The People You Meet

by John Delach

The genesis for this story began when I read a delightful piece written by my fellow scribe, Janet Pomeranz. Janet called it; The Joke’s on Me, about a class she attended advertised as Writing Humor for Profit.

The class’s final assignment was to: to “…write an interview of a Chippendale.” Janet was confused. “Why would I interview a piece of furniture?” But a classmate intervened: “Janet, the modern-day definition of a Chippendale is a male stripper.”

My reaction was the same as hers, but after being corrected, my thoughts didn’t remain with male strippers. Instead, I thought about the most intriguing seatmate with whom I ever flew, a chap named John Chippendale.

In the early months of 1982, we flew together from London’s Heathrow Airport to JFK in business class on a TWA 747. For whatever reason, we connected with each other and initiated a long conversation covering a range of topics, but mostly, aviation stories.

John pronounced his last name as “Chippendall” and explained his family used this pronunciation to avoid confusion with the furniture family. (I imagine today’s descendants are only too glad they cannot be confused with the current co-opted meaning of their name.)

I informed him I was on my way home from a business trip where I had arranged insurance coverage for a major US oil and gas company. He replied that he was going to America to inspect airplanes that his company was interested in buying.

As our flight progressed, John described his flying experiences. He was a life-long aviator who had come up the ranks, first at British Overseas Airline Corporation or BOAC and then at its successor, British Airways.

“I finally became bored with their seniority system, the numbers game and the politics. I took the ex-pat route, joined Lebanon’s Middle Eastern Airlines (MEA) and moved to Beirut. Now I am their chief pilot and I spend the bulk of my time negotiating contracts for new airplanes. Most people still don’t know who we are, but MEA is a growing airline backed by wealthy investors.”

Time melted. It didn’t hurt that we both enjoyed a cocktail or two that enhanced our comradeship and conversation. Eventually, we discussed the exact purpose of his trip: “I’m on my way to Texas to inspect two American Airlines 707s in active storage at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport (DFW). MEA ordered several new Airbus A-340s to expand their routes and destinations.”

“My problem, Airbus is behind schedule. The American 707s could alleviate the problem if they are useable. Experience has taught me to personally inspect any used airplane before I buy it.”

We spoke of other things. I asked him what living in Beirut was like? “Up until 1976, it was a fabulous place to live, truly the Paris of the Middle East. My apartment is still safe, but electricity and access to drinking water are haphazard. It’s becoming ugly, new barricades are erected daily. Something bad is going to happen soon.”

We shook hands said goodbye at JFK. He joined the line for foreigners while I joined the one for returning citizens. I walked away knowing this was an encounter I would not soon forget.

Talk about an understatement! Flash forward to an early morning that June. I boarded my usual Long Island Railroad train for the commute to Manhattan, taking my self-assigned seat where I unfolded my copy of The New York Times. I noted the lead story: Israel Invades Lebanon.

Beneath this headline, I examined a photograph of the Beirut Airport. A burned out 707 with MEA markings laying on the tarmac filled the forefront of the photo. Then I realized that just behind the wreck stood a seemingly undamaged 707 bearing American Airline markings.

“Son of a bitch,” I exclaimed to the train, “He bought those airplanes after all!”