Nothing scares me like flying. Whenever I board a plane, images of flaming balls of carnage go through my mental highlight reel until I convince myself that I’m on the bus. That’s right. . .the bus. I pretend I’m on the Damen bus and everyone just smells a little better. I pretend I can turn around and see the lady who spits in her purse, who rides the Damen bus most days and the guy who tries to sell me gold chains. Thirty-five thousand feet up in the air, I’m a pussy. Every bump, knock and change in altitude freaks me out.
I was captivated last year by the pilot who put down a plane in the Hudson without crashing it. Captain Sullenburger, or “Sully,” as every media dick-pin labled him. It was an incredible feat that could’ve gone way wrong if not for Captain Sullenberger’s able and composed professionalism and skill-set.
In the days following this event, he was, reluctantly, interviewed many times and he seemed like a quietly dignified man who was not used to the spotlight or idiotic questions. The worst of these interviews was by Katie Couric who asked Captain Sullenburger if he “prayed while the plane was going down.” The captain very evenly replied that he was busy trying to land a plane in water and didn’t have time for praying. I’ll never forget the look he gave Katie Couric as she lamely tried to amp-up an already remarkable story.
Fighter pilots always fascinated me as a kid. It combined flying a plane and trying not to get shot out of the sky. The great Chicago photographer, Art Shay, flew several missions in WWII with Captain Jimmy Stewart, the actor. . .and bonafide war hero. I cannot imagine flying in a sky full of schrapnel, flying bullets and tracers. Those men were and are special.
The other day was the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. A great many survivors of that sad day showed up in Hawaii to remember their fellow sailors and soldiers that perished that awful day. I always think of my father on that day, the fathers of many of my friends, my uncles and the few million other 18-year-olds who went to the Pacific and Europe and saved the world. Guys who, in some cases, had never owned an automobile, flying fighter planes and enduring some of the highest casualty rates in the history of warfare. I think of those people a bit more now.
I hear veterans and soldiers say, “Freedom isn’t free.” Now I know what this statement means. It isn’t empty rhetoric. I’ve been able to live a life, free to say and do what I want, because a lot of other people paid the price. When you see one of those old guys with the V.F.W. hats or pins, thank him, or her, for your freedom.
I never go to the Air and Water Show on Chicago’s lakefront every year. I always have a sick feeling something could go wrong. The Blue Angels are amazing airmen and hearing those fighter jets out doing drills over the lake is awe-inspiring, but it still gives me the willies. Every once in a while the news will have video from an air-show gone bad (usually wing-walkers or prop-job acrobats) and there is, preserved on video, the inevitable ball of flame and emergency vehicles rushing toward the carnage. No thanks.
Some years ago, I visited the outer-banks of North Carolina and went to Kitty Hawk, where manned flight started roughly a century ago. It is just sand and water. . .not much else; and overhead, all day long, jumbo jets zip back and forth, criss-crossing the sky. It is then you realize what a hurry the world has been in getting from there to here. . . to and from. . . and at Kitty Hawk, there are a hundred years of echoes.