Scott Saalman essay: Learning To Fly, plus live reading on Public Radio WNIN 88.3

Learning To Fly

My great-great uncle, Joe Reed, was a wing walker in the 1920s.

He also did loop-the-loops, barrel rolls and hung from the plane’s axles.

Uncle Joe was clearly insane.

It’s ironic to have an ancestor whose bravery sent him walking on the wings of planes while I’ve been held hostage to a fear of flying for most of my life.

I had flown, though never comfortably—and for work only. Once, I actually bailed out of an overseas business flight the day before takeoff, overcome with anxiety-induced, full-bodied hives and vomiting.

I let folks down. I let myself down.

I have faced this fear head on ever since.

Two falls ago, on a work trip, I actually mustered enough courage to stand from my seat while in midflight, unprecedented for me—calls of nature be damned—always certain that I was the only thing providing proper balance to the plane, remaining rigid in my seat, in full clinch mode—anything anatomically designed to tighten tightened… hands…jaws…never mind. I became a human bolt, as if put there by Boeing.

At 34,000 feet, between San Francisco and Seattle, I somehow wobbled my way to the rear restroom, careening off aisle seats like a pinball.

Airlines do a great job of warning passengers what to do during emergencies. They do not, however, warn first-time restroom users about the startling sound an airplane toilet makes. I was not prepared for the sudden violence of a flushed vacuum toilet. It was like another jet engine had fired up. Surely, this wicked whoosh is the first noise one hears before plummeting into the throes of hell.

I braced my hands against the walls of the restroom to secure myself against the powerful suction. I expected the door to burst inward and be sucked down the toilet, followed by a beverage cart, and a still calm-faced stewardess gripping the cart, and a passenger clinging to the stewardess’ ankles, and another passenger gripping that person’s ankles, and so and so on, a human chain, like that barrel of monkeys game, until the last thing I see is the captain’s cap pause in midair over the bowl, do a perfect pirouette and disappear with a blur into the doomed plane’s bowels. (The only people not flushed away being the folks in first class, for they had already been launched to safety in their individual escape pods, nibbling on beluga bits and sipping chardonnay, never thinking twice about my flush that had brought down their plane.)

When the toilet silenced and I unsecured my palms from the walls, I returned to my seat with a bit more surety in my stride. I wanted to shout, “I’m the king of the world” after achieving the personal goal of walking on a moving plane and going to the bathroom—in the bathroom.

My momentous West Coast trip, involving six flights, did come with some mental turbulence.

After takeoff from Louisville, the first song on my mp3 player was “One Less Set of Footsteps,” by Jim Croce. I turned off my Shuffle. (Croce’s plane crashed in 1973.)

In a holding pattern over Phoenix, reading “Nashville Chrome,” by Rick Bass, I came upon this passage, “…Patsy Cline’s plane tumbling from the sky, Buddy Holly’s likewise…” I switched to Sky Mall magazine instead.

In a hotel room, while watching the World Series, the winner of the 2010 Roberto Clemente Award was announced. (Clemente’s plane crashed in 1972.) I turned off the TV, knowing I would be flying home the next day, not caring who won the game.

At lunch in San Francisco, my coworker said he knew someone who dated a well-known rock star long ago: Ritchie Valens. (Valens died with Buddy Holly in 1959.) I could not finish my crab cakes.

Boarding a flight in Seattle, a guy ahead of me wore a concert T-shirt. The band: Lynyrd Skynrd. I kid you not. (Three band members died in a plane crash in 1977.)      Finding my inner “free bird,” I boarded anyway.

Ultimately, I survived.

The trip did wonders for my confidence and helped flush away some fear.

Okay, so I’m no wing-walking Joe Reed. I still get the willies when forced to take the window seat—could the gremlin on the wing in that Twilight Zone classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” be the blame?—but I’m happy to report that since that momentous fall work trip out west, I have landed in such distant lands as Germany, Poland, Ireland, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bangkok and Rome.

I am doing my best to make amends for the tarnish I inflicted on my family’s history of flight, as well as for the people I let down last year (myself included).

I look forward to my next flight.

Things are looking up.

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