Common Wisdom: Up in the Air

Summer rites of passage wind down and the flying public puts away suitcases that actually reappeared on carousels. A recent participant in the melee of terminals teeming with passengers delayed, bumped, or stranded, I was reminded of the anguished faces in Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment and convinced that, if I am dispatched to hell, my punishment will be an eternity of traveling.

Which is not to say I don’t have a romantic fascination with planes. Overhead, in a steady drone while I cultivate my garden, a procession of planes descend to San Francisco’s airport. Small jets slice rapidly through blue air, larger ones moving with slow, gravity-defying pace. I often put down my trowel, squint into the sky, and marvel that such outrageous tonnage can arc with the grace of a gull. And at the giddy reality that passengers are trying to finish magazine articles. Reading? Thousands of feet in the air?

I’ve never regarded this phenomenon as routine. On neighborhood walks, I startle joggers when I stop to observe a lumbering 747, curious to see its logo, from what distant part of the world it may have begun its journey. The jogger peers with some anxiety, “Is anything wrong?” Wonder doesn’t cross his mind. Given an honest reply, he would find me certifiable.

The actual flying experience, of course, is less than sublime. Regular critiques come from frequent flier Ben Stein, who chronicles potential pitfalls awaiting passengers. It’s a pity he doesn’t fly coach because he’s missing out on fertile material. I am certain Stein never flew coast to coast with a fully reclined stranger in his lap.

Here are a few additions. The shrieking toddler in the boarding lounge is ticketed for the seat next to mine or, at the least, across the aisle. The muted roar of engines in flight, conducive to sleep, will be shattered by the omnipresent card shuffler, endlessly riffling the deck and smacking his tray table. Almost always on board is the loud, incessant talker who may or may not pause for breath somewhere over Nebraska. Surely it remits time in purgatory to be trapped for hours in a cylinder with these offenders. There are others, many more. Stein knows.

Basically a hearth-hugger, I do enjoy a change of scene and would avail myself of such pleasures if, like Dorothy, I could simply click my red sequined heels together and awake elsewhere, not necessarily Kansas. What gives me pause is an epiphany I had when we lived in London years ago. As that green-sceptered isle disappeared beneath us and, with it, our daughter tended by a friend, a question arose that haunts me every time I fly: What is it I am going to that exceeds in value what I am leaving behind? If I plunge into the sea, is it really worth it to have seen Machu Picchu? Am I willing to risk life itself for the thrill of a lifetime? Travel-addicted friends (a) do not ask such questions or (b) apparently answer yes.

Perhaps this strikes the reader as pessimistic. We are tediously counseled that it is more dangerous to travel in cars than on planes. Except I’ve walked away from an auto accident and so have countless others. Try that statistic with planes.

So I approach flight with anticipation and anxiety. I like the exhilaration of takeoff, lining up like horses confined before the race, raring to go. Then the release, and the great surge of power as the plane, unbridled, roars down the runway to lift off. And in contrast the reverse, the reigning in of that speed as we prepare to land, the delicate balance required to keep the plane aloft, all the while easing down, down, to the reassuring thump of wheels touching the ground.

Such enthusiasms disqualify me as a white-knuckle flier. Suspicions are raised, no doubt, if efforts to slip rosary beads into my hands are noticed. I am not sufficiently Bellocesque to brandish beads in a defiant dignity, preferring to maintain a cool facade. But I can’t think of a venue where prayer seems more appropriate or indicated. After all, there I am, looking down on the Sierras. I feel an overwhelming awe and a heightened sense of vulnerability. At that point, total control of one’s life has been surrendered.

Perhaps the amusing duality of how I feel about flying is best expressed in the attitudes of my three adult children. The girls fly only when other possibilities are exhausted or out of the question. My older daughter contends that if airplane floors were glass, no one would fly. My younger daughter’s odometer registers astronomical mileage as she avoids close encounters with aircraft. As for my son? Major, United States Air Force. Pilot.


B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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