Learning To Fly
Sitting outside Southwest Florida Regional Airport Terminal A watching the sun fall over the near-distant Gulf, a thought ran through my head: ‘I love airports.’ As suddenly as I heard that sentence in my head, I thought, ‘On the way down here you thought airports were the most lonesome places on earth.’ Could it be both?
My parents took Chris and I to see the first-ever IMax, “To Fly,” at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC, at an age just prior to memory. Which is to say, I remember going, and seeing a biplane barnstorming fields of wheat at sunset, but I don’t know how old I was, or exactly what I thought. I know in my deepest tissue memory, though, that I was fascinated and exhilerated.
We also frequented a place near Washington National Airport called (or at least we called it) Roache’s Run. It was a rocky spot on the Potomac just below the runway. Huge silver jets roared so close overhead that it seemed we could touch them. My brother threw rocks. So impactful is this memory, that I wrote a song in college called “Roache’s Run.”
Here’s a place to go to sit and through rocks into the air
Birds they hide in caves, peel away the cobwebs if you dare
Distance isn’t spared or time that we invented all alone
Voices everywhere are haunting every corner of our home
Even then, almost fifteen years ago, air travel and the parental discord of my youth somehow overlapped.
My parents took Chris and I to see the Concord at Dulles International. Our childhood bedroom was wallpapered with an airplane print, and we hung plastic models by translucent fishing line from the ceiling.
My first flight was from Iowa to Washington, DC, at about three weeks old. My grandmother told my mother afterwards that, even if I cried the rest of my days, my golden silence on that trip was a blessing.
I loved to fly.
When I was nine-years-old, though, flying turned darker. I was flying back to Chicago from my mother’s temporary residence in DC. I was handed off from my mom to a stewardess (she was a brunette — I remember her well), and seated — complimentary pilot wings pinned to my sweater — at a window near the front. When I saw my mother waving from the terminal, I began sobbing uncontrollably. The shocked businessman in the center summonsed the flight attendant who tried to calm me. I wanted to get off the plane and run back into her arms, but the doors closed, and the plane backed onto the tarmac.
For the next ten years or so, Chris and I shuttled between the East Coast and the Midwest frequently, mostly by air. I began listening to The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ during takeoff (before headphones were illegal). The excitement was gone. It became a sad process that always underscored the distance between me, my bother, and my parents.
Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before.
It was in the gift shop at O’Hare that I first picked up a copy of Rolling Stone. Michael Jackson was on the cover. That’s where the rocknroll fantasy began. Rock stars sat on couches and talked about their trouble youth. They made records — and earned millions — communicating their adolescent pains with cryptic, poetic lyrics. It was just the ticked.
Fast forward to 1999. I’m at San Francisco International Airport. It is a massive, soaring affair, all blue glass and brushed steel. Pale white runways stretch into the distance. The Bay glistens at the edges, bracketed by lush green hills. Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ is on my Walkman. I think to myself, ‘This is perfect airport music.’ It is the soundtrack of our anonymous, alienating modernity. It fit.
I wrote the song “Crash Site” sometime that fall. I’m not sure how the plane crash/divorce metaphor struck me, exactly. I’d been having plane crash dreams over and over, night after night: I was on board, then I was a nearby spectator, it was a commercial jet, then a military jet — didn’t matter. I knew they were going down every time, and often said so within the dream itself.
Chapter thirteen coming close I feel it heading down
Bruised and battered nothing mattered scattered on the ground
Soon enough, though, the dreams began to subside. First I walked away unscathed, then they began to land safely, then I just wasn’t flying at all.
I spent much of last year shuttling between LA and NYC on the Sunday night red eye. I loved watching the sun set over the Pacific, boarding the plane, falling asleep, and waking as the sun rose over New York City in time for work. I related this miracle numerous times on stage, then wrote about it on ‘New York.’
Now the sunlight’s creeping into the window of the plane
In 30,000 feet more I’ll be back home again
And I feel myself descending and I feel it sinking in
In 30,000 feet more I’ll be on my feet again
Still, Friday morning as I sat in the jetBlue terminal at JFK awaiting my Ft. Meyers departure, I put ‘OK Computer’ on my iPod, and thought, ‘Airports are the most lonesome places on earth.’
And now, in 18-minutes, I board my flight back to New York. How do I feel now, seated at a small table near the Budweiser stand finishing a seven dollar pint of Sam Adams?
My cursor flashes, I rub my stubly chin and think a minute…
I feel all of the above.