Looking out at an overcast Gulf in Sanibel Island, Florida.

June 19, 2021 — The TV screen displayed a satellite map of Florida covered with red-orange-green smears. “Look, honey, that’s where we’re headed.” The map showed Miami, which was on the other side of the state from where we were headed. The graphic read: “Expect heavy downpours.”

You can plan your vacation as meticulously as a jewelry store heist, but there’s no way to predict the weather when booking flights two months in advance.

The irony: Omaha’s forecast called for sun-sun-sun!, and a swimming pool was literally 10 feet from our back door. Still, the idea of another “staycation” after 18 months of pandemic — after being fully vaccinated — wasn’t an option. We spoiled Americans yearn for travel, even if it means journeying into the belly of the beast.

Unlike my last trip to Eppley, the airport felt sleepy. The number of travelers were still nowhere near where they were prior to COVID-19, as evidenced by the short TSA line. These days agents are encased in plexiglass booths like coin-operated fortune-telling robots or clerks at a late-night convenience store.

I slid my ID through the slot, and the rubber-gloved agent looked up and said, “Please take off your mask.” He quickly waved me through.

Please social distance when seated” signs were stuck to the terminal seats. COVID-related messages blared over the PA, drowning out flight announcements, ordering us to stay socially distanced, warning that face masks are mandatory in the terminal.

But there was no social distancing when they called our flight and herded us onto the causeway. Nor inside the sold-out American Airlines jet, cramped and uncomfortable as ever. Everyone dutifully wore their masks, but not without resentment. The lady in 19C behind us: “This is the first time I’ve worn a mask in three months,” she complained. “It’s all about having control and getting rid of Trump and doing what they want. I work in the health industry. These masks encourage spread. It has nothing to do with the virus.

I imagined the poor guy sitting next to her, nodding. No doubt she’d seen me wearing my double mask and rolled her eyes. She announced she was headed down to Marco (Island), which meant she’d be on our next flight to Ft. Myers.

There is no question air travel was a chief cause of COVID spread. For the first time since last spring, back when we didn’t know what COVID was and everyone was wiping down their groceries, I felt paranoid, trapped like a sardine bathing in a sea of disease. How many people surrounding me were vaxxed? If you believe the CDC numbers for Nebraska, fewer than half.

Regardless of COVID, I’ll never fly without wearing a face mask again. Prior to the pandemic, every time I flew anywhere I got sick two days later, no doubt from picking up a bug on the flight. Wearing a mask on a plane before COVID meant you were either a cancer patient or a loon. Moving forward, it will merely be a sign of paranoia.

It was just then I noticed the overhead air vent was closed. Why?

As the steward came by with the usual in-flight drinks, I wondered if I should pass, then took a cup of coffee and treats — biscotti and pretzels. As I was about to dive into the pretzel bag, I thought, “That’s how they get you.”

We hadn’t packed hand sanitizer. I tried to squeeze the pretzels through a small opening into my mouth, but eventually gave up and dug in, thinking how ironic it would be to get COVID after 18 months of isolation and masks, all due to my hubris in having to take a vacation in what would likely be a Florida rainforest. Or because of a tiny bag of pretzels.

Anyone with even the slightest fear of COVID would be wise to avoid O’Hare Airport. The terminals were crushed as if it was a holiday. Forget social distancing. People wore face masks, sort of — some properly, others (mostly old dudes) with the mask drooping below their noses, making their political statements.

Once boarded into the 737, we sat on the hot tarmac for an hour, waiting for a fuel truck to arrive — the perfect COVID incubator. The only thing worse was being forced to listen to the woman in the aisle seat on her phone walk someone through an Excel spreadsheet problem.

But we made it. Sundial Beach Resort in Sanibel is the kind of place that plays Frankie Valli and Dion and the Belmonts over the PA, lost in the summer of 1960. Down below the Sea Breeze Cafe, a small group of fat old men bobbed in the swimming pool, cooking in the afternoon sun. No one wore a mask, and there wasn’t even the slightest evidence we had just come out of a pandemic.

Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

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