When the flight attendant invited me to move up to a spare seat in first class, I thought I died and went to heaven.

While settling into my luxurious setting, I silently thanked God with promises  of never uttering another foul word or telling even the littlest and whitest of lies for as long as I lived.

I reached for the complimentary magazine in   the seat pocket in front of me to search for its crossword puzzle. My cup of cappuccino would be coming soon. It doesn’t get much better than this, I thought.

Hey, so I was wrong.

It was the stranger sitting next to me who actually elevated my day to First Class status. He started with the  usual non-essential chatting: did I live in Nicaragua or was I just visiting? Where was I heading?

I answered politely, eyes fleeting back and forth to my crossword challenge. Then t he stranger extended his hand and offered, “I’m Alexis Arguello.  And you are….?”

To this day I take pride in my unbelievable self-control and not screaming, “Holy CRAP! The famous Nicaraguan BOXER???”  Instead I somehow managed a hopefully casual, “Pleased to meet you.”  And was I ever! I closed my magazine and prepared for a most interesting flight.

He said he was going to Canastota in New York where he had been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in years past. THe words seemed foreign, coming from this well-suited, elegant man. This world boxing champ could have easily passed for a diplomat or a Gentleman’s Quarterly model.  So much for assumed stereotypes.

“And,” he added with a wide smile, “I’m going to visit my family.” The wistfulness said that this was even more important than any Hall of Fame.

We talked all the way to Houston, Texas,  the flight s first stop, then while  inching through the long U.S. customs line. Once our passports were checked,  we would go our separate routes. I would be heading for Pittsburgh, PA.

Finally it was his turn to step up to the U.S. custom agent’s station. I would be next, but he would be gone by then.  “Have a good one!” I said with a wave. He smiled and waved back, then greeted the uniformed agent in front of him as he handed over his passport.

I silently wished my new friend a wonderful journey as he was about to enter my country to see his family again after dozens of years.

But the U. S. customs agent wasn’t with the program. He managed to topple the spirit of that moment with a scowling glance at Mr, Arguello’s passport. “Where did you say you’re going?” he demanded.

“New York.”

“For what? Why are you going there?” There was a squint in this man’s eyes that said he was looking for a lie.

How strange. I had never been asked this question, or any others for that matter, except whether I was bringing tobacco or alcohol into the country?

The agent’s voice became louder and argumentative: “You haven’t been in the U.S. for twenty years. Why not?” His tone was angry and accusatory , as though he already knew the secret answer.

Mr. Arguello answered with the Boxing Hall of Fame explanation. He was invited to the festivities of new boxers being inducted in its hallowed halls. The same honor that was bestowed on him in years past. But that made no impact at all.

Now the man was screaming at him, demanding a better explanation.  I wanted to scream too, to tell Mr. Arguello, “Hit the bastard! Knock him out”  Heavy words for one who protests wars, hates violence, never watches boxing matches. But Mr. Arguello, though he may be a killer in the ring, was  a true gentleman in the real world. He kept his cool…a calm voice, his hands at his side.

“I just want to visit my family, sir.”  This time he didn’t mention the International Hall of Fame.

I took a deep breath of pure relief when I saw the scowling agent slam a stamp on the passport and shove it back to him. The champion smiled at the agent, thanked him and walked away.

I moved up to the window and handed over my passport. I couldn’t contain myself. “That man is a famous boxer, Sir.” Then I added, “Alexis Arguello. He’s a champion.”

The agent shrugged his shoulders, stamped my passport and told me to move on.


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Donna and Friend

Donna Tabor blogs about life in Nicaragua.

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