NATURALLY APPREHENSIVE and skeptical as to how a giant pile of metal could possibly get off the ground in the first place and then stay aloft, my flying days got off to a peculiarly bad start years ago, and since then, despite countless trips across the country and across the Atlantic, I’ve never lost the feeling that at any moment the winged contraption I was in would take a dive and I would plummet to certain death. Alcohol does not help, although a couple of Lorazepam on the way to the airport will smooth things out nicely.
My virgin flight at the age of 22 was the start of my lack of confidence in the allegedly friendly skies. Of course, the fact that I was reared by two people who had never been higher than their fifth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn didn’t help.
Both my parents were of the “If God Had Intended Us To Fly He Would Have Given Us Wings” school of thought, my father more ferocious in this belief than my mother. He was the guru, she merely
one of his willing disciples. Dad was very up-to-date on the death toll for any year from plane crashes, and was a veritable walking book of statistics on the probability of survival relating to where you sat in the aircraft, sort of a precursor to Google on the subject. Whenever a major air disaster occurred, he seemed as happy as a news commentator with a hot story. Gloating, he would say, “See that, what did I tell you? Am I right or am I right?”
On the eve of my first flight, a 45-minute hop from New York to Washington to visit a college friend, my parents invited me over to dinner for their version of the Last Supper. One would have thought I was having major surgery the following day from the way they behaved.
“One question: Why are you doing this to us?” my father asked, his lower lip quivering.
“I only have the weekend, and I don’t want to spend half of it getting there. Besides, I want to fly, we are not living in the Dark Ages anymore, at least I’m not. You are aware that normal people fly every day, are you not? They say it’s safer than driving.”
“If your mother’s driving, maybe, but all I know is when my car runs out of gas, I don’t fall into the Atlantic Ocean.”
“Jesus, Dad, airplanes do not run out of gas! Anyway, I’m flying to Washington, there’s no ocean to fall into.”
“That’s even worse. At least if you fall into the water you could swim, you might possibly survive. But you hit land and bang, that’s it! You’re finished.”
“Mother, please make him stop.” I turned to her, the voice of authority in almost all disputes.
“You’ve been a wonderful daughter,” she said, blowing her nose into a wadded-up ball of lipstick-stained tissues. “I just don’t understand what’s wrong with the train all of a sudden?” Overcome with sobs, she left the room.
After promising to call them the minute I arrived, I left thinking my parents were really pathetic. I mean really, how could anyone not have faith in the New York-to-DC Eastern Shuttle? After all, it was practically invented to ferry important politicians back and forth—it had to be safe!
Looking back, I could see all the red flags that I missed at the time. A leading indicator was the condition of the flight attendants; one was at least 15 pounds overweight and the other had a very unflattering hairdo. Obviously, both of them were expendable employees. And the airplane was less than half full, which meant that all the passengers who were sensitive to bad omens had bolted before take-off.
We had been airborne for about 15 minutes when I noticed that the elderly German couple sitting next to me were gripping one another’s hands and praying in their native tongue. I also noticed that we seemed to be going down rather dramatically, but hey, it was my first time, who knew what it was supposed to feel like? But then the captain announced, fairly shouting, “Ladies and gentlemen, we just received report of a bomb on the plane! We are making an emergency landing. Please deplane by sliding down the inflated rubber chute and run away as fast as possible!”
As the chubby flight attendant began sobbing uncontrollably, the captain’s voice continued with the cryptic instructions: “Remove all shoes and eyeglasses and place them under your seat.” With that announcement all hell broke loose; it was just like those grade-B airplane disaster movies. I think I even saw Leslie Nielsen and Shelley Winters elbowing people in the aisle. Despite all the pushing and shoving I survived, and with the distinction of being the last person off the plane. The crew got off first! We landed outside of Frederick on some farmland, where fire trucks were waiting and sprayed the plane with foam. I approached a sobbing flight attendant in the field where we were waiting and asked her how come she handled it so badly. She said, “I have been flying for nine years and this is the first time anything bad happened!” I told her it was my first flight, and I wasn’t crying … .We were each questioned by the FBI; we then boarded a bus and two hours later arrived at National Airport.
Unfortunately, I had been one of maybe two people who actually did as the captain requested and slid down the rubber emergency chute minus my shoes and glasses. Being incredibly myopic, I saw little of Washington that particular weekend. I also never saw those shoes again, or those glasses or my luggage. (Footnote: My college friend and his roommate sued Eastern Airlines. They were in their first year of law school and it was their first lawsuit. They sued for my luggage and belongings that I never got back, and “mental anguish.” I got $500, as opposed to the zero that my fellow passengers were offered.)
Meanwhile, the news had reported only that the plane “had gone down” in a field in Maryland. There were no cell phones, so of course my parents knew nothing except what they heard on TV. By the time I called home, my mother had been given a sedative by our family physician and my father was convinced I was dead and didn’t believe it was really me on the phone.