I was on a plane Monday, a puddle-jumper taking me from Syracuse to Laguardia, the first stop on a two airplane leg to Bangor, Maine to visit friends for a few days. I don't care much for flying, but consider it a necessary evil in that I have friends in far-flung places and do, in fact, like all aspects of travel with the exception of getting to and from. So unlike the old days when I would wring my hands and draft wills a week before a flight, now I just show up at the airport and say, "Whatever."
The plane out of Syracuse was a little prop jet that held maybe 40 people, two seats on one side, one on the other, and a ceiling so low I remarked to the smirking and solitary flight attendant that I felt like the 50-foot woman. I settled in and was soon joined by a man in his thirties who seemed...addled. He passed by, turned around a few times, then realized his assigned seat was the one next to me.
"I guess you can tell I don't fly much," he told me in a lovely southern drawl as he clicked the seatbelt shut. "Do you?"
Do I fly much...
From 1992 to 2008, my business took me, literally, around the world. I've eaten dinner, played chess, watched two movies, and reclined in sleep for 9 hours on a 15-hour flight to Hong Kong. I've flown on planes in Africa that were straight out of a Tarzan flick, one with only 6 seats that floated over the Maasai Mara and its man-eating lions below. I've been in first class on Air India, when the plane reeked of curry and on which flight attendants were dressed in flowing saris. I've crossed the ocean so many times I can't count and even flew the Concorde a few times, my certificate (signed by the pilot) that I've gone mach one hanging on the wall over my desk.
Do I fly much?
"Yes," I told the nice young man this week. "I do."
We taxied out to the runway and I could tell my travel companion was tense. "I guess you don't like to fly?" I asked him. "Uh, no ma'am, I don't," he said. "This is only my third flight ever."
Without really thinking about it, my voice dropped into soothing tones. "The little planes are kind of fun," I told him. "You zip down the runway and then poof! You're in the air. It's like an insect soaring off with none of the lumbering of the big planes as they heave themselves off the ground. We'll have some bumps but it'll be fine." I patted his arm.
We shot off like a big bee and indeed, there were some bumps, one or two real stomach-droppers. I wasn't exactly thrilled with the jolting ride to New York City but kept my cool for the nervous fellow to my left. We pushed through the clouds and I recalled a flight I'd taken from Chicago years ago, when I freaked out before take-off and the flight attendants poured champagne down my throat for the duration, promising me that we'd be fine and providing tissues so I could mop at my sobbing eyes. My travel companion then, my business partner at the time, did not pat my arm and tell me everything would be okay. He rolled his eyes and was probably negotiating with the crew to move him to a different seat (they didn't). The Chicago trip was not my first freak-out on an airplane. I have been, shall we say, a reluctant flier most of my life, and at times an impossible one. I've taken tranquilizers, swallowed shots of alcohol, and finally -- realizing I would have to change jobs if I didn't get this under control -- developed an OCD-style of counting to soothe my jangling nerves. My intense fear of flying, while not completely conquered, has at least been corralled.
As we began to descend into New York on Monday there was a loud sound and the man next to me jumped. "Landing gear," I murmured. He smiled at me and said "Boy, if I could fly with you every time I'd be fine!"
If you only knew, fella I wanted to say, how long it's taken me to get here.
I'm flying home today (Friday) on two more puddle-jumpers with the threat of Hurricane Irene roaring up the coast. Not sure counting is going to work this time. After I finish this column, I'm thinking about rummaging around in my friends' medicine chest. Maybe they have a few tranquilizers in there...