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A curmudgeon's retreat

OCCASIONALLY A STORY comes along that seems tailor-made for a particular columnist -- and thus it was that a fellow newsman recently e-mailed me an eye-catching AP account.

Let's call it the Saga of AirTran Airways and the Unruly -- ah, make that, Misunderstood -- Urchin. Last month, an airline crew removed a couple and their 3-year-old daughter from a plane after the girl -- I don't want to use actual names, so let's just call her Little Cleopatra -- refused to sit down so the plane could take off.

According to the airline, the child was hitting her parents and climbing under her seat.

"The flight was already delayed 15 minutes and in fairness to the other 112 passengers on the plane, the crew made an operational decision to remove the family," AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver told the AP.

Now, I know why my correspondent, whose name I'd also best keep quiet to protect his own safety, sent the story along. He thought that a columnist whose contribution to the modern idiom has been coining the term Doting Indulgent Modern Parents (DIMPIES) would leap at the chance to offer some pointed observations about the state of contemporary parenting. After all, hasn't this self-same columnist earned the wrath of parents by suggesting no-children sections in restaurants -- even if he was never quite so bold as to call for child-free airplane cabins?

Sorry, John Gregg, I won't be your cat's paw. You've got the wrong scribbler, my friend.

Oh, there was a time when I might have -- but that was the cranky columnist I used to be.

That columnist might well have recommended that ABC's Supernanny pay the family a house call to try to impose order on adolescent anarchy.

But that was before I was bombarded with (several) critical e-mails, before (one or two) revered friends or colleagues objected, before I was figuratively seized and dragged away to re education camp.

Before I learned that in this day and age, an opponent of cacophonous children is an enemy of the people.

But most signally, it was before I became aware that my occasional tongue-in-cheek observations about DIMPIES and their poorly behaved children were deeply injurious to the fragile self-esteem involved.

The self-esteem of the parents, that is.

As it happens, Channel 5 also did a story on L'affaire AirTran, and then posted a comment board so viewers could weigh in on the controversy. To my eye, most who did so had little sympathy for either Little Cleopatra or her parents.

Truth be told, some of the comments reminded me of sentiments I myself might once have voiced. Certainly the curmudgeonly columnist I was would have had no qualms in labeling the airplane-troubling tot an out-of-control little terror.

Not me. The new me realizes she is merely ... exuberant.




"Give me a place to stand, and I will move the earth," Archimedes supposedly said.

"Give me a seat to crawl under, and I will hold up the plane," Little Cleopatra no doubt thought. And if we admire his ancient eternal wisdom, how can we disdain her untamed modern spirit?

Getting my hair cut recently, I encountered a similarly independent-minded little iconoclast of 6 or 7. Begged by his mother to take a seat in the stylist's chair, he stoutly declared that he didn't want his hair cut. Only after 10 minutes of hand-wringing supplication -- and the offer of a treat if he would just agree to a trim -- did he finally deign to sit down.

But when the hair stylist tried to put a cape around his neck, he folded his arms across his chest and drew the line.

"No," he declared. "And that's final."

Others might have seen a little Caligula in the making, but not I.

No, as I sat there watching the astonishing episode unfold, epiphany struck.

In this world, determination is everything. After all, didn't Charles de Gaulle, having fled to London during World War II, conjure up the notion of the Free French, grandly declare himself their leader, and then bend the entire globe to his conceit? And wasn't he accorded the status of statesman in exile?

I had, I realized, just witnessed a kindred spirit.

Who among us would try to clap a barber's cape on such a boy?

Who would try to impose on such indomitable young spirits the docility and decorum demanded by a dull and undiscerning world?

Not I, certainly.

According to the AP, the family of Little Cleopatra has resolved never to fly AirTran again, and who can blame them?

Certainly not this columnist. Why, I heartily endorse their resolve. What's more, I hereby issue a call on their behalf for all DIMPIES -- excuse me, all parents of energetic, exuberant children -- to boycott this ruthless, cold-hearted, mean-spirited, unapologetically arrival-time-driven airline.

AirTran may try to make amends, but accept no apologies! Be steely in your resolve!

Only when the airline has spent long years enduring the empty seats and eerily quiet planes that will result will they fully realize the error of their ways.

As for me, I pledge to lend column after column to the boycott effort.

But first I'm thinking of going to Florida.

Now, would anyone have AirTran's number?

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is