After years of pondering, I have at long last figured out a mystery that has haunted me for almost half a century.
It starts when I board an airplane, settle into my seat, secure my tray table so that it won't flop down on takeoff (Ever notice how some people position the little latch just enough to keep the tray up for the landing, but not enough to keep it up during the takeoff?), and buckle my seat belt.
Suddenly, a piercing cry comes from eight or nine rows behind me. It sounds like a small child or perhaps a baby. It's a short burst, maybe three or four seconds, and it happens every 30 to 90 seconds throughout boarding, taxiing, take-off, flight and landing, even on transcontinental flights.
As a mother, I know it isn't a hunger cry. It isn't a cry of pain either. And it's not fear. Each one of those cries has a distinct sound that every mother must learn in order not to overfeed, overmedicate or overcomfort a rosy infant.
It's a "Cheez, Louise, I'm bored" sound, the very sound I myself would make, except that I'd be tossed off the plane in mid-air.
This particular sound is in every aircraft I've flown aboard, sometimes coming from front and back — "Gosh, Ma, stereo!" — but, strangely, it doesn't penetrate into first class.
During a recent flight to the Caymans, I decided to find this kid and perhaps offer a big, fat sock to stick into its mouth. I carefully threaded my way to the rear of the plane, eyeing each row as I went. No luck. Only happy children and contented babes in arms. No loud, nasal "ahhhhhhhhhhh" sound from anyone, young, old or in-between.
But mere seconds after I got back to my seat, there it was. "Ahhhhhhhhh." Forty-four seconds. "Ahhhhhhhh." Ninety-two seconds. "Ahhhhhhh."
I've talked with other frequent flyers, and they say that same sound is on their flights, too. One million-mile man I recently met told me he had paid several hundred dollars for some sound-deadening headphones, and they do indeed muffle the roar of the engine and mostly drown out the elderly lady nervously chattering toward his ear during bouts of turbulence. (Gosh, I hope he wasn't talking about me.)
But, he said wearily, those fancy headphones can't touch "ahhhhhhh."
If only Joshua had known about it, that sound could have brought down the walls of Jericho with nary a footstep. And who needs Chinese water torture when they've got "ahhhhhhh"? As the MythBusters on the Discovery Channel once showed, it's not just the drip on the forehead that's the torture; it's "immobilizing the subject along with a variable water drop schedule" that drives people nuts, and that's a perfect description of an airline passenger strapped into a seat and being subjected to the random "ahhhhhh."
But then, on the way home from my perfect vacation, it dawned on me: That isn't a child or a baby at all; it's a recording that all airlines play on every flight for a very clever reason: to make passengers so annoyed and uncomfortable that they don't even think about the fact that their seats are exactly three inches narrower than their butts and seven inches narrower than the butt of the man next to them, causing the dreaded "overflow."
It takes passengers' minds off the fact that they're paying $4 for a tiny bag of stale pretzels that they used to get for free, that the toilet is always out of paper, and that the airline recently transported a herd of elephants who stood in each seat just long enough to crush the springs.
Yes sir, it's that kind of creative thinking that earns the airlines' top executives their mega-bonuses and corner offices.