Fear of Flying

1. Fear
It is night time and the stained sidewalk and roadway are soaked with rain. Exhaust fills the air. This concrete cavern outside the doors marked “Ground Transportation” echoes with engine noises and shouts and the occasional honked horn.

The Budget Rental Car shuttle pulls away from the curb and I sink into my seat with a profound sense of relief. But this feeling is hard to untangle. What’s in it? Rationally, I know I am in more danger on the shuttle – and will be in even more danger behind the wheel of our rental car – than on the plane just now from Chicago to Philadelphia. And yet the feeling is so strong that I am grinning. No more flying, I am thinking. (For the next 36 hours, anyway.)

On a plane, yes, I am a little afraid of dying. I think about it, anyway, every time. I know that, statistically, I am very safe. But every flight, before takeoff, especially if I have not flown for a while, I find myself making my peace. On the plane from Dulles to Pittsburgh a few weeks back, I found myself thinking about how I would be remembered. I decided I would eulogize pretty well: just married, a life ahead of me, striking out on my own as a freelancer with decent prospects and a good chance of making it work. People might speak of the “unfairness” of it all, this bright candle snuffed out, but then, so it goes with eulogies: no one so awful that someone can’t at least say, well, he always had a smile.

At least I won’t have the chance to fail, I thought.

Then I thought about what the wing would look like as it tore away from the fuselage and came sailing past my window. How many minutes of animal terror would we have to endure before the end?

But I am not really afraid that flying will kill me. If I actually believed I were about to die every time I stepped on a plane, I hope I would stop doing it. There is a thread, though, that unites what fears of death I have and flying: this being made into an animal, something that does not matter, a lump of matter who mainly represents a logistical problem, the same logistical problem as a million other lumps of matter, and who cares what we dream of in the last hours before dawn.

You can’t help but start to feel as if your humanity is in question when the 4th heavy-browed polyester-shirted official in as many days screams in exasperated tones that passengers must show their boarding passes as they walk through the metal detector. The sensation of being treated like cattle grows pronounced when a mumbling young woman in a uniform sweater vest suddenly cuts you from the herd for a special inspection (this new explosives sniffer that blows puffs of air at you, like the glaucoma test at an optometrist’s office), your wife left to walk, alone with the cat in its sack, thirty yards further down the corridor and out of sight, and no explanation of what’s going on. (Repeated use of the word “sir,” which begins to sound like an epithet.) At the Chicago airport, we watch a young couple try to impress a stone-faced airport employee with the justness of letting them and their wheelchair-bound grandmother buck the long line that is waiting for a shuttle to another terminal. “They been waiting, too,” shrugs the guard, gesturing at the restive crowd. The younger woman asks for the guard’s first and last name, everyone’s face twisting into snarls, snapping at each other like animals. I fantasize about standing up and asking the waiting crowd if anyone would really mind if an old woman in a wheelchair were allowed to go ahead of them, but I fear what the guard can do or have done to me. A whisper into her walkie-talkie is all it will take to summon thugs to break my arm, as happened to the musician Valery Ponomarev in Paris when he expressed reluctance to check his trumpet; at the very least she can cause me to miss my flight, out of the same kind of pettiness that inspired the mean girls to trip the fat kid in the lunch room back in middle school. Our current security fetish has promoted too many dim bulbs into penny-ante commandants who think you care about their problems, their problems, when you have paid something like two week’s wages for this trip, and all it gets you is the privilege of being herded, and shouted at, and condescended to.

It wasn’t always like this. I’ve been to the cockpit and gotten my wings; a plane used to be a place to dream. The soaring was not just physical. I remember poring over my Smoky-the-Bear coloring book most of the way from D.C. to Seattle, and then excitedly pointing out smoke curling up from the forests below. “Those are just clouds,” our seatmate started to say, before my mother hushed him, indicating my coloring book and urging the churl to let a child imagine. We were in the right place for it, after all.

I remember waiting for a delayed Singapore Air flight to Germany as a college sophomore, on my way to a summer study-abroad program, the summer of 1994, a summer of poetry and plays and walks at dusk from the Heidelberg Castle down to the river and midnight, drunken pilgrimages to the ape statue by the bridge. As we waited for an update, the courtly flight attendants filed off the plane into the waiting area, silent and ethereal in their kimonos, and poured us orange juice from chilled carafes, and the orange juice was crisp and fresh and who could tell what adventures awaited.

2. Nausea
I am pacing the walkway that connects two parts of B terminal at the Denver International Airport. A. and Zuzu the cat and I have just missed our flight and been told by an unhelpful United employee that, basically, we shouldn’t have, and I am taking a walk to try to cool down. The rage and frustration are wrapped tight around my chest like a fist; I just want to go home, but I am realizing I have no control over what will happen next, like being in prison, except without the knifings and rape. (Actually, I don’t even yet realize how bad it will get.) I am having to try very hard to keep from screaming, or crying, or smashing things. I feel so agitated that I am even worried someone will point me out to the authorities, that frantic man, pacing, sweating. Looks nervous. This is where it will come. The shouted, misunderstood instructions. The cop with an exaggerated sense of the stakes. “War on terror,” indeed. The hail of bullets. The cold, clear-eyed public consensus: it’s too bad what happened, but we’re at war, mistakes will be made, he should have done what the cop said.

The windows give a view of the tarmac, of planes nosing up to the angled jetways like pigs at feeding time, or maybe more like worker insects in a hive, bloated, larval, underdeveloped, wings not fully grown (for can these things really fly?). Under one of the windows, an ashen fat man lies groaning, clutching his stomach. Two custodians stand nearby, bemused, gloved hands draped on their wheeled trash cans. There is a pile of sawdust on the carpet near the man’s head. Looming over him, a woman in the navy blue dress and jacket of a United employee murmurs into a walkie-talkie. The man looks up at her.

“Can we go somewhere else?” he asks. “Please?”

“Please just stand by, sir,” she says. “Someone is coming.”

3. Loathing
Even two weeks ago, if you’d asked me what I thought about flying, I would have expressed a neutral opinion – not the best way to spend five hours, but it had usually gone pretty well for me up to that point. Now, though, I’m thinking that those of us interested in human dignity need to band together and refuse to fly until the whole enterprise turns back into something with a human touch, or until the oil runs out and it’s a moot point anyway, whichever comes first. (Want to place a bet?)

My parents are the first to join my movement: for their visit in October, they are taking the train from Cumberland, Maryland all the way out to Missoula, and then on to visit my brother in San Francisco – looking over their itinerary, it felt like 1920 and I wanted to buy a fedora and trench coat to wear when I loom up out of the steam to meet their train, not that there’s steam anymore, unfortunately.

I do not really think the wing will come off, although I can’t help but think about what it will look like if it does. But – there is no other word for it – fear now fills me at the thought of flying, and I cannot imagine it any other way for a long time to come.

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