I've been flying between Seattle (Washington) and Denver (Colorado) once or twice a month since late October to participate in a Phase I lung cancer clinical trial. Flying frequently exposes lung cancer trial patients to all sorts of hazards. The most obvious, I suppose, are the airborne respiratory viruses which spread so easily in cramped TSA security lines and airline cabins. Another is the long walk from security to the gate, which can tax those of us with compromised lung function. And travel for a cancer trial is inherently stressful, with embedded concerns about time away from family and home, negotiating an unfamiliar city, and the possibility of side effects occurring when you're hundreds or thousands of miles away from your oncologist.
But these hazards pale in the face of the unknowable threat that looms over the entire flight and infuses dread in the hearts of all airline patrons, no matter how healthy.
I'm talking about seat partners.
Please don't misunderstand me. I've sat next to pleasant SPs during trial travel: college students going home for winter break who slept through everything, business people occupied with a project, even some articulate folks knowledgeable in a subject of interest to both of us (I'm actually sorry to part company with them). And once, my SP was a Harvey-style pooka with laryngitis, who I especially appreciated after a sleep-deprived week.
Other flights are more ... interesting.
There was the 9-year-old boy traveling alone, a creative and verbal lad, who explored scenarios that might cause a plane to crash.
SP: "What if two guys had a sword fight in the aisle and broke a window?"
Me: "That's why we can't carry pointy objects onto airplanes."
SP: "What if the pilot forgets where the airport is?"
Me: "The airplane has a GPS system that tells her where the airport is."
SP: "What if the GPS fails?"
Me: "She has a big book with maps of all the airports as backup."
SP: "What if she forgets how to read?"
Me: "So what do you want to drink?"
I received a free glass of wine from the cabin crew on that flight.
On another trip, a science geek occupied the middle seat next to my aisle seat. I would have loved to chat with him, but our window SP babbled nonstop about her hobbies, grandchildren, and assorted afflicted body parts. I empathized with him, silently.
The most memorable SP to date was a twenty-something conspiracy theorist who shared his wisdom while crossing three Western states (Western states are very wide). I learned so much from this young man. Big corporations are suppressing cheap clean energy (engines can run on water). Congress wants the US economy to fail. Our government is hiding the cure for cancer – never mind that cancer is not just one disease, the cure exists. Also, perpetual motion machines work. Being an engineer by training, I couldn’t resist the urge to correct that last misconception. I set about explaining entropy and physics. I managed to emit all of three sentences before I was corrected. I was surprised to learn we don’t really understand physics yet. But we will Someday, when we know The Truth. And there is only one Truth.
As I was told more than once on that flight, all we need is The Truth.
I'd settle for a good set of noise-cancelling headphones.