A year ago today Dick and I boarded a Hawaiian Airlines jet bound for Honolulu on the first leg of our vacation flight to Kauai. It’s been my custom for some years (initiated by my friend Corinne Litchfield) to bring aboard a skinny Sharpie, perfect for writing on… what is the proper term for them? Barf bags.
I just looked it up online: air sickness bags. And that made me wonder, who came up with that idea?
According to Phil Edwards, writing on vox.com, “Though there were a few passenger flights earlier, commercial aviation sputtered to life in the 1920s before taking off in the ’50s. And one of the big anxieties was getting sick on the plane.”
Several factors contributed to that problem: Gas and oil smells sometimes wafted into the passenger cabin, but according to Edwards, planes flying at about 5,000 feet (before pressurized cabins made 35,000-foot flights possible) often encountered a lot of turbulence. That sent tummies into distress, and when Gilmore T. Schjeldahl of North Dakota developed a new bag-making machine using plastic, it changed aviation in a not insignificant way. His company eventually produced a variety of polyethylene packaging materials and plastic bag liners. He died in 2002, after being awarded 16 patents, according to Wikipedia, “and may be best known for inventing the plastic-lined airsickness bag.”
(You can, like most anything, buy them today on Amazon. One version, by VNS creations, describes its bags this way: “Portable and light, the bags are ideal for car sick kids, pet messes, babies sick in plane, pregnant women, drunk passengers. Keep them within reach — whether you’re traveling by air, car, or boat — always be ready if/when you need to puke!”)
And though many airlines have done away with feeding passengers or providing blankets and pillows, the barf bag is (thank goodness) still with us. These days the ones I’ve found are plain white, plastic bags, free of airline logos.
When her mother was still alive, my friend Corinne Litchfield, when flying, used to write her mother letters on barf bags. This prompted her years later to create a now-defunct website called Paper Bag Writers, which encouraged people to submit their creative writing on barf bags. She’d photograph the best ones and put them on the website. I’m proud to say that I had a poem or two on bags on that site.
Now I cannot leave an airplane without leaving a Sharpie-poem’d bag in a pocket or with a flight attendant. I usually do two—one for the plane and one for me—but my rule is that it’s an original poem that I conceived and drafted on the plane.
I never expected one of those to find its way back to me. But the poem I wrote on Jan. 3, 2019, did.
Adrian Ruby found the scuffed, torn, poem’d barf bag in the nose cone of the plane that flew us to Hawaii last year. He works in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Safety Training Systems, which makes flight control trainers for the military. “One of the first thing we do is we cut the plane apart,” he told me last week in a phone conversation. “In the cockpit area, we found three rachets, three or four pairs of glasses. These mechanics must lose all kinda shit, and it’s like, what in the world? And that was there.”
He read the poem and noticed the date. “I’m thinkin’ this plane was flyin’ in January because she wrote this poem.”
On Oct. 25, 2019, eleven months after that flight, Adrian Ruby sent me a photo through Facebook of this bag, with a simple question: “Is this your work?”
I responded, “It is! Wow! How and where did you find it?”
And that’s when the story began to unfold. I asked Adrian to send me the bag, which he did, and, after a couple of tries, we finally talked a couple of days before the end of the year.
“I think it would’ve been under the forward lab. I don’t know how it got from the [passenger] compartment to down low. There’s spaces in the sideboard liners that it can get in the cargo hold. Either that, or one of the guys who cut it apart found it.”
Curious to see who Jan Haag might be, Adrian decided to check Facebook. “I couldn’t even hardly read the name. I just kinda guessed. When it popped up and it said you were a writer, I thought, ‘It’s gotta be her.’
As he pulled the plane apart, Adrian told me, “I’ve seen inspection dates like 1985, ’91, so it had been in service for quite a while. By the time we get some of these aircraft, I think, ‘I’m not flyin’ on one of these.’”
Adrian is a 52-year-old woodworker, a former cabinet maker, has been working for Safety Training Systems for 13 years. One of his buddies connected him with the job. “It’s kinda interesting and it’s not the same old thing every day,” he told me. “I could be workin’ wood, the next day I could be workin’ stainless steel, aluminum.”
And one of the most interesting parts of his story is that he’s not a guy who reads much poetry.
“I can’t hardly read,” he said after I offered to send him my book of poems. “I have some kind of problem and they never really addressed it. They put me back in a remedial reading class. I can’t sound out words. I just have to work on my brain to want to learn that. I skip words a lot. It’s really tough when I try to write, too.”
I was struck by the sweet happenstance of someone who struggles with words finding a writer’s words on, of all things, a barf bag and being moved to find her and share that with her.
Adrian Ruby’s kindness touched me, I told him, because I wrote that poem 12 days before my partner collapsed at the airport on the day we were to return home, felled by a cardiac arrest, then revived, thanks to the help of people we didn’t yet know. Our lives changed irrevocably on that Hawaii trip, and Adrian Ruby turned out to be one of the people who, months later, also emerged to do us a kindness. Another stranger who was, in the words of my friend, singer-songwriter Ansty McClain, “a friend waiting to happen.”
So Dick and I are grateful to Adrian Ruby for his thoughtfulness, for his persistence in tracking down a writer who scribbled a new poem on an air sickness bag that found its way to a retired jet in Oklahoma. It means more to us than he’ll ever know.