Portland, Maine—The day after attending the “Three Tenors Concert” in the historic Tiger Stadium in Detroit, Michigan in July 1999, I headed back home.
As I waited to board my flight at Detroit Metro Airport, I stopped by the gift shop and filled my shopping bag with souvenirs from my old stomping grounds.
The first leg of my flight, on a wide-body plane, was from Detroit to Atlanta. No first class seats on this flight. I was flying basic economy. The third row of my seat, 26D, was on the left aisle of the four-seat middle section.
As the plane backed away from the gate, I pulled out my newly purchased copy of The Detroit Free Press. Before I could start reading Mitch Albom's weekly column, I was distracted by a two-year-old boy who started screaming, one row up to my right in 25F, sitting next to his mother in aisle seat 25G.
The boy's cries went on during our taxi out toward the takeoff runway. It didn’t really bother me. It would surely stop once the plane was airborne, I thought to myself.
But when we had reached our cruising altitude, the boy’s shrieks didn’t stop. In fact, the volume had increased. It was clear he wasn’t in pain. He was screaming in anger.
Since I was seated just one row back, I had a close view of the boy and his mother. The flight attendants had all tried unsuccessfully to communicate with the mother but she didn’t understand English. The mother had been trying to appease the child who would have none of it.
Twenty minutes into the flight, the little boy was now standing on his seat while continuing his nonstop angry tirade. A flight attendant came to the mother's seat, expressing her frustration in body language, which raised the mother’s stress level and exasperation to an even greater level.
She was now beside herself.
I got up from my seat and walked all the way back to the plane's rear galley. The large galley had coffee machines, microwaves, refrigerators and lavatories as well as adequate space where the airline staff hang out and do their work.
The flight attendants were discussing the problem, which was now disrupting the entire flight. I inquired what the plan was to resolve the issue.
"There's nothing we can do,” the head flight attendant responded.
I then said, "I have an idea, do you mind if I get involved?"
Without uttering a word, they immediately scattered up the aisles as if I had the plague.
I had an inspiration. From the rear galley, I walked up the right-side aisle until I reached row 25. I stopped next to the mother and just smiled. She smiled back, and then I reassuringly motioned for this frustrated mother and her son to get up and follow me.
I led her with my arm and the son in tow behind her, down the aisle toward the rear galley. As we walked toward the back, the boy kept wailing and the passengers in the rear of the plane began to groan as the big problem of this flight was now heading toward them.
I had a plan, however.
When we reached the rear galley, it was as deserted as a ghost town. I gently guided the mother and son to one of the lavatory entrances.
Without breaking stride, I opened the accordion restroom door with one hand and carefully guided mother and son into the cramped space with the other hand and slowly shut the accordion door from the outside.
They were surprised. Although the venue had changed, the child did not adjust his tirade.
However, now the noise was muffled and the passengers had some peace and quiet.
After a couple minutes, I cracked the door, smiling. I gestured that if the noise stopped, I would take them back to their seats. The boy was still screaming, but the mother seemed relieved now that the noise was not disrupting the rest of the passengers.
I was prepared to complete my shift assigned by fate for the balance of the flight, if necessary.
During this time, not one passenger or flight attendant had come back to the galley, as if no one wanted to know what was really happening.
After another minute or two, without warning, the screaming stopped abruptly. I was surprised. I opened the door and both were smiling.
I smiled and extended my arm. With mother and son in tow (this time quiet as a peep), we made our way back up the right aisle to row 25.
They both sat down smiling.
I walked to the back, and then as I was walking up the left aisle toward my seat, the passengers broke out in applause.
Not a sound came from the child for the duration of the flight.
As we got off the plane in Atlanta, the head flight attendant thanked me and offered me a complimentary bottle of champagne, which I graciously refused.
I've never forgotten the lesson I learned, that a smile can change the world.
Theodore Lewis is the former CEO of Guam Memorial Hospital and has a healthcare consulting business based out of Portland, Maine. He is collecting stories about lessons learned in life and can be reached at email@example.com.