In a recent New Yorker Magazine, Nathan Heller nailed it in his article, “Air Head” when he wrote – “The rush is skittish and improbable. A freighted mass of metal rattling down the runway gains a sudden burst of speed and, in a small, miraculous gasp, loses its weight, rises, and soars, enacting careful turns and radio co-ordinations that accrue toward effortlessness. On the ground, on landing, it’s again a metal hulk; the metamorphosis reverses itself. A part of me is sure I’ll die at every takeoff.”
Skittish? Improbable? Mass of metal? I just want to stick my fingers in my ears at this point and blabber “lalalalalalala.”
I am, in fact, an aero-phobe these days, one of the terrified masses who knows in their heart of hearts that a “frightened mass of metal” is no way to get from point A to point B. I become, just at the thought of air travel, a trembling and sorry lump of terror. And it wasn’t always so. There was a time, many years ago, when the thrill of flying seemed the height of sophistication. When any adventure into the wild blue yonder just might uncover the Holy Grail. Or turn me into a Hollywood star. Certainly broaden my horizons. Lead to romance. Or in the least, provide one darn good adventure.
I was the girl who idolized Osa Johnson, the photographer/explorer who fearlessly followed her husband, Martin, traversing around the world at a time when Africa was still the “dark continent” and Borneo a new unknown, taking photographs of tribal chiefs and primitive beasts in the jungle. Facts: Osa and Martin often traveled about in small aeroplanes. I have often said that I grew up “wanting to be her.” My childhood copy of “I Married Adventure” is worn and tattered with love. And yet, on a lecture tour back in the United States, it was a small plane crash that killed Martin and injured Osa.
And even after that infusion of cold reality, I maintained throughout my young adulthood, an undeniable thrill whenever I was offered the possibility of aerial adventure. And so, when did that all change?
Sitting in the Denver airport over the holidays this past season, after running breathlessly to make my connecting flight only to discover that the plane was cancelled and needed repairs, I found myself sitting in the boarding area between two ladies close to my age (both flying to Fargo), who I suspected were also aghast at the process of flying. “Ah, do you remember,” I asked, turning towards first one and then the other, “when we used to Dress Up to fly?”
Long before we eventually boarded the alternate plane hours later, we bonded, became new best friends, which can happen in times of extreme stress, and shared similar memories and paths. Yes – we remembered donning our Sunday best. Yes – we had anticipated the gourmet meals, complimentary drinks, pillows and peanuts. Yes – in those days we felt coddled and safe and first class all the way. Back then.
What has happened and why these current cattle-calls? “There’s no space for my knees!” “My bag won’t fit!” And you have no other choice but to trust your chances on the “metal hulk” in the sky-flyway. Is it wrapped up in Wall Street, the oft-proposed bully and baddie of all current economic travails, where profit trumps comfort? Is it because airlines have simply become a complex system bent on creating transportation for the masses and they see no other option?
And that’s not even before you get there – up in the air.
What I didn’t mention was that my flight, my first flight in this dreadful journey, had begun two days before when I arrived at LAX in the early morning, only to stand in the check-out line for a goodly amount of time, only to hear that my plane was not able to fly because the crew had not been able to wend their way through the airwaves. They were stuck because of bad weather in Houston, or Dallas, or somewhere east of us. Sorry. Please re-schedule.
The line to re-schedule took over three hours. The good news was that I then bonded with stranded flight mates. We shared our stories, attempted to sublimate our fears and irritations, resorted to laughter at our provenance, and outwardly persevered.
When I finally reached the counter, it was clear that I would not be flying that day but be rescheduled back and forth along the Los Angeles freeway and return very early the next morning to begin the whole process once again. You can bet that I was thinking at that moment that given petrol and a frightened mass of metal, like Icarus, man was not meant to fly.
I am home now. Still shuddering at my stressful and unpleasant journey. But today I also marveled at photos someone posted on Facebook of the massive flocks of snow geese who are currently wending their way north.
They look quite grand in the picture, powerful in their multitude, awesome and magnificent. And yet, I wonder what the survival rate is for the long and arduous journey, given hunters, a daily need for food and water, and the general stress of the cross-country trek. Their version, one might think, harkening back to words in Nathan Heller’s article, of “snarled security lines … day-old chibatta sandwiches … suspended screens that seem to play only disaster news …more queues … panic and lift …skittish and improbable”.
Yet it is their provenance to live a life of migration, circumventing the seasons. Strangely enough, for all my reticence and fear, it is undeniable that I chose the snow goose as a writer’s symbol of sorts. I have previously acknowledged that the raven is my special totem creature. And to be honest, I think I often secretly dream of the thrill, admire what must be that rush at lift off, a whoosh of air, the exhilaration, beauty and majesty of a flight of angels.
Is it possible, then, that what we fear most, encourages us to soar?
Thank you for your thoughtful words about Osa Johnson and her beloved autobiography I Married Adventure!
Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum
I, too, remember the times when we dressed up to fly and service was there to coddle you. You are right: nowadays it’s horrible to fly because of the service and long lines. We drive if we can.
I’ve been reading your posts for the past 2 hours now (taking brief breaks to dip into chapters of “Lab Girl” — wanting to stay grounded in Minnesota), and feel slightly hypnotized. On this warm spring day in the San Francisco Bay Area, you’ve made me nostalgic for the Midwest in winter. And summer. And fall…