The Plane Truth—A Mort Laitner Short Story


“The Plane Truth” by Mort Laitner

I picked up the letter and observed the return address

was that of a Circuit Court Judge and tore into it. As I

ripped the envelope, it reminded me of the horrifying

feeling of getting grades in the mail. I scanned the

note, seeing that typed in all caps was the word

CONFIDENTIAL and it was signed by the judge. It


“I appreciated your response to the request for

information. I will maintain the confidentiality of the

information, and appreciate that the involuntary

hospitalization only took one day in the United

States. Thank you for your attention to these


So this note would be my reward. With relief, I

plunged into my office chair, as if I received that

passing grade, smiling and saying, “Thank you Martin

Buber for your ‘I and Thou’ essay. It worked.”

I closed my eyes and went back in time— two

months, remembering that I sat in this same chair

when the phone rang. I picked up the receiver to hear

Anthony’s familiar voice. The CDC representative

said, “Houston, we have a problem. A flight attendant

is arriving in an hour at MIA from Spain. She’s got

active TB—contagious. She absconded from a Madrid

hospital against medical advice. She is masked on the

plane and no one is seated near her. We would like

your assistance in quarantining her.”

I replied, “Tony, my friend, I’ll jump in my car and

I’ll be there in thirty minutes. Thanks for the heads

up. She sure is breaking the flight attendant’s code of

being on the plane for the safety and comfort of the

passengers. I doubt she is inspiring the confidence of

those unlucky stiffs sitting on that jet.”

Tony let out a stifled laugh and gave a curt, “Goodbye.”

As questions ran through my head, I pulled out

my statute book and quickly read the tuberculosis

law. Was this lady a threat to the public health? Was

she taking any TB meds? Did she really have this

deadly disease? Would the airport provide me with a

mask so I could interview her?

I drove to the airport, remembering the

stewardesses of the 1950’s and 60’s. They looked

like models, young and shapely in their tightly-fitted

uniforms. They wore those cute air hostess hats and

for male travelers they were a fringe benefit of

flying. These unwed women dressed in their short

skirts serving alcohol and dispensing free mini packs

of cigarettes were a sight for sore eyes. They were

celebrities in an occupation where height and

weight limits were as tightly controlled as the cost

of a plane ticket. The airlines competed for

customers by feeding them steak, mini-lobster tails

and this bevy of beauties. I thought, “Boy, times

have changed,” as I wondered what this attendant

would look like.

Walking through the airport, I thought about the

requirements I’d have to meet to get the judge to

issue an emergency hold on this lady. What would I

ask her? What medical records would the CDC


Pausing next to the airport hotel entrance, it hit

me, EUREKA! — Martin Buber’s “I-Thou and I-It


Here was my chance to conduct a philosophical

experiment. I would have a dialogue with this

human in need of help. I would treat her not as an

object. There would be a dialogue between us, not

a monologue. She would listen and be taught about

this disease– its risks to her and her family, how the

medication worked and what steps she would have

to take. She would respond to the experiment by

voluntarily agreeing to be examined, tested and

hospitalized. There would be no need for the drama

of the courtroom.

Arriving at the airport’s quarantine station, I met

the assembled team: a doctor, some airline personnel

and Tony. We discussed the case.

Tony: The Spanish authorities have e-mailed us

this definitive proof that she has TB. She admitted


The Doctor: We will need to have these notes

translated into English.

Airline Rep: You know she stole her medical

records from the hospital last night and she got on

the plane after her doctors told her not to.

Me to myself: Maybe this is not the right case to

try Buber?

Then we donned our N-95 masks and proceeded

to enter the small bare-walled interviewing room

where the flight attendant, “Doris” sat. She was a bit

overweight, well-coifed and groomed. But in her

uniform she did not reach the standards of those hot

stewardesses of my youth. I listened as she denied

every material fact— except she did admit taking her

original medical records from the hospital without

their permission. While waiting for the others to

complete their questions, I decided to look her in the

eyes and try to get the truth out of her. I would

attempt to engage her in dialogue, without any

qualifications or objectifications—even with the

mask on, and it sort of worked.

Doris agreed to go to the Health Department and

the hospital for testing, examination and quarantine

without a court order; I didn’t believe a word she

said. I did not trust her. Doris would run from the

hospital the minute we turned our backs. This was

not the concrete encounter I envisioned but rather a

judgmental cross-examination.

As we waited in the TB clinic for x-rays and other

test results, I realized that Doris had not eaten since

leaving the plane. I would be treating her as an

object (I- It) if I did not order her a meal. She seemed

genuinely surprised as I handed her salad and a drink

that she had not requested.

While Doris ate and I waited, a Health Department

legal team obtained a hospitalization order to

hold her for the next 24 hours. They also hired an

armed guard to stop her from escaping.

As night fell upon Jackson Memorial Hospital,

getting Doris a bed turned into a nightmare. After

waiting two hours for admission, only the threat

of reaching top hospital officials rendered any

success. I realized how awful the I- It felt.

Before Doris entered her private room, I had

the unsavory task of showing and telling her

about the 24-hour quarantine order and the

armed guard posted outside her room. Now Doris

realized I did not trust her and she flipped out. I

saw her Dr. Jekyll and now I witnessed her Mr.

Hyde. Remaining calm and listening paid off, as

finally Doris accepted her fate and the short story

book I gave her. A tired Doris called it a night.

The next morning Doris and the team learned

her TB tests came back negative. She had told

some truth and she was allowed to fly home. I

had already apologized to her the night before

just in case she was free of TB but explained we

had a job to do in protecting the public’s health.

A month later Doris wrote the judge who

signed the quarantine order asking for some

blood- specifically mine. The judge issued an

order requesting information as to what


Again I thought Martin Buber and in my I-Thou

response, I spoke of our team effort, the

information received from Spain and the stolen

medical records. My heartfelt story and the

judge’s kind and appreciative response created

that dialogue I wanted.

Eureka – the experiment