Nothing brings a cranky, diverse group together like an apparent scrape with death. Maneuvering your way into an airplane on a Monday afternoon, you can find yourself muttering in irritation at the mere sight of a guy in a Hawaiian shirt in front of you or a women with caked-on makeup behind. But let the colorless routine of air travel get disrupted by a madman and suddenly you're all stitched together like a family.
Say hello to Cousin Milton and Sister Minnie.
Tailpipe was on a packed US Airways flight from Philadelphia on the Monday before last, tucked gloomily into seat 18E, trying to ignore the way his right arm and thigh were pressed against the Santa Claus proportions of 18F. The crew had just passed through collecting trash, and the plane had begun to descend over Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport.
Then one of the flight attendants began to shout.
"I knew it! I knew it!" she yelled from the back of the plane.
Tailpipe jerked his head upright to look down the rows of seats to the first-class cabin. A knot of men was tussling in the aisle near the front of the plane, subduing a passenger who had just tried to open an exit door. More were getting up from their seats and rushing to join them.
The rest were doing what Tailpipe was doing stiffening in fear in their seats and looking for signs of box cutters or dead pilots.
On Tailpipe's left, 18D was echoing the sentiments of the screaming flight attendant. "My friend is sitting right up there next to him," she said, gesturing to the first row of coach with eerie calm. "She said that he was acting weird."
Even as she spoke, the struggle in first class had died down. The muffled shouts ended, and several of the men who had been fighting were now standing around, winded and tense. Santa Claus in 18F craned his neck. "Looks like they've got him handcuffed," he said. Everyone on the plane began to clap.
An attendant's voice crackled over the intercom.
"Please make sure your seat belts are securely fastened," she said in a ridiculous parody of calm. "We will soon be landing in Fort Lauderdale."
Some of the men from the front began to return to their seats. "I think he's nuts," one of them whispered as he passed row 18. "There were all these big dudes with badges."
One man, a muscled Asian man with razor-cut cheekbones, got his bag from his seat and returned to the front of the plane. Another one, a short and stocky white guy with ham hocks for forearms, stationed himself in front of the cockpit, arms folded, for all the world like a bouncer at a rock show. Whoever had started the trouble was out of sight and awfully quiet. (A quick sedative injection maybe?) When the plane landed, everybody applauded wildly, as if their favorite singer had just finished a popular anthem.
The chief attendant spoke into the PA system, his voice quavering as he made US Airway's only official acknowledgment that we had all possibly just cheated death.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please remain seated. The police must enter the plane before you can get off."
Two BSO deputies boarded the plane through the side exit door and made their way to the front, where the alleged assailant was stashed behind the cockpit under the watchful gaze of air marshals, who suddenly materialized. The whole cabin leaned forward to get a glimpse of the cause of all the trouble some passengers even took out their camcorders. Finally, a wild-eyed older white man walked up the aisle in handcuffs, flanked by officers. Someone yelled "Loser!" Then the plane erupted in more cheers.
The Broward Sheriff's Office reported later that the man was Ricky W. Herb, 45, who was said to be on his way to South Florida for psychological treatment. He was taken into custody by the air marshals and reportedly detained for psychiatric evaluation.
As Tailpipe finally reached terra firma, his hands trembling, he looked fondly at all the people who had been through this hairy experience, including even the bulky Mr. 18F. He had just witnessed evidence of the seismic shift in attitude by the air-traveling public.
Nobody's sitting back apathetically any more. Even Tailpipe had been ready to roll.
When the African-American Library in Fort Lauderdale hosts the Esther Rolle Collection this fall, friends and fans of the actress can celebrate Good Times. This is a show for the TV memorabilia fanatic. Rolle who has a street in her hometown of Pompano Beach named in her honor represented a lot more than the commemorative T-shirts, beaded gowns, NAACP Image Award statuettes, and Emmys contained in the exhibit. She was child number ten out of the 18 kids born to her Bahamian immigrant parents.
A second-generation spinoff success story, Rolle elevated Florida Evans, the sharp-tongued maid from the '70s sitcom Maude, to matriarch status on Good Times. And like that tough-talking mom, Rolle wasn't about to roll over when the show's writers (captained by Norman Lear) wanted to push the program in what she thought was an offensively stereotypical direction. So Rolle (and co-star John Amos) threatened to quit not over a salary dispute, if you kids can believe that but to preserve what dignity remained after the show became little more than Jimmie Walker's hat collection and forgettable catch-phrase repository.
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In fact, when Rolle bolted from Good Times in 1977, the show's producers claimed she was ill, and the writers had her moving to where else? Florida. That, astute viewers will recall, paved the way for the arrival of Janet Jackson. After promises that Walker's slapstick would be kept in check, Rolle came back to the series in 1979. Though the IMDB film database dubs her "the gap-toothed, rather plumpish and plain-looking actress with the gravelly voice," she went on to star in feature films like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Driving Miss Daisy. She died in 1998.
Walker still plugs away on the comedy circuit, a sad, chastened figure who struggles to catch some of the magic he held when all he needed to inspire a big laugh was to chant "Dy-no-MITE!"
All right, J.J., you can come to the show. But show a little respect to your elders. And wipe those dirty sneakers!
As told to Edmund Newton