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Scrap of Childhood, Double Loss


A few minutes after we took off from Minneapolis, my younger son, Jacob, began to rummage in his red backpack. Tired after hours of travel, he was searching for Biggie, the ragged scrap of yellow blanket that had provided comfort and companionship ever since he was a baby.

His eyes widened and his search grew more frantic. I remembered our chaotic exit from the previous plane, which had flown us from Reno to Minneapolis. I had been standing in the aisle, loaded down with coats and hand luggage and hemmed in by other passengers.

Jacob, 10, half asleep, was in the window seat next to his brother, with Biggie and a stuffed animal in his lap. I couldn't get to him to help collect his belongings. "Pack up Biggie and your monkey in your backpack," I told him, as people in the aisle began to move toward the exit.

But the red backpack had been through the wash once too often; its zippers were broken. When Jacob staggered off the plane, it was gaping open. Books and travel games protruded, poised to fall. I grabbed the backpack, shoved everything back inside, coaxed the zipper closed. I didn't notice that Biggie was missing.

Now, I watched my son comprehend his loss. His face seemed to collapse from within. He uttered a low, rising wail. Then he unfolded the dark blue blanket provided by the airline and covered his head to hide his grief.

I fought back my own tears and walked up the aisle to consult the flight attendant who was serving drinks in the first-class cabin. He was too young--or too old--to identify with my distress, but he seemed to grasp the urgency of the situation when I explained that any plane-cleaner who came across Biggie would probably mistake it for a rag and throw it away.

"I'll see if the pilot can call Minneapolis," he promised. "I'll get back to you."

I swapped seats with my husband so that I could sit next to Jacob, who was sitting with eyes downcast, tears rolling off the end of his nose. I told him what the flight attendant had said. I told him about the teddy bear I had left on a plane when I was 5 and that I had gotten it back within an hour. But that was in the days of propeller planes and long layovers, when few people flew across the country.

The flight attendant was handing out dinner trays when a voice spoke on the intercom: "To Mr. Jacob: We have your blanket in Minneapolis." Jacob came back to life and gave my husband a high-five.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. No Biggie arrived on Northwest Airlines' Minneapolis-Baltimore flights the next day, or the next.

The woman in the airline's Baltimore luggage office responded patiently to our inquiries. She sent e-mail messages to Minneapolis. After two more days, when she had received no reply, she gave us long-distance numbers to call. The man in the airline's Minneapolis luggage office couldn't find Biggie on the shelves and said he had no record of the blanket's having been sent to Baltimore. He gave me the number for the airline's Central Lost and Found office, warning me not to expect to reach a live person.

I don't know whether Central Lost and Found is a real place. I imagine it as a vast, dim warehouse with a notice on the door: "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."

The recorded message I got when I dialed the number instructed me to leave my name, telephone number, date of travel and a description of the lost article. It said we would receive a call back only if the article were found.

For the first two nights, Jacob couldn't sleep. I pulled out an old baby quilt, which he accepted as a temporary substitute.

Like a cop as a case grows colder, I found my hopes sink with each passing day.

I can't blame the airline, but that triumphant in-flight announcement seems like a cruel trick of fate.

I wonder whether Jacob's blanket is lying untagged at the back of a shelf, among the black umbrellas and the pocket video games. Unlike my teddy bear--which I still have--Biggie has no face or fur to signal its special identity. Even Jacob admits that it looked like any old rag.

Still, I keep calling Minneapolis.

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