Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Fear of Flying, or Me & Chuck Berry in the Sky

I am flying to New Orleans on Thursday for my nephew Jack's wedding. At this point in my life I am more worried about handling all of my medical problems while away than I am about the flying itself. Unfortunately, this was not always the case.

When I was growing up my mother was absolutely terrified of flying. She studied and regurgitated for all of us every plane crash and loss of lives onboard. So by the time I was ready to take my first plane ride, I too was terrified.  I was a teenager. It was 1964. I did, however, realize that I was going to have to be able to fly or be seriously handicapped by the time I was ready to leave for college. I was flying to Dayton, Ohio, alone.  Such a short ride meant no jet but a turboprop plane instead.  These planes are not smooth rides.

Added to this plight was that I had always suffered from motion sickness. I could only ride in back seats of cars for very short drives. As a family we had learned the hard way that putting me in the back seat for a road trip caused me violent motion sickness. My first experience of this was as we were riding through the hilly terrain of West Virginia with me in the back seat. Then I tried boats. If I had thought car sickness was bad, it could not hold a candle to seasickness. Of particular irony was that my father's family tree, going back to the 1600s and hanging on the wall of our living room, showed all these sea captains who regularly crossed the Atlantic from England to Boston. I had not inherited their sea legs. If I went to an amusement park with rides, it was guaranteed that I would end up at the First Aid station. I got used to taking the Haunted House Ride and little else to avoid that pit stop.

So I got on this plane to Dayton with every expectation that it would be my first plane ride from hell. At least I knew this going in but the person slated to be my seat companion did not see anything but a high schooler seated there as he came onboard. This was Chuck Berry, the rock and roll legend, who was also flying to his next gig in Dayton. He took the seat opposite me. He introduced himself to me as the plane took off with "Hello, I'm Chuck Berry." Needless to say, as we were leaving the ground and hurtling through the air on my first ever ride, with me expecting to crash at any moment, he could have announced he was a Beatle, or all four Beatles, and I wouldn't have paid him any attention.

As the plane leveled off he repeated it again, introducing himself again as Chuck Berry. This time I could at least manage to process that someone was speaking to me, introducing himself and expecting a response. My father was a New Englander and manners were drilled into us daily so I belatedly realized I was being rude. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Berry. My name is Carol," I replied.  He looked at me again and I could see that had not done it. I wasn't feeling very well by now.  I was getting hotter by the minute and my stomach was rolling over again and again. But he was clearly upset about something and waiting for more of a response from me.  Since I had two very professionally focused parents, my natural thought about an adult being upset with insufficient attention being paid to him, was that I had not paid him sufficient professional respect.  Had I neglected using a professional title? So I could only add, "And what do you do, Mr. Berry?"

I could tell at once that was the wrong thing to say because not only did his face fall but he was suddenly rooting around in his bag and pulling out program after program.  These were all programs sold at all of his concerts that he was holding up in front me of me.  I could barely focus as I now realized I was in the full throes of motion sickness and was going to do my usual, throw up. Fortunately, I had spotted the air sickness bags when I first came on board and already had them to hand.

"Mr. Berry," I said, "would you please call the stewardess.  I think I'm about to be very sick."  And with that I was using the bags clenched in my hands. He was up like a shot and within a few seconds the stewardess was there helping me, making sure I had enough bags, handing me ginger ale and a cold, wet cloth. He was more upset than I was and as I started to get better she turned her attention to him. As we flew the remaining short distance into Dayton, she sat opposite me and next to him making all the appropriate oohs and ahs to his programs and such. I thankfully was now wholly ignored which was fine by me. I am sure that in 1964 with America's teenagers consumed by Beatlemania that Chuck Berry had every reason in the world to feel insecure about his continued longevity in the music business. Fortunately, long range for him he did endure and Beatlemania did not finish him off.

I gradually improved on flying, especially if I took some valium well before take off. In later years I have not even needed that. My mother never improved. I was flying with her to a convention in New Orleans in the 1980s. She was barely holding it together when the cabin crew announced that we had to land at a nearby airport as we were having problems with one engine and needed to get checked out on the ground.  With that my mother completely lost it but, incredibly enough, turned out to be sitting near a psychiatrist from Cleveland who moved up to help calm her down. I moved back so he and I could switch seats.

My new seat mate was a salesman who was incredibly pissed off because he was going to miss his business meeting in New Orleans. He would have preferred to just keep flying in with the other engine. I told him I would like to arrive in one piece. He saw I was not doing so well at that point, realized it was my mother who was going nuts up ahead, and started telling me a story.

He had a friend who was also a traveling salesman who was terrified of flying but had to fly all of the time.  His only solution was to get absolutely plastered with alcohol before he got on the plane and continue drinking while on board. He could barely get off the plane upon arrival.
"Did he ever get any better?" I asked.
"Oh, no, he died."
Oh my God, "He actually died on one of these plane trips?! It crashed?!"
"Oh, no, he died in a car crash. He had become a terrible alcoholic from all of those flights and was driving drunk."

Probably no other story could have brought home the futility to me of worrying about the plane crashing. This story ended my having to take valium on airline flights. I have never gotten sick on a flight since or needed a drink or a pill.

I think I cannot probably outdo these flying escapades in my upcoming trip. I am more worried about making it through the airports with my diminished hearing ability, my vision problems and my cartilage deprived knees. If I am wrong about this, stay tuned for that new escapade, which of course will be related here.

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