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Marie McKeighan


readingHave a Willie Nice Day…..

I’d been on the road a while, visiting friends near Belfast, then hiking alone around the coast of Ireland for a week. I loved travelling on my days off, but I was tuckered out, and ready to go home. I waited at the gate in Amsterdam, hoping to jumpseat on the 747 heading back to New York. 

Flight privileges were the biggest perk of being a flight attendant, but getting a seat was never guaranteed. When I checked in at the gate with my laminated crew badge, the agent assured me that there were still seats available. Not only that, but first class, which occupies the entire upper deck on a 747, was “wide open.” I’d have it all to myself!

I practically skipped down the jetway to board after all the passengers were seated, eager to stretch out on my own fully reclined, twin-sized seat for a much-needed trans-Atlantic nap in the quiet solitude of the upper deck.

The gate agent came down with the final paperwork. “You’ll have to take a seat “in the back’,” he apologized. “A group of VIP passengers has just purchased all the first class seats.”

“Not the back!” I thought, “What kind of a-holes had shown up at the last minute to take my seat!?” Now, instead of a rejuvenating rest upstairs, I’d probably get wedged into an “F” seat in the back, right in the middle, with 2 passengers on either side blocking my access to the aisles. 

I turned around to see who these “Very Important” people were. Suddenly, time slowed down. Sauntering past me onto the plane was a slo-mo collage of cowboy hats, belt-buckles, boots and tattoos. Holy moly mother cow! It was Willie Nelson!  

I’d met lots of famous people in New York, and plenty more flying in and out of New York over the years. But Willie Nelson!? There weren’t many people in the world that I loved more than Willie. 

The door closed behind me and I took the only open seat in the back, second from the window near the back galley. I had to meet him. I just had to, I decided, so I began to hatch a plan. 

I couldn’t just walk up there and introduce myself. The lead flight attendant probably wouldn’t allow it, and even if she did, Willie might not appreciate the interruption. I couldn’t chance waiting until the end of the flight, either, because what if he got away? First class passengers always deplaned first, so I’d have to chase him through the airport and then, most likely, I’d be tackled by security, get arrested and lose my cushy job. I would have to be more subtle.

I asked for an extra stack of napkins with my cup of ginger ale when the beverage cart came by, then dug out my complimentary hotel pen from my backpack, uncapping it with my teeth.

“Dear Mr. Nelson,”  I wrote on the first napkin, then crossed it out because he was just Willie to me.

“Dear Mr. Willie Nelson,”
I began again. No, no, no. “Mr. Willie” sounded like some little kid’s pet snake.

“Dear Willie Nelson,”  I wrote.
That would do. The rest was easy: 
You have always been a part of my life.  I remember when I was little, sitting on the porch with my cousin Amy in Harlan, Iowa, eating rhubarb dipped in sugar, listening to “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” on Aunt Phyl’s old radio.  You are part of my memories.
                                                            With love,
                                                            Marie McKeighan

After the meal service, I made my way back to the galley to talk to the crew. They agreed to deliver my napkin to Mr. Nelson for me. Satisfied and exhausted, I went back to my seat and closed my eyes. It  made me happy, just knowing that he would get my note.

Shortly before breakfast was served a few hours later, a flight attendant gently shook my shoulder. “Are you Marie?” she whispered. I nodded groggily. “Mr. Nelson would like to meet you.”

My eyes shot open with the dose of adrenaline. There was no time for questions or disbelief. I stepped over the sleeper in the aisle seat and followed my guide upstairs. Willie Nelson Wants to Meet Me!

And there he was. He sat in the first row at the top of the stairs, in the window seat facing me. He looked up and held out his hand, beckoning me over. As I approached, he reached out and took my hand firmly in his own. 

“Are you Marie?”  His worn, leathery hands were so warm and strong, like my grampa’s had been.

“Mmmmhmmm,” I nodded.

“Thank you so much for your kind words, Marie,” he smiled. Your story just made my day.” He grasped my hand more firmly, and held my gaze. His hazel eyes were so kind and gentle, so genuine. I felt doe-eyed in his presence, completely overwhelmed with love. Moments passed. I just wanted to hold his hand a while longer, but I sensed that it was time to say something. 

“Thank you……for ………mmmm…..Thank you for .....,” I stammered.

None of his entourage had paid me much mind when I first came upstairs, but now his daughter, or a woman I presumed to be his daughter, sitting cross-legged next to him, glanced up at me for a moment, then rolled her eyes up and over counterclockwise, back down to her magazine. 

“Thank you for……. THE MUSIC!”, I blurted,  like the kid who shouts the answers out before he hears the question.

It came out a little louder and less eloquently than intended. I definitely woke up the rest of his posse.  Did the lights come on right then too? Either way, it was my cue  to leave. 

I let go of Willie’s hand, and he let go of mine.  His daughter shook her head slightly, eyebrows raised.  But Willie was gracious. “I do love making music,” he smiled earnestly, a twinkle in his eye.  “You have a good day, now, Marie.”   

And I did.