In 1988, when I was twenty-four, I traveled through Southeast Asia for six months on a shoestring budget and spent a few weeks in a Buddhist monastery. Toward the end of my trip I was running out of money, but I saved just enough to afford a last meal in a fancy hotel in downtown Bangkok and a taxi ride to the airport.
At the Bangkok airport I learned I had to pay an eight-dollar tax to get my boarding pass. Completely out of money, I approached other Western travelers in line and asked for spare change to help me cover the fee. Within twenty minutes I had gathered the money I needed.
My flight itinerary took me to Seoul, South Korea, then on to New York City, and finally to Washington, D.C., where my parents were to pick me up. In Seoul I waited in a long line to get my boarding pass. The woman in front of me lost her temper and started yelling at the airline representative. My departure time was growing near, and I feared I would miss my flight and have to spend the day in the airport with no money to buy food. I tried to remain calm and accept my predicament, as I’d practiced doing at the Buddhist monastery. As the woman raged on, the representative caught my eye apologetically, as if to thank me for my patience. When it was finally my turn, he quickly issued me a boarding pass, and I made it onboard the plane.
But there was someone else in my seat. She had the same seat number on her boarding pass as I did. I told the attendant, and, after conferring with a colleague, she moved me to first class, where I ate rich food and drank wine and slept in a wide, comfortable seat on the twelve-hour flight to the U.S. Upon arriving in New York, I found out I had missed my connecting flight, so the airline put me up in a posh hotel with vouchers for dinner and breakfast. The next day I flew to D.C. without a hitch. Though I hadn’t a cent in my pocket, I had traveled halfway around the world in luxury.
One gray February afternoon in 1979, three fellow flight attendants and I boarded a flight from New York City to Columbus, Ohio, with a short layover in Philadelphia. I was the lead flight attendant, which meant that I would work first class and help in coach as time allowed. As the first-class passengers boarded, I hung up their coats and began taking drink orders.
“Welcome aboard, Mr. Townsend,” I said to the passenger in 1C. “May I offer you a cocktail?”
“My name isn’t Townsend,” he said gruffly.
I apologized, asked to see his boarding pass, and checked my seating chart: his name was Samuelson, and he was assigned to 2C. I told him he could remain where he was for now, but when the passenger in 1C arrived, he would have to move. Samuelson was belligerent and insisted that he always sat in the first row and the airline had made an error. I ignored him and tended to other passengers. Fortunately Townsend was a no-show.
During the final check before takeoff I saw that Samuelson had a large briefcase on the floor in front of him. I told him that it would have to be stowed in the overhead bin or in the coat closet until we reached cruising altitude. He refused to put it away. I explained that his briefcase could become airborne and smack him in the face, possibly breaking his nose, and that I wasn’t willing to take that chance. I reached for the briefcase, and Samuelson grabbed my arm.
“Don’t touch it!” he said.
I told him that he was breaking regulations, and that I could have him removed from the flight if he refused to comply. I also warned him not to touch me again.
He released my arm but said, “The briefcase stays!”
A few minutes later the plane came to a standstill on the tarmac, and the captain emerged from the cockpit to ask if everything was OK.
“Mr. Samuelson here was just stowing his briefcase,” I said. Samuelson glared at me, saying nothing. I smiled, picked up the briefcase, and slid it into the coat closet, then secured the door.
During the layover in Philadelphia everyone deplaned except Samuelson. As I tidied the cabin, he asked me personal questions, and I offered vague answers, then redirected the conversation to him. He told me he lived in Los Angeles and was the CEO of a marketing company.
At last the other passengers re-boarded, and we made the final leg of our journey. In Columbus several people in first class complimented me for having kept my cool.
Samuelson was the last passenger to leave the plane. At the exit he handed me his business card, and the hard expression on his face softened. “If you ever want to get out of this racket,” he said, “give me a call. I could use someone like you on my staff.”
A year later I moved from New York to Los Angeles for a job with his company. I later learned that I wasn’t the first employee he’d recruited on a flight — his combative act had been something of a test, and I’d passed.
In the early eighties I was a flight instructor with two kids at home. On Saturdays and in the summer I taught classes, and one or two nights a week I’d work a charter flight, hauling freight to different destinations.
One afternoon in April I was assigned a 4 PM departure to take a load of auto parts to a plant in Delaware. If all went well, I’d be home by three in the morning.
The trip there was easy: we had a tail wind, and it was a smooth ride. On the way back my copilot dozed off over Pennsylvania, and a hard, steady rain started. I had to fly by the instruments alone while drops of water oozed onto the dash from leaks in the windshield. The rain intensified, and I saw a static discharge around the propellers on both sides of the plane — a hazy aura of purple light just outside the window.
The air-traffic controllers sounded bored as they helped guide us between two big storms. This was long before GPS, but we had an ancient black-and-white radar unit — which suddenly went blank.
I followed the basic protocol: slow down, fly at an altitude of five to seven thousand feet, steer away from the lightning. We hit the worst of the storm, and it felt as if we were in a car going a hundred miles an hour down railroad tracks. The instruments were a blur. I heard the controller say something before my headset came off. The lightning was so close I swear I could smell it.
After a few minutes we flew out of the storm like a three-ton wad of gum spat into clear air. Behind us I saw the dark cloud mass lit by white and yellow flashes, but ahead of us the stars were clearly visible. We later learned that the planes behind us had either gone around the storm or turned back.
When we finally landed the plane, my copilot and I just sat there. Uncharacteristically silent, he pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, then put it back. I could see his hands shaking.
We got out of the airplane, the engines quietly ticking and popping as they cooled. The air was chilly and dry, and a chorus of frogs croaked in the ditch.
At home I went to my kids’ bedrooms, where the storybooks were stacked neatly and the stuffed toys were lined up as if on guard. For a long time I just sat on the floor and watched my children’s faces and listened to them breathe.
Long Beach, Indiana
Due to a rare hip disorder called Perthes disease, I couldn’t walk, stand, or even sit upright for two years as a child. I could only lie on my stomach or back wearing a body brace made of metal and leather. When I finally stopped wearing the brace, I had to relearn how to walk. I was a ten-year-old toddler, weak-legged with no balance. I stood in the ocean during a beach vacation, and each small wave almost knocked me down.
To encourage physical activity, my parents enrolled me in a Saturday-morning fitness program at the YMCA. That first Saturday the other boys and I were told to line up for the long jump. One by one each boy sprinted and launched himself into the air. When it was my turn, I hobbled awkwardly up to the line and leapt. For a brief instant I broke the gravitational pull of the earth — and my disability — and flew. I was just another boy jumping at the YMCA. Our instructor recorded my distance as eighteen inches. I was satisfied that I had done my best.
Thirty minutes later our instructor posted the results on a bulletin board for all to see. Everyone huddled around the list, and I was pushed to the back of the crowd. I heard them say that some jumps were five feet or more. Then several boys began snickering, and one of them said, “Some poor sap jumped only a foot and a half!”
For a moment I thought I had at least achieved a better distance than one other boy.
Then I did the math.
My dad served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. I have a picture of him on a submarine, looking like James Dean: thick hair combed straight back, pressed white T-shirt, bluejeans with neat cuffs. He never talked much about his time in the military, and at forty, I’ve stopped asking, but I do know that the years he spent cooped up in a submarine and traveling from place to place in small cargo planes gave him an aversion to both tight spaces and flying.
After I moved from Wisconsin to Colorado at the age of twenty-five, my dad and I would joke about his fear of flying. To visit me he had to make a seventeen-hour drive across the flat landscape of the Great Plains. Then I got into medical school in Washington State, almost two thousand miles from his home in Green Bay, and the visits stopped. The year I graduated, he talked about renting a camper and coming out for the summer, but the plan never materialized. He wasn’t there to see me walk across the stage and receive my diploma.
Since graduation I’ve stayed in the Pacific Northwest. I’m continually astounded by the lush green landscape, the flowers that bloom all year long, the glaciers of the North Cascades, and the proximity to the ocean. But I miss my father. I’ve stopped joking about his fear of flying and instead have offered to fly to Green Bay, buy him a first-class ticket, and sit with him on the way back to Washington. I’ve offered to prescribe Valium so he can sleep for the duration of the flight. He hasn’t taken me up on my offers. I worry that the distance between us is becoming more than just geographical.
When my husband was trying to get sober, I decided to brighten our home with a puppy. At the local shelter there was a litter of nine, and one sat down at my daughter’s feet. “Mom, I want this one!” she exclaimed. With that, Bow, the nine-week-old chow-yellow-lab mix, became a part of our family.
Bow was obstinate and got booted out of obedience-training school twice. It was common for me to come home and find that he’d removed the lid from the garbage can and rummaged through the trash. He’d regularly eat bread or chicken- noodle soup or Halloween candy off our kitchen counter. But we loved him just the same.
Throughout my husband’s stint in rehab and our eventual divorce, Bow was a dear companion to me. The first time my daughters went to stay with their dad, I sat home and wept, feeling utterly alone. Then I looked up to see Bow standing by my side to comfort me.
By the age of thirteen Bow had developed incontinence, weakness in his back legs, and a neurological disorder. When he collapsed and couldn’t get up, I knew it was time to have him put down. At the vet’s I held him until his heart stopped. Afterward I buried him under a pine tree on a friend’s farm.
I was dating a pilot at the time, and one afternoon he took me up in his plane and flew us over Bow’s grave. From such a height, the trees, the house, the barns, and the fields looked incredibly small. This gave me a broader perspective on my loss. I felt a sense of acceptance that all beings must die — including Bow, including me.
I was on the longest leg of my flight from Maine to Seattle, where I was scheduled to speak at an environmental festival. The plane was bound for Portland, Oregon, where I would catch a connecting flight. About forty-five minutes from our destination a flight attendant asked over the speaker if there was a physician on board. Within moments a doctor was performing CPR on a man lying in the aisle just behind me. The pilot announced that we were going to land at the closest airport because of a medical emergency. It seemed as if the man might already be dead.
When we landed, emergency medical technicians boarded and took the man away on a stretcher. Our flight to Portland resumed, but we didn’t arrive until close to midnight. Having missed my connection, I booked a 5 AM flight to Seattle and received a hotel voucher.
The shuttle to the hotel was crowded with passengers from my flight. I stood near the door, and, when we arrived, I got off quickly and was second in line at the desk. Directly behind me was the doctor who had tried to save the man’s life on the plane.
The clerk at the desk told me there was only one room left, and I took it. Everyone else, including the doctor, would have to be shuttled to a different hotel to wait in another line. I felt guilty but, I’m ashamed to say, not guilty enough to give the doctor the room.
A red-and-black Hi-Flier kite with the words PLAYMATES OF THE CLOUDS printed across it cost just ten cents in the 1950s, and my dad would buy several, anticipating that only one might survive the assembly process. He was terrible at building kites and would order me to put my finger on the knot while he struggled to tie the sticks together. The paper often ended up tearing. He had little patience but plenty of Scotch tape.
Once a kite was completed, he would tie strips of cloth together to make a tail, which kept it from making endless circles in the air. Too long a tail, however, and the kite would crash to the ground.
When it came time for the first flight, I would hold the kite, and Dad would hold the string and run and yell for me to let go. If the kite spun out or faltered, he would yell again, but if it stayed up, he would soberly hand me the stick with the string that formed a thin connection between me and his creation.
One time, when the kite was flying well and my dad was calm, he took out a scrap of paper and a pencil and told me we were going to send a “letter” to the kite. He asked what our message should be. Afraid of making the wrong suggestion, I said nothing. He wrote the command “Fly high” on the paper, then taped it around the string, making a cone shape. The wind pushed the cone up the string toward the kite until it almost faded from view.
The days my dad and I spent together were too few. I remember a fishing trip, and the time he helped me with my homework. And I remember that kite-flying day, when I held the string without speaking. I remember it was hard to hold the kite steady in the strong wind. I remember the message on the thin line. I remember being afraid that the string would break.
Ithaca, New York
On a red-eye flight to Dallas I conversed in Spanish with the handsome man seated next to me. He explained that he had been attending a business seminar overseas for five months and was excited to get back to his family in Latin America. He opened his wallet and showed me photos of his wife and three children.
I soon dozed off and woke when my seat neighbor nudged me. I opened my eyes to see what he wanted, and he surprised me with a kiss. I didn’t resist. We made out for a few minutes, then he unzipped his pants and pulled my hand toward his crotch. I hoped that no one around us was awake.
We both had connecting flights to catch in Dallas, where he suggested we slip into a storage closet or a family bathroom. I lied and said I had to hurry to my gate.
When I landed at my final destination, I stepped into the airport bathroom to splash water on my face, run my fingers through my hair, and put on some lip gloss. I wanted to look decent when my boyfriend and his mother met me at the baggage claim.
My dad loved to fly. He was a fighter pilot in Vietnam and then, for twenty-eight years, he worked for a commercial airline. The den in our house was filled with flight manuals and had a clock that looked like a cockpit speedometer. When I was a kid, he would return from international trips with exotic gifts, such as koala-shaped cookies from Australia or lace from Belgium.
For the latter part of his career my father was a 747 captain, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibited any pilot over the age of sixty from serving as a captain or first officer on a commercial aircraft. In his late fifties Dad was in good physical health and didn’t want to retire or get demoted, so he worked to lobby Congress to change the mandatory retirement age for commercial airline pilots to sixty-five. As he approached his sixtieth birthday, he immersed himself in correspondence and research, hoping to help change the FAA’s mandate.
In May Dad announced to our family that the FAA would increase the retirement age, but not for another two years. He would turn sixty at the end of the month and have to retire from the job he loved.
My father’s last day of employment was May 31, 2007. That evening he walked to the local fire station and shot himself in the head.
In the weeks that followed I learned that my father had refused medical treatment for depression for years because of another FAA rule: any pilot who took antidepressants was required to refrain from flying commercial aircraft. I have often wondered: Would Dad be alive if he had cared for his mental health with the same diligence and passion that he brought to being a pilot?
Courtney Zenner Campbell
My father called from India to tell me that my mom, who had been in the last stages of cancer, had died, and two days later I boarded a fourteen-hour flight from Chicago to New Delhi. The flight attendants served dinner, but in my grief I didn’t have much of an appetite, and I ate only a few bites. I slept for about an hour, then woke with a sharp pain in my belly. I went to the bathroom and threw up everything I had eaten. The pain only worsened, and I vomited again twenty minutes later. The flight attendant brought me a painkiller, which I took with water. I threw that up, too.
There were three physicians on board, and they came to the back of the airplane, where I was lying down in the pantry area, surrounded by flight attendants and curious passengers. I started to sob uncontrollably, as much over my mother’s death as from physical discomfort. One of the doctors took a syringe from the plane’s medical kit and injected another painkiller into my arm. They asked if I felt any movement in my bowels. I didn’t.
The pilots couldn’t turn the plane around or make an emergency landing unless my condition got significantly worse. So for the rest of the trip I lay on a makeshift bed at the back of the plane. The flight attendants seemed reluctant to come too close to me, in case I had an infectious disease. A few strangers offered encouragement. I wish I had thanked them for their kindness.
In my pain I hallucinated that my mother was carrying me.
When we finally landed in New Delhi, I was put into a wheelchair, taken to the airport medical clinic, and given more medication. By this point I was throwing up bile, so I was brought to the hospital for emergency surgery.
It turned out that a portion of my small intestine had become twisted. I was hospitalized for two weeks, during which time I missed my mom’s funeral and all the grieving rituals at home. After I was released, I spent another three weeks at my father’s house, recovering.
While I was there, my great-aunt visited me and talked to me about my mom and her kindness and generosity. My aunt told me I must have been the closest to her. Surprised, I asked why she thought that. Holding my questioning gaze, she said it was because I had shared my mother’s suffering as she left us.
Before marrying my mother, my dad was a motorcycle daredevil and stunt pilot. As a child I would listen to his tales of flying with his friend, who did acrobatics on the wing of the airplane during flight. They would land the open-cockpit biplane in large pastures next to main roads and set out a sign advertising short flights for a modest fee. When Dad wasn’t flying, he’d often race along country roads on his motorcycle — and do handstands on it.
When I was five, my parents split up, and my dad raised the three of us children by himself. He worked all day as a machinist at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and spent his evenings and weekends tending to our family.
In the summer, while Dad was at work, my siblings and I would roam the fields and woods of our 120-acre property in Maine. But the weekends, when Dad was home with us, were when our real adventures occurred. Weather permitting, he would drive us to the airfield and rent a plane for half an hour.
If we got a four-seater, we’d all go up together. If those were taken, we’d get a two- or three-seater, and one or more of us would have to wait our turn on the ground. Sometimes we’d wander around the landing strip and pick wildflowers, or find a spot to sit and watch the planes land.
Daredevil that he was, Dad would inevitably perform a few dangerous maneuvers, steeply angling the plane skyward and then going into a nosedive or a barrel roll. Sometimes he would touch down and take off again without coming to a full stop. One time he saw a neighbor out in his yard and buzzed the man’s house, pulling back at the last moment and skimming the treetops. What he did would probably constitute child endangerment these days, but to us it was just quality time with Dad.
Cheryl Haley Mack
Penn Valley, California
In 1995, at the age of twenty-seven, I traveled to Southeast Asia, where I spent three months trekking, riding elephants, wearing batik sarongs, eating street food, suffering explosive diarrhea, and sleeping in sweltering three-dollar-a-night hostels.
One day I called my parents to let them know I’d be flying to Los Angeles, then changing planes for Seattle. During our short conversation Dad told me that he had left my mother several weeks before. Meanwhile Mom had traveled from Chicago to LA to take care of my younger brother, who had just suffered a psychotic breakdown.
I switched my flight to the next morning. During the fourteen-hour journey back to the U.S. I sobbed while the concerned flight attendants brought me water and snacks. Upon landing, I went to see my mom, who was staying with an old high-school friend. I spent the week shopping, cooking, and trying to be as supportive as possible.
By the end of the week, my brother had become more stable, and my mom and I decided to take a road trip to San Francisco. From there I’d fly to Seattle to spend the summer as planned. Before leaving I made one last trip to the local co-op, where I’d met a handsome young man after I’d first arrived. As I headed toward the checkout with an armful of provisions for the drive, he opened up a lane just for me.
While scanning my groceries, he asked me out for coffee. I told him I’d love to, but I was leaving town that day.
A couple of weeks later I sent a postcard to him at the co-op, knowing only the cross streets for the address, letting him know where in Seattle I would be for the summer and giving him my new phone number. Three days later he called. He said in two weeks he would be flying to visit his sister, with a layover in Seattle. We decided I would meet him at the airport.
As his airplane taxied to the terminal, I stood anxiously at his gate. Then I saw him striding toward me; he was taller than I remembered. He took me in his arms, and we kissed. We sat together in a partitioned “office suite” meant for business travelers, and he removed a cheap metal ring from his finger and placed it on mine. It was my first date with the man I would marry.
According to my mother, my first words as a child were Mama, Dada, bye-bye, and airplane. By fourteen I was taking flying lessons. I didn’t have much success in school or with girls, but I was a ranking cadet officer in the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary all-volunteer unit of the Air Force.
One afternoon, while visiting my father at his rural farm-supply store, I saw an old childhood friend land an open-cockpit biplane in the pasture next door. He was working as a crop-duster, hauling and spreading fertilizer and pesticides. He got back in his plane, and I watched him fly for an hour. Six months later I was in crop-dusting school in the Mississippi Delta with the meanest, most foul-mouthed instructor I ever met.
I started out spraying small cotton fields in central Alabama, where it was sometimes easier to fly under the power lines rather than over them. Then I moved on to the miles-long rice fields of southern Louisiana. I took off and landed on everything from paved runways to backcountry roads with state troopers temporarily blocking traffic, to landing strips carved out of the woods, to pastures with patches of deep mud.
Some pilots were badly injured or killed in crashes. Not a morning went by that I didn’t take in the beauty of the rising sun while waiting for the engine to warm up and think to myself that this day might be my last. But, through thousands of takeoffs and landings, through the miserable freezing-cold winter days and the sweltering midsummer afternoons in an open cockpit, the joy of flying never left me.
As I learned to resolve emergencies and make difficult landings, my confidence grew, and I began to believe that I could handle any challenge. One foggy late-winter morning, a month shy of my forty-sixth birthday, I was flying beside another plane, piloted by a young crop-duster, when he made a sudden, hard turn away from me. I banked to follow him and was immediately caught in his wingtip vortices, invisible whirlwinds created by a plane as it passes through the air. When there’s no wind to dissipate them — the morning was calm — they can be akin to a tornado.
My plane rolled and headed toward the earth, and I couldn’t right it. My last recollection of that flight was seeing grass and earth over the top wing.
I regained consciousness and stumbled from what was left of the cockpit, the air thick with the odor of aviation fuel. The plane had nosedived into the ground, and pieces of it lay scattered across a muddy acre of Louisiana rice field. I sat trembling on a levee, dazed and bleeding from my head.
At the hospital a doctor sewed my upper lip back on. Despite several injections of anesthetic, I could feel each stitch. A friend of mine — a six-foot-four ex-collegiate football player — held my hand, and I squeezed his so hard he yelped.
My four children had been summoned from school and were waiting for me at home. As I climbed out of the car that afternoon, wrapped in hospital blankets, my face heavily bandaged, they stared at me with tears in their eyes.
I finished out the rest of the crop-dusting season to prove to myself that I hadn’t lost my nerve, but I didn’t stop thinking about the crash. In an instant the confidence I’d gained over twenty-five years had left me. I was not willing to continue trusting my life to something that could so quickly and unexpectedly turn on me. In the fall I retired.
I’ve flown only two times in the thirty years since then. At the age of seventy-six I’m moving into my final years, and I know I’ll never fly a plane again. But I still look up with nostalgia whenever I hear one passing overhead.
Tamassee, South Carolina
I do not enjoy flying. The idea that an enormous metal airplane will somehow, despite its monstrous weight, defy gravity and transport me to my destination always feels unbelievable to me. Whenever I get onboard, I worry that this might be my time to die.
In 1998 I took a short flight from Louisiana to Tennessee through extremely turbulent conditions. Typically I would have gripped the armrests with every dip, my mind running through scenarios in which the plane plunged into a pasture or my fellow passengers and I were sucked screaming through a hole in the fuselage. Instead I sat calmly through it all and even reassured the terrified young woman across the aisle that everything would be ok. I barely recognized myself. Who was this person?
I had bought my ticket the night before, after my sister called to tell me that our father had died suddenly. I had seen him just a week earlier, during the Christmas holidays. The shock of his loss was what enabled me to remain calm on that flight, immune to the possibility of my own demise.
I would rather have felt my usual panic than the numbness of grief.
Little Rock, Arkansas
It was 1970, and I was on my way back to college in Providence, Rhode Island, after Thanksgiving. A nineteen-year-old freshman, I was enrolled in pre-med but was much more interested in meeting girls.
At the airport in Chicago I saw a lot of young, pretty women at my gate and hoped that I would get to sit beside one of them on the plane. Then I had an idea. I walked to the counter and asked the agent if she could seat me next to a “cute girl” for my flight. She said she’d try.
I watched the other passengers board, paying close attention to those I wanted as a seatmate. Finally the agent called me to the counter and said with a big smile, “I think you will be very happy with your new seat.”
That was easy, I thought. I should do it again on my next flight.
Excited to see which lovely young woman I’d be next to, I made my way down the plane’s aisle. Then I spotted my seat, in the middle of the last row — between two nuns in full habit.
I worked for a large European company with offices all over India. My boss, who hated to fly, would often send me in his place to far-off meetings and conferences. I enjoyed experiencing new locales and meeting people, and some of the pilots and flight attendants became friends of mine.
One pilot I especially liked was modest and soft-spoken. He told me that flying was his first love, that he liked the simple life of working his allotted hours and then returning to his wife and two children.
Later I found out he was actually the son of Indira Gandhi, the first female prime minister of India. There were rumors that his mother wanted him to begin a career in politics. When I next encountered him at the airport, I alluded to the rumor, saying I would miss seeing him on my flights. He said he would never change professions: “I don’t want to do anything else. I just want to fly and watch my children grow up.”
I ran into him another time or two before I moved to Washington, D.C., in the late seventies. In 1984 I saw his photo on the front page of the newspaper after his mother was assassinated. He was persuaded to succeed her as the new prime minister. I thought of that young man who had so loved flying and did not seem to care for politics. Just seven years later he was assassinated by a suicide bomber.
Scheduled to fly to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the middle of November, I was anxious about potential complications due to cold weather. At the gate I sat and read a book to settle my nerves. A petite, middle-aged woman approached, dropped her carry-on bag by my feet, and sat down beside me. She had long black hair and pink fingernails, and she reeked of perfume. I responded politely but succinctly to her attempts to make small talk, then tried to return to my book, but she began squirming in her seat and glancing fearfully around. She whispered to me that she was leaving her abusive husband. She had packed her overnight bag and hidden it, then fled that morning after he left the house.
“I’ll be so glad to get on this plane,” she said. “He’ll kill me if he thinks I’m leaving. He’s tried it before.”
When I asked if anyone was helping her, she said a domestic-violence agency was flying her across the country and had a job waiting for her. She didn’t even know her final destination, only that when she landed in Atlanta for her connecting flight, someone would meet her there with more information.
I felt a sudden unease, worrying that her husband could show up and become violent, toward not only her but anyone with her. I wondered if I should move away for my own safety, but then I caught myself — this woman was fleeing for her life! — and became determined to stay.
“Isn’t it time to get on the plane yet?” she asked, her eyes scanning the concourse.
I told her it would be soon and that I’d stick with her until she was in her seat. She visibly relaxed after that, and we chatted. Finally the agent announced that it was time to begin boarding.
I followed her through the jetway, reassuring her that she could do this. As soon as the woman stepped inside the plane, she turned to face me.
“I prayed for someone to help me,” she said, “and God has answered my prayer.”
In Atlanta I had to rush to make my connection and didn’t see where the woman went. I boarded the terminal’s monorail, and at the first stop I turned to see her exiting the car behind me. She was on her way.
My fiancé, Jim, was a Navy pilot. I lived in Fresno, California, where we’d met, and he was stationed in San Diego, about an eight-hour drive away. He flew his fighter jet to see me almost every weekend. I’d usually arrive at the airfield early to watch him land. Then we’d drive back to my house for two days of lovemaking and planning our future together.
When it was time for Jim to leave on Sunday evening, I’d stand alone at the edge of the field and wave as he taxied to the runway. He’d give me a crisp salute when he went by. I’d marvel at the raw force of the plane’s engines at takeoff and remain there until he’d disappeared in the distance. How could he be in my arms, then, in just a few minutes, so far away?
“I can always hear your plane long after I cannot see it,” I told him once. He was surprised that I would stand on the field for so long.
One weekend I flew down to San Diego so we could shop for a house together. As I settled into my seat on the plane, the flight attendant gave me a napkin with a phone number on it, saying that it was from the pilot: I was to call that number as soon as we landed. My first thought was that Jim wouldn’t be able to pick me up at the airport.
After we landed, I was flanked by two naval officers and escorted to a private area within the terminal. The men told me Jim had been killed earlier that day during an aerial-combat training exercise. What they were saying made no sense to me, and I assured them that Jim would be there soon. That’s how strongly I believed that the man I loved could not be dead. To this day I sometimes feel as though I can still hear his plane.
Costa Mesa, California
When my father was stationed overseas for several years in the 1950s, my mother, my three siblings, and I flew to Japan to join him. Our mother packed up our belongings, found a renter for the house, and booked a three-stage flight from Washington, D.C., to Tokyo.
Things began to go wrong at our first stop: San Francisco. As soon as we arrived at the hotel, our mother realized she had lost her wallet. The manager called ahead to the hotel in Hawaii, our next destination, and made arrangements for our bills to be paid on credit.
When we landed in Honolulu, everything was taken care of, as promised. But the travel gods were not done with us yet. On the last leg of our journey over the Pacific, my two-year-old brother looked out the plane window and said, “Fire!”
He was sitting with our mother across the aisle from my two sisters and me, and we ran over to see flames shooting from the propeller. After we returned to our seats, we looked out our window and saw a fire in the propeller on our side, too. There was a commotion onboard, and a man in what looked like a red dress walked down the aisle of the plane, stopping along the way to place a hand on our mother’s shoulder. Being only nine, I didn’t realize that this was Cardinal Francis Spellman, the Catholic archbishop of New York, and that he was blessing the passengers.
The plane made an emergency landing on Wake Island, and after many hours we boarded a new flight that finally delivered us to our father in Tokyo. My mother never talked much about the trip, but on our return journey to the U.S. we took a boat.
It was quiet on the rural road where I grew up, except on Tuesdays around dinnertime, when a formation of C-130 Hercules military planes executed flight drills overhead.
At the first sound of their approach, I’d dash out of the house, letting the screen door bang shut behind me, and tear across the backyard for the pasture, my braids flapping against my shoulders. The horses would prance nervously, agitated by the noise, but I laughed at their fear. As the behemoths flew over, their gray bellies dwarfed human, horse, house, and barn alike, and their engines roared with a guttural thunder that I’d been taught to equate with freedom. The giant planes passed by, then turned above a field a mile or so west of ours, and I’d stand on tiptoes and strain to keep them in view above the trees. I imagined their pilots to be brave young men and dreamed of meeting one of them someday. Maybe he’d fall in love with me, and we would marry and have a little home in the country, where we’d fly the red, white, and blue from our porch.
I didn’t marry a man like that. As I grew older, the reality of war made me a pacifist. I’ve since met courageous young men and women from countries that fly different flags. Their first impulse, too, upon hearing a U.S. military plane overhead, is to run.