Monday, June 16, 2008

Flying in Airplanes (and Other Acts Against God)

I don't particularly like flying. I don't like airports, I don't like security checks and I don't like packing cologne into my luggage. The whole thing makes me terribly anxious. While most people sit on an airplane wondering what kind of roasted nut they might like to enjoy, I sit pondering when my glass-bottled scent will explode all over my clothes. It's just how my brain works.

From a young age I've had an irrational fear of all things gravity-defying. I was always most comfortable not only on the ground, but on the ground. I spent a lot of time under my bed, or, ironically, hiding in my closet. Sliding my clothes to one end, I'd pretend I was a DJ and my closet a sound booth. I recorded mock-interviews into our little tape recorder and listened back all day long. I didn't climb trees or scale my friend's grape arbour onto his neighbour's roof. When my pals took to jumping into dirt pits where the new subdivision was being built, I hung back, worried I'd sprain my weak ankles from such great heights. Seriously.

To this day I have a recurring dream nightmare about riding in cars which hit giant speed bumps sending them catapulting into the air. Scary! Until more recently, the mere thought of riding a roller coaster was enough to send me over the edge. When I was 9 or 10 my parents took my sister and I to Cedar Point - one of Ohio's great amusement parks! We rode nothing. I watched my Dad's blood pressure climb, each ride we passed drawing an instant and dramatic "No!" from the both of us. I think we rode the carousel that day, much to his dissatisfaction. So, you can imagine, the thought of getting into an airplane was totally out of the question. I found the whole thing baffling; how in the world does this gigantic piece of metal get off the ground, let alone stay there for hours on end? And I saw far too many television shows called Mayday! or Reader's Digest covers featuring Disaster in the Sky! My memory is thorough and detailed - I can clearly visualize each moment of these stories, the harrowing scenes neatly catalogued in my brain.

The word fuselage sets my teeth on edge.

As years went by, I relaxed a little. For all of my irrationality and quirks, I'm a very logical thinker. All the "Do you know how many flights there are in a day?" pep talks burrowed their way in and I decided I could probably consider it an option. And 9/11 already happened, so what could go wrong?

The first time I flew was in 2005. Jeff and I went to Cuba for our first holiday together. I carefully wrapped my cologne in several layers of sock and wedged it between soft items. We made our way to the airport, my stomach twisted into knots. I realized this feeling wasn't new: crossing the border or renewing my health card made me feel the same way. Anxious at the utter seriousness of it all. The uniforms, the guns, the x-ray machines. My fear of flying coupled with my fear of false persecution ran rampant as I nervously tossed my shampoo in a box on the floor and apologized for my horrible crimes. When the petite black woman with the wand requested I undo my belt, I nearly died. Who does she think I am?! Do I resemble someone they're on the watch for?! All the while trying desperately to appear calm and affable, not at all the type who would storm a cockpit of any kind.

Of course, this had become standard and I had nothing at all to worry about. After all the pomp of check-in, security, and Juanita's wand, the whole experience became not unlike like the doctor's office waiting room. With hours until our departure, we sat in the lounge thumbing through the magazines we'd purchased for the plane and the beach. We wandered along the wide corridors, searching for more magazines, seeing what Duty Free had to offer. While all of this appeared eerily mundane, my mind was working overtime.

As Jeff dozed in the seat beside me, I watched an off-duty pilot hurry by, noting his uniform appeared a bit over-the-top, a bit costumey. Was he an imposter? I quickly committed his face to memory, special attention to his strangely synthetic moustache and jaunty cap. Hadn't I seen those badges at a joke shop when I was a kid?

I scanned the other passengers in our area: Gate B34. I watched their faces, wondering who might cauterize my various wounds or help me out of the ocean-soaked fuselage. I wondered what Seat 23F might wear to the 10th reunion of Flight 140 crash survivors. I figured a floral, based on the clumsy beach clothes she donned on this freezing February morning. A man in his mid-forties looked shifty, but was he just half-asleep? When a bouncy blonde joined him with two large double-doubles, his face lit up and he lost the frightening edge.

Every so often I'd shake my head and focus on the book in my lap, laughing at my own silliness. I tried to avoid looking out onto the tarmac, a world rife with possibility. I watched as young men in parkas tossed luggage into the belly of the plane we were soon to board. I wanted to make sure no one was clipping any wires or loosening any critical bolts. I could see the flight crew through the narrow windshield - Was that vodka he was drinking? No. Of course not. What is that piece of what hanging from the bit there? Nothing! It's nothing. Aircraft taxied all over, pulling up to the gates like your neighbour's station wagon cozying-up to the house next door. It's all so strange, these hulky minivans cruising around so casually.

And then we had to walk down that tunnel towards the plane. It reminded me of E.T., somehow, though that movie involved UFOs and aliens, which terrified me on several levels; I might not be recalling it clearly. I averted my eyes as we stepped between the gate and the airplane, sure not to notice that bit of rust on the edge of the door frame. A friendly face greeted us and sent us down the narrow aisle. Just pretend it's a bus.

I packed my things into the overhead compartment and settled into my seat. I hurried to racially profile my neighbour, wondering what his style of takeover might be. I quickly offered him my lumbar support pillow, noting he looked a bit stressed. Listening closely to announcements, searching for coded meanings or a hint of anxiety in the flight attendant's voice, I paid special attention to the safety instructions. Jeff could see it on my face, and I smiled nervously. When the pilot came over the speaker to welcome us, I wondered if there was a homemade shank digging into his ribs. I strained to hear panic or fear - Nothing. The man was shockingly relaxed. His voice deep and reassuring, I imagined the Marlborough Man sitting at the controls. As if he was pouring me a third glass of wine at dinner, his voice was soothing and I started to relax. I sat in my seat, eyes closed, my breathing carefully controlled, thoughts also. I worried that if I allowed images of wreckage or those scary yellow slides to enter my mind, we'd most certainly slide off the runway.

And while I have flown several times since, there's nothing as surreal to me as taking off. Every single time, there comes a moment when I think to myself, "We're not gonna make it. The engines aren't loud enough. Something's up." And then the horizon goes tilty and we're climbing. I don't take my head away from the headrest until the plane levels out and cheerful faces start offering nuts.

Whenever doing something new, I look to Jeff. I search his face for signs of concern or confusion, hints of what's to come. Is this a totally standard part of the process? I look at him. If he looks like himself - calm, confident, and, at times, disarmingly aloof - I relax a little. He gives me that cocky little glance that at once says "I love you deeply," and "Don't be such a pussy," and my brain gets quieter. However, after our trip to the Dominican Republic, I'm a bit more skeptical of this comfort-gauge I've relied upon. We experienced some rather bumpy turbulence somewhere over South Carolina and as the plane dipped and shook, I looked at him. He smiled and winked at me, utterly relaxed, mocking me gently. When the plane landed I caught him exhale deeply. "Was that the worst turbulence you've ever been through?" I asked. "Absolutely," he replied, laughing. And although I felt betrayed by this false sense of security, I was soon assuaged by the hot sun and complimentary beverages.


  1. Great post. I am also afraid of flying. On my last trip I considered telling the flight attendant that the wings flaps were all upright and perhaps they need to be lowered for take off. Luckily I decided to keep that to myself.
    I pass on the peanut snacks - choking hazard.
    Penney (embarassed)

  2. So true about the cologne. That's usually my first thought, too. Recently at Banana Republic I noticed some little individually wrapped Classic cologne wipes, and I stocked up (for free!) at the cash register.

  3. I also have a (seemingly) irrational fear of flying. Usually I take some dramamine and pass out immediately - which doesn't work out so well when your flight gets cancelled after you have already gotten on the plane (wtf? mechanical problems? and we almost took off?!?!?!).

    Regarding cologne exploding all over your clothes, ask for some samples next time you (or whoever) buys some. Just take those with you instead of the big beautiful bottle that could potentially stank up your suitcase.

  4. Jason. I legitimately laughed out loud (OUT LOUD!) at this post. MULTIPLE TIMES. This ranks high for humor points. Seriously.

    "I wondered what Seat 23F might wear to the 10th reunion of Flight 140 crash survivors." HYSTERICAL.