By Chance

From Art Railton’s Just a Thought of March, 1997:

Chance encounters — we’ve all had them. Meetings that are unplanned, occurring by surprise. You happen to be somewhere and suddenly find yourself talking to someone famous. The conversation is of no consequence, just grist for some name dropping. “When I was talking with Ted Kennedy about his Wianno....” That sort of thing.

Many of mine were on airplanes. When I worked for a living, I spent a lot of time on airplanes — at company expense in First Class, along with the rich and famous. Not like the lunchroom on the Islander.

Back in the early 60s, on an overnight flight from L.A. to New York, I had an aisle seat. The stewardess and a serious-looking man escorted a beautiful young woman down the aisle and sat her next to me, assuring her that everything had been taken care of, you’ll be met. Nothing to worry about. She’ll be quiet, I thought, seems interested in sleep. Good.

As we taxied for takeoff, she squeezed my arm and whispered, “May I hold your hand. Takeoffs scare me.” When we reached cruising altitude, she relaxed. Soon, the attendants were serving drinks. I didn’t hear her order, but she was handed a glass. I settled back to enjoy mine.

“What are you drinking?” she said. Scotch and water, I told her. “Mind if I try it?” she replied, taking my glass. After a few large gulps, she said, “I like that.” She had emptied my glass. “Sorry, they’ll bring another,” she said. And they did. This time I kept it away from her.

Dinner was served. She insisted on tasting my wine. As with the Scotch she drank it all and began talking about herself. She was Wanda Hendrix, former wife of Audie Murphy, the nation’s most decorated war hero. She talked steadily, disclosing her failed marriage.

The stewardess picked up our trays and whispered, “Please come to the galley.” She took me aside and explained that Miss Hendrix was to have no alcohol. They could see what was happening. If I ordered another drink, it would be without alcohol. If I wanted a real drink, I must drink it in the galley. I downed a double Scotch and went to my seat. My neighbor urged me to order a drink. Finally I did. It was colored water. She drank most of it, telling me it was not Scotch, they were playing tricks on me. At New York she was met by a chauffeur and a limousine. I went to my car, exhausted.

Another time, on a late flight from Washington to Boston I was seated right behind Senator Kennedy. We were the only passengers in first class. It was years before the accident on the Vineyard. I began a conversation about the family’s Wianno sailboat and how I had seen it in Edgartown. He spoke enthusiastically about the annual race to the Vineyard. It was a brief, pleasant exchange. No politics He went back to his papers.

As we stood up to leave the plane at Logan, he motioned for me to go ahead. I said, “Please, Senator, you go first.” To encourage him, I placed my hand on his back, easing him to the aisle. I quickly withdrew my hand. Under his suit jacket, I felt several wide steel bands, like stays in a metal corset. He moved into the aisle, chatting pleasantly.

Walking to the terminal, I remembered that he had broken his back in an airplane crash. He was still encased in steel. I think of that every time I see him standing stiffly in front of television cameras.

I have had other chance encounters on airplanes, one with now-fellow-townsman Walter Cronkite, on a flight from Cape Kennedy. We talked, not about the space shot we had witnessed, but about our children. I was hurrying home because in the morning my son Mark and I were leaving by bus on the famous Civil Rights march. He envied me, he said. He would love to have such an experience with his daughter.

My most vivid chance encounter took place in 1942, during World War II. For three months I and other enlisted men had been bullied by drill sergeants in Officers’ Candidate School. We were, they told us, being tested for battle. I survived and graduated, heading for Illinois and marriage. My overnight train arrived in New York city at dawn. I had a few hours before my connecting train, so I strolled along Park avenue.

Heading back to the station I saw a tall, thin woman walking briskly toward me. As she approached, I recognized Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady, the wife of my Commander-in-Chief. I panicked. What does a 2nd Lieutenant do when he meets the wife of the President? When she was a few steps away, I stopped and saluted. She put me at ease with her gracious smile. “Good morning, Lieutenant.” She was the first civilian to call me that. I choked up. After she passed, I turned in wonder and watched this famous lady continue alone up the avenue. I can see her now, if I close my eyes.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner