Thursday, January 12, 2012

turbulence: the near death experience experiment

While returning home from a trip to South Africa my plane enroute from Johannesburg to Dakar encountered the kind of turbulence I had previously deemed mythical. Driven to pure panic I wanted only one thing, to tell everyone I could how much I loved them.

The bumps were nothing short of normal at first. We had spent an hour parked on the runway waiting for a storm to pass but it was clear we were now in it. Not yet over 10,000 feet if I turned to see either wing through the windows I would catch glimpses of lightning.

I was worried but not frightened.

Then the bumps became crashes. Not in the sense that we were hitting anything, just in the sense that it felt like we were. I was ripped up from my seat, the free falls started to last far too long and the luggage fell from above.

The cabin became a hurricane of anything not belted down. The jerks, crashes, falls continued over and over.
Along with screams came rising chants of prayer, cries and hysteria.

Calm was abandoned. The man next to me, who was traveling alone, was in tears.

We were alone in the night with the lightning. I tried to prepare myself to die.

The back of my remote was a phone, the kind with the credit card reader. I was fumbling with it trying to figure out how to get it to work. If I had one phone call right then it would be to my brother Peter. I don't know why exactly but at that moment I needed to know I was calling someone who would pickup without fail and who could hold it together long enough for me to handle business. The business of relaying my absolute love to a list of people most importantly my father.

The phone idea didn't work and I dropped it from my shaking hands and joined the screams in the cabin as the plane yanked and banked, fell and thrashed.

I confess I didn't pray. They say there are no atheists in fox holes, so apparently divine inspiration isn't airborne.

The last thing I had done on land was trap my boyfriend into a very long and ridiculous session of public affection. It was the kind of kissing that caught stares in the airport terminal. He was waiting for another plane. I was so thankful he wasn't going down with me. I'm enough of a train wreck to be a plane crash too.

I thought of all the things I had done alone, at least this time someone would be able to say I was happy up until the very end.

I recently had a thought of someone going through my bookshelf after my death. It was from the words of Peter Hitchens on his brother Christopher's passing weeks before. These thoughts didn't reach me on the plane but I was certain I had told people I loved them when we last spoke, I was hoping they really believed it.

All of you believe it, I beg you. I probably won't let you forget it now. That was it. That was what I wanted when I was certain I was done, do they believe I love them? I hoped so with all my heart.

It was right when I was reaching the conclusion that the only regret left by my death was the thought of the people I cared about not knowing what they meant to me that the plane started to act relatively normal.

While the chaos ensued not one mention had been made by the crew. Which contributed greatly to my panic. Not hearing from the pilot that it was under control made me sure it was over.

But now, he was speaking, joking, saying he wasn't charging for the roller coaster ride.

The smell of vomit lingered. My hands shook and sweat rolled off of me.

Ten minutes later the drinks started pouring. I was offered beer to go with my wine, I declined the gracious mercy.

I had seventeen more hours of flying ahead of me before I would be somewhere recognizable.

That was yesterday for me.

Today, after a ten hour rest in my own bed and hours of research into turbulence later I can say I was a fool.

Its incredibly unlikely anything was wrong. While its true that the rare turbulence related crashes occurred in similar conditions, even they belonged to a time of older aircraft and technology.

I was deceived into a near death experience, but it was real enough to have effected the rest of my life.

I am a little more self aware, I hope a lot less foolish and very much alive.


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