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  • September 9th, 2017


By Joel M. Vance

I have done considerable air travel. I’ve been up in the air many times—sometimes without benefit of an airplane. Once, I flew from New York to London and back again and found the two cities much alike. Lots of diesel fumes, lots of people and lots of taxicabs.
Only difference was that London cabs are big, black, boxy things and the drivers speak a form of English almost comprehensible. In New York cabs all are yellow and the drivers speak Farsi and tailgate the cab in front at about 40 miles an hour and a distance of six inches.
The only New York driver I’ve found who spoke English was from Brooklyn and leveled his curses as if he were back at Ebbets Field and Dem bums were down six runs in the eighth. He told me that he burned out a set of brakes on his Ford Crown Vic every two weeks.
The highlight of that England trip was en route to LaGuardia Airport when the bus driver got lost and we first took a scenic tour of what appeared to be the Mother of All Garbage Dumps before we wound up heading the wrong way on Fabled Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. “I don’t think this is the right way,” mumbled the bus driver, a statement with which an entire bus load of passengers totally agreed. Unless the bus company had a permit to drive across the Atlantic Ocean, we were in the wrong vehicle. But he finally managed to find a great big airport and we were off to London, the charming aroma of garbage lingering in our nostrils.
For a time my first airplane flight felt like it might be my last. Three of us took off in a light plane, as unsubstantial as the kind of paper airplanes we used to fold as kids out of an 8 x 10 sheet of typing paper. We were scouting for cornfields cut for silage, a wonderful place to hunt mourning doves.
The takeoff was uneventful, but the pilot soon was grasping at various levers and wheels as if seeing them for the first time, while I crouched fearfully in the rear seat, wondering if perhaps he got his pilot’s license through the mail, from one of those outfits that offers to make you a minister so you can perform weddings although not necessarily perform an airplane.
Came time to land the plane and that’s when things got interesting. The pilot increasingly became more physically active, grabbing this lever and that wheel while the plane caromed around the sky like an escapee from a pinball machine. “Do you think,” asked my other hunting buddy, who was functioning as the copilot although he had no more idea how to fly an airplane than I did, “you’ll be able to land this thing?” Words to hope to live by. “Never was the phrase “the miracle of flight” more appropriate. The Wright brothers were rolling in their graves. We hit the runway more or less in the right place and finally shuddered to a stop while I offered a prayer of thanks to Mr. Piper or Mr. Aztec or whoever it was who invented a plane that could survive being beaten like an unruly mustang
That was one of my less enchanting air trips but there was a time en route to Pierre, South Dakota , when the pilot announced that, because of high winds on the ground, we would instead fly to Rapid City and wait for the wind to die down in Pierre. So we did that and flew around for a while before the pilot, no doubt weary of over flying the Black Hills, told us he was going to head back to Pierre where “We will try to land this thing.” Very encouraging words. He descended to the Pierre airport to the point where it would be too late to abort and try again some other day when, in the words of pilots, weather conditions would be “severe clear.” The plane sailed like a thrown Frisbee and I expected to see a Labrador retriever or a border collie racing alongside trying to snag a wing as it went by.
I was sitting over the wing and saw it dip toward the runway as if the pilot were planning to dig potatoes. We dribbled down the runway like Steph Curry going full court for a layup, brakes and jet squalling and came to a shuddering stop. As we stepped out on the platform to clamber down to blissfully silent earth, a powerful gust of wind nearly lifted an old lady to Montana or eternity, whichever came first. The pilot standing in the doorway, looking enormously relieved, said, “Now you know why we get the big bucks for flying these things.” I think that’s known as gallows humor.
I’ve only been motion sick twice in my life. Once was in a small boat on Lake Michigan, fishing for salmon, when my boat mate produced a huge roll of summer sausage and asked if I wanted some. Until then I hadn’t paid attention to the rhythmic rocking of the boat in the waves, but then I did and wanted nothing more than to coat the entire surface of Lake Michigan with vomit.
My other bout with motion sickness was in a small plane flying to Saskatchewan, Canada, to fish, and my boss at the time insisted on giving me his ideas about some advertising copy I was going to write for him. The flight was rhythmically bumpy and while no one else seemed to be affected by the erratic motion, all I wanted to do was to vomit my toenails. I didn’t need a barf bag, I needed a 55 gallon drum, but throwing up in your boss’s lap is not recommended job security so I somehow managed to swallow my sorrow.
Far more entertaining than nausea was an encounter I saw between a flight attendant and a male passenger. She was very pretty and as she moved down the aisle she stopped at the seat just in front of me, and, with an expression that I later realized was stunned surprise, she exclaimed, “Hi! What a surprise!” I could see the back of the guy’s head as he jerked backward as if someone had tapped him sharply with a baseball bat on the brow. But I saw more clearly the profile of the girl sitting in the window seat next to him. Her expression was somewhat like that of a lover who has just been told that her guy is leaving her for another woman.
Instantly I realized the human drama that was playing out. The guy used to date the flight attendant and the present girl of the moment was seriously pissed off about it. I’m willing to bet she had no knowledge of the extent of this prior relationship, if she even knew about it. It was real life soap opera right in front of my delighted eyes. The flight attendant continued on down the aisle and on with her life, while the guy frantically tried to explain what had just happened to his girlfriend who wasn’t buying a bit of it. I’ll never know what happened with whom but I’d like to believe they all lived happily ever after. It was a real life version of “Days of Our Lives” only more fun.
My wife, Marty, has had both hips replaced, plus one shoulder. And she has a pacemaker. She is a walking mechanical marvel, so full of metal, that when she comes within 50 yards of an airport security checkpoint she sets off a symphony of alarm bells, whistles, sirens and buzzers. SWAT teams begin to lock and load. The last time she went through a security check, after having undergone more wanding than a magician’s assistant, she was asked to step into the scanning booth on two footprints where she was to place her feet. “Raise your arms and stand on the footprints,” she was told by a burly female security guard, who could’ve doubled for Marjorie Main in the old Tugboat Annie movies. Arms aloft and feet planted Marty did the only thing that seemed, to her, appropriate. She did a little Mr. Bojangles buck and wing, the humor of which was unappreciated by the dour Grinch and her compadres who are ever on the lookout for 82-year-old white Anglo Saxon Protestant terrorists.
Then there was the time even before Marty was studded with more metal than a Goth queen, that she set off the alarms because she had a pair of scissors in her purse. They were confiscated of course and as we walked away from the security gate, she grumbled, “Those were my favorite scissors. I’ve had them forever.” Then she opened her purse and took out a second pair of scissors and exclaimed, “Well, at least they didn’t get these!” While I frantically tried to pretend I’d never seen that woman before in my life.
Then there is the time that the plane I was flying on caught on fire. Actually, there was no fire, but the cabin filled with smoke. The man next to me said, “I don’t like this one damn bit.” I looked up from the book I was reading to behold a scene reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, which was not the book I was reading.
Either the crew was barbecuing (we were just over Memphis) or there was a problem you don’t want to enliven your flight. “Nothing to worry about, folks” the captain said cheerily. “A minor electrical problem. Will have it cleared out in a few minutes.” But a few minutes also is the amount of time it takes to plunge from 35,000 feet to the earth. I don’t know much about the mechanics of airplanes–what keeps them in the air– but I do know that there are many miles of electrical wire hidden within the fuselage, and that those wires, through the miracle of electricity, have a whole lot to do with the ability of that heavier than air machine to stay aloft.
The cabin cleared and after a half hour of anxious moments we landed safely in St. Louis–although well short of the terminal and surrounded by fire engines. We walked down steps to get to the tarmac and I didn’t get to slide down an escape slide, something I’ve always wanted to do, although only as a practice exercise, not because of the real thing. “I know where I’ll be tonight,” my seatmate said. “I’ll be in church!” The friendly skies are not always that friendly but I keep defying the laws of gravity and getting in various flying machines to get from here to there.
Who knows? One of these days I might find Amelia Earhart.

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