I met this guy on the way to Korea—more specifically, this man. We were sitting down on the Delta airplane, and he came up and asked, if no one sat there, could he please take the aisle seat beside me? His seat was way in the back of the plane, so he had no leg room, and although it would really suck to be stuck between two passengers for the next fourteen-and-a-half hours, if I didn’t mind…. I told him I didn’t mind. I mean, if someone came and claimed that seat, then I’d be stuck between two passengers anyway, so I may as well have someone who seemed pleasant enough sit beside me, as opposed to a complete stranger.
Of course, this guy was a complete stranger, up until the moment he introduced himself. All I knew of him the moment he sat down was that he appeared to be several years older than me (but not in the “like my dad” age range, which admittedly is probably part of the reason I let him sit there so readily) and looked to be from either the South or the West. I made this assumption not just because of his light-colored eyes and buzzed blond hair, but because although he had a tough, stocky build, he seemed to move comfortably within his frame; he moved as though he should be easily able to ride a horse or perform intensive physical labor very gracefully.
As it turned out, no one claimed Seat A, so the man stayed sitting in that seat, and over the next several hours, I learned that he was a ranked military officer and was taking a team of men to some sort of training camp in Korea. I learned most of this by listening to his conversations with the airline stewardess (excuse me, the "flight attendant"), because once she discovered he was in the military, she took a particular interest in attending to him every time the refreshments cart went around. She made quite a nuisance of herself, I thought, asking him all manner of questions about care packages and the like. I myself didn’t feel it was very polite to dwell on his line of work, since he probably wouldn’t be allowed to tell me much about it for one thing, and for another, he is probably bombarded with questions by every person he meets. If I were him, I surely wouldn’t want to be forced through a fourteen-and-a-half hour interrogation about my job. How tedious! And so, since he didn’t bring up my occupation (or lack there of), I didn’t bring up his.
Instead, we spent the majority of the flight passing the time in fun, meaningless ways. He played an online trivia game against other passengers on the TV/computer console embedded in the headrest in front of him, but since I had no interest in that, we worked together on beating the airline’s computerized version of Boggle (called Bookworm or something to that effect) instead. I must say that for a such a self-deprecating “military guy,” he had quite an extensive vocabulary. His were more often the multi-syllable words worth hundreds of points, while mine were the three- or four-letter ones that fulfilled the required three-letter sequences or simply kept us from dying. Then, after we ate our deliciously salty chicken, greasy spinach, mushy noodle concoction for dinner, he asked whether I would like to watch a movie together. We settled on Kung Fu Panda, at which point we plugged in our headphones, synched up our TV screens, and literally watched the movie together. It was lovely! Who would have thought I’d be eating peanuts and watching Kung Fu Panda with a kind, polite, random man on my flight to Korea?
I throw in those adjectives—“kind” and “polite”—because I have found that you can learn a lot about a person by noting the way they treat others. Obviously, they way they treat you is key, and this man was certainly those things toward me: kind, polite, chivalrous, generous, helpful--all of those things. However, I observed that he also treated the flight attendants very kindly, as well. If they were struggling with their carts, he would make an effort to assist them. If they dropped something or were having trouble managing the drinks they were pouring, he would pick up the lost item or hold one of the many containers they were attempting to manage. He also fielded their man questions with what I thought was great patience and class, considering the number of times he must have answered those very same questions from equally motherly-looking ladies (the attendants were probably in their late fifties or early sixties). He clearly had no aesthetic interest in these women, but he still treated them with respect equal to what he gave me, and I found that admirable.
Needless to say, I doubt he would have let them sleep on his shoulder so mindlessly, which is exactly what happened about midway through the flight. I must be a terribly floppy vertical sleeper, because I was dozing off at one point, and next thing I knew, I felt something cushiony sliding under my cheek. Opening my eyes, I realized that my head had slumped so far over into his seat, it was nearly on top of his shoulder. I began to apologize profusely, at which point he plumped the pillow he was arranging on his shoulder and shushed me. “I really don’t mind,” he told me. “It’s the least I can do, with your having let me sit here.” I considered his sincerity, but really, why protest? So I slept, technically, on the pillow—it wasn’t actually his shoulder.
Other little things worth mentioning are that when I slept through one of the snacks, he saved me a pack of cookies (they were Milanos, too!), and that when we arrived at the Korean airport, even after we had said goodbye on the plane, he found me staring futilely at the Departures Board looking for my connecting flight to Singapore, and he stayed with me until I found the proper gate. All of these details are nice, of course, but none of them convey exactly why this interaction convinced me that I need to find myself an Older Man. (Or, at least, someone who conducts himself with the responsibility and maturity of an older man.) I think part of it goes back to the ease with which he conducted himself. For one thing, although I had the vague impression that he may have been at least superficially interested in me, he did not waste his time trying to impress me. He did not put forth all sorts of effort to boast and to tell me things he thought I’d want to hear (which would have been easy, I imagine, his being in the military and all). I am so sick of guys who feel the need to swear and drink or worse—perform feats of academic or athletic prowess—and then tell me all about these accounts in excruciating detail, as if I should care deeply and award them some sort of gold medal make a present of myself. Also, there were also no intrusive poking and prodding questions that I always know are meant to evaluate me as a “candidate of interest.” He just asked me the basic “who are you” questions at the outset of our meeting, and that was that—we learned about each other through the limited interactions available to us on the flight, and that was enough.
More than this, though, this man had a sense of competency about him. I would not trust most—if any—guys my age to do things that I am perfectly capable of doing, much less things I cannot do. However, in this man’s company, I felt that nothing bad could happen to me or, that if something bad did happen, he would either help me to take care of it or perhaps would even fix it for me. He seemed capable of many more things than I am, which is not a feeling I generally have when encountering the opposite sex. I could imagine him repairing household fixtures, resolving computer glitches, and handling administrative dilemmas with simple, straightforward tactics that would accomplish the tasks quickly and easily. Yet, he did not remind me of my father until afterward, when I thought about all of these skills that I imagined him to have and realized that they are all skills that the men of my father's generation allegedly possess.
This, I believe, is what differentiates the term “man” from the term “guy.” My Delta flight partner was a man. I need to find myself one of those. Or perhaps pray that the lads of my generation grow up to become men very very soon.