A Very Small Adventure by Susan Shafarzek

Many, oh, many, many, years ago, a friend and I took a plane trip to Minneapolis, Minn. It was not a first flight, but it was a first time west for both of us. Our flight began in Newark, N.J.

This friend believed, or professed to believe, that airplanes only stayed in the air because the passengers kept willing it to do so. Perhaps she was being facetious, but in any event, that was probably our only worry. In those days, no one searched your luggage and the rows of seats seemed not to be so close together as they have since become.

It was also way before smartphones. People still talked to each other on public transportation. We were in a row of three and our fellow passenger in the row was an affable thirty-something young man, wearing brilliantly shined cowboy boots and a shirt with elaborate embroidery around the chest and cuffs.  We exchanged basic information: where we were going and yes, how we liked flying. I think his name was Bob.

You’re going west,” Bob said in a friendly, self-satisfied way, “but I’m going home. I’ve just been to the world’s biggest expo of collectible knives.”

Probably one of us said, “Really?” It was not surprising to think we were in hailing distance of the world’s biggest expo of anything. Like us, he had come to Newark by way of a shuttle from New York City. He was happy to fill in for us the details of this extravaganza, the number of dealers, the renown of the whole thing in, I think, Madison Square Garden.

“I collect, you know,” he said, looking even more pleased and smug. “I have twenty-three Bowie knives. Well, now twenty-four. And this one is the best. It’s an authentic, 1847. I got the papers.”

We may have looked less than impressed. “Wait,” he said. “I don’t need to just tell you about it. Look.”

In almost a single motion, he pulled out from under the seat in front of him what I would have taken for a large briefcase, snapped it open and moved it from his side to ours so we could both get a good look. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he said.

Resting on a bed of darkest velvet was the largest knife I ever saw—up till then and since. Broad-bladed, curved, it seemed almost to have a hook at the killing end. Leather-bound at the haft, it was truly, formidable.

Memory tells me we both made appropriately impressed responses and also, I think, shifted slightly to one side—but how far can you shift in an airplane seat? Then, my friend, perhaps less mesmerized than I, fastened serious eyes on our seatmate and said, in a calm tone of voice, “It would be a good idea to put that away.”

“Huh?” Bob said, looking around him, as if seeing for the first time, all the other occupied seats, the innocent passengers occupying this same limited space with us. “Oh, yeah.” And with a regretful motion, snapped the catch and restored his prized possession to its place under the seat.

And then we continued flying the rest of the way to Minneapolis, incapable of forgetting the presence among us of this remarkable weapon. Or I was, anyway. Meanwhile, our new friend, Bob, told us more than we may have wanted to know about knife collecting and life in southern Minnesota, his eventual destination.

Simpler times. So many disasters later, not to mention the pandemic (lets not mention the pandemic), it’s almost hard to imagine a time of feeling so safe—when the experience of someone’s bringing a very large knife onto an airplane could seem almost amusing. But there it was. My most recent airplane trip, to upstate New York, by way of Philadelphia, masked all the way, luggage checked, handbag x-rayed, held very little amusement—but one is always grateful for a safe landing. Anytime.

Susan Shafarzek
Susan Shafarzek is essay/memoir editor for Streetlight. She lives and writes in Charlottesville, Va.

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