Thursday, June 05, 2008

What Goes Up

I love flying, but I don't do it often. Whenever I do I have to wonder how many times a pilot takes off before, if ever, he loses that sense of wonder when the bulky, trundling can he's controlling impossibly breaks free of the ground. I am always a little apprehensive, a little giddy. And I always think of this poem by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.:

High Flight
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
My layover on the way to Kansas City is in Vegas, and I have to stop for a moment in the accordioned tube and breathe the desert in. To stand at the window (conspicuously wrapped in a huge gray sweater; I am always cold in airports) and look out across the tarmac at the palms and the marbled stone peaks at the western edge of the city. I have to stuff a $5 bill in a slot machine but I seem not to have inherited Dad's luck, or rather, his patience. I got his love of Las Vegas, the look and feel and energy of it, and that's enough.

Flying away from Vegas with the sunburned, hearty tourists, I look down and recognize the toothy rim of the Grand Canyon. The woman behind me orders an overpriced Bloody Mary; when it arrives I can smell the tomato and vodka in the confined space and decide that flying is a very intimate, ceremonial activity, a communion of ginger ale and peanuts instead of wine and wafers and the requisite Sermon of In-Flight Safety. If this plane goes down, I'll die with this stranger's knee touching mine.

The decidedly non-clerical Southwest staff is getting ever more saucy. After reciting the Seatbelt Psalm, our pretty crew chief rhymes, "Give your neighbor a hug and your seatbelt a tug, this Boeing is going!" She thanks everyone who listened to her spiel and wishes everyone who didn't good luck, which makes several people chuckle. On
one of the flights on my way home I'll encounter a flight attendant who was simply born to do this job, a gently flamboyant gay man who looks like a short, pudgy Clinton Kelly. He's efficient and firm and politely detached, even with the 10-year-old triplets from hell who are flying alone to Utah to see Grandma (they beg for extra Cheese Nips and continually push the call button, and I want to strangle them for him), and yet somehow he makes the passengers feel as if our comfort is his highest priority. He's entertaining and gracious even as his eyes betray intense concentration on the tasks at hand, and I enjoy watching him treat the female crew members with an offhand affection and respect they obviously appreciate.

Flying over the lower Rockies I see dirty cakes of snow still clinging between the peaks, bleeding cold rivers that spill onto the plains in dirty streaks. In the foothills are the puncture wounds and flat, bare scars of oil wells; I know these. The sheer number of them boggles the mind and I'm convinced if I connected the dots I'd get the word "greed." Onward, over the prairie, over the plains and polka dot fields in various shades of green growth or blandly fallow. In one place there are small, puffy clouds that seem to be entertaining themselves by casting shaped shadows on the earth as they scoot overhead, like a toddler pleased with the effect of his fingers in a flashlight's beam.

Our tailwind gets us there 30 minutes early, but we spend it on the tarmac waiting for an available gate. It makes people restless, and just like in church, they squirm and fuss impatiently and irreverently and I remember why flying, like organized religion, has the ability to make me utterly miserable.

But still I love it, if only for the moment when gravity gives up to the whining Pratt & Whitney turbines and roughly 50 tons of fully loaded 737 follows its fuselage into the sky. I love waiting for the momentary sag, the audible sigh of the engines when the aircraft reaches its cruising height. I love the sudden sense of lightness when it begins the drop back down to earth. I love the bump and the sheer, shrieking physics of stopping the thing once it's back on the ground, hurtling down the runway as if pursued. And I love the tense moment right before the choreographed orchestra of clicking seatbelts and sudden bustle after the final chime. I even love stumbling stiffly up the stupid tube.

But the best part of flying is, of course, whoever is waiting at the other end.


Blogger mister anchovy said...

The late Utah Phillips, who I wrote about recently over at my blog, once said that the fact that airplanes fly is an act of collective will. Any fool knows they're heavier than air and can't possibly stay up. He suggested that the reason crashes happen is that somebody looks up from their in-flight magazine, looks out the window and says Oh My God, this thing's heavier than air. This breaks the collective will, and down it goes.

June 11, 2008 at 3:34 PM  
Blogger A said...

This is scary because it's possible.

June 15, 2008 at 8:17 PM  

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