Fel­low Trav­ellers

(An over-my-shoul­der look at life)

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Michael Walker

Isup­pose that when you travel as much as I once did—and by “much” I mean up to 200 days a year, which al­most brings me up to Saint Lu­cia’s min­is­te­rial level—you are bound sooner or later to have some­one fa­mous, or in­fa­mous, sit next to you for the du­ra­tion of the flight. Com­mut­ing as of­ten as I did be­tween Europe and the US (and be­ing ab­so­lutely nuts about air travel), I took the Con­corde from Heathrow to JFK and back about once a month for more than two years. Strangely enough, I en­coun­tered some­one fa­mous on only one oc­ca­sion dur­ing that pe­riod.

It was on the re­turn leg. I had left the Bos­ton area early that morn­ing by pri­vate jet just in time to catch the 10am flight to Lon­don that ar­rived in the late af­ter­noon. My seat­mate was im­mac­u­lately dressed for busi­ness and seemed quite ag­i­tated. I was in 1B, as al­ways, and he oc­cu­pied 1A. Un­usu­ally, he was quite chatty (peo­ple tend to keep them­selves to them­selves on these flights) and he told me all about his flight “go­ing tech­ni­cal” on him, which was why he was tak­ing Con­corde. I com­mis­er­ated with him, poor devil, hav­ing to fly su­per­sonic when he could have flown in lux­ury in his govern­ment jet.

I had to stay in Lon­don for a cou­ple of days on busi­ness, which co­in­cided with his stay and we met a cou­ple of times for din­ner even though we were stay­ing at dif­fer­ent ho­tels. Un­for­tu­nately, al­though he was to be joined by his wife later in the week, he had quite a dif­fer­ent agenda for our “friend­ship” and I had to cut him off, which made him quite an­gry. I guess I had been naïve. Gays were still “queers” in the days be­fore en­light­en­ment.

Trav­el­ling first class on reg­u­lar flights was quite a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. I re­mem­ber one par­tic­u­lar TWA flight from Bos­ton into Heathrow, again a day flight, but sub­sonic, that was de­layed for quite some time at the gate be­fore de­par­ture. The cap­tain was be­com­ing pretty irritated and the one re­main­ing pas­sen­ger was clearly get­ting on his nerves. When she fi­nally ap­peared, look­ing ab­so­lutely gor­geous, she plonked her­self down next to me be­fore grab­bing my hand and wrist. “Hold me,” she panted, “I’m ter­ri­fied of fly­ing.” I gra­ciously ac­qui­esced and she clung on to me for most of the flight. The cabin crew was so star struck that I felt I had to ask my new found close com­pan­ion,

“Ex­cuse me, but am I sup­posed to know you?” She cracked up and howled with laugh­ter. It turned out she was the star of a TV se­ries called Dy­nasty—which I had never heard of—and she was on her way to Paris to be fit­ted for wigs for an up­com­ing movie she was go­ing to make. Coin­ci­den­tally, we were stay­ing at the same ho­tel in Lon­don, the Savoy, so she of­fered me a ride in the limou­sine that her stu­dio had pro­vided, and a good time was had by all for the next cou­ple of days.

Then there was the Gatwick to Bar­ba­dos flight with Mick Jag­ger by my side. David Bowie was on the same flight. They were on their way to Mus­tique. I took my small plane down to meet them and ended up donat­ing loads of my books to the small school that they sup­ported on the is­land. I re­ceived a very nice thank you note from a Lady So-and-so, who was clearly Mick’s pri­vate sec­re­tary or the per­son in charge of the school, that I still have to­day.

We chat­ted the whole flight, some­thing I never did oth­er­wise, but he was so dif­fer­ent from the pub­lic per­sona, the im­age he pre­sented. His father was a teacher of his­tory, I re­mem­ber, and the whole singing busi­ness was sup­posed to last just a year or two. He seemed fas­ci­nated to learn that I made a good liv­ing, to say the least, from writ­ing text­books.

For ninety-nine point nine per­cent of the time these chance en­coun­ters re­mained just that, but oc­ca­sion­ally, just now and then, they be­came some­thing more. I re­call a mem­o­rable flight from Paris to Buenos Aires via Rio de Janeiro on Air France. The first class cabin was sparsely pop­u­lated, just five Arab gen­tle­men and me. My guy was clearly the leader. They were from one of the Gulf States and they were on their way to do busi­ness in South Amer­ica. The Sheik was chatty and friendly and kept feed­ing me figs with his fin­gers as we talked. Be­lieve it or not, it turned out that he had learned English us­ing my books and could still, years later, quote from the texts in the books. By the end of the flight we had be­come firm friends and I found that I had promised to visit him in his coun­try as soon as pos­si­ble on my re­turn to Europe and hold cour­ses and work­shops for his teach­ers. The col­lab­o­ra­tion that started at the be­gin­ning of the eight­ies lasted for many years un­til he passed.

Look­ing back at my ca­reer, I re­al­ize that per­haps the most mo­men­tous events have not been the most suc­cess­ful cam­paigns or the mil­lions in sales but in­stead it was the quiet mo­ments, the pass­ing en­coun­ters that made all the dif­fer­ence.

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