Saturday, January 31, 2009

Safety Wishes For Planes

In July 1986, I had a frightening flight from Phoenix to Los Angeles. Monsoon clouds loomed over Sky Harbor Airport, abruptly ending a normally sunny Phoenix weekend like grouchy day-care workers putting an end to recess. The flight was delayed for more than a hour, giving me extra time to sit in my bubbling anxiety pot. When the plane took off, it flew over the storm clouds, with a too-close-for-comfort view of the lightning. Just before we landed in Los Angeles, a jolt of turbulence rocked the ship, making me scream and cry, “Help!” (But who could help, anyway?) When I came come and saw my white satin moon with its orange star hanging from the bedroom ceiling, I was so grateful to be able to see it again, and promised myself that I would never fly again.

Yes, I heard that airplane travel was statistically less dangerous than car or train travel. But that news only reached the logical part of my brain. My emotional side said it did not want to be 30,000 feet in the air when trouble occurred – I wanted to see the ground when I moved around, so I’d know where to jump in case trouble occurred. If I didn’t feel safe, facts didn’t matter.

Twenty-two-and-a-half years later, my fiancĂ© Two Dogs* and I were driving to Las Vegas. We received a call from his sister-in-law in Oregon. We hardly ever heard from his brother and sister-in-law, so we got off at the first exit we saw and parked at a convenience store. Two Dogs’s brother, an Oregon state trooper, had been killed by a homemade bomb at a bank that day.

We would both be going to Oregon for the services. We would both be taking an airplane. In the winter. And my beliefs about airplane travel had not changed since that flight from Phoenix.

I kept my anxiety to myself, not wanting to be the asshole who complained about things that really didn’t matter much in this situation -- especially since Two Dogs’s sister-in-law was paying for our flight and our hotel from the police fund. I couldn’t let Two Dogs face this without his Mouse.

It would have been nice to take a fear-of-flying course, but I only had two days to prepare. I researched online and used this self-help program: I copied it onto Word and printed it out to take with me. It was helpful – a little. It was comforting to know that each plane in the sky has its own “private highway” that’s ten miles wide.

Reading and doing, as you should know, are two different animals. When we got into the Boeing 737, it felt small and cramped, perhaps because it had six seats in each row with an aisle barely wide enough for a refreshment cart in between. Back in 1986, it must have been only four seats in a row.

The airplane parted from the corridor connecting it to the airport. We rolled down towards the runway, the pavement wet with a California winter’s rain. I imagined men of logic (Mr. Spock, Data, Christopher Hitchens) telling me that I had nothing to fear.

And then – up, up and away, the plane lifting off at an angle not horizontal enough for comfort. I gripped Two Dogs’s hand. Two Dogs had told me that a liftoff was a “piece of cake”, but this piece of cake was filled with holes of insecurity and not-safeness.

Once the plane was in cruising altitude, and as horizontal as it could be in flight, I was able to think. But not relax. I ate my snack (a yummy bag of cinnamon-coated pretzels). I had a diet soda, and one glass of white wine, which did nothing to calm me down. I tried to read, but couldn’t concentrate. The sound of the engines was much louder than anyone who only saw plane travel on TV commercials and movies would think. It was an unpleasant reminder that we were way up in the air, and it took a hell of a lot of energy to keep us there.

(Before I write more, I must extend my gratitude to the flight crews of Alaska Airlines of Flight 589, December 17, 2008 and Flight 586, December 25, 2008 for a GOOD and SAFE flight each way.)

I am not sure when or if I will be flying again. Maybe my feelings about it have shifted sideways – I am not so much afraid of flying; I just don’t like it all that much. The noise, the crowding, the sense of helplessness, the knowledge that you are thirty times higher in the air than most skyscrapers…no…I do not like it.

Where we live now, we can see planes on the descent to John Wayne Airport every few minutes. I know that on each plane, there is at least one anxious person, a person just like I was last month. As the plane passes me overhead, I send safety wishes to it, hoping it will land and the anxious person or people will feel a rush of cheer. It’s worked so far!

* I name him Two Dogs (short for Two Dogs Fighting) because he asked me to. As of December 31, 2008, he is my husband. Wuv wuv wuv!

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