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Location: marengo, il, United States

Friday, November 19, 2004

A FEAR OF FEAR

I won’t bother to try and explain why Chance will turn to me and smile sympathetically at odd times. But I will state that it is most often unexpected and usually undeserved.

One of my sisters phoned to tell me that our mother had passed away, and she insisted that I come down to Texas to attend the memorial service. I showed no surprised at this bleak news, for our mother had been slowly dying for several years, but the idea of getting in an airplane seemed out of the question for me.

I tried holding her off by admitting that our finances were at a low point, but she countered firmly that she and my other two sisters had anticipated this. Arrangements had already been made and a round-trip ticket purchased in my name. All I had to do was show up at the airport. I hung up feeling sorry that I didn’t tell her how much I hated to fly, but also hating to admit that I must once more do so.

Lots of people hate to fly. And they all seem to sing the same song on this subject; they are afraid of flying. I feel altogether different. Specifically, I am afraid of being afraid. Now this I should attempt to explain.

As a youth I spent almost every dime I could earn on flying. Every other Saturday I rode my bicycle out to the edge of town, leaned it against the metal wall of a one-room office-and-lounge at our local airport, and breathlessly rushed inside where I plunked down a five-dollar bill. A bored man sitting behind the counter took my money in exchange for a twenty-minute flight in whatever small airplane happened to be available that day.

I never got the same pilot twice, nor did I care. But I am sure I would have gone willingly had a monkey been manning the controls.

I can never say with certainty where this addiction came from. That detail seems important, but it’s unavailable. One older sister dated pilots, and perhaps there could have been the source. In any case I had it bad.

So after a quick jaunt across an expanse of concrete, the pilot of the day kicked the chocks away from the wheels while I stood by shivering with excitement. Then he and I crawled inside the cramped cockpit, closed our respective doors, harnessed ourselves up (I proudly did my own buckling after my first flight), and then he started up the engine.

I have no words to describe how giddy I felt at that moment, so that one word sounds proper enough. But I sat just a few feet away from a blur of noise that just seconds ago had been a stilled wooden propeller, and in another few seconds (and as that volume increased to an almost frightful level) my wide-opened eyes invited in every last detail.

There was little or no conversation during take-off. Any words said got swallowed by the roar of the engine, so if I noticed lip movements I am sure I must have nodded like I understood, but all I could think about were our movements in relation to the ground. The whole plane shook and vibrated wonderfully as we sped along. Lines of tar on the runway came rushing at us faster and faster. The speeds we reached before lift-off caused me to think of automobiles as sluggish things. And lift-off itself brought the shock of peace to both metal craft and myself.

Ah, the wonder of flight! As we circled and climbed higher, I kept my forehead pressed tight against the glass and watched as the small town below us grew smaller and less troubling to my fifteen-year-old mind. My eyes swept over the grid of familiar streets, and I marveled as they shrank to sizes unimaginable. Cars down there looked insignificant. Huge trucks I spotted on the main highway looked tame and somehow humorous. A landmark grain elevator never viewed from such a perspective only emphasized our great and glorious height.

And then I saw the lakes. The first one I imagined to be an irregular mirror laying flat on the ground, but that was absurd, I thought. Then I saw another close to downtown. And over there is another. But some of these mirrors were several times larger than a city block. Well what in the world could they be, then? And why are they scattered throughout and around the city like that? I kept watch on these curious things as pilot guided us. Then the wings of our plane began to tilt slightly as he maneuvered into another circle, and as sunlight flashed off of one silvery surface below, I recognized the strange objects. Well, what do you know! I had biked all over flat and arid Plainview for the last five years without seeing a single lake or pond anywhere, so this came as a great surprise.

Now. Twenty minutes comes to an end all too fast, and the next thing I know we are approaching the runway with my amazing little journey about to end. I had racked up several hours over the course of that summer doing such a marvelous thing, so I settled in and readied myself for the up-coming squeak of the tires touching down when nature did an unkind thing to us.

I have to guess that we were maybe twenty to thirty feet above the runway when a sudden gust of wind slammed into the left side of our plane. We took a gut-wrenching swoop to the right which the pilot expertly corrected, but my comfort had now been unfairly taxed. And even so, the wind wasn’t done with us yet. It punched that little plane two more times before pilot took us to ground, and in those brief moments I met a fear like no other.

Plainly said, I disliked it. I disliked it so thoroughly that I decided to avoid meeting it ever again, and I stopped flying altogether that day. I still miss the good parts too, but hey.

So this is where I am at when I hung up the phone with my sister Alma. Now I must face that demon, and I am not looking forward to it with any enthusiasm. My sympathetic wife tilted her head and gave me one of those “Oh, you poor thing” looks, and then proceeded to help me pack.

It’s less than dramatic to report that my dread flight into Houston went all too well. Another short connection to East Texas turned out calm also. I found myself unemotional over both rides.

But the memorial service in Marshall brought unexpected tears to these eyes as I stood before friends and family and spoke of my mother and her life, and we all mourned her passing. Then after a flurry of recollections, lots of food and hugs goodbye, I followed the reverse route back to O’Hare in Chicago.

I think people de-board airplanes. Me, I just get off, happy that I managed okay.

But when I got off in Houston I knew I needed to find my next flight right away, so I went directly to the proper counter where I got in line.

We’ve all seen portrayals where irate passengers and over-polite flight attendants dance together. It is not a pretty sight on television, and I am an unfortunate witness to the fact that it can be even uglier in real life.

A dozen or so people stood in line in front of me. Most all had at least one large handbag or carry-on luggage with them, and all seem to have tempers that needed airing publicly, and aimed at anyone remotely connected with the airline industry. It wasn’t so bad from where I stood at the end of the line, but as I drew closer I could hear better, and then I almost wished I had taken a train or a bus. Those hardy earth-bound types seldom ever get mad; maybe because they are too road weary.

But I kept an eye on the three ladies who stood behind the counters, and I had to applaud both their manners and their fortitude. Those uniformed employees smiled softly and gathered demanded information from computer keyboards as if each woman viewed a sun-shiny spring day filled with wild flowers and puffy clouds. Not a one of them appeared ruffled by the complainants.

Two gentlemen in particular I would have shot in a hurry, were I on the job. One of those I stood behind in line, and as he stalked off still mad at the world, I stepped up to take my place at the counter. To my right a little old lady stuck out her jaw while pointing at her ticket, acting more like a snippy mall rat teenager than who she really was.

I waited my turn thankful to be alive and on the ground. I admit I had high spirits, but at least I wasn’t bragging about it.

After tidying up her last transaction with the gorilla before me, my agent looked up and gave me one of her best professional smiles, and then asked how could she help me. Now I don’t recall my exact words, but I made some empathetic comment about how well she had been handling herself under all this strain, and for the briefest moment she and I made a special human connection. Not to make a big deal out of it, but it almost seemed as if the entire airport got respectfully quiet while she (in my mind) said something like,

“Oh, finally! Someone understands! Thank you so very, very much, O kind sir. How can I ever repay you?”

In reality, she only grinned and said, “Oh, it’s nothing at all. We are used to it.”

But there was indeed a connection; an unintended moment that right there sealed my fate and caused that sympathetic smile of Chance to begin to twitch.

She asked for my ticket. I handed it over. She removed the ticket from my crumpled envelope, clacked a few strokes on her keyboard, and then looked up and asked if I preferred a window seat.

Well, I didn’t bother telling her all the details about how I learned to love to fly back in Plainview when I was a kid, so I just said yes.

Clack-clack, and then she inserted my ticket back inside its tired case. That done she handed the packet back with a big smile.

Next she told me my seat number and the departure time, so I thanked her politely and left. I turned around and decided to go visit a concourse trinket shop I remembered passing to kill the half-hour I had left. After sticking the envelope in the back pocket of my jeans I strolled off satisfied.

Who in their right mind would pay for a coffee mug that costs more than a nice coffee machine? And garish tee shirts that should come with hand-crafted boxes made from exotic woods at these prices -- what is the matter with us, anyway? There is the Alamo in a snow dome. How attractive is that? It’s a good thing I am almost broke. At least I have enough to get a coffee, so I reach for my back pocket…

Now this is where the world starts to spin, and I panic. The envelope is gone. I check all my pockets to be sure. And I realize in a flash what has happened. Goober here has had his pocket picked. How stupid can I be? I’m inclined to go running down the concourse in pursuit, but in pursuit of what? Whoever did this could be standing three feet away and smiling at me, and I could never tell if they were the one or not.

Look! Over there; see him? That guy is acting mighty suspicious right now. But so is that older woman over by the card rack. No wait, it’s that black guy in the long leather coat. What? Why, it’s too hot for coats. I should tackle him and beat the snot out of him, the damn criminal that he is. Him laying unconscious in a pool of blood with me holding my ticket up for all to see, and then the crowd cheers loudly.

Instead, I walk fast back to the ticket counter. I need some professional assistance here. Good grief, where is everyone? The counter is vacant. I have seven minutes left. Come on, come on, come on, people!

Outwardly I remain composed, I think. But another uniformed lady strolls over from somewhere, so I lay out my problem to her. She shakes her head as she listens, but she doesn’t look too surprised. She also doesn’t appear very sympathetic, and she proves this fact by the information she gives me. I will have to purchase another ticket.

(Lady, you don’t understand…I couldn’t afford the ticket I had!)

But what about whoever stole my ticket?

(Like why do I need to know this, but I asked anyway)

Oh, he may get caught, or he might not. In any event, you must purchase another one if you want to catch this flight, and you have about four minutes to board. She folds her arms as she turns to look up at a clock.

This is nice. Alicia will give me grief now for not carrying a credit card. She is always on my case about that. At this chiding thought, Chance breaks into a humongous grin. What a tease Chance can be. (Music should start playing any moment now.)

For beyond the counter, far away and next to an exterior wall I see a door swing open. From this doorway emerges a woman who turns and does something to keep the door opened. She is wearing an identical uniform of dark blue, the same as the lady I face. When she turns around (in slow motion, mind you) I recognize her immediately, and as she looks up, she sees me. She smiles and cups her hands to her mouth, and then after she yells out to the lady next to me, she waves me over.

Funny, but I’m generally not too fond of authoritarian women. Yet her wondrous words still echo in my heart.

“Let him come on through. I checked him in just a few minutes ago.”

You know it is said that we are to be kind to strangers, for one never knows when one might entertain angels.

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