The Art of the Knuckleball

The Art of the Knuckleball


Dane Zeller


At 33,000 feet, two hours west of Denver, flight attendant Joan Silvers stopped pouring coffee into paper cups. She sniffed the air.


“Yeah, Joan.”

“I smell smoke.”


Joan explored the galley at the front of the plane. The plane shook once and dipped in altitude. The coffee slopped over the sides of the cups. Joan expanded her search to the door of the rest room. She put her nose next to the edge of the door.

She banged her fists on the door. “Sir, are you smoking in there?” Joan pounded the door again. “You can’t smoke in there.”

Inside the small bathroom, John Gilmore waved his hand through a smoke cloud in an effort to disperse it. He stood up, opened the lid to the toilet and tossed the cigarette in. Then he shut the lid. “I’m just about done,” he said.

Gilmore waited a few minutes before opening the door.

Joan Silvers stood in front of him. “You’ve been smoking in here.  Did you disable the smoke alarm?”

“Ma’am, I can explain,” said John.

“There’s a federal law involved in this. You are in some trouble.”

John moved closer to Joan and looked at her nametag. He lowered his voice. “Ms. Silvers, I’m a sky marshal. One of my duties is to check out your no-smoking procedures on this aircraft. I’m happy to say you’ve passed my safety check.”

“I need to see your identification.”

“Ma’am, sky marshal policy prevents me from revealing my identity. According to FAA procedures, you need to provide me a codeword, proving you have the authority to question a marshal.”

“What codeword?”

“The codeword you get in your pre-flight briefing.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“Perhaps you should check with your pilot.”

“I will, mister. In the meantime, return to your seat. I don’t believe your story.”

John walked back to his seat about mid-plane. The aircraft was full. The flight had left behind the front range wind currents over Denver. At John’s row of seats, a man was nodding off in the window seat. The middle seat contained a woman in her mid-fifties. Her head was bowed and her eyes were closed. When John had gone to the restroom, she had her hands clasped together in a death grip. They were still a bright shade of white when he returned.

“I can’t stand these flights out of Denver,” she said.

“I can tell,” said John. “Your hands show your tenseness.”

The woman looked at her clasped hands, and her grip loosened. “I guess so. I wasn’t aware I was doing that. But, the turbulence is awful. I truly think we’re going to crash.”

“I think I can help you,” said John. “Unclasp your hands and place them on your knees.”

The woman looked at him, then at her hands. She released her grip and cupped her hands on her knees.

“Now just relax your hands and spread your fingers out.”


“From left to right, slightly move your digits and count as you do.”

“One…two…” She slowly got to her little finger on her right hand.

“Good. How do you feel?”

“Its…its…gone. The stress is gone.”

“Great. Every time you feel that stress, do that little exercise.”

“I can’t believe it. Are you a doctor?”

“I am.”

“I’m impressed. Where do you practice?”

“I’m on the staff of UC Davis Medical Center.”

“Well you certainly don’t look like a doctor, with that Angels baseball cap and your blue jeans.”

“We’re humans,” said Gilmore. He tipped his cap to her. “We like to relax, too.”

Joan walked down the aisle toward Gilmore. “I’ll have to ask you to take a seat in the front row. Ground authorities want to talk with you. You’ll be the first one off.”

“Did you get the codeword?”

Joan didn’t answer.

John followed her to a seat on the front row. He left behind the snoring seat-mate and the woman who re-clasped her hands.

A man who Joan had moved from the front row to the second row protested. “Oh, yeah. The smoker gets a front row seat; I get to sit here with the offensive tackle from the New York Titans.”

“Thank you for moving, sir,” said Joan to the displeased passenger.

“Hey bud, you don’t know why I weigh 300. Shut your offensive mouth.”

“It ain’t right.”

A young boy wearing a Yankee’s baseball cap sat in the middle seat of the first row. A man, apparently his father, sat next to the window.  The kid looked straight ahead, staring at the wall in front of him.

“Yankee fan?” asked Gilmore.

The kid didn’t answer. The father replied. “Yup, we went to a coupla games at Yankee Stadium this weekend. Hey, Donnie, slide over some. Give the man some room.”

Joan posted a smile.

“Did you have fun?” John asked the kid.

“Yeah.” He resumed his stare.

“Donnie wanted an autograph from Jeter. He waited in line to get one, but Jeter signed only five and walked away.”

“Bummer,” said John. “I can get you an autograph, kid. It won’t be Jeter’s, though.”

The kid looked at John. “Whose?”

“Well, kid, I’m an American League pitcher heading to California to join my team, the Angels. See my cap? I’ll sign your ball.”

“You look a little old to be in the big leagues,” the father said.

“I’m forty-four. But I’ve got something that allows me to pitch another few years.”

“What’s that?” the kid asked.

“I’ve got a knuckleball.”

“You do?”

“Yep, you got a baseball?”

The boy reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a baseball. John grasped it and showed Donnie the claw-like grip of a knuckleball pitcher.

“Wow,” the kid said.

“You hold it like this, and then when you throw it, you kind of push it out front of you. It goes about 70 miles per hour. It bobs and weaves so much the batter doesn’t know where its going. Heck, the catcher doesn’t either. There’s no stress on the arm – I can pitch for years like that.”

“What’s your name, mister?”

“My name’s Hoyt Wilhelm.”

From the man squeezed into the second row: “Oh yeah? You’re Hoyt Wilhelm and I’m Satchel Paige.”

“I’ve heard of that name, but wasn’t he pitching in the ’60′s?” asked the father.

“That was my dad.”

“But I’ve followed the Angels pretty well. I don’t remember your name.”

“I’ve been up and down a lot. Like, right now I’m heading back to the bigs after a few months rehabbing at Schenectady.”

“Can you sign my ball?”

“Sure thing.”

Joan turned away from the passengers and rolled her eyes.

The kid handed his baseball to John. The big leaguer pulled a magic marker out of his shirt pocket and signed it.

Mr. Wilhelm, did your dad play for the Angels?

No, kid, he pitched for the Indians.

Have you ever struck out Jeter?

Yup, I have. A couple of times, maybe three.


The door to the flight deck opened, and Rhonda leaned out to speak to Joan. They both used their hands to shield their mouths like a coach and pitcher do on a trip to the mound. The conference ended with Rhonda returning to the cabin and Joan picking up a microphone. She took a deeper breath than usual and pasted her comforting smile on.

Your attention please. Could I ask if there is a doctor on the plane? We need some medical advice in the cockpit.

There was no immediate response until John’s former seatmate raised a hand from her knee and pointed to John at the front of the plane.  ”He’s a doctor. The guy in the Angels cap. He’s a doctor.”

John looked at the flight attendant.

“Don’t even.”

A well-dressed man near the front of the plane raised his hand, and the attendant guided him into to the pilot’s cabin. Passengers looked and pointed and ripples of concern flowed to the back of the plane.

“Is someone sick? the kid asked.

His father replied, “somebody in the flight cabin, I would suspect.

“Are we going to crash?”

“No, there’s a pilot and copilot in there. Either one of them can fly the plane.”

The din of passenger conversation lowered but the woman with her hands gripping her knees shouted:  ”We’re going to crash. We’re going to crash.” John moved quickly to the empty seat beside her. “Remember, hands on your knees, fingers spread.”

“I know, I know. But I feel the plane turning and losing altitude. We shouldn’t be doing that. The pilot’s dead. We’re going to crash.”

“Take a small breath, ma’am. Then let it out.”

“Okay, okay. Small breath. Let it out.”

Then, Joan fixed her smile to her face and said into the microphone: “Ladies and gentleman. We are sorry for the inconvenience, but we will be landing at McCarran airport in Las Vegas, due to a medical emergency. When we land, we will provide you with information as to how to continue to your destination. Again, we apologize to you for any inconvenience this may cause you.”

Joan pointed at John and motioned him back to his seat in the front row. John pointed to the woman next to him. The attendant waved him back again. When Gilmore reached his front row seat, Joan went into the cabin and shut the door.

The kid turned the autographed ball over and over in his hands. His father recommended he put it away to avoid smudging the signature.

“What’s wrong with the pilot? the kid asked.

“Oh, he probably eats in a lot of different restaurants. His stomach is probably upset, ” said John. He felt the plane nose down and  lean right ever so slightly. Joyce emerged from the cabin and reached for the microphone. She lowered her head and John saw her take a deep breath and come up with her best smile.

“Ladies and gentlemen, there is absolutely no reason to be alarmed, but is there someone on board who has knowledge of the Boeing 737 aircraft. Perhaps someone who has flown before?”

Gasps came from the passengers. Joan’s eyes searched the seats for a hand raised, but none did. Eventually her scan reached the front row where John sat. Their eyes met. John stood up.

She said, “please, tell me you can do this, for real.”

“Joan, to be honest, I don’t know if I can fly this. You’ve got a better choice?”

Silvers led Gilmore into the cabin, side-stepping the doctor performing CPR on the pilot. The co-pilot was sitting with his hands on his knees and his gaze straight ahead.

John sat in the pilot’s seat and put the headset on. He looked at the co-pilot. “Hey, bud. How’re things going?”

The co-pilot made no response.

Gilmore reached over to shake his hand. “My name’s Gilmore. What’s yours?”

No response.

John read co-pilot’s nametag. “Hill. I’m gonna need a little help here. How about it.”

“He’s frozen, Gilmore. He’s not going to help.”

John spoke into the microphone on his headset. “McClarren Tower, this is Southwest 1302 from Denver.”

Hill remained still. John searched the myriad of switches in front of him. He found a cluster of buttons with five channels listed. Channel 1 was lit. He lifted his hand and pointed at the buttons.

“Channel five,” said Joan.

He punched five.

“McClarren Tower, this is Southwest 1302.”

“Go ahead 1302.”

“Request emergency landing at your field.”

“What is the nature of your emergency?”

“Our pilot has had a heart attack.”

“You’re the co-pilot?”

“No sir. I’m a passenger.”

“Something wrong with the co-pilot?”

“Yeah. He’s freaked out.”

“Freaked out?”

“Stiff as a board.”

“You have flying experience?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Stand by, 1302.”

John looked over at Hill and tapped his shoulder. The co-pilot didn’t move.

“What’s that pin on your lapel, Hill? What’s ‘TWU 1966′?”

Hill’s eyes blinked.

“That isn’t a Texas Western pin, is it?”

“Flight 1302, you are cleared for an emergency landing on runway two-one. Change to heading two-three-zero.”

“Roger that, McClarren.”

John turned to Hill. “You’re related to Bobby Joe Hill?”

Hill’s head turned slightly towards Gilmore and then back. Again, to John, and back. His lips moved, but no words came out.

“1966 national champions. Their guard was Bobby Joe Hill.”

Hill looked at his lapel pin, then to John. His lips moved. “My dad.”

“No shit. Your dad beat Kentucky.”

Hills lips turned to a smile. “Damn right.”

“Holy shit. You must be proud of him.”

Hill nodded his head.

“Hey, that McClarren guy wants me to go to heading two-three-zero. What’s our heading now?”

Hill pointed to the instrument panel at the readout that said two-two-five.

“How do I get that to 230?” asked John.

Hill placed his hand on the controls.


Firetrucks and ambulances gathered near the end of runway twenty-one. They saw the airplane on final approach. It was bobbing and weaving as was customary at McClarren International Airport.

“Southwest 1302, you’re a little high. Drop to 2000 immediately.”

The plane dipped, and the passengers gasped.

“Southwest 1302, you need to lower your gear right now.”

The sound from beneath the airplane worried the riders. At 300 feet, the flight was still rocking back and forth. At the beginning of the runway, the plane was still at 300 feet.

“Southwest 1302, you can let the plane down now.”

It bounced once, and then hit the ground hard. Immediately the flaps tilted up and the brakes were applied hard. The plane rolled to the end of the runway and stopped. An ambulance quickly approached. Emergency technicians entered the cabin and removed the captain.

“Okay, I’m ready for those ground authorities,” John said to Joan.

“Uh…their waiting for you at LAX.”

“Oops. That means I can get to a poker tournament at Binions tonight.”

“You’re a poker player, too?” asked Joan.

“World Series of Poker Champion, 2007.”


John lifted his bag out of the overhead.


Joan’s lips slowly changed to a smile. One she didn’t learn in training.


  • CM Lance

    Fun story, bit I couldn’t figure out who Joyce was, unless that was Joan’s middle name.

    • Dane Zeller

      Mike, I have an explanation, but must wait until next week to explain. The creative process is slow. Thanks for noticing!

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