James Michael Pratt is a New York Times bestselling author, most well known for the highly acclaimed Hallmark Hall of Fame book-to-film, "THE LOST VALENTINE" and other national bestsellers. His official website and contact information is: www.jamesmichaelpratt.com
I am a novelist. An observing and curious mind prompts me to look through the lens of “what if” for answers to the big questions of life.
Sometimes “what if’s” are long in coming. Other times they smack you in the head before you know what happened…
It was Wednesday August 11th, 2010, Delta flight 1192. I was seated at 28A waiting for take-off at Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC.
“Hello this is Maggie, your flight attendant and we are experiencing some unexpected delays due to weather conditions…”
She continued but my heart skipped an immediate beat to a youth dance in 1971 where I was hanging out with Mike Carlisle, affectionately called “Mac” by his closest friends.
“Mac, where did you find that looker you brought to the dance?”
“My older sister. Don’t even think about it.”
“I like dancing with older girls.”
He shrugged, a little disgust evidenced with a nod of the head.
I nervously ventured forth and temporarily lost my heart on the dance floor to “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes.”
She thanked me, whispered something to Mac, and left the building.
“Where is she going?” I asked.
“No guys old enough.”
“What does she do?”
“Stewardess for the airlines,” he replied.
“Hello, this is Maggie again. It looks like we will be at least another thirty minutes. We have complimentary headsets for those who would like to watch a show. We’ll turn the video monitors on momentarily, then…”
The “what if” advanced in my mind as my heart sought rescue from the awful truth which was easily melting my manly composure.
I last heard from Mike Carlisle in 1973. We both had decided the year before to leave college, sports, dating girls, and give service in Latin America to our church for a couple of years–just to balance out our lives and also search for our souls.
He was enjoying a McDonald’s burger in San Salvador, which he took great pleasure detailing to me in the letter that arrived to a MacDonald’s-less socialist controlled Republic of Peru that day in April 1973. I was starving for any kind of food that resembled a hamburger, but enjoyed the typical jesting as he also wrote about another girl who was keeping in touch with him; a “win” he had over me from another dance the prior April before we packed our bags for the unknown.
We assumed we would reconnect back home in Southern California after our volunteer duties in Latin America, and just maybe I’d get another chance to dance with his sister; an older and wiser man then, and maybe more acceptable to an older and wiser woman.
Mail Call came on a July night in 1973, catching me off guard. Sometimes mail arrived from home under two weeks; often up to three. I opened a card my Mom slipped in an envelope a couple of weeks before. It simply showed his smiling face with this under the photo:
“In Loving Memory of Michael Alan Carlisle — MAC.”
A voice over the airplane intercom brought me back to the present moment.
“Hello, this is Maggie again. We know you are eager for more information, and just as soon as we can we will report the cause of the continuing delays. Thank you for your patience.”
Memory is a funny thing. Sometimes on the surface it dances across the mind without a minor delay. Other times it just sits and broods, inviting you to fix the un-fixable.
I looked out through the glass separating me from the downpour which had grounded us and saw Mac, and the 1970’s, and his sister, and time evaporated as tears squeezed from eyes that had seen a lot of changes since then.
The older flight attendant posing as Maggie soon passed by seat 28A. She was energetic and graceful, revealing something in her eyes, smile, and manner recognizable, but…
“This is Maggie again. Federal law requires we return to the gate after three hours. We apologize for this inconvenience,” she said, as the plane rolled back to Gate 19.
We’d be given a chance to stay over-night or continue on waiting for final clearance of flight 1192 to take off again later. After three hours on the ground, I decided to leave the plane and remain overnight in Washington DC.
My heart raced as I got closer to confronting the death of a young friend, my own mortality, and revisiting all I once felt as a young 20 year-old man.
In minutes I stood before her. Eyes searched and recognition sparked as I asked, “Are you Maggie Carlisle from Newbury Park?”
Her eyes filled instantaneously as a noticeably shy girl inside nodded, tried to smile, and finally squeaked out, “Yes.”
“I’m Jim Pratt, Mike’s friend,” is all I could muster. Awkwardness followed as she and I recalled the dance, and strangely Mac seemed to stand there with us as well–instantly bringing it all back to both of us.
Wiping at the tears she said, “I’m sixty now.”
I nodded. “Fifty-seven,” I answered.
We briefly caught up, I offered my love for her mother, the other siblings; all friends of mine.
“I think I’ll catch up on my sleep here in DC rather than take the flight back with you guys,” I said casually as if forty years had not just slipped by. I then walked away, found a cab, a hotel and slept.
I tried to sleep peacefully, but youth and memories hounded me in a fitful pace as they scrolled through my mind’s eye that night. I dreamt of Michael Alan Carlisle that night and blubbered all sorts of youthful things about life, love, and important stuff.
When I awoke I imagined a dialogue I’d have with him if he were to step off a flight from 1973 instead of the casket he was delivered home in.
“Saw your sister last night,” I’d start with.
“I know,” he’d answer. “A dance?”
“No, at the airport,” I’d say.
“So how are things? Much changed at home since we’ve been gone?”
“You wouldn’t believe it,” I’d answer.
“Catch me up,” he’d reply.
Sometimes life isn’t fair. Sometimes a few slow dances is all we get before God calls us home.
“What if” Mac hadn’t died in 1973? “What if” he’d married and had children? “What if” the last dance had been the first dance of many? “What if…”
Sometimes the music we love and that gives meaning to our lives gets turned off by powers outside of our control. Sometimes your best young friends vanish before they mature into your best old friends.
Someday I will “catch up” with Michael Alan Carlisle, and we will laugh again, and the beauty of our friendships—male and female–made in this brief window into eternity called life, will become a waltz as if no time had passed at all. And… we’ll look into the celestial mirror and see the image of a young man or young woman we once believed would always remain the same.
All “what ifs” will melt away into things as they really are and perhaps were intended to really be.
In the end, it’s the dance that we create while living which reminds us of why the music played in the first place. Where it all leads is part of the adventure and…
See you soon, Mac…
Michael Alan Carlisle, April 1953 — June 1973