A journal of travels

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July 12th, 2010 · No Comments · En Route, Travel Memoir

In this selection from her travel memoir, East, Shelley Buck recalls her first flight across the Atlantic.

The plane out of Los Angeles was packed with returning Scottish tourists. We were all bound for tiny Stansted Airport, outside London. I nestled into my seat, fastening my seatbelt. The upholstery felt scratchy, but that was OK. I was on my way. I tried to talk to my seatmate, but it was difficult. Although we both spoke English, we could not understand one another. I gathered generally that she had been to visit her grandchildren in Los Angeles and was now going home. We took off, and as the plane gained altitude, I looked down at the hills beneath us, still green with winter’s rain. I thought, “I’m going to miss a California summer.”

The plane sped on. Somewhere over upstate New York, a passenger arose. Stiff and robotlike, the man lurched up the aisle and attempted to pry open the door to the pilot’s cabin. His face was gray and puffy, like a zombie’s. Led back to his seat by the flight steward, the zombie refused to sit. He launched himself anew in the direction of the cockpit.

“Won’t somebody help me with this guy? I can’t lay a finger on him,” cried the aircraft’s steward. A bulky red-faced man, who turned out to be a professional wrestler from Los Angeles, speedily obliged. He ferociously muscled the zombie back to his seat and pinned him there.

“Goddamn it,” the wrestler shouted, “I waited all year for this vacation and you’re not going to spoil it for me.’’

A psychologist from Los Angeles in the next row up took all this calmly. “Wasn’t that wonderful how he restrained him with just the right combination of force and gentleness,” the therapist said to his companion. My seatmate said nothing. Most of the passengers said almost nothing. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to jabber and was amazed at their silence.

We made an unscheduled landing in Bangor, Maine. Rotating red lights flashed from police cars waiting on the runway. The crew handed the zombie over. Snow fell vigorously as we took off again. Once aloft, the flight attendant opened a bottle of expensive liqueur and walked the aisle, bending over passengers in each row. “Drambuie?” she queried in an urgent tone, offering to slosh out a cupful.

I asked for an aspirin, too. While most of the passengers aboard opted for tea, I swallowed my tablet, washing it down with the sweet liqueur. I gazed benignly down like a dispassionate conqueror at the frozen gray vastness of Greenland, thirty-five thousand feet below.

A hazy time ensued. Muzzily awakening somewhat later from the half-sleep of transit, I realized the dry aircraft air was no longer searing my throat. In fact, the air now felt quite moist.

Throughout the passenger cabin, water was gathering on the undersides of the overhead storage bins above the seats. Glancing upward, I perceived a cluster of shining globules clinging to the plastic surface above me. These glinted like a fairy crown in the reflected beam of my reading light and swayed slightly as the airplane gently rocked. As I watched, the ceiling began dripping softly. Droplets plunged down gently at uneven intervals on Scots and Californians alike. I smelled wet wool.

Have we sprung a leak? I wondered sleepily. But that seemed unthinkable. The line of thought led all too swiftly to ruptured hulls, passengers sucked through windows, and the silver aircraft tumbling end over end like a lethal spindle to join the Titanic in the icy deeps, below.

I thought of that early air traveler, Icarus son of Daedalus, who dared ascend the skies on wings of waxed-on plumes, and later hurtled toward earth amidst a shroud of loosened feathers, once the sun had warmed his waxy wings. The Greek word hubris–that headlong overconfidence which precedes a nasty thwacking from the gods–came forcefully to mind. Was I, also, presuming too much, by fleeing Oakland, leaving cat and Volvo to the care of housemates? Would I get my own wings drenched above the shivering surges of the North Atlantic and then endure the ultimate immersion in the company of dour cabinmates? Would anybody even speak on the way down?

I shuddered away from the notion. Surely the ominous dripping must be due to condensation, I told myself. Maybe the air conditioning’s kaput. Or perhaps the plane’s insides are steaming up the way a car does on a frosty morning. Across the aisle, one older lady stoicly unfurled her umbrella to shield against the precipitation.

The flight attendant heaved herself up the aisle again, still proffering the Drambuie bottle, but I spoke no word. I was resigned. I downed the last of my Drambuie, gravely.

And then I must have slept again, for not much later, we were sprinting down a runway in a gray dawn. And not long after that, I stretched out legs grown unfamiliar with disuse, rose clumsily, and stumbled down the aisle toward England.
Excerpted from East, ©Shelley Buck, 2010. Shelley Buck lives in Northern California.

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