I can either let this nag my blood pressure to unhealthy heights, I thought, or I can try to make the best of it. I lifted a prayer asking for an extra dose of grace.
The flight from Los Angeles was overbooked. Not one spare seat. When I got to my assigned seat, 24-D, it was already taken. There were three seats in the row. A mother and two children were already filling them.
I fished for my ticket stub, “Did I read this wrong?” I asked loudly enough for the mom to hear. “No, it says 24-D.”
The mother scooped up the two-year-old. “Come on in. That’s your seat. Tammy here is a lap child. She’s more than two, but I lied about her age—saved $370.”
One more furtive glance told me there was not another seat to be had. I settled into the seat vacated by two-year-old Tammy. I found out her name soon because she was energetically kicking me and scolding, “Get out. Get out.” She had new sneakers. The kind with lights in the heels that flash when you move your feet. She was admiring her flashing feet as she kicked my kneecaps.
“I can’t control these kids,” the mother said, trying to hold down the hoof of the kicker. “I’m pregnant again, and I don’t do mornings very well.”
Already we were getting glances and murmurs from the folks seated around us. “You’re in luck today, Ma’am,” I said. “I’m a world-class grandpa.”
“I’ve got a T-shirt to prove it. It’s what I do best. I'll help with the kids.”
The test soon came. The stewardesses were serving breakfast. I had a meal coming, but I quickly decided to donate it to the lap child, Tammy. Just as well, she took it anyway. I tried to help feed her. Once, just for a second, I looked away. Tammy emptied the milk carton. Some of it went in the plastic cereal bowl, the rest in the tray. I decided not to scream or chide. Instead I reached into my back pocket and to my surprise found two paper towels. Just before boarding I had discovered that I had no Kleenex and had stuffed a couple of towels from the men’s room in to my pockets (don’t tell me there’s no God).
We all battled the breakfast trays until finally after what seemed an age the stewardesses took them away. Then a new challenge arose—three really. Pammy (Pamela?) had to go to the bathroom, Tammy had a bad diaper, and mother had morning sickness. While mom took the five-year-old to the rest room, I was to care for Tammy. She had another plan. She didn't like the idea of her mother and sister disappearing down the aisle and her being left behind. She tried the well-known body-stiffening act—which is, after all better than the wailing routine. They can’t scream much when they are into the stiffening exercise.
“Do you know what I am?” I asked the stiffened one. Slowly, almost ominously, I said, “I am a grandpa.” She looked at me quizzically with a hint of a smile. I was winning. I pressed my advantage. "Tammy, do you know what you are? You are a sweet little kid. You are trying to act like a bad girl, but you are not fooling me—you are really a sweet little girl.” No one was more surprised than I when she started acting like one. I hugged my new friend. Mother and Pammy came back. Mom began telling me more about her pregnancy than I ever cared to know. “If there’s two of them in there. I’m naming them Myrna and Myra.”
The pilot announced that we were flying over Las Vegas. “Nothin' there I want. Las Vegas ruined my life. We used to live in a four-bedroom, four-bath home. Now we live in a garage apartment. My husband gambled it all away. Restitution for gambling debts cost us our house. Last year he finally stopped—when I took the kids away from him. He decided he liked his kids better than his dice. I can tell you, he’ll be making restitution to me the rest of his life.”
After another shuffle of seats, I found myself sitting by Pammy, the five-year-old. Bending down, I tried to start a friendly conversation. “Your ear’s dirty,” she blurted. Sure enough, grape jelly on the ear is one of the hazards of feeding a “terrible two” at 33,000 feet.
Pammy opened another topic. “I hurt my mother a lot.”
“How did you do that, Pammy?”
“When I was in her tummy. I was a very bad girl. I hurt my mommy a lot.”
“Oh, but Pammy, that wasn’t your fault. You are not a bad girl. You are a good girl, a fine young lady. And a pretty one too.”
Those big brown eyes sparkled as soon as that good news soaked in.
She smiled, in relief it seemed to me. I had another new friend. She already missed her daddy, she told me. “Well, why don’t we phone him?” I suggested. We got mom's permission. I took out my Visa card and activated the airplane phone. “He’d better not be there,” the mother threatened, “He’d better be gettin' that car fixed.” Mom was right, no one answered. But I got credit for trying. By mid-trip they were all three calling me grandpa.
We arrived in Salt Lake City where they had to change planes to get to St. Louis where the woman’s grandmother was dying. They all bid “grandpa” a cheerful good-bye. “Sure wish you were going to St. Louis,” the mother said, “I could sure use your help. Thank you.”
By now they were standing in the aisle ready to exit. A woman in the seat in front of us heard all the good-byes and with her mouth hanging open for an embarrassingly long time she gasped, “You mean he’s not the real grandpa!” At the same instant a passenger in the row behind us blurted, “What? He’s not the kids’ real grandpa?”
I was a hero. I felt so good about myself that in the 20 minutes before the plane took off again, I strolled into the airport and rewarded myself with a nonfat yogurt—strawberry.
It wasn’t until the next morning, that I realized that I had badly screwed up a mentoring moment. I awoke with an awareness of the Lord’s presence. You know how it is. You are barely awake, and as soon as you get conscious the first presence you sense is that of Jesus. You start the day with prayer. I started to pray for Tammy and Pammy and their mom, whose name I never learned.
I had gotten no address, no last name. I had not written down the phone number. I believe that the Lord had supervised the seat assignments. I had not been given 24-D by accident. The Lord had done His part, but I had screwed up— again.
If I had gotten full names, the address of that garage apartment I could have put the local Church of the Nazarene in touch with them. I could have put them in touch with the church too. For pity’s sake, I could have sent them a Herald subscription!
But me—I got a strawberry yogurt.
What if those little girls were to get a birthday card every year from their airline grandpa? And special gifts at Christmas or when they graduated from grade school? What if when I was in L.A. next. . .? It was a mentoring moment that could have grown into a mentoring decade, or a lifetime.
I know the Lord is not going give up on Tammy and Pammy and their mom. I just hope that the next person He sends into their lives has enough sense to recognize a mentoring moment when it hits him like a carton of 2 percent milk on an airline tray.
Wesley D. Tracy
Herald of Holiness, October 1994
Please note: This article was originally published in 1994. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.