The Plane Truth

In At This Point by Stephanie Piperleave a COMMENT

It was six planes in three days, a business trip that took me north and east and through miles of security lines and moving sidewalks and baggage-claim areas. I returned a lot of seat backs and tray tables to their upright and locked positions. I opened a lot of overhead bins with caution, as items tend to shift during flight. I memorized several airline magazines. I chewed a lot of gum.

I am old enough to remember when air travel was still an adventure. People dressed up for a plane trip as though it was a special occasion, men in suits, women in hats and gloves, children in their Sunday best. Maybe it was the church clothes that made everyone seem quiet and considerate.

Nowadays, not so much. Any sense of occasion vanished years ago, along with those little ashtrays in the armrests and the chicken Kiev served on partitioned plates. It’s not that people are rude, exactly. It’s just a general air of indifference, a sort of who-cares nonchalance reflected in travel wardrobes that feature pajama bottoms and flip-flops and the BYO snacks of takeout pepperoni pizza.

In the chilly corridors of terminals, passengers hurtle along as though pursued. To pass the time on my recent journey, I began to count the number of smiling faces. My three-day total was five, and four of those were toddlers. I was reminded of the playwright Sarah Ruhl’s observation about people in airports: that they look as though they have left their souls behind, and are waiting for them to catch up. Even the folksy addition of rocking chairs doesn’t do much to soften the fluorescent glare. Hemmed in on all sides by overpriced gewgaws and a dizzying array of junk food, it’s hard to feel anything but transient, rattled, and displaced.

I was 17 when I boarded my first plane, a small regional jet from Virginia to New York. My mother had fallen ill during our college visiting tour, and we had to return home quickly. Despite the worrying circumstances, I remember the thrill of settling in the plush seat, peering out the window at the Blue Ridge Mountains rising before us. The stewardess looked like a Piedmont Airlines poster girl, perfectly coiffed and dressed in a navy suit with brass buttons and a smart little pillbox hat. She brought my mother a martini and a Coke for me and chatted to us in a soft Southern accent. Then the engines revved up and we soared. The Earth fell away. It felt like magic, or a miracle.

I’ve flown hundreds of times since then, logged my share of frequent-flier miles in big planes and small. Each time, I wish for the excitement of that maiden flight, the rushing liftoff, the other-worldly vistas of clouds.

The closest I have come was on this last trip. One leg was on a tiny Cessna nine-seater, bound for the very tip of Cape Cod. Gliding over the water in a blue haze that felt like an approach to heaven, I saw the white plumes of whales spouting below. My seat was right behind the pilot, a serene man who introduced himself as Captain Mario. He makes this 28-minute flight several times a day, ferrying passengers from Boston to an airport the size of a beach cottage. I wanted to ask him if it ever grows old, the sweep of ocean, the sense of something holy in the surrounding sky.

Captain Mario touched down gently on the runway between the sand dunes. A man in the seat beside me made the sign of the cross.

Maybe he was just another nervous flier. Or maybe it was his soul, catching up at last.

Stephanie Piper's At This Point examines the mystery, absurdity, and persistent beauty of daily life. She has been a newspaper reporter, editor, and award-winning columnist for more than 30 years. Her Midpoint column appeared monthly in Metro Pulse from 1997 until 2014.

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