The White Knuckler and I
by Jenny Motley (aka Crash Test Mommy)
I flew in an airplane for the first time when I was three years old. It was just before Christmas in 1974, and my mother, my aunt, my six-week-old brother, and I were moving to from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Fairbanks, Alaska, where my father was already living and working on the pipeline. I flew for the second time six months later when we all moved back to Tulsa much sooner than the two years we had originally planned to stay. Apparently, my mother had had all the isolation and subzero weather she could stand. Eighteen months earlier than expected.
I have no memory whatsoever about the plane rides to and from Alaska.
When I was thirteen, I flew to Dallas and back for a vacation with my mother and brother. I don’t remember much about the flights, only that they were short (about 45 minutes) and that I ate honey-roasted peanuts and drank Sprite.
After that, I didn’t fly again until I was 28. And then, for a while, I flew A LOT.
My husband, in the Marine Corps until 2003, went for weeks at a time to two different training courses in 2000 and 2001, and I would fly to see him just about every other weekend while he was away. And, at 28, I LOVED to fly, loved everything about it.
I loved standing in line to check in, and wheeling my carry-on through the terminal. I loved people-watching at the gate, and running to make a connecting flight. I loved takeoff and landing and drinking Diet Pepsi in little plastic cups while watching in-flight movies. And above all else, I loved the idea that I could walk onto a plane in one city, and three hours later, walk off the plane in a completely different place. A place with a different climate and different landscape. A place that would have been two days’ drive. I LOVED THAT.
Until one day in July 2008, when one flight between Las Vegas and Phoenix on my way home from BlogHer San Francisco would change all that.
The woman was probably in her mid-40s, average height and weight, with light brown shoulder-length hair. I was in the middle seat and she smiled at me as she took the aisle seat. Only a few minutes had passed before she turned to look directly at me.
She said, “Are you afraid to fly?” and I told her I wasn’t, told her that I loved to fly. She said, “Good, because I’m a TERRIBLE FLYER; if it’s okay, I need to hold the arm rest during takeoff.” I said, “That’s fine. I don’t need it.”
While the plane taxied down the runway, she went on to explain that she flies from Phoenix to Las Vegas and back every weekend to gamble, and that because the Las Vegas airport is in a valley, takeoffs from there are very bumpy and dippy from the air pressure. Or some such. I’m not totally sure because at that point in the conversation I was sort of out of my own body wondering why I had never thought to be afraid of flying before, seeing as how a woman who flies WEEKLY seemed to have a greater understanding about some IMPENDING DANGER to which I was not privy.
And danger? It’s name was Las Vegas.
When the plane took off, the woman did as promised, and gripped the armrests for what I assume to be Dear Life. She also squeezed her eyes tightly shut and proceeded through a litany of gasps and groans every time the plane bumped or dipped IN. THE. SLIGHTEST.
Once we made cruising altitude, she ever-so-slightly loosened her grip on the armrests and opened her eyes, but the gasping and groaning she continued for the entirety of the flight. Which, thank my lucky stars, was only about 30 minutes long.
We arrived safely in Phoenix, de-boarded and went our separate ways. Her, to a car parked in long-term, I assume. And me, to a connecting flight bound for Oklahoma City where my husband waited to drive me home to Tulsa.
Nearly two years have passed, and I have no doubt that the woman has long since forgotten me. She has blended my face and features and shape and voice with dozens, possibly hundreds, of other passengers who have shared a ride (and an armrest) with her between the cities of her home and her play.
I, on the other hand, have thought of her many times. Every time I’ve taken a friend or family member to the airport. Every time I have considered taking a trip that would require flying. Every time I cancelled a trip that would require flying.
Because fear? It’s name is AIRPLANE.