I was 35 years old when I stepped onto an airplane for the first time. When I tell people that, about half of them pop their eyes in disbelief. The other half shrug their shoulders and say something to the effect of, “Yeah…I get that.” I’ve been a rural Hoosier all my life. Everywhere I needed to go, the highway took me there. I almost flew in my early twenties, when I sent my résumé to open teaching jobs across the country. But none of the high schools I applied to from places such as Renton, Washington to Shelby, Montana offered me an interview. I wonder how different my relationship with the air would have been if I’d hit the skies then.
But as it was, I went airborne in March of 2005. We were going to Vegas: my then-wife and two friends. When you’re an adult approaching middle age, and you’re sitting on a jet aircraft for the fist time, the thing you notice the most is the noise. When a jet taxis into position for take off it sounds like an eight-year-old is tugging a ragged Radio Flyer wagon bearing a full load of tin cans and drum cymbals. Throughout the cabin, folks casually read their magazine and plugged in their headphones, I sat petrified listening to the clanks and the bangs and the pops and the groans.
“This thing sounds like it’s going to fall apart,” I said.
Once the jet had reached the head of the runway it stopped. Takeoff was coming. I knew it. In front of me, a small corner of the courtesy vomit bag peeked out from behind some trade magazines and that “what do to if we crash into the ocean” guide.
Takeoff was coming. I knew it. In front of me, a small corner of the courtesy vomit bag peeked out from behind some trade magazines and that “what do to if we crash into the ocean” guide.
“I don’t want to puke,” I whispered…too loudly it appeared because our friends across the aisle chuckled between themselves. In a flash I snatched the bag and tucked it under my thigh. My anxiety climbed as I stared at the pavement splayed across the ground just outside the small oval window to my left.
I was still slowing my breathing, inhaling in deliberate, long draws of air when our 737 finally accelerated. Growing up, I had always wondered what all those Indy 500 drivers felt as they navigated the track. What was it like to move over 200 miles an hour? Sitting in the cabin of a late-model Boeing wasn’t the same as zooming in a tiny bathtub chassis on the Speedway, but I did get some sense of experience. Regardless where I sat, my body was moving faster than it ever had before. Once we leveled off, I eventually settled down, and except for both the takeoff and landing at Las Vegas’ McCarron International—which I swear is a secret wind-tunnel created by the Army Corps of Engineers—both the flight to and from were peaceful and relaxing.
Nonetheless, each succeeding flight over the next 14 years brought the same pattern of worry. I would spend the days prior avoiding the news, searching the web with care, and avoiding movies with “plane rescue” scenes. Why it is that Superman Returns appears on Netflex a week before I’m supposed to fly is a mystery of ancient Anglo-Saxon proportions.
Such was the case prior to our trip to Europe. Unlike all my previous trips, this one meant a lot more time above the clouds. Indy to Toronto. Toronto to Copenhagen. Copenhagen to London, and then back the other way. Copenhagen to Frankfurt, then to Chicago, then home to Indy. Seven flights in total.
Maybe my mindset changed because of the frequency of all those “ups and downs.” It must have. After six days in Sweden…six days away from those first few airports, I spent the last night in Växjö re-experiencing all the anxiety I felt every other night before. But by the time we landed in London, air travel had moved to the bottom of my list of worries. So much that when we boarded for the series of flights home, I counted my blessings for my aisle seat. Not because it kept me away from the terrors of the window, but because it meant I could get to the restroom with ease. In fact, on those trips back home, I practically leaned across Wendi’s face in order to get a good view of the panorama below us—not so that I could timidly peek at how far I would fall if something went wrong, rather to absorb the beauty of the world when looking at it from above.
People always talk about change happening “at the flip of a switch.” I’m not sure that it’s quite that abrupt. A nudge that leads to flicker is followed by second that does the same thing. At some point the friction point gives. I’ll know if this is for real the next time I book tickets for a flight. Reach out to me the night before I hit the skies. If I can spit out a coherent sentence, then consider me a changed man.
Wheeler proudly teaches AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for other publications. He started learning to play guitar last fall, but he remains terrible at it. [/author]