Continental Micronesias aging 727 is already on the ground when I arrive at the airport. It waits alone and incongruous alongside the tiny, palm-shaded terminal. I am leaving Kosrae, Micronesia, bound for Honolulu -- a grueling, nine-hour, island-hopping flight. Ive taken this flight before, and I dread it. The flight starts in Guam, then drops in at Yap and Pohnpei before reaching Kosrae around three in the afternoon. Still lying ahead are landings at Kwajelein and Majuro, in the Marshall Islands, and Johnston Atoll, a mere crumb of coral not much bigger than its runway, and finally, mercifully, into Honolulu for a bleary 3:30 a.m. arrival. We will cross the date line on the way, flying into yesterday.
Im relieved when I board; the plane is not full. My aisle seat is near the rear of the plane, Row 23, on the left side. I have the row to myself, and I feel comfortable. In minutes we are airborne. The ocean below is electric blue, like the outer core of a welders spark. I doze. In 90 minutes an atoll appears, a ribbon of vivid-green encircling a clear, sapphire lagoon. The plane drops from the sky, the tires screech, and the doors open at Kwajalein. People file off, new ones board, the cargo crew hustles about below, the door slams shut, and we are airborne again.
At Majuro I get off to smoke a cigarette. A cargo truck passes loaded with island luggage -- cardboard boxes hugged tightly by gray duct tape, and bulky ice chests filled with fish. The open-air terminal is busy, packed. I overhear an agent say the flight is full to Honolulu, and a man nearby complains of being bumped. A thirty-second gale whips through that snatches up every loose piece of paper and slaps them against everyone. The sun sets and it becomes dark. When I re-board and squeeze myself down the aisle, I find a young oriental woman and a crying infant sitting next to me. Great. Directly across the aisle, the three rows forward of the galley, all nine seats, have been transformed into a hospital bed. A man lies under a sheet on a stretcher resting on the out-board seat tops; the aisle seats are folded down. Two IV bags droop from the overhead compartment; the reading lights glare down, bathing the patient in bright light. A hospital-green curtain hanging from the overhead blocks the view forward. A nurse hovers, blocking the aisle.
The plane is crammed. The baby wont stop crying and the shrill frays at my nerves. The helpless mother tries to calm the child, rocking and cooing and aiming a nipple at the infants mouth, but her efforts are in vain. The baby screams. The seat belt sign dings off; the aisles fill with people leaning on seat backs; they chat with their neighbors. Another baby is screaming a few rows forward. The attendants are frustrated; they cant get the cart through; they plead with the standing passengers to sit down.
Its an hour into the flight and I get up to go to the lavatory. On my feet, I receive a close-up view of the patient. He is a Marshallese man in his forties. He lies on his back, eyes closed, under a sheet, his head wrapped in a white bandage. He is unconscious. The nurse, on his feet and attentive, scrunches to allow me to pass. An hour passes spent whipping my nerves and mood into submission. It is a challenge tolerating the screaming babies assaulting my ears and the passengers constantly bumping into my seat and shoulder. My teeth clench; my head rings carillons.
I look over; there are three people at the patients side now. The nurse is administering CPR, his hands pumping on the patients chest. A woman, obviously another nurse, is squeezing a ventilator. The third person is looking on, a weary-looking woman, the patients wife. Concern lines define her forehead; her chin quivers. The nurses stop and stand quietly. The wife gasps. A wail begins from deep within her, slowly, softly at first, like an air-raid siren that begins lazily, on a low note, and gradually gathers steam, rising in pitch and volume, until it finally reaches unrelenting maximum blare. It is a cry from the pit of the soul, filled with shock and sadness and disbelief and mourning. It is loud and piercing; it resonates down the length of the cabin, overpowering the roar of the engines.
A sea of eyeballs peers over seat backs trying to see what is going on. No one is speaking. Everyone knows whats happened. The flight attendants -- shaken -- rush down the aisle and disappear behind the first-class curtain. The broken-hearted, mournful wailing carries on unrelenting; it overpowers the crying babies; it overpowers everything. An immense sadness hangs in the air; it is almost visible, like wispy veils of cloud floating down the fuselage. It is surreal.
The plane begins to rock and bump. The captain appears and walks down the aisle grasping seat backs. Reaching the tiny hospital area, he glares down at the body. He is at a loss for words; what can he do? He says something to the nurse, turns, and disappears back into the cockpit. The screaming continues. The eyeballs fixate on the rear of the plane, but they are unable to see anything. The wail subsides some -- the siren winding down. The woman is exhausted. Her eyes are anguished and bloodshot, her clothes rumpled, her hair in disarray. The nurse pulls the white sheet over the dead mans face and makes it neat, then zips the hanging curtain around him, hiding him from view. The eyeballs disappear two by two, like little lights going out. It is quiet now, relatively speaking. The plane bumps and gyrates. We are descending.
The lights of Honolulu twinkle below. Im halfway home. (See more photos!)
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