I’m looking down at the top of a cloud and missing home. Missing my wife, and the cheerful chaos of three berserk dogs welcoming me home after the work week has ended. I’m missing my routine. I’m missing the things that keep me grounded as I’m whisked through the clouds at twenty thousand feet. I’m flying, and I can barely believe it. It’s not actually the technical marvel of air travel that has me confounded this night, mind you. I just never thought I’d step foot on a plane again after last summer.
Like many, I gripe about my job. To be honest, it’s a true love/hate affair. I love what I do, but I’m not a fan of the mountain of stress that accompanies the job. Knowing that nothing is perfect, I count my blessings. I work with a great group of people, I am challenged daily, and I’m in the people business. It’s never lonely.
I am also fortunate to be able to say that I have a damn cool boss. We’ve worked together for ten years, and I know him well enough to sense his mood when he walks by my desk. I don’t even have to look up to read him. He’s a calm and fair man, and his optimism and carefree disposition offset my cynicism nicely. It’s a combination that has worked well, and our shared successes have been many. After a decade of pouring myself into this job, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else.
So when Mr. Cool Boss came to me last summer and asked me to take a trip to Boston with him I didn’t flinch. We were considering buying out a competitor, and had scheduled a meeting with one of the large national accounting firms in order to wrap up due diligence by combing through financial records. It was a zero fun proposition, but I was happy to help if it meant a better looking bottom line for us. As he conveyed the details of our meeting, Mr. Cool Boss made the mistake of mentioning that we would be flying to it. My eyes narrowed, any semblance of color draining from my body in a matter of seconds. I shook visibly. He giggled at my reaction and told me not to worry as he reminded me that planes are statistically safer than cars. I growled under my breath and did my best to forget about it until the day of our meeting.
You should know that there are very few things in the world that strike true fear in the heart of this man. I do not scream and jump over snakes on my summer hikes. Scary movies don’t affect me. I think nothing of a quick jaunt up to 130 miles per hour, just to see how fast the car can get there. I ride my mountain bike like a psycho. I even pet a cat from time to time. In other words, I’m living on the edge.
Want to push me over the edge? Easy. Show me a boarding pass. I despise the hell out of planes, and with good reason. They have cost me far too much underwear.
I’ve been flying with frequency since I was a teen. A divorce meant regular travel between parents, and I was no stranger to airports. My brother and I spent quite a few holidays on the move, and both of us came to look forward to these trips. Feeling the thrust of a big jet pushing you down a runway can be quite exhilarating, even more so when you are young and fearless and have no concept of mortality. By the time I was twenty, I had racked up a mountain of miles. I was well traveled, and I traveled well.
December of 2000 changed that forever. I was a year into this job that I love when I was asked to go to India on a business trip. I was in my twenties, was just starting to get my professional feet under me, and I was thrilled. The thought of traveling to a distant, exotic land in the name of commerce had me seriously fired up. I called friends and relatives to share the news, and promised to bring back loads of pictures. I went about the business of renewing my passport and securing a visa as I daydreamed about gallivanting about on camels, visiting the Taj Mahal, strolling the beaches at Goa.
When the big day came I nearly broke the front door of the house off of its hinges in my haste to get to the airport. I had a laptop and a camera, enough clothes to survive a week, and I was ready to meet the world. As my wife and I parted at the airport, I choked back a tear to be strong for her. My only wish was that I could bring her along to share the experience, but there was no way to make it happen. I would miss her terribly, but my enthusiasm could not be contained. I practically OJ’d through the airport, my bags flailing behind me as I embarked on my journey.
That is the last pleasant memory I can conjure up.
Ever had a hell flight? If not, let me enlighten you. There is this thing called turbulence. Minor doses of it are just enough to clear out heart intake deposits. Major episodes bounce your stomach off of your chin. The thrill of weightlessness is quickly replaced by pain as gravity thwarts your upward progress, that next ripple of air disturbance driving you into your seat at what seems like about 12 G’s. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but I’m guessing it’s somewhere between being a yo-yo and a paddle ball. It kicks your ass. And if it’s just bad enough, it convinces you that your dirt nap awaits you.
Within five minutes of takeoff I was looking for a tombstone catalog. A wind storm had whipped up and was giving us its best shot. It was unlike any flight I have experienced. In the fifty minutes that it took to fly from Burlington to Boston, I watched luggage burst out of overhead compartments, drink carts escaping stewardesses as they rocketed down the aisle. The fasten seat belt sign stayed illuminated for the entirety of the trip as people around me prayed and cried. All of the flight attendants looked concerned as I met their eyes, trying to get an accurate read on our chances. I was thoroughly convinced that it was time to find the in-flight PA system and let the Doors belt out one last rendition of The End before I met my new friends, the earthworms.
Obviously I survived. Passengers sprung from their seats the moment the plane came to a stop, eager to put the expereince behind them. The pilot came out and apologize to the passengers as we exited the aircraft, admitting that he had never experienced such severe turbulence in twenty years of flying. We thanked him for getting us back on the ground safely, and I did my best to settle my nerves as I ran for the gate of my connecting flight from Boston to India.
I could go on forever, but allow me to summarize and save a few keystrokes. That was the worst damn trip of my life. The connecting flight did the same wind dance out of Boston, an even larger group of passengers getting a fair shot at soiling themselves. That “shaken, not stirred” feeling just brings out the best in air travelers, and I wish to this day that I’d been carrying a video camera. To add a little icing to the cake, I was fortunate enough to become severely ill within a few hours of my arrival in India. I spent two sleepless days and nights fighting for breath as a respiratory infection had its way with me. The humid, polluted air of Chennai teamed up with said infection and the pair conspired to take me out. I was on a plane home by the third day, and was coughing up blood by the fourth. My luggage had decided to forego India in favor of a world tour, returning to my home two weeks after me.
I swore off planes, India and any travel for a number of years. That experience stuck in my craw like a hairball, and I was happy to stay home with both feet planted on terra firma. September 11th did little to alter my opinion of flying. For years, I never considered it.
So when Mr. Cool Boss let it slip that we would be flying to Boston for that upcoming meeting, I freaked. Memories of that hell trip flooded in as I imagined myself doing the flying foxtrot, dancing through the air on a ribbon of devil wind. I objected loudly and with vigor, to no avail. Mr. Cool Boss just happens to be in the process of getting his pilot license, and he actually enjoys flying. He also happens to own a plane. A little bitty lightweight plane of the sort that presents no challenge to a gust of wind. He smiled as he informed me that we would be taking the Cool Boss express to Beantown. I aged visibly, let out a sigh of defeat, and promptly filled my head with thoughts of puppies and unicorns to drown out the screaming voice in my head that urged me to find another means of travel.
When the big day arrived, it was a real beaut. Seventy dry degrees drenched in sun. Birds erupted in chorus to wake me that morning. I sipped coffee as I watched them hop about the bird feeder, chiding one another and competing for sunflower seeds. I turned to look out over the river, my eyes scanning the treetops for any sign of a breeze. Nothing moved. The air was almost stale it was so still. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I drove to work with the windows down and tunes cranking, my spirits buoyed by the weather, my thoughts occupied with business hassles that needed sorting prior to out departure.
We left at around ten. I was a little nervous as we took off, the small aircraft rocking slightly as the pilot banked and leveled. As the minutes passed I let down my guard, lightened up and joined the pilot and Mr. Cool Boss in a discussion of Massachusetts airports. They were comparing airfield merits, and I listened with amusement as the pilot relayed a tale of air traffic controllers with attitude problems. I checked voicemail and reviewed the information I had been given in preparation for our meeting. I marveled at the beauty of mountains, the vast expanse of Lake Champlain. I think I may have actually been smiling when the door of the plane decided to unlock, unlatch, and explode outward, banging to and fro as the wind caught it.
The pilot immediately released the controls as he leaned to his left, trying to reach the flapping door and failing. The plane immediately dropped and listed to the right when the pilot released the controls. I said my goodbyes to those I loved, the tornadic air circulating about the cabin restyling my hair into a perfect swirly. Mr. Cool Boss grabbed the controls while I fired up the video camera on my Palm. If I was going to check out in a heap of twisted metal, the least I could do is leave behind my own black box for the FAA. It wasn’t looking good.
Mr. Cool Boss did manage to right the ship, but not before I had made peace with the reaper. I pointed my camera phone at the open space where the door was supposed to be and got a few seconds of footage. Mr. Cool Boss and the pilot actually made me laugh as they explained that all would be fine, and that this sort of thing happened all the time. I knew better, but didn’t see the point of belaboring the issue when I was about to do a giant oil drill impersonation. I put down my phone, said a prayer and leaned just far enough out of the plane to snag the door handle. As I leaned back and attempted to latch it another blast of wind ripped it from my hands.
We spent two or three minutes trying to wrestle the door shut before the pilot gave up and arranged for an emergency landing. There were no airports in the vicinity, so we lined up with a grass strip at the Sugarbush ski area and started our descent; the pilot at the controls, Mr. Cool Boss laughing at me as I held the door with all of my might, the wind keeping it propped open by a couple of feet, affording me a crystal clear view of the ground as it rushed to meet me. I was going to miss my life, my family, heck…maybe even work. This was no way to check out…
Fortunately, I did not bite it that day. We landed safely. I did not choke or stab Mr. Cool Boss. The pilot repaired the door while the two of them tried to convince me to get back on the plane and continue the trip to Massachusetts. Eventually it occurred to me that the odds of two freak incidents in the same trip were very low, so I climbed back into that evil tin can, closed my eyes and drifted off to a faraway place. A windless, planeless, Mr. Cool Bossless place. I remember little else from the rest of that day, perhaps by design.
I’m well outside of my comfort zone tonight, and it feels good. I might even grow a little for it. A crackling voice from the radio tells me we’re landing in a few minutes. I’m still a little nervous as I recall prior flightmares, but I won’t be truly terrified until I deboard this plane in favor of my connecting flight and feel a stiff New York wind try to rip the clothes from my body, pants flapping, sand from the runway blinding me. I will hold my breath for most of that flight, determined to make it to Ohio, to bring back a decent story from Blog Paws. I will remind myself that I’m doing this for the dogs that inspire me, the woman who supports me, the readers who make every day more fun than it has a right to be, and who really should be here in my stead. I will do whatever it takes to maintain sanity until the wheels kiss the tarmac.
All of this I will do while seated as far as humanly possible from the door of the plane.