April 2015

Slipping the surly bonds of earth

By Gaily Binkly

The Denver Post has been filled of late with stories about air travelers unhappy with long lines for security checks, excessive fees for carry-on luggage, and flight delays.

One complaint in particular, though, has always puzzled me – that there isn’t room enough to comfortably lean your seat back. How, I wonder, can anyone relax on an airplane?

I have flown 20 or so times in my life. Normally, the more exposure you have to an experience, the less you fear it. But with me and flying, the opposite is true. At first, the experience seemed magical, especially the liftoff. But gradually I began to think that flying was a bit too magical.

Finally, I decided I would never do it again. No crisis precipitated this decision, just the increasing pallor of my knuckles and the thumping of my heart every time I steeled myself for another flight.

However, several years ago my husband’s family organized a reunion, and they wanted us to come. I am fortunate in that I married into a wonderful extended family of bright, creative, humorous people. The only thing wrong with them is that they all live on the East Coast.

So when the reunion came up, I wanted to just say no. There wasn’t time for an extended road trip, and there was no way I was getting on a plane again.

But my husband really wanted to attend the reunion. Finally I said OK. After all, people fly every day. Surely it wasn’t as frightful as I remembered.

And so it came to pass that we drove to Durango one morning and boarded a plane to Denver. A very small plane, I might add – two seats on either side of the aisle. As we settled in, I heard another passenger asking an attendant how much turbulence to expect. My ears strained to hear the answer over the roar of the engines, but I thought she said, “On a scale of 1 to 10, an 8.”

Fingers of ice glided down my spine. Surely I had heard wrong.

But I hadn’t.

We sailed into clouds as we crossed the Rockies. The little plane bucked and yawed like a Brahma bull in a rodeo. No refreshments were served – not even sodas – because the plane wasn’t stable enough.

When we landed at DIA, I suggested we abandon our plans and hitchhike home. Taking our chances with a serial killer seemed preferable to soaring into the air again. But David steered me firmly toward our flight to Washington, D.C., and somehow we were getting onto another, bigger plane, and we were up, up and away.

I’d faintly hoped we had seen the end of the turbulence, but no such luck. A cloud bank seemed to stretch across the entire nation. We flew through an eerie universe of rippling gray mist. The big jet did not buck like the other plane, but there were frequent leaps and drops that left my stomach in the back of my throat.

David and I paid a steep fee for a snack of cheese, crackers, and hummus, but I found it difficult to eat. The concept of the “last meal” is one I’ve never grasped. Who, when facing imminent death, is able to chow down on a five-course dinner? “Can you wait just a minute, hangman, I’ve got one biscuit left. Yum, it’s so light and flaky.”

So we nibbled listlessly at the crackers and David dozed while I attempted to read the on-flight magazine – which, it said, was its last issue. (Apparently passengers now watch movies or stare at their smart phones.) But I couldn’t concentrate on the cheery articles. William Butler Yeats kept running through my mind: “I know that I shall meet my fate somewhere among the clouds above...” I couldn’t remember the rest of it.

I tried to think about the complex aerodynamics and powerful machinery that allow humans to make cross-continental flights in a few hours, but the more I focused on that, the more improbable it seemed, until my thoughts were reduced to one frenzied question: What is keeping this plane in the air? I decided that only my fervent prayers were holding it aloft, so I’d better just concentrate on that.

Thanks to me, we landed safely.

I enjoyed the family reunion. In fact, I never wanted it to end, because that meant we’d have to fly back.

The night before we were to leave, we looked at our tickets and learned that for some inexplicable reason we had been routed through Orlando, Fla., and would have not two but three separate flights to get to Durango.

Then, watching the nightly news, we realized that our trip would take place on the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

That lent a note of intensity to our journey through the airport the next day, but the flight to Orlando was blessedly uneventful, and once we were away from D.C., I figured we were safe from terrorism. However, when we tried to board the next plane to Denver, I was not listed among the passengers. I was assured that the problem would be corrected, so I sent David ahead to get comfortable on the plane while I waited at the gate. And waited. And waited.

Finally I inquired again about my problem. The attendant seemed to have forgotten all about it. I explained that my husband was already on board and apparently would be flying home without me. To tell the truth, at that point I was hoping that’s what would happen. I’ll just rent a car and drive home, I thought eagerly, never mind how long it takes.

But then another man arrived with his large family and it turned out that he, too, had been left off the passenger list. The plane was full; we were both going to be separated from our loved ones. Frantic discussions ensued. The airline offered money for volunteers who would take another flight. Only one came forward. More minutes passed, and the pilot emerged and said it was time to get the show on the road, we were violating an FAA guideline.

Suddenly another volunteer stepped forth, and the man and I finally boarded. I found a seat several rows behind David.

This flight was the most memorable of all. We flew into a towering thunderstorm as dusk descended. The pilot explained that he would steer us on a delicate path between two highly active cells over Oklahoma. Lightning flickered horizontally through the clouds and thunder boomed. I stared fixedly out the window, just waiting for the “Twilight Zone” gremlin to appear in the thick rain and start dancing on the plane’s wing. I knew was going to end up in a straitjacket, like William Shatner. But that would be all right if we just got on the ground again.

As the plane trembled in the fierce wind, I repeated my mantra: Please, let us get home and I will never, ever fly again. I sneaked a glance around the cabin and was stunned to see that the other passengers were playing video games or watching a comedy. Moreover, David was sound asleep! Did no one but me understand the peril we were in? The plane shook and I went back to reciting my mantra.

When we landed, David had no idea we’d even been through a storm. “I’m sure you’re exaggerating,” he told me.

The wobbling jaunt from Denver to Durango seemed only mildly terrifying by comparison. Still, I wanted to fling myself to the earth and kiss it when we landed. Statistics be damned, I thought, no one can tell me that a car trip is riskier than what I’ve just been through.

Never again.

Recently I got an email saying I had the chance to win a trip to D.C. to meet Barack Obama if I gave $5 to the Democratic Party (I’m not even a Democrat). Unfortunately, it appeared the trip would be by air.

I deleted the email. Sorry, Barack.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Free Press.