Note to Readers – If discussion of human bodily functions offends you, please be advised that this column deals with a common malady of travelers the world over: abdominal gas.
With all the kerfuffle about “fake news” in the media these days, you’d think editors and television producers would have double- and triple-checked their story about the evacuation of an American Airlines jet at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport after someone purportedly “passed gas” in the passenger cabin.
Of course, the story did not meet the sniff test. This caused several news outlets to issue corrections or clarifications. Concerning the latter, how do you clarify a story that is untrue? The plane was not evacuated. No one broke a terrible stinking wind, causing passengers to flee for their lives. But the media seemed to laugh off the blunder.
As did millions of young, middle-aged and older men, inside of whom little boys still giggle and laugh when someone passes gas. They desperately wanted to believe that an incident of flatulence had been treated as a terrorist threat. Maybe this was why reporters and editors broke the journalistic corroboration rule in their rush to publish and broadcast before the air cleared inside the jet.
“For sure, ‘twas a powerful blast to empty an airliner,” said my Irish coffee-drinking buddy when the first report was broadcasted on local TV news. We were at the corner café, occupying our usual chairs: a flock of old men ready to solve the nation’s problems, even the peril of toxic abdominal gas on passenger jets.
His comment kicked off 30 minutes of flatulence recollections – and impolite bragging -- from college and army days, sports teams, office cubicles, crowded buses, church pews, library stacks, waiting rooms, jury trials and even airplanes. This segued into discussion of what foods are the worst producers of gas. An actual vote was taken, and pickled eggs led the ballot.
I chipped in a little known historical fact: Adolph Hitler had suffered from “meteorism,” chronic and almost continuous flatulence from a belly swollen with gas. German general staff officers during WW II probably dreaded closed-door strategy meetings with the Fuhrer.
“Oden, we can count on you to put the rise and fall of Nazism into proper perspective for us,” observed a retired college professor as he stirred his decaf.
I kept my mouth shut thereafter as the conversation turned to relatives and friends with whom they tried to avoid sharing confined spaces due to their propensity for breaking wind.
“But I can see something like the airliner story truly happening,” nodded the chairman of our coffee-drinkers’ table next morning when the story had been utterly debunked. He described his military service on a nuclear missile submarine, where sailors in close quarters actually punched messmates who’d fouled the air.
“Bunch of men cooped up under the sea in a metal shell, breathing recirculated air for a month while on patrol, can get a little testy,” he explained.
“Well, ‘tis not like anyone who has ever flown on business or vacation can deny it happens,” said the Irishman. “You get on a flight over the Pond [Atlantic Ocean] seated next to someone who’s had kippers and eggs for breakfast, and you’ll see what’s what. Happened to me once…”
Six pairs of eyes turned toward him.
“I mean, someone like that sat in the aisle seat, trapping me next to the window. I could smell that greasy smoked herring in the fabric of his woolen coat, but that wasn’t the worst of it. It’s after they eat it, you see.”
He moaned, “Oh, ‘twas a terrible flight.”
I’ve had the same experiences while traveling. I’ve been both a victim and the guilty party. I think we all have, to be honest. On a trip from Reagan National Airport back to Nashville, I boarded while in the grip of a nasty stomach virus. I had to get home. There was nothing I could do except sit near the rear restroom cubicle with a newspaper over my head, sick and terribly embarrassed.
The flight attendants took pity on me and rerouted other passengers to the forward restrooms. But everyone knew who was assaulting their sense of smell. I prayed no one would catch my virus. Thank God it was a short flight.
The consensus was that the media had erred in reporting fake news, but that it could have happened. The scenario is plausible enough – especially in this era of shrinking passenger space on airliners and extended waiting times on the tarmac after boarding or landing.
Yes, we agreed, people could be made ill by a fellow passenger with particularly virulent abdominal gas.
The only ex-physician in our group of retirees signaled to the waitress for a menu, which he scanned before declaring, “I’ll have the blueberry pancakes.” The sound of chair legs scraping the floor greeted his choice of breakfast.
Each of us suddenly remembered appointments, errands and visits. We excused ourselves and hurried through the café’s front door, leaving Doc sitting by himself while he pored over his newspaper.
You see, we know from hard experience what happens to Doc when he eats blueberry pancakes.