I am not a nervous flyer. I love a window seat, and I will not hesitate to lean over and look out of it from 40,000 feet in the air. Bad turbulence makes me mildly nervous for about five seconds, and I am not fond of landings, but that’s the closest I am likely to come to anything remotely resembling fear. If there is an in-flight movie, I’ll buy the headphones and probably fall asleep in the middle of it. I should give classes; I am so serene in an airplane.
There was one time, though, when my normal aerial equilibrium was shaken. I was flying from New York to London, on a then well-known airline which has since gone kaput. I was in the coach section, as was most of my group. I didn’t mind, because I had a window seat (see above).
Everything was fine until we actually got up in the air. I began to feel cold air blowing on my leg. I didn’t think too much about this at first. I am always slow to react to things. My brain, though, is a lot faster than the rest of me. And it was telling me things.
MY BRAIN: That’s cold air coming through the wall. It can only mean one thing.
MY BRAIN: There’s a hole in the plane! Remember Goldfinger? Remember the German guy? The one who shot that teensy hole into the wall then ended up getting his fat ass sucked out of the plane? That’s going to happen to you! You’ll be out in the Stratosphere before you can say, “Oops!” Your lungs will be sucked out of your body, after you freeze up like a Popsicle. Then a long free fall and SPLAT! A humungous belly flop right into the Atlantic Ocean! Then all the other people on the plane will get sucked out and everyone will blame you!
I had to act fast. I called one of the flight attendants, indicating that the need was urgent. He asked me what the trouble was.
ME: I think there’s a hole in the plane.
ATTENDANT: What makes you say that?
ME: Cold air is blowing on my leg. Please, I don’t want us all to get sucked out like Popsicles.
ATTENDANT: I’m sure it’s all right. We still have pressure in the cabin. If there were a hole, we would lose pressure. I’ll try to find out what’s causing the problem. Don’t worry.
I couldn’t help but notice how nonchalant he was as he left to go ask someone about this. Our fates were being held by a hair, and he couldn’t even be bothered to run up the aisle. In the meantime, I took off my shoe and tried to stop the flow of cold air with my big toe, like the little Dutch boy with his finger stuck in the dyke. All I got for this was a frozen toe. After what seemed like 20 hours, the attendant came back.
ATTENDANT: You don’t have to worry. It’s just a little glitch in the air conditioning. It’s nothing major. We are perfectly safe.
He turned to go, but my brain came up with something else.
BRAIN: What if there is air slowly leaking into the plane? You can’t breathe the air up here. Everyone will suffocate and when you land in London this will be nothing but a ghost plane with a bunch of dead people strapped to their seats, all of them turning around and staring at you.
ME: Excuse me, could I ask you one more thing?
ATTENDANT (starting to get annoyed): Yes, Madame?
ME: What if air is leaking in here from outside and we all can’t breathe and end up as ghosts?
ATTENDANT (visibly trying to be patient): Madame, there is no air leaking into here. We are sealed up tight like sardines in a can. Nothing can get in or out of here until we get to London. If you are really worried, I’ll make you an Air Vigilante. Your task will be to guard that cold air stream. If we see you being vacuumed out, we will act immediately to save everyone else and you will be remembered for your great heroics. Now, if you will excuse me, I have other passengers to baby and serve and give therapy to.
He left to go to the rear of the plane, where other attendants were busy preparing a food cart. I leaned back in my seat, feeling really stupid for asking such obviously dumb questions. By this time my leg was really cold from all the air blowing on it. I tried to get comfortable, but I couldn’t. I pressed the overhead button for the attendant. The same one came back.
ATTENDANT: What is it this time? Is there a gremlin on the wing? (He must have been a “Twilight Zone” fan.)
ME: Could I have a blanket, please? I have cold air blowing on my leg.
That did it. He began to shake violently.
ATTENDANT: Madame, in a few hours we will be in London and you will all disembark and go your separate ways. I will be the happiest man on earth, because YOU will get off this plane and I will never see you again. I will give you a lousy blanket. And you know what else? (beginning to cry) I am retiring from this crummy job for good after this flight, and from now on I will travel by boat, railroad, bus or rubber raft – anything but airplanes.
He turned away. I lifted my cold leg and propped my foot against the seat in front of me.