In 1997, my wife and I took our first flight to Hawaii, where our son Brian had started law school. At that stage of my life, I trusted few things, none less so than airplanes, yet there I was, committed to the 5,000-mile nonstop trip. Nervous, I scrutinized the faces of the 200-plus passengers boarding with me and thought, are these the faces of the doomed? And was it really possible that this behemoth could get airborne, loaded as it was with tons of people, luggage and fuel? I worried.
Taxiing, we lumbered to the end of the runway, stopped and waited. Suddenly, a piercing whine and mighty roar filled the plane as the engines exploded to life. Pinned to my seat, I watched the rolling pavement rip past ever-faster until the rumbling wheels went silent as we lifted and nosed into the air. Awed, I watched the trees, the houses, the very earth itself fall away beneath us. Moments later we were in sunshine above the clouds. The knowledge that my existence now depended upon millions of little nuts, bolts and gears all turning in unison hour after endless hour turned my knuckles a bloodless white.
For hours my acutely attuned ears imagined hearing changes in the pitch of the engines. Then what I had dreaded most happened as we passed over the Rockies: turbulence! The plane suddenly dropped as if hammered. It lunged and jolted like some beast battering its way through stone walls. I remembered back, as a boy, sticking my arm out of our car window and feeling the force of the wind against it. At our present speed of nearly 600 mph, how long would it be before the wings ripped away, sealing our fate?
Since then, I’ve conquered my fear, but with 9/11 a new anxiety has arisen: terrorism. As a result, everyone is inconvenienced. We inch along in snaking lines to have our ID checked. We strip off shoes and belts, watches and even prostheses, load them into baskets to be X-rayed, and then step through portals for more screening. On our last trip, I was randomly chosen to have my hands scanned for what I assume to be traces of explosives, while more likely suspects were passed over. Unfortunately, our government prefers to gamble with the lives of millions rather than risk offending the sensibilities of one group or another. Such is the idiocy that prevails today.
Late at night, when the lights dim, our diversity gradually dissolves. Beneath the veneer – the business suits and the jeans, the shoes and the sandals, the coiffed and the unkempt hair – the neat rich and the rumpled poor become one of a kind. Sagging, sleepy-eyed and disheveled while waiting for the lavatory, or slumped in seats, mouths agape, the dignified and the uncouth are indistinguishable. We do indeed share a common humanity.
Cruising at 39,000 feet and insulated against the 70-below- zero air outside the plane, I peer through the window into the night sky. We seem almost motionless as I gaze, god-like, and see a glittering expanse of stars spangling the cosmos. In the distance far below, mysterious towns gleam like clusters of jewels in the surrounding blackness. Except for the lulling drone of the engines, the occasional cough or the whimper of a baby, all is peaceful and serene.
Flying without fear is truly exhilarating. For some of us, it’s the closest we’ll ever get to heaven.