A Man of Great Character

By Colin M. Kelly | January 23rd, 2024

The chatty passenger on his nine-hour flight was an ex-president

The United States presidential seal on a satin cloth. By Pavel Kusmartsev. A Man of Great Character and a Chatty Passenger

What if that chatty passenger on your nine-hour flight turns out to be someone famous? What if he turns out to be an ex-president of the United States? Colin M. Kelly shares his unexpected meeting of George H. W. Bush.

I was boarding a nine-hour flight from Frankfurt to Houston. While I was placing my carry-on in a first-class overhead compartment, the gentleman in the seat to my right barked out, “Did you steal my complimentary slippers?” Surely, he’d seen that I had just arrived on the plane. I glanced at the passenger across the aisle to my left. Well, he was wearing monogrammed slippers; clearly, he was not the thief. I grabbed the pair on my seat and said, “Here, you can have mine.”

As I sat down, the flight attendant handed me a warm towel to wash my face and some fresh nuts. Ahh, the niceties of flying first class. I glanced back at the passenger to my right and noticed he was taking off his socks and hanging them on the magazine in front of him. Vainly, I thought, oh, the hassles one must endure while flying first class.

So I took another look at the passenger to my left – he was a distinguished-looking man, sporting a windbreaker jacket with a monogram that matched the one on his slippers. I could only surmise that with these two characters on either side of me, this trip was sure to be interesting. Then, it dawned on me that I’d seen that monogram before. So I took another look at the passenger and just froze. Was I really sitting next to George H. W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States?

To avoid eye contact I abruptly looked forward. Questions began to race through my head. Why would an ex-president be on a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Houston? Where were the Secret Service agents? And why had no one else on the plane realized, not even the stewardess, that the 41st president was sitting in row 1?

As the plane reached altitude, I mustered up the courage to say, “Sir, it’s a privilege to be sitting next to you. I am a big fan of yours, and I actually voted for you both times.” He returned a cordial smile. I felt that I had to continue – I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity – so in an effort to strike up a deeper conversation I said, “I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the media didn’t give you enough credit for your success in the Persian Gulf War.”

Before he could respond, I went on to compliment him for keeping the world together while the Berlin Wall / Iron Curtain was coming down and told him I admired how he kept America together throughout the savings and loan crisis.

Fully expecting an obligatory “Thank you, but don’t bother me for the rest of the flight” reply, I was shocked by his response when he thanked me for my compliments, which led to some lengthy conversations! I would have never guessed that #41 would turn out to be that chatty passenger that frequent flyers occasionally run into.

We talked about the best fishing places in Texas and the best BBQ restaurants in Houston, we bantered about world energy matters and of our families. Of course, his stories were better than mine, but he appreciated my upbringing on a dirt road with eight siblings. He hand-wrote a very nice note of encouragement to my ailing father who was on dialysis.

As background: This encounter occurred as I was returning from a trip to Turkey in January 2000 and #41 was returning from a trip to Saudi Arabia. I was a VP with a major oil company, thus the lengthy energy discussions. After breakfast was served and the movie started, he excused himself so that he could get some sleep to be fresh when he arrived in Houston. As I stared at the movie, I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

As the plane reached the mainland, the crew turned the lights on and served a light dinner. President Bush and I picked right back up on our casual conversations. About an hour out of Houston, he went to the lavatory and changed into a three-piece suit. As he sat down, he shared with me that he was a little nervous, as the caucus polling in Iowa would be closing around the time of our landing. He was hopeful that his son, George W, would be the winner and on his way to his own presidency. Wow, did a president of the United States just confide in me with a personal matter?

The plane landed and pulled to the gate, and the standard “ding” rang out, signaling everyone to stand. That’s when I saw them — three brutes each the size of a Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker came charging from coach class, nudging those in first class back into their seats to clear a path for the president. As the president walked down the aisle, I was immediately behind him.

As we exited the plane, in the jetway I saw Secret Service agents, Texas Rangers, a few Houston police, customs agents, and several TV crews. President Bush paused and did a brief interview, glancing back at me as reporters told him that the exit polling indicated his son was leading in Iowa. He exited down a side ramp, lost in a stream of cars and limos with flashing lights. I returned to reality, trudging my carry-on and laptop to customs.

I started drafting this story in 2018 as I sat in LaGuardia waiting for my flight and watching President Bush’s funeral on the overhead TVs. He was a true American war hero, a congressman, an ambassador to China, the director of the CIA, and our 41st president — clearly a person whose standards of humility, honor, and dignity should be a model for all. In my opinion, he was “a man of great character.” But in a way – well, at least to me – he will always be that chatty passenger I met on a flight to Houston and just another parent worrying about his children.

Colin M. Kelly is a recently retired professional engineer who, after spending the past 30 years traveling the world, has no desire to see another airport again in his life. He has written over 40 short stories, chronicling his life adventures. From Azerbaijan to Zanesville, these narratives capture the essence of a few of his global travels, filled with quirky and unique encounters. Other stories delve into his upbringing and his unapologetic pursuit of the American dream while climbing the corporate ladder. “Raised as the fourth of nine children on a rural dirt road in a humble farmhouse, ours was a household rich in character, though light on finances,” Kelly says. “In many ways, it was akin to a ‘Waltons’ setting, with a touch of Archie Bunker. My parents kept us on a straight path; my mother, surely an angel, held us together.”

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