Flying the queasy skies

Sometimes turbulence is just the start of your problems.


Elliott Neal Hester
June 29, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

During the final 20 minutes of a nine-hour all-nighter from Rio de
Janeiro to Miami, I came face to face with an unspeakable horror. It was
about 5 a.m. The cabin was dark, save for a few passenger
reading lamps and a dim glow from the main-cabin galley where I was busy
completing the liquor inventory.

As I locked the last of the service carts, a young kid stumbled into the
galley. He was about 8 years old, with big doll-like eyes that blinked
sluggishly beneath his wrinkled brow. He frowned and held his belly in both
hands.

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"What's the matter?" I asked.

"I don't feeeeel good," he said. He spoke in a soft, reedy voice that would
have melted the hearts of my co-workers had they not retreated into the
lavatories to freshen up before landing.

My heart didn't melt, however. I took two steps backward, worried that the kid would puke on my
shoes.

"Where are your parents?" I demanded.

"Sleeeeeping."

"Do you need to go to the bathroom?" (I said this while nodding vigorously
and pointing to the nearest lavatory.)

"Nooooo."

"Hmmmm ... I guess your tummy hurts, huh?"

"Yesssss," he said.

I sat him on the jump seat while I searched for some ginger ale to help
settle his stomach. He stared sullenly into space, rocking, with both arms
wrapped around his waist.

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By the time I turned back to give him the glass of ginger ale, his eyes seemed to
have grown to twice their original size. There was a look of blatant
surprise on his face -- the comical expression of a boy who, upon hearing
his father tumble down the stairs, suddenly remembered where he'd left his
toy fire engine. His eyes grew even wider. His lips pursed. His cheeks
swelled to Dizzy Gillespie proportions. But this kid was preparing to blow
something other than air into a trumpet.

In 13 years as a flight attendant I've seen more than my fair share of
air sickness. I once saw a drunken couple take turns barfing into each
other's lap, as if playing a sickly version of "Can You Top That." I watched
a Catholic priest vomit into the face of his secular seatmate. I watched a
teenage girl open the seat-back pocket in front of her and proceed to fill it
with the contents of her stomach. I watched a queasy businessman splatter
the last row of passengers after an ill-fated sprint toward the lavatory.

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In one particularly memorable episode that triggered a chain reaction of in-flight
regurgitation, I watched the volcanic eruption of a 300-pound vacationer
who'd eaten three servings of lasagna. After witnessing this spectacle (and
inhaling the pungent odor that wafted through the cabin in its wake) more
than two dozen passengers leaned into the aisle and retched. Gallons of
heavy liquid splashed onto the carpet; even if you closed your eyes you
could not escape the sound. Or the smell. I still get queasy just thinking
about it.

Throughout all these years of high-altitude nausea there is one consolation,
however. Though I've dumped enough air-sick bags to fill an Olympic-size
pool, though my olfactory gland has been violated far beyond the limits of
rational expectation, though I've sprinkled more puke-absorbent coffee
grounds than Maxwell House would care to know, I have never been splattered
by a single drop of vomitus.

But now, an 8-year-old kid with bulging eyes and a high-octane stomach
was aiming his nozzle directly at me.

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In the split-second that I realized he
was about to explode, I dived to one side like a stunt man in a Schwarzenegger
flick. I hit the floor, rolled once and came to rest against the aft
right-hand exit door. From this relatively safe vantage point, I watched the
action unfold in a semi-detached, slow-motion blur.

Just before the kid convulsed, he managed to cover his mouth with both
hands. But this maneuver seemed to cause more harm than good. Thin sheets of
ejecta shot from between his tiny fingers and splattered the face of all four
galley ovens. His head proceeded to swing side to side in a 180-degree
assault that covered the galley in a yellowish-orange slime.

I stared at him
with a mixture of awe and repulsion. It was as if he had become one of those
rapid-fire lawn sprinklers with the rotating mechanical head. The Lawn Boy
2000: We guarantee maximum saturation or your money back! The stuff just
kept coming and coming and coming.

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After what seemed like an eternity, the kid finally ran out of juice.
Literally. With one half-hearted swipe of his sleeve, he wiped his chin, then
turned to look at me. His eyes had returned to normal size. But now they
were heavy, weighed down by guilt and embarrassment. His spew-covered hands
began to tremble as tears ran down his cheeks.

Watching this display of raw
kiddie emotion, my hardened heart loosened a bit. Fighting the stench that
was beginning to make me dizzy, I rose to my feet and stepped toward the
kid, careful to avoid the pools of ooze that covered much of the galley
floor.

As I approached, he began to cry in earnest. Big boo-hoo sobs.
Crocodile tears. He just sat there, bawling, covered from head to toe in
liquefied airplane cuisine.

Overcome by a paternal urge to pat him on the
shoulder, but unable to find an adequate dry spot, I reached out with one
finger and sort of ruffled his hair a bit. He looked up at me wearing an
expression that, for a moment, tugged at the heartstrings of forgiveness.
Then the unthinkable happened.

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Much like that infamous scene from "The Exorcist," the kid looked right into
my eyes and let loose a Linda Blair pea-soup blast that covered me from the
knees down to the tips of my uniform shoes. I stood there, motionless,
feeling the molten bile seep through my socks and into the gaps between my
toes.

Before I could throttle the kid he leapt from the jump seat and
disappeared into the darkened cabin.


Elliott Neal Hester

Elliott Neal Hester has been a flight attendant for 15 years. He has also written for National Geographic Traveler, Men's Fitness, Glamour, Maxim and Caribbean Travel & Life. Out of the Blue appears every other Friday. E-mail your tale of life in the sky to Hester. For more columns by Hester, visit his column archive.

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