By G.D. Maxwell
Having once stepped foot on a commercial airline this summer and survived, I am now left to ponder the unpleasantness of what can only be described as a daunting, unprecedented future. Im going to have to do it two more times in such rapid succession unpacking hardly makes any sense. Well, except for the fact that one flight is taking me skiing in Argentina and the other is heading to a competitive sweating contest in New Orleans in July, two trips calling for significantly different wardrobes.
Other than finally getting to where youre going faster than you could get there any other way, flying has absolutely no redeeming features. Line-ups that would make a banker blush, delays and pointless waiting around time that would make a doctor apologetic, boorish fellow passengers trying to shoehorn steamer trunks into overhead baggage compartments, food when you get it that makes you wish you could swap it for a handful of half-ounce bags of stale pretzels, missed connections and, of course, the ever-present spectre of death lurking just around the corner.
Ill admit it; I cant get on a plane without pondering a morbid thought or two. Who can? I mean one of the first things youre faced with after you settle into your seat is the Safety Lecture. Initially they lull you to sleep showing you how to fasten your seat belt cmon, is there anyone other than the girl raised by wolves who doesnt know how to put on a seat belt by now? and about the time your attention wanders to when theyre going to fire up the bar service, a smiling stu is pointing out the emergency exits and explaining how to rip the cushion off your seat and wear it as a life preserver if the whole world suddenly gets wet.
I try to avoid all that unpleasantness by losing myself in the well-thumbed magazine stashed behind the seat in front of me. It doesnt help when, three pages into it, there are two different ads for Emergency Smoke Hoods No Airline Passenger Should Be Without! Judging from the picture and text, when your plane fills with smoke, you whip one of these nifty devices out, slip it over your head and breathe filtered air instead of toxic smoke.
I figure there are really only three reasons a plane would fill with smoke: Youre flying in Turkey and everybodys smoking acrid cigarettes; the plane, having caught fire is about to crash; the planes already crashed and 7,000 gallons of jet fuel is creating a pretty good imitation of Hell around you.
I dont think Id want to wear an Emergency Smoke Hood on a Turkish flight. It looks uncomfortably like a dry cleaners plastic bag and it would give all the Turks yet another reason to make fun of me. And Im not particularly sure Id care if I still had to option of breathing filtered air after the rest of my body had been turned into Cream of People soup and/or was being roasted to a crispy turn.
This is not to say I dwell on death while I fly. I really dont give it much consideration. Its more like a nagging thought, like something I know I forgot to do but exactly what it is escapes me. The possibility of death has never kept me from flying.
It has kept me away from several other things. I know death is inevitable and I know once Im dead, nothing about how it happened will matter. But Ive always been keenly aware of a short list of ways I really, really dont want to die. Theyre just too embarrassing. In the unlikely event there is an afterlife, Id hate to go through it thinking I died in any of the following ways.
1. Skydiving. This is something of a paradox because I find skydiving attractive. Floating through the air, or plummeting to the earth if you prefer, is probably a real rush. I dont think Ill ever find out.
In a quiet corner of my mind, a corner where images from my youth that I dont really believe still linger, this is the scenario I see. Having fallen to my death, I approach the pearly gates of heaven. Saint Peter gazes down his nose at me from above.
"So, lets see. Max, is it? Seems you jumped out of a plane. Is that right?"
"Its the last thing I remember, Sir." hoping an obsequious Sir might tip the scales in my favor.
"Nothing wrong with the plane, was there?"
"Not that I know of, Sir."
"Just jumped out of a perfectly good plane for the heck of it, did we?"
"Seemed like a good idea at the time, Sir."
"You go to Hell. Next."
2. Bungee Jumping. Like skydiving, bungee jumping looks like lots of fun. My problem with bungee jumping is not free falling toward certain doom or even being snapped back up so hard at the end of the cord that Shreddies would stream out my nose. My problem with bungee jumping is math.
As we all know, math is hard. And Im willing to bet it was a hard subject for the 18 year old bungee attendant whos about to calculate my weight, the length of the drop, factor in barometric pressure and decide just exactly where to tie me onto the bungee so that Ill only come within inches of hitting whatever looms below. If you ever decide to bungee jump and the people working there give you the wrong change, forget it.
3. Rock Climbing. Now, rock climbing doesnt scare me. Ive done it a lot, always had fun and never suffered much more than a skinned knee, sore muscles and bruised ego. But avoidance of an embarrassing death influences how I climbed.
Im usually the first one to say, "I think we should rope up." I often say it just as were leaving the car. My feeling is this: What could be more embarrassing than falling to your death with $500 of climbing equipment still in your pack because you didnt "think" you needed to be roped on?
4. Volkswagens. Ive owned lots of VWs. Real ones. Ones with air-cooled engines. I still own one. Ive always known they were deathtraps but Im still willing to run that risk.
What Im not willing to risk is freezing to death in a VW while its stopped in a traffic jam in the middle of winter. Air-cooled Volkswagens dont heat unless theyre moving. Many would argue they dont heat then either but lets not split hairs. Youll mostly always find a sleeping bag in my Volkswagen just to cover this situation. Or in case I go to a drive-in movie.
The list goes on, but some things are just too embarrassing to admit.