It’s really perfectly normal, at first. Okay, the security line is a bit stressful, because you don’t know what you’re doing, and the line is moving so fast, and it’s quite clear people will be annoyed if is you slow it down in any way. But it isn’t rocket science, and you are a capable adult, so you get through that okay. And the waiting area by the gate is droll and typical, complete with vending machines trying to sell you sub-Saharan bottled water.
Then they start calling people to board, and you think it’s normal. Nothing seems strange about walking down the portable hallway, and nothing seems odd about the weather—cloudy. Drizzly. Miserable. Expected. But when you get to the plane, the actual plane, you realize something is wrong.
For starters, you start having severe flashbacks to the time you toured a submarine. And you stand there in the crowded line, with people shimming sideways and trying to make their elbows fit while shoving things in the over-head storage (which is a mis-nomer, because it’s lower than everyone’s head, if they’re standing; your shoulders barely fit under the ‘overhead’ storage)—and you think, really? Really, this is what people mean when they talk about how they love to fly, and how glamorous it is to travel? This is like trying to fit around the supper table at the old house. I thought that wasn’t socially acceptable, never mind socially laudable.
But never mind. If the emperor has no clothes and no one wants to mention it, far be it from you to bring it up. You don’t mind crowded—you grew up crowded–, and besides, the chairs are so small they actually fit you, so this will be a comfortable flight, even if you do pity the others. You see them coming onto the plane, and they definitely aren’t as small as you. They’re bigger—taller, wider. How will they fit? Nevermind; you’re comfortable.
The stewardess starts to give the spiel about seatbelts and cellphones, and you try very hard to pretend it’s normal. But—since this is the first flight, you actually look at the stewardess. . .and the PA system she’s using, which is a phone. Like, the phone you grew up with, not like your cell phone. With a cord, and a big plastic handset. And you start wondering how old the plane is.
But the plane is taxiing, which means butterflies are starting to get warmed up in your stomach. You peer out the lil tiny submarine porthole, to make sure the pilot won’t be crashing in to anything. Surprisingly, the captain seems to actually know how to taxi. You can see him turn corners, and navigate the airport. And then you can see that the runway is spreading out straight before you, and so logic tells you: next we speed up.
Now the urge is strong—in your mind, you’re back on the roller coaster, closing your eyes, because then the monsters under the bed can’t see you. But you’re riding with your crazy, loopy brother, who refuses cowardice, and literally pries your eyes open before the coaster starts. He could be sitting right next to you right now—you so badly want to close your eyes, but you can’t. That would be cheating.
Faster, faster, faster. You get uncontrollable giggles when heights get involved; tops of the ladders are iffy. You can’t get hysterical giggles here—the plane is packed full of people who would hear you! But you feel the wheels leave the pavement, and inside the hysteria is building. Hold on, hold on—there, you made it. You are beyond the realm of reality, and you cannot comprehend the height, so the hysteria passes.
But you are high enough now that every horrible plane crash story you ever heard now suddenly has a thousand times more context. Like the plane that fell out of the sky in the Buffalo suburbs not too long ago. See all the houses? What is holding the plane up? Supposing the engines suddenly cut right now? Straight down to all the little houses. . .
That thought passes, too, because it is cloudy. So very cloudy. Wisps of mist turn rapidly into the gloomiest winter cloud. Still, you can feel the plane going up. More up. More up. You can’t help but strain at the little porthole, trying to see something. Where are you? Grey. Everything is grey.
It almost feels like you’ve become unconscious, that un-connected dream world where nothing takes shape. At first it’s subtle, and you think you’re imagining it, but no—the light is coming. The grey is growing brighter and brighter—the whole cabin is filling with white light. What is out there? You strain again toward the glass. You can see the wing now, it isn’t hidden by cloud. Whiteness fills below. Why is there a blue streak on the wing?
Stop looking down.
You’re on top of the clouds. The sky is such an intense, brilliant blue, like a Caribbean beach, only more so. Look—it’s so bright! So very, very bright. White clouds, blue sky, and such a driving sun. Part of you supposes it’s no wonder the earth reflects so much light. The other part of you knows you have reached the heavens, and you wonder where the throne is. Perhaps He is higher, but one cannot quell the thought that some heavenly beings must be about. The silence—the barrenness—it seems sacred, and you feel like an intruder. The engine of the plane grinds on underneath you, but it’s unnatural. It doesn’t belong here. It is trespassing. Everyone is quiet.
Then the stewardess comes out, with her cart that barely fits in the aisle, to offer a drink or a snack, and suddenly it has gone from the surreal to the ludicrous. The flight will barely be an hour—less time than it took to get to the airport! Are we children, unable to wait that long for a drink? Oh, are we children, playing make believe, playing house in the flying tin-can? You played many of those games growing up. Here, have some pretzels!
And yet, it is sobering. Like the old plastic phone. We are back in time. The stewardess is in her proper uniform, which so many of us have forgotten could ever be anything besides polo shirts and khaki’s. This is official business. This is serious. They have to be professional, because we’re putting our lives in their hands, and we haven’t gotten far enough away from it to stop being afraid, just yet. It’s too easy to understand the noise rumbling under our feet. There is a metal shell, and under that, engines. The engines go, and we are higher than a human was made to go. The engines stop, and we won’t be anymore. It’s too simple for comfort.
It’s too absurd. It’s absurd that it’s so small in such a vast space, that humans could be so close in size to something hurtling through the sky by audacity alone. One doesn’t seem to think one should say “it’s too small to go so high”—but, it might rather be built like a sting-ray, rather than a submarine. Submarines go down, and at least we could pretend that a sting-ray would float.
That’s why mild turbulence is good. You are all but blindfolded and thrown in a trunk—your senses are worthless to you. You can’t see, anything but clouds and holy light. You can’t gauge your speed, your destination. You can’t hear anything, besides the engines. No sound of passing objects, no sound of living beings. You can’t feel anything, no rush of wind. You learn to sit straight and use yourself to try to measure velocity and gravity and direction change. When the rumbles come underneath you, less than spring pot-holes, you can pretend there is something solid holding you up. When it leaves, you have nothing.
You can feel the descent before it is announced, with what ever gravimeter your body posseses. We will be heading down. You watch out the peep-hole; the cloud floor is coming closer and closer. You make a bet with yourself that you will be able to feel when the plane hits the clouds, and you’re right. You descend into the clouds like rising fog after a rain, and in the shadows of the mist, you can’t help but looking for dancing dervishes, for otherworldly vermin. But you have passed through those fingers of between-worlds, and it is all grey again. Grey and getting darker, and darker. The cabin is enveloped in gloom again, away from the brilliant light that shines above.
You know you are getting lower. You can feel it. You’re turning, you know it. But everything is grey. There is supposed to be a city under you, but you can’t see it. They say they can fly by instruments, land by instruments. Where is the ground? It is time to imagine the captain. Imagine him a very clever, brave fellow, very talented, very experienced, of course. Of course.
You seem to come out of the grey around the same time the trees come up—you are already lined up with the runway—nearly touching down already. No one told you to brace for impact, but how can you not? Here comes the ground!
There is not so very much impact so much as a very bad case of road rash, but it is comforting to see that, surprisingly, the submarine can slow down rather rapidly after all, even when it hits the ground on purpose. The grey is gone—well, above you now, anyway—and the very, very, very clever captain is taxing to his destination.
This plane—this whole contraption—it’s moving, you know. The people on the ground seem to not comprehend this. They’re too close. They’re right by the wings. Is that—isn’t that a refueling station? It’s too close! But he parks the whole silly van, perfectly fitting without an error of more than a foot from wing tip to wing tip, easy.
The entire cabin breaths a collective sigh of relief. Because now we can use our cellphones again. Instantly, everyone dives for their handheld devices, restoring their deprived lifestream. We file out of the archaic machine and find our luggage. We are back to the land we know: fast food; internet; talking loudly on cell phones; impatient lines; computer screens and overhead announcements. Much better, naturally.