It was a hot August afternoon when I stood on the tarmac at the St Louis airport staring at the tiny 7-seater that looked like a toy plane. What? I thought. I would have to get on that? Was this some kind of a joke? Three other passengers were also waiting, but they seemed strangely unperturbed.
My journey had already lasted 48 hours, and this was the final leg of my trip. Two days earlier, I had flown from Dhaka to New York, then stayed overnight with a friend of a friend. Then onward from New York to St Louis, Missouri, and now remained the final part -- getting from St Louis to Carbondale, Illinois, the small town in southern Illinois where I was to begin my PhD studies. Here I was at St Louis with my two suitcases, my first time in the US, and now this flimsy-looking toy plane beckoned with its wings outstretched.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to get from St Louis to Carbondale. One option is to take a shuttle van. For whatever reason, my friend who had made my travel arrangements chose this option -- a small regional service called Cape Air. As for me, whatever I had imagined this small plane to be, I certainly had not envisioned something out of Fantasy Island, the TV series from the '80s. I was sure nobody at home would believe that one could find such planes in the US. I was also convinced that I was about to die in a crash-landing before even beginning my studies.
Forty minutes later, after a bumpy ride, I landed in Marion, a small town close to Carbondale. A huge signboard greeted us: "Williamson County Regional Airport." A small single-storey building stood not too far away and I was told that this was the airport building. I along with a few others found ourselves in the middle of a cleared ground. A few horses grazed peacefully in a nearby field and I believe I saw a donkey, too. They seemed unfazed by our arrival. I looked askance at the toy plane and thanked my stars that I was still in one piece. Much later, a friend of mine told me, "Oh, that's not what you call an airplane -- that's a puddle-jumper." Never heard anything so apt.
After the initial hiccup, however, I soon learnt my way around. Travelling those days certainly was not an easy feat for me, especially as I did not own a car. The nearest major airport was in St. Louis, Missouri, which was more than two hours drive from our small town. The other option from Marion and take a Cape Air flight to St. Louis. I travelled quite often and many of the fun experiences I have had are associated with the St. Louis and Marion airports. The flight from Marion to St. Louis was cheap -- only $50, whereas the shuttle van from Carbondale to St. Louis would cost $70 plus a $5 tip for the driver. For a graduate student on a stipend, it made quite a difference. Hence I preferred the little Cessna, where you could also get discounts in the off season and during early mornings.
There were, however, some problems with the tiny aircraft. Most importantly, it had no heating or cooling system. One summer, as I was waiting with other passengers at the airport, I noticed the airport staff distributing frozen water bottles. I was wondering what they were for when an elderly woman guffawed, "It's that hot, eh?" I could not quite fathom the reason yet, but it certainly was hot that day. I felt nauseated after about 20 minutes in the air and was wondering what the consequences would be if I threw up on the co-pilot who was seated right in front of me. The woman who had laughed at the airport opened her water bottle and started sprinkling the ice-cold water over herself. "Just do what you have to, honey; I don't want to pass out," she muttered. I followed her example and soon everybody else was doing the same thing. It took another 20 minutes to reach St. Louis, and I surely was feeling dizzy when I climbed out of the aircraft.
Usually, the little plane was not too crowded. But the holiday season was a different story. One December, when I was going to visit my aunt, I found the small county airport quite full of people. Many were going off to visit their families elsewhere for Christmas. One officer at the airport announced, "We sold nine tickets. If all the passengers show up, we'll kick out the co-pilot." Believe it or not, that is exactly what they had to do because all nine turned up. As the puddle-jumper started to move, I saw the co-pilot standing outside. As he was wearing headgear and sunglasses, I could not be sure whether he was happy or relieved. I certainly did not like the overcrowded interior, which also felt cold. The winter air outside was sharp and the lack of heating made us acutely aware of it.
As you can understand, there was no lavatory inside the puddle-jumper. Since the ride was short, it was not really necessary. Just to be on the safe side, however, I always visited the washroom right before boarding. On my way back from Boston once, I ran to the lavatory one last time in St. Louis. But as I tried to unlock the door, to my dismay I found that it was stuck. I tried everything I could think of, but as it happens during emergency situations, it refused to budge. I struggled and banged on the door, but to no avail. And nobody seemed to be around either.
Then suddenly, I realized that this was a public toilet and there was a one-foot gap under the door. I braced myself and decided to crawl out of the stall on all fours. Then again, my backpack, which was quite bulky, got caught at the bottom of the door. I had forgotten to take it off my back. It took quite some yanking and extra effort to finally get through. A heavyset woman in the middle of removing her make-up, was just turning away from the basin and she almost yelped, "Egad! Where did ye appear from?" She had earphones on and I could faintly hear music. No wonder she did not hear anything.
I sprinted and when I reached the gate, I found two faces behind the desk staring at me quizzically. "We called you so many times. Where were you?" The plane had left the terminal and was not coming back for me, they said. I threw up my hands in despair and told them about my escapade in the bathroom. The young man went red and howled with laughter. The woman was trying hard not to crack up and asked me a few more questions. I felt sheepish. They shook their heads and finally the woman said, "All right, that is one hell of a story. So here, you can take the next flight after two hours. And you don't have to pay anything extra." She handed me a boarding pass and both of them started laughing so hard that I felt utterly mortified and walked away as fast as I could.
An acquaintance in Carbondale once asked, "How can you ride that thing?" Another, "Where's the oil tank? Ha ha ha." Even though I am infamous for quips, in these cases, I rarely replied. I was afraid that the stories I carried might sound too outrageous and somebody would try to tie me up the next time I planned to fly. I was the only Bangladeshi student in Carbondale who flew Cape Air to St. Louis on a regular basis. A few others who took it never bothered to fly a second time and they gave me odd looks. I am sure they thought I was half-witted or something. Tariq, a junior graduate student who became like a brother to me, once went to a conference in New York and he took the cessna. After his return he told me sternly, "Apu, next time when you go out of Carbondale, please tell me. I'll drive you to St. Louis myself. Goodness! How can you fly something like that so casually?"
So, that made my journeys on the puddle-jumper less frequent. When I finally left Carbondale, I was hoping to take one final ride. But my friends in that small town where I had lived for six years wanted to spend some more time with me. Hence we had one last ride together on the road to St. Louis. The trips I made on that flighty aircraft, however, are etched in my memory like precious landscapes. Puddle-jumping indeed! How I miss the puddle-jumper!
Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor of English at ULAB. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star.