No good deed goes unpunished.

What, exactly, does that cynical and oft-repeated aphorism mean? It suggests that life is unfair and that a person trying to do good can actually end up in a ditch. A true story from my own life illustrates.

Several years ago, I boarded an evening flight in Raleigh, N.C., bound for Houston. I was to change planes in Houston and land at John Wayne Airport in Orange County a little after 10 p.m.

It was midsummer — hot and humid — and massive thunderstorms were roiling all over the southeast. Tornado watch boxes were popping up like mushrooms on the Weather Channel's map.

I settled into an aisle seat on the right side. A woman sat in the center seat next to me. In the row across the aisle sat a very big man next to the window and a very big woman in the aisle seat. A rather miserable man, who kept holding his head in his hands, sat in between.

Just before takeoff, I noticed the woman next to me trying to communicate with the miserable man in the middle.

"Psst, honey, are you OK?" she inquired in an exaggerated whisper. He nodded an unconvincing nod.

It was obvious to me that he was sick, and there's nothing worse than traveling when you're ill. I once went from London to Holyhead, Wales, on a train while suffering the effects of the flu. It was horrible.

As I looked at the wretch squeezed into the center seat I knew exactly what I must do.

"Excuse me, ma'am," I said to the woman next to me, "is your husband ill?"

"Yes," she said softly. "We attended our niece's wedding today and I'm afraid he ate some bad shrimp at the reception."

"Well, I'd be happy to trade seats with him so he can sit next to you." I couldn't believe what I'd just uttered, but I was now fully committed. The flight to Houston was two hours, and I could endure anything for two hours.

"Why, how nice of you," she responded. She then dropped her voice and bent close to my ear. "I don't know if you've noticed, but a rather large woman occupies the aisle seat next to my husband."

"Yes," I responded with a smile. "That's OK."

Her husband and I switched seats just before takeoff. I squeezed into the most uncomfortable seat I've ever occupied in my life. My shoulders were collapsed into my chest and my legs were on top of one another. Further, the large woman seemed decidedly unfriendly.

"Just two hours," I silently assured myself.

An hour later we hit bumpy weather, and I couldn't feel my lower extremities.

Twenty minutes out of Houston our plane seemed to be lurching all over the sky. "Twenty more minutes," I promised myself. We were bouncing in the roughest air this veteran traveler has ever experienced.

Several minutes later the captain got on the intercom: "Ladies and gentlemen, I've just been informed that the Houston airport is closing due to severe thunderstorms. We don't have enough fuel to hold, so we'll turn around and land at Lafayette, La."

What?

We landed at Lafayette, along with 25 other Houston-bound planes. The terminal is tiny, so we sat in our plane on the tarmac — for three hours! The only people allowed in the aisles were mothers with crying babies.

The large lady and I hadn't spoken a word to each other until we were on the ground at Lafayette. All told, we sat next to one another for six hours that day. Originally, she'd seemed rather severe, but conversation soon blossomed and we became chums.

We were finally granted permission to take off for Houston and landed many hours behind schedule. I'd obviously missed my connection into Orange County but managed to catch the last flight from Houston to Ontario.

I arrived at 3 a.m.

Despite the inconvenience, the experience wasn't so bad after all. I learned the meaning of another aphorism that day: Don't judge a book by its cover.

JIM CARNETT, who lives in Costa Mesa, worked for Orange Coast College for 37 years.