It was a most memorable Fourth of July.
As with all holidays, not many people were traveling on a national holiday. But flights on the Fourth of July evening are even less full because everyone wants to watch fireworks. I boarded early (naturally), as night was falling on New York. Making my way to the nearly empty first-class cabin due to a free upgrade, there were a few intrepid travelers (read “whack jobs”) like myself aboard. We smiled and chatted lightly as we got settled, congratulating ourselves for being true "road warriors". A guy named Jim sat in the aisle seat immediately in front of me. He seemed like a nice fellow and we spoke as we got ready to take off. NOTE: remember this name and his location!
Pulling away from the gate, we taxied out to the runway where the mighty engines roared as we rumbled down the runway towards our takeoff speed. After takeoff we banked to the right, you could see downtown Manhattan off in the distance. There were numerous firework displays all throughout the greater New York metropolitan area. You could see the great fireworks near the Statue of Liberty and throughout many of the boroughs surrounding Manhattan.
Right after takeoff the flight attendant came around offering her thanks for flying with them followed by our choice of beverage and dinner. Normally I carry something to eat on a long flight to help dilute the boredom of sitting in a confined space for hours. But because of the upgrade, dinner was included. Not that it was a gourmet meal, not even close. The choices for dinner were (wait for it) chicken or salad. Being the discerning gourmet I chose the chicken mainly because it was warm (not hot) as opposed to room temperature (not cold), but it gave you something to do.
When the meal arrived, my expectations were not disappointed. It was a here-to-fore unknown piece of chicken anatomy, covered with a yellow-green sauce pretending to be attractive. There were way overcooked vegetables and a salad pretending to be fresh. But since it didn’t smell all that bad, I threw culinary caution to the wind and took a bite. Not bad, but not good either.
On the fourth bite something happened that would alter the course of human history, or at lease my psyche. A piece of bone and gristle were in the meat as I gnashed down. They became tightly lodged between my lower left molars. There was no pain, I didn’t cry out in agony like the time one of my molars cracked while biting down on an un-popped kernel of corn. No, this was just pressure from a foreign substance being firmly fixed between my teeth.
Historical Note: Getting something stuck in-between my teeth is not an unusual circumstance. I get food stuck all the time because my teeth are very tight. If you stick your face into my mouth, and have sufficient morbid curiosity, look into my mouth and you will see that my teeth are so close together that one of them has been squeezed out of place. My friend and dentist Dr. Hulen has remarked on more than one occasion that my teeth are; I believe the correct medical term is, “jammed together”. I’ve come to expect getting bits of food stuck in my teeth as part of “normal” life, so I carry the necessary tools of the trade with me at all times. I never go anywhere without something in my pocket or backpack to help in times of trouble.
So, I coolly but carefully chewed and swallowed the remainder of food and started the tongue contortion routine that I was all too familiar with. Pushing my tongue towards my teeth I struggled to somehow lift the debris and free myself. This went on for about five minutes until my tongue hurt and hung from exhaustion. I had to escalate to DEFCON 4 which involved pen tops and paperclips. Poking at the obstruction, I tried and failed to get the chicken wreckage out without damage to teeth, gums or self-respect. It was helpful that there was no one in my row so I did not have to attempt the rescue effort while hiding these modern weapons of dental hygiene.
I was starting to get desperate. I just declared DEFCON 3 and there were only two weapons left in my arsenal. So, as the flight attendant walked by I asked if she had any toothpicks. She smiled that knowing smile as if to say, “Yep, you ordered the chicken, didn’t you.” She quickly returned with two individually wrapped toothpicks, winked and then walked away, discerning that I needed privacy for self-dentistry. I poked and prodded with the skills acquired by the many prior episodes. Feeling the obstruction with my tongue I inserted the toothpick, trying to push it out. No luck. The next move was more desperate; I tried to wedge and separate my teeth with the toothpick just a little bit. This involved some pain but would be well worth it if I got relief, but none was coming.
So, tired and frustrated, I resorted to the only tool left in my arsenal of dental warfare; DEFCON 2 – dental floss. Like James Bond going for his gun, I coolly and carefully reached into my backpack and pulled out my trusty mint flavored waxed floss. Unrolling an ample supply, I wrapped it around my fingers and gracefully began a sawing motion, pushing down with enough pressure to dislodge it but not slice my gums to smithereens when I was successful. While this approach had been successful in days gone by, I was getting nowhere. The dental floss was being cut by the small piece of bone, so it just shredded. Several pieces of floss later, as I tried harder and harder, the results were the same. I was really starting to get rattled and distressed.
There was only one thing to do – the nuclear option, DEFCON 1, total dental war! Carefully cutting a new length of dental floss, I looked at the ends to ensure that there were clean edges. I then carefully wrapped the floss around one end of the toothpick and stuck it along my gum line between the two molars underneath where the bolder was lodged. It took four attempts but I finally got the dental floss through and was able to grasp it with my fingers. Now, carefully pulling some of the floss through, I rewrapped it around my fingers and began the delicate dance of this last try at freeing my teeth from this dangerous prison. I began to pull the floss up against the blockage, nothing happened. I started to pull a little bit harder and move the floss back and forth with greater intensity. This went on for a few minutes till I screwed my courage and tugged the dental floss up for one last mighty pull for liberty.
And then freedom! It was gone, but what a price was to be paid. Yes, the bone and gristle did come out! Yes, my molars were still safe and snug in my jaw. But there was an unannounced NASA launch. You see, I had forgotten to keep my mouth closed in all the excitement. It seemed like time slowed as I watched in horror as the piece of bone and gristle hurled skyward, it would have made any astronaut’s mother proud. The arc of the mass reached its apex, losing its battle with gravity, rolled once more and then began its downward decent.
Everything would have been fine except for the landing zone. Remember Jim in the seat in front of me? Well, the mass from within my teeth landed on the back left-hand side of his head and stuck to his salt-and-pepper hair! It was sitting like a teed up golf ball on a well-manicured golf course. You could not miss it!
So, here I was. Free from the dental pokey only to be left on the horns of a moral dilemma. What was I to do? How could I fix this without embarrassment to Jim or myself? I thought of different schemes of how I could “accidently” brush up against his head and knock the blob off. Or I could try a stealth surgical strike to remove it without his knowing anything had happened. I could get the flight attendant involved, bribing her with $50 to somehow get it out of Jim’s hair. Quickly assessing the risk-reward pros and cons for each scenario, I carefully came to the conclusion that any self-respecting, seasoned traveler and member of our culture would.
I said nothing, I did nothing and I decided to ignore it. Yes, Jim walked off that plane with what seemed like a giant piece of schmutz in his head. I often wonder if anyone ever said anything to Jim about what was on his hair. Did it just fall off or did he see it when he went to the bathroom? What did he say to his family and friends about it? Oh, and Jim in case you are reading this, …sorry about that…
We’ve all been in a tight spot, due to our own actions or those of someone else. We’ve found ourselves in a place of embarrassment, hurt and potential danger. Sometimes we are caught by others and brought to the court of public opinion, verbally prosecuted, persecuted and punished. We think that God is also against us, pounding us for our crimes and moral failures.
Yet, when I see Jesus meeting people in tight spots, I see the heart of God who loves and cares. One remarkable story is about a woman found in the throes of sex outside of marriage, accused by the self-righteous; his reaction is two-fold;
First – only the people without any problems or sin have the right to condemn and punish. That leaves all of us out in the cold. We all have the same problems, same failures and unable to fix ourselves.
Second – Jesus does not approve of her actions, but encourages her to go forward and leave her prior life behind.
This is the definition of repentance – to change direction. Jesus wants us to learn from the tight situations we find ourselves in and change direction towards him. He does not just pat us on the head and say “boys will be boys.” He recognizes who we are and our desperate need for a fresh start.
So today, I really encourage you to turn around and walk towards Jesus. The only person who can accept you right where you are, repair you and make you whole again.
Chet Gladkowski writes on contemporary topics that impact our lives, culture and faith.
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 DEFCON 5-Lowest state of readiness, Normal readiness
DEFCON 4-Increased intelligence watch and strengthened security measures, Above normal readiness
DEFCON 3-Increase in force readiness above that required for normal readiness, Medium readiness
DEFCON 2-Next step to nuclear war, War readiness
DEFCON 1-Nuclear war is imminent, Maximum readiness
 John 8:1-11