One small step for mankind...

July 20, 2007

Forget space travel: the greatest challenge is taking a transatlantic flight with a toddler, Kevin Fong discovers

Having completed my time abroad, I feel a sense of achievement. Not because I've been working with real rocket scientists, or because I've survived Texas, but because I've pulled off a much more impressive feat: successfully importing and exporting my family.

Dee and Jack joined me in Houston in mid-February. There we shared a house with our friend Steve who, it is fair to say, was less prepared for living with a toddler than the average Python fan is for the Spanish Inquisition. The learning curve was steep, and for a while Steve could do little more than watch in horror as Jack destroyed everything of value that he could get his hands on. There were skirting boards dented by toy buses, cereal ground into chairs and, of course, the happy day when Jack decided to do a poo on the bedroom carpet.

When we first arrived, Steve was working with an interior designer to make the property worthy of our rent cheques. At this stage, there was still an element of denial about the effect that a young child might have on this particular Ideal Home Exhibition. I still remember the chill that ran down my spine when he mentioned a $5,000 rug he was thinking of buying for the living room. Ultimately he rose admirably to the challenge, suspending all home improvements while fitting stair gates and child locks. By the time we left, the place was a child-friendly nirvana.

Flying home presented the final hurdle. Jack, now with an extra four months of mobility and cognitive ability, was more than a match for any aircraft cabin. The flight was pretty empty, and we managed to find a row of empty seats. Unfortunately, these were next to a guy in a leather jacket with a patch that read "National Rifle Association - Lifetime Member". When I asked him if he minded us sitting next to him, he replied: "If you wish" in a resigned fashion, without making eye contact. His demeanour did not improve when Jack set about aerosolising the in-flight meal and indulging in finger-painting with jam. All of Jack's attempts to make friends by smiling and waving were met with Rifle Guy frowning and staring so hard at the TV screen in the back f the seat in front, I thought it might burst into flames.

Somewhere over the Atlantic, Jack discovered that the ventilation grilles at floor level can be removed to create a crawl space big enough for a 20-month old child but too small to accommodate a panicking 36-year-old junior doctor. This was followed by a game of run around the plane, with Jack doing laps of the aircraft throwing occasional "high fives" to child-friendly passengers and regularly attempting to upgrade himself to business class.

Dee and I resolved to take watch in shifts, mostly choosing to walk around the cabin with our son and prevent him from pressing and pulling the more important-looking buttons and levers on offer. By the end of the flight, a fair proportion of our fellow passengers were beginning to sympathise with Rifle Guy.

Anyway, we're home now. I still have to go back for a few weeks, on my own this time, to tie up some loose ends. Steve and the international airline industry will doubtless be relieved but for me, it won't be the same without the family.

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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