“We will check and advise,” Harris acknowledged. When the transmission ended, he clicked the radio controls back to air route control frequency.
Vernon Demerest, and Second Officer Jordan who had heard the message from an overhead speaker near his seat, were laughing aloud.
The second officer declared, “I don’t believe it!”
“I believe it.” Demerest chuckled. “All those boobs on the ground, and some ancient old duck fooled them all!” He pushed the call button for the forward galley phone. “Hey!” he said, when one of the stewardesses answered. “Tell Gwen we want her in the office.”
He was still chuckling when the flight deck door opened. Gwen Meighen came in.
Demerest read Gwen the Selcal message with Mrs. Quonsett’s description. “Have you seen her?”
Gwen shook her head. “I’ve hardly been back in tourist yet.”
“Go back,” Demerest told her, “and see if the old woman’s there. She shouldn’t be hard to spot.”
“If she is, what do you want me to do?”
“Nothing. Just come back and report.”
Gwen was gone only a few minutes. When she returned, she was laughing like the others.
Demerest swung around in his seat. “Is she there?”
Gwen nodded. “Yes, in seat fourteen-B. She’s just the way the message said, only more so.”
The second officer asked, “How old?”
“At least seventy-five; probably nearer eighty. And she looks like something out of Dickens.”
Over his shoulder, Anson Harris said, “More likely Arsenic and Old Lace.”
“Is she really a stowaway, Captain?”
Harris shrugged. “On the ground they say so. And I guess it explains why your head count was wrong.”
“We can easily find out for sure,” Gwen volunteered. “All I have to do is go back again and ask to see her ticket counterfoil.”
“No,” Vernon Demerest said. “Let’s not do that.”
As best they could in the darkened cockpit, the others regarded him curiously. After a second or so, Harris returned his eyes to the flight instruments; Second Officer Jordan swung back to his fuel charts.
“Hold on,” Demerest told Gwen. While she waited, he made a check point report on company radio.
“All we were told to do,” Demerest said when he had finished the report, “was to see if the old lady’s aboard. Okay, she is; and that’s what I’ll tell Flight Dispatch. I guess they’ll have someone waiting for her at Rome; we can’t do anything about that, even if we wanted to. But if the old girl’s made it this far, and since we’re not turning back, why make her next eight hours miserable? So leave her alone. Maybe, just before we get to Rome, we’ll let her know she’s been found out; then it won’t be a whole big shock. But for the time being, let her enjoy her flight. Give Grandma some dinner, and she can watch the movie in peace.”
“You know,” Gwen said; she was watching him thoughtfully. “There are times when I quite like you.”
As Gwen left the flight deck, Demerest–still chuckling–changed radio channels and reported back himself to the Cleveland dispatcher.
Anson Harris, who had his pipe alight, looked up from adjusting the auto-pilot and said drily, “I didn’t think you were much of a one for the old ladies.” He emphasized the “old.”
Demerest grinned, “I prefer younger ones.”
“So I’d heard.”
The stowaway report, and his reply, had put Demerest in a thoroughly good humor. More relaxed than earlier, he added, “Opportunities change. Pretty soon you and I will have to settle for the not-so-young ones.”
“I already have.” Harris puffed at his pipe. “For quite some time.”
Both pilots had one earpiece of their radio headsets pushed upward. They could converse normally, yet hear radio calls if any came in. The noise level of the flight deck–persistent but not overwhelming–was sufficient to give the two of them privacy.
“You’ve always played it straight down the line, haven’t you?” Demerest said. “With your wife, I mean. No mucking around; on layovers I’ve seen you reading books.”
This time Harris grinned. “Sometimes I go to a movie.”
“Any special reason?”
“My wife was a stewardess–on DC-4s; that was how we met. She knew what went on: the sleeping around, pregnancies, abortions, all that stuff. Later, she got to be a supervisor and had to deal with a lot of it in her job. Anyway, when we were married I made her a promise–the obvious one. I’ve always kept it.”
“I guess all those kids you had helped.”
Harris made another minute adjustment to the autopilot. As they talked, the eyes of both pilots, out of training and habit, swept the illuminated banks of instruments in front of them, as well as those to each side and above. An incorrect instrument reading would show at once if anything in the aircraft was malfunctioning. Nothing was.
Demerest said, “How many children is it? Six?”
“Seven.” Harris smiled. “Four we planned, three we didn’t. But it all worked out.”
“The ones you didn’t plan–did you ever consider doing anything about them? Before they were born.”
Harris glanced sharply sideways. “Abortion?”
Vernon Demerest had asked the question on impulse. Now he wondered why. Obviously, his two conversations earlier with Gwen had begun the train of thought about children generally. But it was uncharacteristic of him to be doing so much thinking about something–like an abortion for Gwen–which was essentially simple and straightforward. Just the same, he was curious about Harris’s reaction.
“Yes,” Demerest said. “That’s what I meant.”
Anson Harris said curtly, “The answer’s no.” Less sharply, he added, “It happens to be something I have strong views about.”
“Because of religion?”
Harris shook his head negatively. “I’m an agnostic.”
“What kind of views, then?”
“You sure you want to hear?”
“It’s a long night,” Demerest said. “Why not?”
On radio they listened to an exchange between air route control and a TWA flight, Paris-bound, which had taken off shortly after Trans America Flight Two. The TWA jet was ten miles behind, and several thousand feet lower. As Flight two continued to climb, so would TWA.
Most alert pilots, as a result of listening to other aircraft transmissions, maintained a partial picture of nearby tralfic in their minds. Demerest and Harris both added this latest item to others already noted. When the ground-to-air exchange ended, Demerest urged Anson Harris, “Go ahead.”
Harris checked their course and altitude, then began refilling his pipe.
“I’ve studied a lot of history. I got interested in college and followed through after. Maybe you’ve done the same.”
“No,” Demerest said. “Never more than I had to.”
“Well, if you go through it all–history, that is—one thing stands out. Every bit of human progress has happened for a single, simple reason: the elevation of the status of the individual. Each time civilization has stumbled into another age that’s a little better, a bit more enlightened, than the one before it, it’s because people cared more about other people and respected them as individuals. When they haven’t cared, those have been the times of slipping backward. Even a short world history–if you read one–will prove it’s true.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“You don’t have to. There are plenty of examples. We abolished slavery because we respected individual human life. For the same reason we stopped hanging children, and around the same time we invented habeas corpus, and now we’ve created justice for all, or the closest we can come to it. More recently, most people who think and reason are against capital punishment, not so much because of those to be executed, but for what taking a human life–any human life–does to society, which is all of us.”
Harris stopped. Straining forward against his seat harness, he looked outward from the darkened cockpit to the night surrounding them. In bright moonlight he could see a swirl of darkened cloudtops far below. With a forecast of unbroken cloud along the whole of their route until mid-Atlantic, there would be no glimpses tonight of lights on the ground. Several thousand feet above, the lights of another aircraft, traveling in an opposite direction, flashed by and were gone.
From his seat behind the other two pilots, Second Officer Cy Jordan reached forward, adjusting the throttle settings to compensate for Flight Two’s increased altitude.
Demerest waited until Jordan had finished, then protested to Anson Harris, “Capital punishment is a long way from abortion.”
“Not really,” Harris said. “Not when you think about it. It all relates to respect for individual human life; to the way civilization’s come, the way it’s going. The strange thing is, you hear people argue for abolition of capital punishment, then for legalized abortion in the same breath. What they don’t see is the anomaly of raising the value of human life on one hand, and lowering it on the other.”
Demerest remembered what he had said to Gwen this evening. He repeated it now. “An unborn child doesn’t have life–not an individual life. It’s a fetus; it isn’t a person.”
“Let me ask you something,” Harris said. “Did you ever see an aborted child? Afterward, I mean.”
“I did once. A doctor I know showed it to me. It was in a glass jar, in formaldehyde; my friend kept it in a cupboard. I don’t know where he got it, but he told me that if the baby had lived–not been aborted–it would have been a normal child, a boy. It was a fetus, all right, just the way you said, except it had been a human being, too. It was all there; everything perfectly formed; a good-looking face, hands, feet, toes, even a little penis. You know what I felt when I saw it? I felt ashamed; I wondered where the hell was I; where were all other decent-minded, sensitive people when this kid, who couldn’t defend himself, was being murdered? Because that’s what happened; even though, most times, we’re afraid to use the word.”
“Hell! I’m not saying a baby should be taken out when it’s that far along.”
“You know something?” Harris said. “Eight weeks after conception, everything’s present in a fetus that’s in a full-term baby. In the third month the fetus looks like a baby. So where do you draw the line?”
Demerest grumbled, “You should have been a lawyer, not a pilot.” Just the same, he found himself wondering how far Gwen was along, then reasoned: if she conceived in San Francisco, as she assured him, it must be eight or nine weeks ago. Therefore, assuming Harris’s statements to be true, there was almost a shaped baby now.
It was time for another report to air route control. Vernon Demerest made it. They were at thirty-two thousand feet, near the top of their climb, and in a moment or two would cross the Canadian border and be over southern Ontario. Detroit and Windsor, the twin cities straddling the border, were ordinarily a bright splash of light, visible for miles ahead. Tonight there was only darkness, the cities shrouded and somewhere down below to starboard. Demerest remembered that Detroit Metropolitan Airport had closed shortly before their own takeoff. Both cities, by now, would be taking the full brunt of the storm, which was moving east.