"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking. Due to an overbooking in Los Angeles, we are two seats over on the flight from Memphis to Washington-National. The next flight leaves in three hours and we guarantee seating on it. If you can spare the time, American Airlines will buy you a meal ang give you $100 if you will leave the plane." No one moved.

I ducked. I was seated in the first row of the coach section and I expected to see a stampede go by. Nothing happened. I looked behind me. People were staring into their newspapers, others found their coffee cups fascinating. I thought of getting off myself, but I had just gotten on by the skin of my teeth. Besides, my wife was waiting in Washington. Besides, I had been away from home for a week. Besides . . . I wondered if I would have to report the $100 to the IRS. I looked back over my shoulder. No one moved.

This really had started at the ticket gate. There were four of us who had come off a plane from Los Angeles planning to change planes in Memphis. I was the first to the gate. I presented my ticket. The man punched something into his computer terminal. The screen went blank. He did it again. Again blank. He looked up.

"This flight was overbooked in Los Angeles," he said. "There are no seats."

It turned out there were seats. There were two seats, but there were four passengers trying to board, all of them ticketed, all of them on the verge of homicide. One of them stood at the gate and muttered and another simply sat down with a determination that was simply awesome and one got downright whiny while one just fixed the ticket agent with his best I'll-see-you-in-court stare and kept an eagle eye on his ticket, which was on the top of the pile. His name was Cohen.

Cohen and the person who had sat down with determination were seated. I was wondering what would become of the others when the captain came on. The minute I heard the click of the public address system, I hunkered down, expecting them to come throw me off the plane. Instead, he made his announcement about the money and the free meal and the guaranteed flight out in three hours- $33 an hour.

Soon, the stewardess entered the compartment. She smiled. 'One hundred dollars" she sort of sang. No one moved. The pilot clicked on again and repeated his offer. No one moved. He made some joke about how the offer didn't apply to the crew. Everyone laughed, but no one moved.

Suddenly, there was a stir. A man got up. He was dressed in a dark, tweedy jacket with dark slacks and a button-down shirt and a striped tie-a businessman. He walked to the front of the plane and took his hanging bag from the closet and said something to the stewardess about being ahead of schedule anyway. Not the money, you understand-he was not doing this for money. He had time to kill.

Then another businessman rose. He, too, had a bag hanging in the closet (the true mark of a traveling man) and he too, felt obliged to say something about being ahead of schedule. He left and soon two men boarded-my friends from the gate. They took their seats and soon we were airborne and soon I was telling this story to everyone I met. Everyone had an opinon on what it meant.

Some people thought it was a commentary on general affluence and some thought it had to do with inflation-about how $100 isn't $100 anymore. No one was really sure what it all meant, but everyone was sure it was significant. I, for one, played with different theories. I thought that maybe this all had to do with how much people value their leisure time or maybe how no one wanted to look like they would leave a plane just for the money or even, maybe, how no one wanted to look like they would only help out a fellow human being for cold cash. Probably some or all of these reasons accounted for why some of the people stayed in the seats.

But as for me and probably others, money had little to do with our decision. Certainly airline passengers enjoy some affluence and certainly inflation had debased the C-note and certainly more people might have jumped if the captain, say, had offered $500. But basically we weren't buying because we weren't believing what we were being told. We had the feeling that the guarantees meant nothing (what, after all, is a ticket?), that somewhere in Dallas or LA some agent was going to overbook again, that it would rain somewhere or some engine would conk out-that something would go wrong. They had, in short, no right promising what they might not be able to deliver. We had been burned too often, assured too many times-not only by airlines but others as well. This story's about airplanes but it could be about politicians or the nuclear industry or the people in Detroit who promise you a driving experience and sell you instead a lemon of a car. It's really about birds. We had one in the hand.

For $100 they could keep the two in the bush.