journalism, personal

Beijing: The flight

Somewhere around 4, I closed my eyes to sleep. Whether it was a.m. (Beijing time) or p.m. (Eastern) hardly mattered. Either answer was equally absurd. No one goes to sleep at 4 anything. I had switched my seat from a middle to an inner aisle, and the two seats between me and a Chinese woman were empty, so I had the benefit of extra space.

I managed an hour or so of sleep, waking in time to catch the end of Made of Honor sans headphones, which was probably the better way to experience the loathsome-looking Patrick Dempsey vehicle. Before sleeping, I’d caught the first five minutes and last 15 minutes (with headphones) of Kung Fu Panda, which had jarring animation but seemed amiably amusing. I’ve read the story to MMM Jr. several times, so I was able to follow along.

No one else was making much of an effort to sleep. At a latitude north of Canada in the summer, all it takes is one window open a crack to flood the airplane cabin with bright, bright light. Several people treated the flight as a 13-hour happy hour, congregating near the galleys for impromptu meetings. We were able to peek out the window at times to see the occasional clump of undulating land amid the sheets of ice, which just made the sun that much brighter. Even when I had my eyeshade on, I could see a halo wherever it didn’t touch my face.

Some of my fellow journalists were talking shop, but I figured we’d have three weeks for that. I also managed to avoid the bizarre networking efforts of a guy who first thought we were with Coca-Cola.

But we were thankful to have so many people awake almost halfway through the flight when we heard a commotion three rows ahead of me by the window. Several people jumped up, and a woman yelled for a doctor. “Bong … bong … bong bong bong …” went the attendant-call sounds.

As it turned out, we had two medically capable people just a couple of rows back. One was a nice blonde woman who knew someone else on board who was married to one of our co-workers on board. She grabbed her carry-on and took out a blood-pressure cuff.

The stricken person was in our party, as it turned out, but through an affiliate, so none of knew him. We couldn’t tell what had happened — maybe some sort of seizure? A blackout? One of our co-workers was in his row and told us he asked where he was.

The flight attendants responded with the swift efficiency of an indecisive 400-pound lifeguard. One woman came up after our two neighbors had finished basic triage and started treatment with a cold compress. Another followed a little while later.

Most of us nearby were wondering if it was OK to joke about the proceedings. We started to wonder where we would land if needed. Maybe Vancouver? Anchorage? Vladivostok? Where the hell were we again? The little map had disappeared from the video screens in favor of Be Kind Rewind, which seemed to be a decent film but wasn’t drawing much attention among those of us in economy class wondering what had just happened.

After maybe 10 minutes, a flight attendant had the bright idea of taking up the passenger’s suggestion to ask if a doctor was on board. Two people responded. One was a dude in a tank top who didn’t seem like the kind of guy you’d want poking at you. The other was a jittery guy we’d noticed fussing over carry-on bags as we tried to get to our seats a few hours earlier.

As I monitored channel 9, the “live from the flight deck” radio channel that didn’t offer any hints that we would be landing (better than hearing Jane Says multiple times on one of the XM channels surely stuck in a loop rather than picked up live), the flight crew finally produced an oxygen tank and other equipment. After another 10 minutes or so, they put him a wheelchair and took him up to first class, where they apparently have actual flat beds.

Maybe 20 minutes later, our two neighbors returned. The blonde woman got a glass of wine for her efforts, though we told her she should have insisted on an upgrade to first class. That went to the other woman, who grabbed her stuff and moved up.

A little while later, another crowd of people stood around near the galley, looking up a few rows ahead. The blonde woman, who had made another trip to the front of the plane, came back. We asked what was up.

“The doctor passed out.”

“What? What happened?”

“Too many Ambien!”

That’s a little less scary than an unexplained seizure or fit of dizziness.

With that, I decided to skip the prescription pill I’d packed as a sleep aid and opted instead to pay six bucks for a 187-milliliter bottle of California chardonnay. That and the Chinese noodles (chopsticks? fork? answer: both) agreed with me quite well, and the rest of the flight was uneventful. I made peace with the notion of getting just a couple of short spells of sleep and my cross-aisle neighbor’s habit of talking to himself during a particularly intense game of Mah Jong on the computer.

Epilogue: The guy who needed medical attention on the plane walked through all the airport stops (immigration, credential, baggage, customs) with us and is here in the media center. He seems more alert than I am, frankly. I just need to figure out how to get back here in time to catch my bus to Qinhuangduo. Tune in Wednesday a.m. on one of the NBCs to see the game. I’ll wave if they point a camera at me. I’ll likely be next to SI‘s Grant Wahl, who’s hard to miss.


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