A Case of the Human Condition: When a Six-Year-Old Flies Solo

Peter, age 6, dressed as cowboy for Halloween. Photo by BF Newhall

Peter, Halloween, 1987. Photos by BF Newhall.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall, July 26, 1987, The Oakland Tribune

It was my mother-in-law on the phone.”When can Peter fly down for a visit?” she wanted to know. “How does a week in July sound?”
A week? A whole week? I tried to sound grown up.

“Are you sure you want him for an entire week?” I said. “Are you sure you can manage?”

Of course she could manage.

Ruth Newhall. C 1995 B.F. Newhal

Ruth Newhall. Photo 1995 by BF Newhall

My mother-in-law is 77 years old, but she has the stamina of a 6-year-old with a weekend pass to Disneyland.

The fact is, Ruth is probably the only person in the family who can truly manage Peter. I can’t manage Peter. His father can’t manage Peter. Around our house, it is mostly Peter who manages Peter.

Ruth is different. She is like Peter. She is full of energy. She likes to get up early in the morning and get started on things.

I have seen her pruning her two-story palm trees at 6 a.m. Strike that. I have seen her dragging the cut palm fronds across her lawn at 8 a.m. as I come downstairs to breakfast.

And, unlike Peter’s overworked mom and dad, his paternal grandmother likes to play.

She likes checkers. She likes softball. She likes holding Peter’s hand as he glides around her house on roller skates.

Best of all, my mother-in-law likes to get down on the floor with Peter and his superhero toys for a hearty life-and-death struggle between the good guys and the bad guys.

Unlike Peter’s parents – and many of their contemporaries – Peter’s grandmother has nothing against loading up her guns and crossbows and blasting the evil hordes to bits.

No, the question was not whether Ruth and Peter would get along for a week.

The question was, could I get along without Peter?

I said yes. Did I have a choice?

Ruth and her son – my husband – insisted that Peter make the trip from Oakland International to Burbank Airport solo.

Peter and I weren’t so sure.

But again, the grown-ups prevailed.

On the way to the airport, Peter sat in the front seat of my car so we could talk.

“Don’t play near the swimming pool,” I began. “On the plane, don’t talk to strangers. Ruth will meet you when you get off the plane in Burbank. Don’t go with anyone but Ruth. Here is $5. Put it in your pocket.”

“How much money is $5?”

“It’s enough to buy dinner.”

“Will I have to buy dinner?”

“No. It’s just in case.”

“Just in case of what?”

“Just in case Ruth is a little late and you need to buy food.”

“Will Ruth be late?”


I should stop this. I should be talking about the fun he is going to have. But I couldn’t stop.

“Peter, do you know your phone number?”

He told me his phone number.

“But do you know your area code?”

“What’s an area code?”

“Yours is 415.” I explained area codes.

“415, 415, 415, 415, 415,” Peter chanted all the way down Hegenberger Road.

Three days later I was to regret this lesson in long distance dialing when the telephone woke me up at 7 a.m.

It was Peter calling from his bedside phone to complain that Patrick, his sleepover friend, was pummeling him with pillows.

Aboard the plane, I buckled Peter in.

“Your ticket is in your backpack,” I said. “Put your toys back in your backpack when you are done playing. Don’t lose your backpack.”

A flight attendant was standing behind me. “They are closing the doors,” she said firmly.

I bent over Peter and pressed his cheek to mine. “I love you,” I whispered. “God bless you. Have fun.”

As I left the plane, I looked around to blow Peter one last kiss. He was chatting with the flight attendant.

I cried all the way to the parking lot.

southwest airplane at gate on a rainy day. photo by BF Newhall

Ready for take off. PSA is now Southwest.

Back at The Tribune, I wanted to stop by city desk to see if any PSA planes had crashed that afternoon.

I resisted.

Instead, I telephoned Burbank.

“That flight arrived 20 minutes ago,” said the voice at Burbank. “Yes, there was an unescorted minor aboard. They brought him out and gave him to someone.”

“They gave him to someone? You don’t know who?”

The man at Burbank laughed. “I’m sure he’s fine.”

Should I insist on talking to the flight attendant who handed Peter over to “someone?”

No. Everyone would laugh.

Oh, well, at least I knew the plane hadn’t crashed.

Let’s just hope that “someone,” whoever it is, likes to blast bad guys to smithereens at 7 a.m.

Reprinted by permission of The Oakland Tribune

Update: Peter — now 31 years old — reports that he was seated next to an older kid on one of these solo sojourns. “I thought he was kind of an idiot,” Peter says. “He was supposed to be the older one and make me feel better. But he kept pressing the flight attendent’s button and telling me that the plane was going to crash.”

Read about Barbara’s grandmother at “Geographic Mobility in America — Watching My Kids Disappear.”




  1. She was my godmother!… and a fabulous one… a heroine.. a role model… an inspiration … a sage … a supporter … an amazing cook (who else makes crepes by heating the bottom of the pan and then dipping the bottom into the batter — cooks really fast! Who else could put one engine from one of Scott’s cars into another car before he came home … or design and install an entire automatic sprinkler system?.. Ruth!

  2. Loved this. Very funny. We all need someone like Ruth in our lives!


  1. […] You can learn a little more about my mother-in-law at “Peter’s Fast-Track Grandmother.”  […]

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