Reflecting on the Coronavirus at 36,000 feet

As I begin scribbling notes for this column, I’m sitting in an aisle seat near the front of a Southwest airliner bound for Denver. I booked this trip a while back—before the tornado touched down in Putnam County and before most of us had heard much about Covid-19–because I hadn’t seen my Colorado kids since Christmas.

When the horrible stuff happened, I came within a hair of cancelling my trip. But Meg had scheduled some outpatient surgery and was counting on me to help with the kids while she recuperated, so I didn’t. I was bummed that I’d be in the air when Tennessee took on Alabama in the SEC basketball tournament, but I knew I’d be snuggled on the couch in front of their flat screen in plenty of time for the final rounds.

The trip to the airport this morning was sobering. Along I-40, I saw for the first time some of the aftermath of the tornado. Downed trees. Roofs ripped off buildings. Piles of rubble where houses once stood.

I arrived at the airport and noted without surprise that it’s absolutely impossible not to touch surfaces that someone else has touched. My suitcase handle. Door handles. The touchscreen on the check-your-bags kiosk. My driver’s license after the TSA agent handed it back to me. And on and on and on. I’d packed snacks at home, determined not to ingest food from an airport restaurant. I broke one of my cardinal rules of environmental stewardship—don’t buy bottled water!—because I feared that filling a bottle from home with airport water might not be safe.

Then I boarded the plane, which I learned was flying today with 40 empty seats. I took this seat next to a man and his wife who didn’t appear to be coughing or struggling to breathe. I began unloading from my backpack the things I’d need for the two-and-a-half hour flight. Phone. Book. String cheese. Packet of cashews. Reading glasses. Ink pen. And the stenographer’s notebook I’m writing in now. Some of these things I usually put in the pocket of the seat in front of me. Not today. Germs are bound to be running wild in there. In normal times, I lower the tray table and get organized. But I have no Clorox wipes (the two stores I checked were sold out), so I leave the tray folded in place.

This means I’m writing notes with a four-dollar bottle of water between my knees, my phone (which I cleaned with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball before leaving home)and other stuff positioned beside my left hip and the steno pad on my lap. Safe from germs. Right?

For good measure, I pull the travel-size bottle of hand sanitizer from my sweatshirt pocket and rub it thoroughly into my hands, which I just scrubbed with soap and warm water in the airport restroom. I’m not sure if I did it for the required 20 seconds because I was embarrassed to sing out loud. Also, I couldn’t decide which song to sing. The Alphabet Song? Happy Birthday? Row, Row, Row Your Boat? Lately, I’m leaning toward hymns. Just a Closer Walk with Thee. Standing on the Promises. Jesus Loves Me. I’m always careful, while singing and washing my hands, to include a thorough scrubbing of both thumbs. Apparently a lot of folks fail to do that.

The plane is taxiing down the runway now so I’ll put my pen and pad away and fold my hands in my lap and take deep, calming breaths until we reach cruising altitude. And while the plane’s ascending, I’ll concentrate on counting my many blessings.

One of which is that it was exceedingly easy to write this column.

(March 22, 2020)