It is rather haunting, the notice above the Flush button in the toilet on the airliner, "Do Not Flush While Seated On Toilet." One imagines the engineers of the toilet running tests with flush dummies with big flat butts and the suction ripping the stuffing right out of them, and the engineers thinking, "Oh criminy, you mean we wasted three years on this sucker?" So lawyers were brought in to write the warning, which had to be short enough to be printed in large type so that geezers would see it, who are the ones most likely to flush while seated.
So they limited themselves to those seven words and eliminated "Flushing While Seated May Suck Your Colon Out Of You And Cut You A New Orifice While Changing Your Gender In Ways You Don't Even Want To Think About."
I sat down on the closed toilet seat to ponder this and saw that, from the angle of the sitter, the warning notice is not all that prominent. A person could sit there and not notice those seven words, or mistake them for something innocuous, and so - distracted perhaps by sudden turbulence or feeling rushed because others are waiting - he presses the Flush button and suddenly feels the toilet grip his hinder like a python seizing a rat. He tries to pry himself loose. No go.
Now the flight attendant is tap-tap-tapping on the door. "Are you all right?" she asks.
The man on the toilet, Mr. Murphy, doesn't know how to answer that question. He is, basically, all right in that he is an economist with a shining resume, is married to a noble and resourceful woman, has three excellent children who are drug-free and on the upward path, and he is flying to Washington to interview for a high-level position in the Department of the Treasury.
On the other hand, he is trapped in the toilet.
She persuades Mr. Murphy to unlock the door. She tries to yank him off the toilet by his wrists and then she lifts up his shirttails and tries to break the seal by inserting her elegant fingers between the toilet seat and his posterior. But he is well and truly stuck.
One last yank and she accidentally pushes the Flush button again and it makes a great flubbery sound that shakes the aircraft, and now poor Murphy feels his innards being pulled downward. He faints. And when he awakens, the plane has made an emergency landing in Schenectady and six men in yellow phosphorescent coats are cutting the toilet with an acetylene torch. They lift him out, the seat still stuck to him, and right here, as he's being carried to a gurney, his luck runs out.
A passenger shoots a video with a cell phone, and that is the image that makes its way around the world via the Internet. It doesn't appear in the Times or the Post or the Tribune, but everybody and his cousin sees it, what appears to be a Parker House roll on a plate with arms and legs.
An economist should not get stuck in a toilet seat. That is a basic unspoken rule of life. And so ECONOMIST IN TOILET is the headline in the Enquirer, and so a promising career is cut short and poor Murphy must go into exile and teach accounting courses at a secretarial school in Costa Rica.
People do what they are told not to do. It happens time and time again. Here on the frozen tundra, it is known as the Tongue On The Frozen Pump Handle principle. If you put your tongue on a pump handle on a bitter cold winter day, the tongue will freeze to the handle and you will stand there, helpless, unable to cry out for help. We've all been warned against doing this and yet we all know that eventually we will do it someday. Somewhere there is a pump handle waiting for me.
I've always expected tragedy to strike around Christmas. A joyful season, and all ye faithful have come, and then, yikes! You flushed the toilet while sitting on it, and your life will never be the same.
Garrison Keillor's column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.