Go ahead: Try to find a trash can aboard a plane. Not easy, is it? So if you're a slug like me, you take the lazy way out. You stuff whatever you no longer want into the seat-back pocket in front of you.
Whatever gets shoved into that pocket gets chucked by a cleaning crew shortly after the plane arrives. Three hours later, how much of a chance would you have to recover an item that you didn't mean to put there? Somewhere between zero and zero, right?
But Jack Miller defied the odds -- and he has Bill Mills to thank.
Jack, a reader from Mitchellville, was aboard a flight from Boston to Baltimore-Washington International Airport one day in early August. He had just been to a 45th high school reunion.
"I had a memory book with me that had been handed out at the reunion," Jack told me. "It was very precious, and very irreplaceable, because it had been signed by the Seven Blocks of Cannot."
That's a play on the legendary college football line from the 1930s, Fordham's Seven Blocks of Granite. In Jack's case, the linemen on his high school football team "were totally hopeless, and they knew it. They even invented a nickname for themselves to prove it."
All Seven Blocks of Cannot attended the reunion. As it happens, all seven were terminally ill with cancer. All seven wrote personal messages to Jack, who had been a running back during their senior year, and who had often been mangled by opponents because the Blocks of Cannot could not.
"Probably, none of them will live much longer, so I could never hope to have them write those messages again," Jack said.
Jack was reading the messages during his flight. He decided to take a catnap, so he tucked the memory book into the seat-back pocket for safekeeping.
"I slept all the way to BWI, and I woke up when the wheels went thump," Jack said. Still a bit groggy from his nap, Jack left the memory book behind.
He realized what he had done about three hours later, as he was dodging rush-hour commuters on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. "I nearly had a heart attack, I was so upset," Jack said.
Jack called US Airways to see if a million-to-one shot might come in. A customer-service representative said the plane he had ridden that morning was en route to Denver at that moment. She said she didn't think there was much hope, but she would notify a gate agent in Denver, just in case.
Who needs a gate agent when we have Bill Mills, sitting in seat 12F, en route to a business seminar in Colorado Springs?
Bill, who lives in Baltimore, said he was getting "just a little bored" during the three-hour leg from Pittsburgh to Denver. So he went fishing in the seat-back pocket for the US Airways magazine -- "You know, that one with the route map and the crossword puzzle that's always right there."
Bill found the memory book instead.
Jack had not written his name or address inside the flap. But Bill noticed that all the handwritten notes were addressed to Jack, and all concerned football.
The next day, during a lull in his business meetings, Bill called Jack's old school in Boston. Yes, they had just had an alumni event. Yes, a Jack Miller was a member of the Class of 1954. Yes, he lived in Mitchellville, Md. Yes, they sure did have a phone number.
Bill called right away. "He was pretty darn happy, I do have to say," he reported.
What are the odds of such a seat-back miracle? Cleaning crews do a vacuumlike job inside those pockets. Very seldom do you find so much as a forgotten peanut.
Bill thinks the memory book survived because it was "scroonched down in the pocket, where the cleanup guys may not have noticed it." In any case, he says he was "proud to do what I did. I played high school football, too."
Jack Miller not only has a memory book that he never thought he'd see again. He also has a piece of needlepoint, which his wife, Betsy, sat down and made for him as soon as she heard the story.
"It says, `Check the Seat-Back Pocket, Stupid,' " Jack reported. Betsy helpfully attached a safety pin to her creation, so Jack can attach it to the front of the seat-back pocket whenever he flies. "No sense in tempting fate twice," he says.
Albert Salas says that kids can sometimes drive parents so crazy that one word becomes two.
One day long ago, inside the Safeway that used to sit across from Eastern Market, Albert came upon "a harried mom." She was trying to do the grocery shopping and keep tabs on her three children at the same time. The children were all 5 years old or less.
The kids "continued to wreak havoc," Albert says. The mother finally reached the end of her rope. She screamed:
"I have just two words for you. BE-HAVE!"
Fanny Ferman, of McLean, is just back from a visit to four continents. Every time she took a tour, she says, the guide hinted broadly that he expected a tip.
"It's the first time I've heard men clear their throats in 15 languages," she says.