Normally, this would be my worst nightmare: dragging down the aisle of a small regional jet for my last flight of the day only to find a 280 pound man sitting in the seat next to mine. But there he was on my flight from Minneapolis last night. Bulky, fifty-something, and conspicuous with his full beard and flat-top hair, he extended his hand to me before I sat beside him. “I’m Ken,” he said.
“Mitch,” I responded, firmly shaking his hand. I squeezed down into my seat as best I could.
For the next two hours, pressed together in our narrow seats, Ken and I engaged in conversation.
Ken was returning from Germany. He had gone to visit friends he made while stationed there in the military. Tattooed absolutely from head to toe, Ken speaks fluent German and fluent French.
While in Germany, Ken drove a new Porsche at 160 miles-per-hour on the autobahn, toured castles, drank a couple beers, and bumped into a few Syrian refugees.
“They just want to live in peace,” he said of the refugees.
Ken, by his own admission, has had a pretty rough life for the most part. He grew up along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. His father stood 6’- 8,” served four tours of duty in Vietnam, and came home cold and abusive. His mother fell into drugs and vanished. At some point, Ken’s grandparents took him in.
“They were the best people in this whole world,” Ken said of his grandparents. “I would have been lost without them.”
Ken is in constant pain these days. His military service included a stint in the Special Forces. He suffered a gunshot wound in Somalia. Following that, while conducting a practice parachute jump in bad weather in Washington State, a burst of wind slammed Ken into some tall pine trees. He ended up with a broken back, broken pelvis, and an assortment of bones broken in his extremities. Today, his back is host to most of the pain.
Throughout the flight, I gave him as much space as possible.
Ken was married for something over a decade, but now lives with only an Australian Shepherd dog. When we parted last night, Ken told me he would be getting his dog first thing today. As I write this, Ken is probably drinking a cup of coffee and getting ready get his dog from the kennel.
“I think this was my last trip,” Ken told me. “I suffer for a week after sitting in these planes. And I feel bad when I leave my dog behind.”