The Middle Seat

Have you ever thwarted a terrorist plot?

Well, I have… maybe.

Flashback to 2015, the Denver Airport. I had just settled into my window seat, 7th row, right side of the plane. As a frequent flier and a tad-bit superstitious, I always upgraded with Southwest to board early and attempt to nab my lucky seat.

Back then, I avoided conversations with strangers. My idea of flying included a pair of dark sunglasses, headphones, and a small pillow to lean my head on the plane’s sidewall. On this trip, I was headed to Louisville, Kentucky, to conduct a softball camp. A nice, quiet woman who I guessed to be in her late 50’s chose the aisle seat, leaving an open middle seat between us.

Aside from 7 being a favorite number, picking the 7th row is also strategic for me - it’s not too close to the front, where a weary traveler might take a middle seat to be off the plane first – while also, it’s far enough back that those who value a non-middle seat, even if it means being in the back, will pass it by.

Now that you know how my mind works

I watched as waves of people boarded and passed on the middle seat in row 7. By the time the waves dissipated to a trickle, the likelihood of having a little extra room increased. Once I saw the attendants doing final checks on the overhead bends and conducting headcounts, I felt relieved knowing my middle seat would remain open.

Then, just as I got comfortable, a peculiar-looking man rushed onto the plane ahead of the boarding door being closed.

I peeked beneath my sunglasses as I pretended to sleep and watched his shaky hands and wild eyes stop at row 7. He asked the nice lady on the aisle with the nod of his head, and she obliged, while I continued to fake sleep.

He smelled of stale cigarettes, and his stocky, muscular build took more of the seat than he deserved. I scanned the tattoos on his forearms, made visible by the rolled-up sleeves of his flannel shirt. I have friends from the Middle East and quickly recognized the markings on his arms as Arabic. I found the ink strange since everything else about him screamed thirty-something from the Midwest.

As the flight attendant began her departure spiel – you know the one given with a manufactured smile and seatbelt instructions that nobody pays attention to? – our middle seat friend began to shuffle through items in his backpack beneath his seat. He pulled from it a sketchpad, laid it on his lap and flipped through the pages.

He was a talented artist, but his work was dark and cryptic – demonic with religious undertones and overtures. After dozens of pages, he stopped on a page showing a sketch of a hand, drawn in a three-dimensional perspective, reaching off the page to the viewer.

As the plane taxied toward the runway, our friend popped a cap off a fat black sharpie and rapidly scribbled lines of text.

The first line caught my attention, and while I continued to pretend to be asleep, I stared at the words beneath my dark glasses.

It read:

“Today is the day I DIE. The day we ALL DIE.”
“Nobody on this plane realizes what’s about to happen to them.”
“They …”

As I waited to see what else he was about the write, from her seat on the aisle, the nice, quiet lady’s voice quivered as she confronted him, “That’s kind of cryptic isn’t it?

He responded by slamming his sketchbook shut and mumbled, “It’s nothing.”

I sat up in my seat and removed my sunglasses and said, “No, it’s something.”

He glanced at me and shoved his sketchbook into his backpack.

“You’re making me uncomfortable.” The lady on the aisle said, pointing to the sketchbook now in his backpack.

It’s nothing,” he repeated nervously.

I said, “You’re making her uncomfortable. That concerns me.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he shot back.

I snapped back, “You’re going to tell me why you wrote that.”

He folded his arms defiantly with his fists clenched as his pupils danced in his eyes.

The lady on the aisle began to cry with fear. I said to the man, “You can’t write things like that, don’t you watch the news?” Every night there were stories about Isis infiltrating the U.S. with plans to take down planes and commit terrorist acts against innocent Americans. The whole country felt on the edge.

The man in the middle seat grew tenser and smirked at me.

I pondered what to do. There was a good chance he was simply seeking attention – probably harmless. I heard the pilot announce, “Next for takeoff.” If I was going to act, it was now or never. I thought about my wife and kids. I thought about my responsibility to say something when you see something. I reached for the button to summon the flight attendant. I paused for a moment, second-guessing my action, and then pushed it.

The flight attendant had just strapped into the jumpseat. She craned her neck with a furrowed brow and shook her head at me. I pushed it again and motioned for her. She shook her head at me again and mouthed, “We’re getting ready for takeoff. No!”

I stood the best I could and said, “Get over here, now!”

Visibly annoyed, she unstrapped from her seat and jerked the phone to the cockpit against her ear. She stomped back to aisle 7 with her hands set on her hips and barked at me, “What’s your problem!”

I said, “He’s the problem,” and pointed to the man next to me as he looked forward with his arms set across his chest.