When you walk through business class or premium economy to get to your seat back in steerage, an airplane is the great unequalizer. But it can be the great equalizer, too, because you and your closest seatmates inevitably share the same experience.
Sometimes, people share interesting conversations. And sometimes, those people are themselves interesting.
Milt Fall of Arlington, Va., once boarded a plane with his wife, Joyce, for a flight to Connecticut for a friend’s wedding. Down the aisle came Ted Kennedy and his wife, Victoria.
“I’m excited and blurt, ‘Hey, there’s Sen. Kennedy’ and immediately try to call my buddy Bunky using my cellphone to let him know what’s happening,” Milt wrote. As Milt left his message, he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Victoria Kennedy informing him he was in the Senator’s seat.
“As the Senator sat down beside my wife, Joyce said to him, ‘I’d like to apologize for my husband, what he’s done, is doing, and anything else he may do on this trip.’ Gosh . . . she knows me so well.”
Wrote Milt: “Senator Kennedy had a great sense of humor and even gave us autographs.”
On a flight in the early 1970s, Ben Usher of Columbia, Md., had the pleasure of sitting next to an entrepreneur and carrying on a delightful three-hour conversation with the man about his new business venture.
Wrote Ben: “Little did I know I had just met one of America’s most successful businessmen.”
His seatmate was Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx. “An unforgettable experience,” Ben wrote. “Wish I had bought just one of his shares.”
It wasn’t Cathy Winer who had an airborne brush with celebrity, but her daughter’s father-in-law, Fred Traversi, who at the time was head of international sales for Lexmark printers.
“On a flight, a congenial man struck up a conversation with him about their families and in the course of it mentioned his printer had failed,” Cathy wrote. “Fred offered to send him a new one.”
Eventually, the seatmate said, “You don’t know who I am, do you?”
Traversi didn’t. It was Fred Rogers of the acclaimed PBS children’s TV show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Wrote Cathy: “Fred sent the printer, and soon the three Traversi children each received a personalized thank you note from Mr. Rogers.”
Elaine Horsfield’s late husband, Jim, an economist with the Economic Research Service of the Department of Agriculture, was once on his way to Louisville for a conference. He struck up a conversation with his seatmate, a man named Alan Fox who happened to also work at Agriculture, as an economist with the Forest Service. The two had never met.
“They started by asking each other where they grew up and both indicated that they lived in New Jersey,” wrote Elaine, of Oak Hill, Va. “ ‘Where in New Jersey?’ was the next question and both answered ‘Sussex County.’ ‘Where in Sussex County?’ came next and both answered ‘South of Newton on Route 94.’”
Wrote Elaine: “It was then they discovered Jim’s family had moved into the house that Alan’s family had just left. Alan later sent Jim a photo of Alan and his brother in the mutual backyard!”
You never know who your seatmate is, or was or might turn out to be.
In May of 1994, Ted Hudson boarded a United flight to Denver. To get to his window seat, he had to thread his way past a striking young woman.
“There was no conversation immediately, and after a while she dozed,” wrote Ted, of Centreville, Va.
Her head slumped toward his shoulder, prompting Ted to ask if she wanted a pillow.
“Then the conversation began,” Ted wrote. The woman explained she worked at the Taiwanese mission in Washington, translating and doing liaison work with the Secret Service and other security agencies. She was traveling to Denver to visit a friend. That Colorado friend later became the maid of honor at Ted and LiPing’s marriage.
Wrote Ted: “Twenty-four years later LiPing and I are still married, with a daughter who just graduated from college and a son who is a rising sophomore, and LiPing teaches piano and voice at her home studio. She could probably tell you our United flight number, still.”
Sometimes it pays to talk to the person in the seat next to you.
In my column yesterday, I wrote that the interesting female reader John Ryan sat next to on a flight in 1984 was “one of the few” women who broke enemy codes in the 1940s. Not true, wrote Lucy Swartz of Kensington, Md.: “As detailed in the wonderful book, ‘Code Girls,’ by your former colleague, Liza Mundy, there were thousands of women who worked to break the Japanese (and German) cipher codes in World War II.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.