Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"It's Not The Years, It's The Mileage"

Indiana Jones ruined flying for me. When I saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark” at the impressionable age of eleven, I had not yet been on an airplane. I remember slipping into my seat as the movie began, my older brother sitting beside me in the dark. We pulled smuggled candy from warm pockets and settled in to watch what I thought was a movie about ghosts haunting archeologists that had unearthed Noah’s ark. Was I in for a treat; with the first crack of his whip, the man in the crumpled fedora and worn leather jacket became my idol.

My idol until the day I boarded my first flight, that is. I was fifteen years old and on my way to a weeklong sailing adventure in the Bermuda Triangle with some friends (another story for another time). We flew a more affordable option to the well-known carriers of the day, and to state that they were a low-budget airline would be a polite way of saying that they spent very little on maintenance and new planes in order to keep their prices within the reach of the daring but financially strapped general public. Looking out the terminal window I could see that our plane was old, but looked nothing so romantic as the Pan Am Clipper that had carried Indy to Nepal. Upon boarding I discovered that the interior was no better. I had expected a comfortable affair, with large seats and room to stretch my legs. Even my skinny frame felt cramped and punished in my seat.
The only consolation came in the form of gorgeous modelesque flight attendants. Their good looks warranted several clandestine attempts at photos from my friends and me. I still have a photo of one of them somewhere; I used it as a bookmark for some time after that trip.

After the safety demonstration (to which I paid great attention, and not just because a beautiful brunette was fastening and unfastening buckles right before my eyes), I sat back and waited for takeoff. I had hoped to tip my hat over my eyes and fall asleep as the pilot snuck the plane into the sky like Santa placing presents under the tree. I had forgotten my fedora, but had I brought it, I would have crammed it rather than tipped it over my eyes, to hide the sight of the wings bouncing as we taxied to takeoff speed with a roar that plugged my ears. The window seat that I had begged my friends to allow me was more a torture than a pleasure. I watched the precious earth roll beneath us at an unnatural rate, before a sudden thump set the plane at an angle and we began to claw our way into the blue. It was an odd sensation, watching Mother Earth fall away and grow tiny even as some invisible force pushed me back towards her. The maddening thunder of the engines was accompanied by an orchestra of groans, moans, hisses, and whimpers, and I was so terrified that it took me a moment to realize that the sounds were all coming from within my own frame. I closed my eyes and fought the urge to cry out loud, mourning my tragic young death.

But it was all over as soon as it began. A moment before certain disintegration, the plane seemed to gather itself into one solid piece of muscle and push its way into the sky with the confidence and poise of a veteran. We reached our desired altitude in no time, and the pilot came on the intercom to speak in a happy, garbled voice to all the foreigners onboard.

All was suddenly very quiet and casual, in great contrast to the violence of the past several moments. We played cards with the decks given us by the new beautiful objects of our fantasies (Note: I understand that the use of the word “objects” raises concern, but I was fifteen and had already witnessed countless examples of such behavior by that time, so what do you expect? I would hope that my own sons will be able to someday word such things in a different manner, but only time will tell.) During the flight we hit the call button far too many times. Each time we asked for something new; sodas, peanuts, magazines, cuddles, anything to bring the flight attendants our way. It passed the time, and kept the overpowering fear of imminent death by impact, fire, dismemberment, and sudden de-pressurization at bay.

And then it was time to land. As we began our descent, I felt little pockets of unease rumble through my stomach. I buckled up and stared out the window, not sure that willing the ground closer was the right thing to do. I had imagined that after circling the globe on a swift, steady, but gentle wind, we would float to the ground like a mechanized feather. A few sudden drops in altitude sent that idea packing, and I just knew that we were going to die.

I thought back to all the peanuts, cookies, crackers, and soda that I had consumed with reckless abandon throughout the flight, and cursed the beautiful objects of my fantasies for shoveling them onto my lap tray without a word of warning. They must have seen us taking photos of them walking down the aisle, and together they had conspired in the galley, agreeing to load us with all the snacks we could inhale as eventual punishment for our teenage fantasies. I would die a pervert’s death, covered in vomit, and I hated them as we fell to earth. What the world would think of me when the crash investigators found my camera and developed the film inside? A somber man in a dark suit would deliver a collection of photos to my family, and my parents would tear open the envelope, hoping to find a final, smiling image of their precious son on his way to a happy adventure. Instead, they would flip through several blurry shots of the flight attendant’s rear-ends, and remember what a turd their son had been in life.

It took several minutes to die. I watched the ground rise up to meet us, and remained conflicted about willing it closer as time ticked by on a broken watch. A puke bag at the ready, I watched as the tarmac came into view. I no longer cared about crashing; I just wanted it to be over. The plane tilted back as we came in far too fast for a safe landing, and I knew then that it would all be over in a matter of seconds. I envisioned a long, terrifying slide into the airport terminal, ending with a sudden burst into flames. At least my camera would melt in the fireball, and with it all evidence of my lust for flight attendants.

The rear wheels struck the runway with such force that I was sure they had punctured the cabin. Were I to look to the back of the plane, I would see but mangled bodies and the black rubber of the massive tires that tore them apart. A moment later the front landing gear hit the tarmac, and I imagined the plane heading into a spark-trailing slide. I was going to die, but only after a carnival ride from hell, complete with explosive ending.

Several years later, after the explosive ending failed to take my life..,

And I am living through a remake of the movie "Airplane." The pilot has landed our plane in Milwaukee rather than Chicago. Thunderstorms have shut down both Midway and O’Hare, and after circling for longer than we should have in hopes of a clearing to land, we were running low on fuel and had to divert. We have been sitting on the tarmac for some time now, the lights of the terminal taunting us from a distance. I am beginning to fear a long night in my already uncomfortable seat.

Beside me sits a man with a broken arm, bent in a cast. His left arm. Did I mention that he is sitting on my right? This means that his elbow is sticking out over his armrest and into my ribs. He jitters when he sleeps, and he sleeps a lot. My ribs cannot take much more of this abuse.

A fully-grown golden retriever that surely has to poop by now is in the front row. I can see its head from my aisle seat in the second row. It is not evident which family member needs the dog’s assistance, but it is wearing an orange vest to signify that it is specially trained to assist someone. There are at least two babies behind me somewhere, each of them crying in competition for highest pitch. I have children of my own, and Elizabeth has flown many times alone with our babies over the years, so I feel the pain of the parents, while wishing for earplugs and muzzles at the same time.

Nearby sits a coven of stuffed suits prepping for a hostile takeover. They fill the air above them with heavy sighs and self-important rants about meetings that can’t happen without them being present, rental car and hotel reservations that will rot into mold if they don’t get there in time to sign their all-important names, and deals that will fall apart (and send the economy spiraling into a steeper tailspin?) if they aren’t there to close them.

In other news, there is a cute Hooters waitress in a tank top sipping diet soda through a tiny straw. She is seated on the aisle, two rows back and to the left of me, so my marriage shall remain happy and intact. The man sitting beside her can make no such guarantees to his own wife (dull un-shiny wedding ring present on his clammy looking hand). His eyes are almost crossed at this point from trying to read the bar codes on her implants.

Have I mentioned that the toilet is overflowing?

There are several loud cell phone conversations taking place in three languages other than English. I stopped trying to translate the one that I think is in Spanish. The woman is talking fast and hard, and I get a brief respite from my discomfort by imagining that she is lecturing her short fat husband for not walking her little poop machine of a poodle and eating in front of the tv while she was away.

There is a creepy little girl right out of a Stephen King novel walking the aisle. She stops to stare at people she doesn’t know. A doll is folded over her arm like a spineless baby, which completes the image of a harbinger of death.

If the pilot comes on the intercom with one more cheery affirmation, he might get bum rushed when he emerges from behind the safety of the bulletproof door. He must have recently been sent to a positive attitude seminar, he is that cheerful (or drunk). I choose to believe that he has anger management issues, and that the airline sent him to a feel-good mental rehabilitation clinic in the Catskills. There he endured weeks of hug therapy, mandatory kitten cuddling, and flower arrangement classes until his anger vanished in a cloud of incense smoke (lime-rose-kiwi scented). I don’t think the airline sent the flight attendants, because they are bossy and insensitive, not happy and accommodating. Or gorgeous.

Does anyone else smell that? How can they not? What is it and who made it happen? Smells like that should be outlawed in public.

Well, I never saw that coming. The dog just peed into a plastic bag. The father of the assisted family just held the bag underneath it, and the dog just let it go. Now the man is standing in line for the rest room, holding aloft the bag of dog piss like a proud old lady with a claim ticket in some weird sort of prize line.

I can feel the seventh circle of hell approaching.

The pilot has just informed us that after a refueling we will be making the flight to Chicago. That is good news. I am hoping to make a flight into Manchester tonight, and the sooner we get to Chicago the better. My chances of making the connection have been increased, because Air Traffic Control has been kind enough to allow us an unusual flight path over the lakes, so the flight will take seventeen minutes rather than the usual hour plus.

Well, this is it. I can feel the cold breath of Death on my neck as he steps up to take me. The plane is shuddering, the turbulence unreal, and the end of my life certain. The pilot was happy to announce our “special acceptation” flight plan but failed to mention that it would be at low altitude, and that the seventeen-minute trip would feel like a iron-wheeled carriage ride through a logging site. The bumps, sudden drops, and shrieking of the engines are conspiring to kill me before the impact does.

I look to my left, across the aisle, and out the window. I can see nothing but the darkness of water. To the right, the lights of the lakefront buildings twinkle below. If it were daytime, I would be able to make out people turning in surprise as we buzz a few thousand feet overhead. But it is close to midnight now, and I wonder if anyone will witness our sudden plunge into the cold water, capturing the moment with his or her cell phone. Would the dark and blurry footage of my terrible death merit millions of views on Youtube?

I find myself in a constant state of teeth clenching and anal-puckering, like an innocent man spending his first night of many in prison. I should be grateful that I will be surrounded by people at the moment of my death, but looking around the cabin, I can honestly say that I’d rather be alone. The son of the man who has trained his dog to pee into plastic bags will not shut up about spreadsheets. He wants his father to tell him more about formulas and sums, but his father must be deaf, unschooled in spreadsheets, or unwilling to stifle his son’s self-expression.
I fear that the last words I ever hear will be “Father, please tell me more about spreadsheets.”

I didn’t want to leave Oakley. Elizabeth and the kids are there. Blue skies, open fields, and long straight roads abound. Happiness flavors the water, like a sweet mineral from way down deep in the earth’s crust. I have loved New Hampshire, but Oakley is home now. It’s the first place I’ve lived where I would consider being buried.

Well, we’ve landed in Chicago and I am waiting to board my flight to Manchester. I wouldn’t swear to it under oath, but I think the plane did slide sideways a bit when the front landing gear hit the tarmac.

Damn you Indiana Jones, I’ve learned to hate you in the last 30 years.