My eyes were already closed on the night flight out of Boston when I heard the rhythmic thud of a child kicking the back of my seat. I tried to dream it away, but the sound persisted. When I turned to negotiate peace, no one was there.
And yet the kicking went on. I asked a flight attendant if she heard what I heard. She said: "Yes, all the time. It's the lobsters, you know. We must have a dozen on board today."
Live lobsters are indeed a popular carry-on item from Boston's Logan Airport. And the one in a box beneath my seat was a real thumper. Its owner, no fool he, was dozing across the aisle. I quietly arranged for the lobster to be upgraded to a closet in first-class.
Still, it was not the worst companion I have had, nor the oddest carry-on item with which I've shared space. Airlines may be able to control the number of bags allowed, but the contents remain inventive.
Opals From Australia
On a Qantas flight from Los Angeles to Sydney I sat by an otherwise reasonable man who seemed to be lugging a bowling ball. He stored his leather briefcase in an overhead compartment but kept this bulging pouch between his feet. Perhaps it was part and parcel of the kangaroo syndrome, I surmised.
After a few hours and a few beers he told me he was an opal merchant. He'd been to a trade show with a demonstration chunk of stone gouged from an Aussie mine. His carry-on weighed 22 pounds. He offered no samples.
Then there was the orchid fancier in San Diego who flew to El Paso to see her parents. Her carry-on luggage was two long foam boxes of homegrown blooms wrapped in misted cloths. She had just completed a night class in flower arranging, she explained, and wanted to show her stuff.
And I cannot forget the woman with 10-week-old twins who seemed to be juggling them as she boarded a plane in Dallas. "May I help?" I asked as she tugged at diaper bags and seat belts. "Thanks," she said in a flush. "I'm just going to Tulsa."
Well, the baby on my lap was cute and calm and pleasant enough company for the 45-minute ride. But it was only on landing that a man across the aisle who had spent the trip enjoying a Louis L'Amour paperback looked over and resumed his role as father of the twins.
Not a Whimper
A less wriggly story emerged on a Pan Am jet from London to Los Angeles in December, when my seatmate claimed to be chilled and kept her wool coat on throughout the flight.
Shortly before landing a clump of black and white fuzz appeared near her neck, as if her coat collar were unraveling. She gently poked a Yorkie puppy back into the warmth of her coat. He never whimpered.
She told me that she had seen him alone in the window of a Kensington pet shop on Christmas Eve and could not go home without him.
I have shared air space with pinatas from Mexico and pineapples from Maui. I have smelled the seductive sweetness of chocolate, only to learn that a seatmate was carrying 12 boxes of Mrs. See's bonbons as gifts for friends in Detroit.
And I routinely queue up behind fragrant loaves of sourdough bread in San Francisco and strings of crimson chile peppers in Albuquerque.
Now that smoking sections have disappeared from shorter flights, it may be time for food fairs. Those traveling with corn from Indiana, salmon from the Northwest, homemade cookies, Wisconsin cheeses and jars of salsa could sit together and swap recipes.
Although I prefer to travel light, I have occasionally qualified for such a marketplace. On the day I left London an English friend presented me with a four-inch-deep cake tin covered with poppies and daisies and the words of Shakespeare and Burns. Inside, the aroma was potent.
"You must take this fruitcake home as a thank-you from my mother," she said. "She made it just for you, with rum and brandy and all kinds of lovely sweets."
Lovely and heavy.
How do you say "I don't like fruitcake" in English? Sometimes you don't.
In a test of friendship and aerodynamics I carried it on board and wedged it under the seat in front of me.
It was quieter than a lobster.