shorty" revolves around a plane crash, but when I saw it on a few years ago an entire scene had been digitally retouched to change an airport to a train station and dubbed to make it a "train crash."
One of yesterday's features was "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow", a bit of fantasy fluff with scientists being kidnapped, a religious fanatic trying to destroy the world, and more elaborately staged plane crashes than dialogue. All in a gorgeously detailed CG alternate reality, with zeppelins, reptilian monters, and every person with skin a shade darker than a stack of A4 printer paper cut-and-pasted to the Windows Recycle Bin.
The fact that Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow lived through all those plane crashes didn't do much to reassure me, so I got up to take a walk around the cabin. I strolled up through business and first class, only to be chased out by a fierce looking stewardess who told me to "Get back to your class!" Pondering the ramifications of this I walked back to the rear cabin to discover a real party going on.
Stewards and stewardesses were having dinner and bullshitting with a few passengers who went back to stretch their legs. I began chatting with a middle aged Japanese man dressed in spectacles, a sweater vest and slacks, looking like nothing more than a kindly professor on a TV show. Or the one on the Beastie Boys album who answers what another word for pirate's treasure is. He told me about Northwest and their military connections, which is why he only flies United. I did a few stretches. We talked about Kyoto and temples, he wrote down the name of a garden owned by the Imperial Family that is free of charge but only allows twenty visitors a day, application-only. I mentioned a few of the cheaper jazz clubs in New York I knew. He got a scotch-and-water and I got a cup of red wine, the stewardess squeezing my arm to make sure I hadn't had too much to drink. She pointed to two figures stumbling down the aisle: "Not really worried 'bout you, those two girls managed to knock back about eight drinks by always asking different stewards." The professor and I laughed about that, and then I asked him what he did for a living.
"Oh, I'm a college professor."
"Really," only half surprised "what's your field?"
"Nuclear physics."I almost choked on the wine.
"No kidding, why are going to New York?"
"I've been running an experiment in Long Island, have to check up on my students a few times a year."
"Make sure they don't blow up Long Island?"
"Something like that."
Our conversation ended aroudn there when a steward came on the PA system to remind us in a clearly aggravated voice that this is a non-smoking flight.
Although not much more relaxed than after watching the plane crash movie, the wine had loosened my cortex, and I sat back down, blacking out until they came around with breakfast, somewhere over Toronto. The captain told us about New York weather and told us in a calm voice that "although most of you were asleep last night and unaware of it at the time, we had a security disturbance on the plane last night, but the people involved have been restrained. you will have to wait for a few minutes at JFK while the Port Authority escorts those folks off the plane." We all looked around at one another, faces more amused than shocked, bewildered.
When the badges and uniforms walked on the plane, they stopped by the professors row. "Holy shit!" I thought, my head flooding with images from Sky Captain. "They tried to kidnap the nuclear scientist and blow up Long Island!"
Every neck on the plane craned to look as the two drunk college girls from the night before stood up, escorted off the plane for throwing something at a stewardess when caught smoking in the bathroom. Despite all the Hollywood and alcohol we'd been given to forget it, we had landed, and this was still a nation at war.