The Hand of Doom

I hate flying these days.

I’m almost certainly not alone in this dislike of what air travel has become. After all, between widespread flight cancellations and delays, service that would make even cell phone tech support seem attentive and pleasant by comparison, and the necessary but degrading security gauntlet, in which old ladies are treated with the same level of suspicion as someone wearing an Osama bin Laden T shirt, that one has to run before boarding the plane, flying has become downright ugly. The only time it’s tolerable these days is on the rare occasion when I can score first class or business class. I used to rather like going to meetings for the chance to see colleagues and experience cities that I’ve never visited before, but lately it’s gotten to the point where most of the time I’d just rather stay home.

Of course, if I stay home, then the meeting would lose out on hearing about my laboratory’s brilliant work; so I usually go. Besides, I can always use the CME credits.

I just got back from Detroit last night, where I had made a four day trip combining taking care of some business plus visiting family. (That’s the reason, by the way, that I didn’t have time to come up with a new edition of Your Friday Dose of Woo last week.) The trip there introduced me to an annoyance on a flight that I’d never experienced before.

It was the Hand of Doom.

It began when I sat down in my seat. Although I had ordered an aisle seat, which is my usual preference, and even though the computer booking had me listed as having an aisle seat, when I checked in I was given a window seat. Unfortunately, I didn’t really pay attention or notice this until after I had left the check-in counter. It wasn’t worth the bother to go to try to change it; so, given that the flight was only around 90 minutes, I decided just to deal with it. I pushed my way through the two seats over to be scrunched like a duffel bag in the corner, crammed my computer bag under the seat in front of me, and leaned over to extract my iPod from its resting place alongside my computer.

That’s when I was smacked in the head by the seat in front of me.

Yes, the person in the seat in front of me had leaned his seat back all the way rapidly, invading my already limited space like Hitler’s Panzers crossing the Polish border–with similar results. Fool that I was, I had my seat back all the way forward in anticipation of takeoff. I figured this impingement into my space, where I was trapped an unable to do anything as long as I couldn’t lean my seat back, would only be temporary. I couldn’t have been more hopelessly wrong.

As the stewardess walked down the aisle, I figured the situation would be remedied promptly. Usually, the flight crew tends to do the last round of preflight preparation in the same way that Nurse Ratched inspected patient bed or Gunnery Sergeant Hartman inspected recruits. I couldn’t imagine that the miscreant wouldn’t be made to change his ways with a sharp rap on the back of his seat. My misery would be ended, for at least a little while, until we were in the air and I could at least retreat a bit from this unwanted intrusion by leaning my seat back.

Wrong again.

By the time I realized that no request for my front neighbor to put his seat back up, it was too late for me to try to get her attention. She was gone. I was trapped.

And then the Hand appeared.

Not content with invading what little space that I had with his chair, my newfound neighbor decided to acquaint me with some of his anatomy. Stretching out completely, he flung his hand behind him and over the back of his seat–mere inches from my face. I became intimately acquainted with that hand throughout the flight. Even once I was able to lean my seat back somewhat, it was ever-present, sometimes inches from my face, sometimes even closer, for the entire flight.

It was dark, medium-sized, and hairy. The nails were somewhat dirty, and he was wearing two rings, a gold one on the index finger and a silver one on the middle finger. He seemed to like to open and close the hand while sleeping, as though grasping at something invisible but something he didn’t want to let go of. Periodically, he would move his hand in a twirling motion, in a mannerism that reminded me quite a bit of Thing on The Addams Family or The Bangles doing Walk Like an Egyptian. Given his color, I wondered if he was an Egyptian. All I had to go on was the appearance of his hand, and I started speculating about what kind of man he was. Obviously inconsiderate, but what else?

The hand continued to hover, mocking me silently in the sky, occasionally dipping down low enough to get in the way of my seeing my computer screen, which didn’t matter anyway because his seat was leaned so far back that I was having profound difficulties using it anyway.

I started to fantasize about about revenge, about little tricks that I could pull to get even for this intrusion. It is fortunate indeed for this guy that that the rules sharply limit the amount of liquids or gels that can now be brought aboard an aircraft, which led me to check my suitcase, lest I have my too large bottle of Lectric Shave confiscated again. (I had learned my lesson.) Otherwise, the hand might have found itself holding an open toothpaste tube or mysteriously covered with hair gel. As it was, I tried to get to my bag to dig out my camera to document this apparition for all time. Again, thanks to the intruding seat back, I was unable to reach it, so tantalizingly close under the seat in front of me, yet so far that it might as well have been 35,000 feet below on the ground.

Mild physical attempts to teach some manners were utterly without success as well. When blowing didn’t get his attention, gentle taps would cause the hand to retreat momentarily, but it would always return within a minute or two. The Hand would not be denied.


And so the flight continued. I was incredibly grateful that the flight was less than an hour and a half, although it seemed much, much longer staring at the Hand. Had this been a transcontinental flight, violence might have come within the realm of possibility. After we landed, I very much wanted to see what the owner of the Hand looked like. Unfortunately, the strap to my computer bag had somehow become caught on something under the seat where it had resided during the flight. I struggled to figure out what it was caught on and to get it untangled. By the time I succeeded, the hand was gone. Near the front of the plane, I saw the back of what I thought to be the Hand’s owner, obscured by other passengers. Other than what I had gleaned before staring at the hand, all I could say was that he was short and had black hair. I momentarily thought about running to try to catch up with him, but then decided it wasn’t worth the effort.

I left the plane, debating whether I had been a victim of the Hand of Doom or the Hand of Fear.



  1. #1 isles
    August 6, 2007

    You didn’t try bumping the back of the seat, apologizing when glared at with a murmur about “just trying to uncross my legs…airplanes so small these days,” then repeating it until the point gets across?

    I suppose it was most prudent not to. One shouldn’t taunt the Hand.

  2. #2 Mike Saelim
    August 6, 2007

    You could always have tried biological warfare: coughing on said hand.

  3. #3 Ryan
    August 6, 2007

    I’ve been behind this guy as well, or his twin. I tried coughing on his hand, to no avail. However, rapidly lowering and securing the tray table caused him to jolt out of his apneic sleep briefly and presumably wipe the saliva off his mouth, so there were brief moments of respite.

  4. #4 Graculus
    August 6, 2007

    Are there no trains? No buses?

    Seriously, I would consider flying in/through the US a method of last resort these days. All of my family’s international travelling (and guests from overseas) make it a point to avoid US stops and transfers. There were enough problems *before* the War On Terra. Back in 1999 one of our friends was nearly held by the INS for “travelling while black”.

    Then there’s the conditions… cramped and hazardous (immobility, re-circulated air, etc), catering on par with the HS caff, etc.

    Anyways, why didn’t you just politely ask The Hand to move forward a little and keep his crayons inside the line? Sometimes people just don’t notice/think about what’s around them, and most are reasonable about these things.

  5. #5 chris
    August 6, 2007

    Maybe it was the Hand of God?

  6. #6 stogoe
    August 6, 2007

    There is no rail system in America (or there might as well be; Amtrak has very few trains and routes and they’re at the mercy of freight train delays). Buses have the same problems as traveling by car and air, only combined together(recirculated air and jerks plus huge travel times). Air travel is America’s mass transit, sad as it is.

  7. #7 DrFrank
    August 6, 2007

    I hate to say it, but you seem to have missed a perfect opportunity to dunk his fingers into one of the body-temperature cups of tea/coffee that you can get on planes.

  8. #8 TheProbe
    August 6, 2007

    On a recent trans-pacific flight, we had a toilet mouth behind us. I asked the flight crew to address the issue, and they did.

    Five times.

    Finally, the pilot came back for a viist and advised the toilet mouth that he might get a free trip to Hawaii.

    He was quiet after that.

  9. #9 Brock Tice
    August 6, 2007

    Those seats can simply be pushed forward into the upright position from behind, you know.

    Not something I normally do (despite how annoying it is to try to do *anything* with the seat in front of you back), but in this case I’d say it was warranted.

  10. #10 Marcus Ranum
    August 6, 2007

    I know a guy who is very good at being immovable. When the person in the seat in front of him starts to recline, he gives them 2 inches and then stops them with his knees – so solidly that they usually conclude that’s all the play they’re going to get on this plane.

    Hmm… I wonder how hard it would be to make a little brace that you could install “the seat backup”…. $19.95 and if you order it now you get a free “digital chatterbox” that simulates a loud cell-phone conversation which you can leave running while you listen to your iPod with noise-cancelling headphones.

    My worst flight experience was the small Chinese farm-woman whose elbow was in my ribs from Los Angeles to Singapore. By the middle of the flight I was homicidal and finally asked the flight attendant to find someone who could translate Chinese so I could ask her to stop elbowing me in the ribs before… arrh…. The code words to use with a flight attendant are “I am an unhappy customer” or “this is a serious customer satisfaction problem leading to potential conflict…”

  11. #11 Luna_the_cat
    August 6, 2007

    I have the philosophy of “never say anything behind someone’s back that I wouldn’t say to their face”; generally this leads me to say things to people’s faces which would make better-mannered members of the general public cringe.

    I had this same situation once, with a very tall fellow in the seat in front of me. After several minutes of dodging having my face smacked by his waving hands, I got my water bottle out of the seat pocket in front of me, stood up so that I could see over the seat back, and smiled down at him as I plunked it in his hands. “Here, hold this for me,” I said. “Since you’re going to have your hands there anyway, you might as well be useful.” He looked mortified and kept his seat back almost all the way up for the rest of the trip.

    Don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t been an English speaker, I’m afraid.

  12. #12 Davis
    August 6, 2007

    To paraphrase, air travel is the worst way to get across the US, except for all the other ways. If there were some other reasonable way to get coast-to-coast, I’d take it.

    On my most recent trip, I had layovers at JFK each way. On my way east, the Delta ground crew forgot to load the baggage onto my connecting flight. Everyone’s. On my way west, the flight out of JFK was delayed an hour when the (Delta, again) ground crew realized they had accidentally put a fellow passenger’s dog onto the neighboring plane (said pooch was already well on its way to Ft. Lauderdale by the time the error was realized).

  13. #13 KeithB
    August 6, 2007

    “There is no rail system in America (or there might as well be; Amtrak has very few trains and routes and they’re at the mercy of freight train delays). ”

    The Amtrak Coast Starlight that runs down the pacific coast is sometimes *days* late getting to Los Angeles!

  14. #14 Coin
    August 6, 2007

    and the necessary but degrading security gauntlet

    I don’t think I agree with this. Surely strict security procedures are necessary. It does not follow that these particular security procedures are necessary. I’m not even convinced it follows that the security procedures have to be torturous and degrading.

  15. #15 llewelly
    August 6, 2007

    You dumb liberals just don’t get it, do you?
    Real Americans load up the SUV and DRIVE coast to coast at 90 mph. If you’re a real man, you don’t have to stop for potty breaks, and since most interstates have rumbas these days, so you can nap on the road, so what exactly this the point of airline travel anyways?

  16. #16 Sastra
    August 6, 2007

    Graculus did mention my first thought, and while this is a funny piece, I couldn’t help but wonder.

    Among all your fantasies on what to do, did you ever fantasize about standing up, tapping the gentleman on the shoulder, smiling pleasantly, and saying “I’m so sorry, but I wonder if you could please move your hand from the back of the seat. I’m afraid it’s a bit close to my face, and I’ve been ill recently. So sorry, thank you, thank you so much, I knew you’d understand — so hard to get comfortable in these awful things, isn’t it? Heheh. So nice of you.” I mean, did you even try?

    I’m from small town Wisconsin.

  17. #17 Clare
    August 6, 2007

    I wonder how hard it would be to make a little brace that you could install “the seat backup”

    I’ve been told such things already exist, but sadly I haven’t seen one. Why do they even make airplane seats that allow a person’s hand (or head) to land in the lap of the wretched traveler behind? I suppose the idea is that everyone will just lean back as well, like a giant cascade of dominoes (unless of course you are in the last row…)

  18. #18 Calli Arcale
    August 6, 2007

    Eldrad must live! Eldrad must live!

    Actually, when I first read this thread, I thought of another Who-related hand: the uncredited hand that appears in Sutekh’s chamber in the last episode of “Pyramids of Mars”. Once you’ve spotted it, you simply cannot watch the momentous scene of Sutekh’s release without busting a gut laughing. The actor was sitting on a small cushion, and a stagehand quite prominently reaches around from behind the chair to keep it from falling off…. Perhaps this Hand of Doom was that uncredited stagehand?

    (Hah! Stagehand! I kill me.)

  19. #19 Iskra
    August 6, 2007

    I’ve had some pretty good experiences with Amtrak. It ends up a few hours slower than driving, but a lot cheaper and less stressful (I loathe driving). The best part though is the sheer oddity; I’ve never rode the train without hearing some bizarre life story from a total stranger.

  20. #20 Scott Moore
    August 6, 2007

    “Although I had ordered an aisle seat, which is my usual preference, and even though the computer booking had me listed as having an aisle seat, when I checked in I was given a window seat.”

    Let me guess — Northwest? It describes my recent flight to Detroit.

    I haven’t experienced the Hand of Doom. Maybe you could pack a surgical skin marker for your next flight. Use it as a demonstration model to explain a procedure to the person next to you or just leave a message for the offender. How about “security risk”?

  21. #21 Julia
    August 6, 2007

    Sounds like you had an encounter with Manos (a href=””>the Hand of Fate!

  22. #22 DuWayne
    August 6, 2007

    It really helps if, like myself, you’re not easily embarrassed. I would have probably started cackling, stagewhisper to myself. If that didn’t budge them, I would have started vigorously shaking the hand, every time it came at my face. If they turn around, rocking forwards and back while muttering quietly helps. Guaranteed to get that seat moved forward. I use it on the bus or trains, when people are annoying me. They generally do everything in their power, to move away from me.

    Unfortunately, if you are easily embarrassed, it just won’t happen.

  23. #23 PZ Myers
    August 6, 2007

    I spent way too much time on airplanes myself this weekend. I didn’t face the hand, fortunately, but I found something else as annoying. US Airways uses those little drop down video screens to hammer you with commercials throughout the flight. They alternate the commercials with “trivia” questions from some store called “Cranium” which I will now never ever frequent. These were stupid questions about Paris Hilton and area of landmasses and what Wonder Woman’s lasso did…and worst of all, there were only about ten of them, and they just repeated them over and over. I could just feel my brains being sucked out of my skull by these things.

    I presume it has to be a revenue stream of some sort for US Air, because who in their right mind would think putting television screens in front of them that showed nothing but commercials and mindless garbage would be something Americans would want?

  24. #24 Alan Kellogg
    August 7, 2007

    Necessary? Airport security isn’t even effective. TSA personnel are badly trained and spread thin. They’re being asked to do too much with nothing to work with. It’s like asking parking enforcement to act as cops.

    Call it what you will, but when it’s young men acting like they’re entitled to being treated special behind the crime wave, that’s who you focus on.

    And Orac, do you know how much you can get for gold and silver rings? Just wondering.

  25. #25 Alan Kellogg
    August 7, 2007


    Here’s a game for you and your fellow slave cargo. When said questions are inflicted on you, see who can come up with the best (even funniest) non-sensical answers. For “What does Wonder Woman’s lasso do?” Something like, “Get you dates at the local leather bar.”

  26. #26 Andrew Dodds
    August 7, 2007

    Luckily, I posess the Ultimate Weapon for Air travel.. a two year old child. Now, sir, it could be spaghetti with meatballs, it could be tuna and pasta, I kind of forgot in the chaos of the airport.. the question is, do you feel lucky?

    Having said that, I’m now refusing to fly unless the insane security nightmare is relaxed a bit. I really don’t know if I can get through without losing it and loudly demanding an explanation of exactly why we are not allowed containers of liquid.

  27. #27 Dianne
    August 7, 2007

    The trains in the US NE corridor actually do work reasonably well. At this point, it is almost as quick, door to door, to take the train to Boston from NY as to fly, even though the time in transit is 30 minutes for a plane, 3 hours for a plane. But once you factor in the 2 hour security wait, extra time getting to the airport versus Grand Central or Penn Station, and the inevitable delays, well, the train wins at least 50% of the time.

  28. #28 notmercury
    August 7, 2007

    See, I would have scooped up a cup of blue lavatory disinfectant and brought it back to my seat. Then, ever so slowly, submerge the offending digits in a lovely and indelible cerulean.

  29. #29 llewelly
    August 7, 2007

    … who in their right mind would think putting television screens in front of them that showed nothing but commercials and mindless garbage would be something Americans would want?

    Strange as it sounds, people actually pay money for TVs, and then pay again to have the cable company broadcast mindlesss garbage to their TV, often including comericials.

  30. #30 Rebecca
    August 7, 2007

    I just flew into the U.S. on Alitalia (don’t ask, but it’s really not worth flying Alitalia these days) and the gentleman sitting in front of me would also occasionally dangle his hand about five inches from my face. He was, of course, leaned all the way back. This didn’t matter when I was also unconscious from exhaustion, but it was a bit irritating when I was trying to read Harry Potter. A couple of times when he did this I almost touched his hand, to let him know how irritating it was, but fortunately he moved it. I don’t quite understand this behavior – why would someone *want* to dangle their hand in front of someone else on a flight?

  31. #31 Anonymous
    August 10, 2007

    On the reclining preventing braces: they do indeed exist. The ones that I’ve heard of are called Knee Defenders, and run $15 for a pair. I’ve never used them myself, but they were mentioned in a Salon column that I read (Ask the Pilot, for those interested).

  32. #32 Julia
    August 18, 2007

    I would have been tempted to bite. Not hard enough to leave a mark, but hard enough to get attention.

    I occasionally give in to temptation….

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.