This summer my family took a cross-country trip. No, not in a car, silly. We Moores develop homicidal tendencies when we spend too much time (that is, anything longer than 30 minutes) in the car together, which means we are not getting-there-is-halfthe- fun people. We are the opposite. We would give getting-there-is-half-the-fun people wedgies, but that would mean slowing down as we blow by them in the passing lane, which just ain’t happening. There is point A, and there is point B, and everything in between is just busy work.
Which is all just a long-winded way of saying that our cross-country travel was on an airplane. We were wheels-up just after sunrise on a scorching June morning. Sam, my eleven-year-old son, gripped my hand during taxi. “I’m excited about this trip,” he said, “but I still get nervous about flying.”
Oh, sure. I have talked to Sam about all the reasons why flying is so safe. About how we are in much more danger in the car on the way to the airport than we are when we are on the plane. About how you are more likely to get struck by lightning or attacked by a shark or win the lottery than you are to be in an airplane crash. But I also know that none of this matters when it comes to being a nervous flyer.
Quick biology lesson: Humans are not birds. Ground-dwelling is encoded in our most fundamental evolutionary programming. To be untethered can be thrilling, but it is most definitely not a part of the natural human condition. Every time I’m on a plane and it tips up from the runway to be accepted into the air, I feel a tugging in my deepest gut. My umbilical cord to Mother Earth Being plucked. Like any other child, separation anxiety makes me nervous.
I’ve spent years as a very nervous flyer. I still hate turbulence, or when a flight is delayed for technical issues, or when I peek at the weather radar before I leave for the airport and see red and yellow blobs painting my flight path.
I tried to defeat my anxiety with knowledge. I studied up on the physics of flight. I read articles and watched television shows and even studied a Planes Go Zoom! Board book. I learned there is something called “fluid mechanics,” which, it turns out, does not refer to in-flight highballs engineered to settle the nerves. I learned that there are people called aeronautical engineers who use the terms thrust and drag without cracking up into adolescent giggles. I never did grasp how a plane flies, but I found many more ways to imagine a plane falling out of the sky.
Turns out, my failure to understand what makes planes go zoom is not because my brain is the intellectual equivalent of a rubber-band-powered propeller. The invocation of equations and diagrams and esoteric nomenclature is just an elaborate smokescreen concocted to mask a secret, a secret I am about to reveal on this page for the very first time.
Flying is magic.
At eleven, Sam is in that bothersome life stage in between young childhood where everything is magic, and parenthood, where magic is reintroduced after a dull stretch of reality-based years, so I can’t address this secret to him directly. Instead, I hope to show him through the window.
The United States of America unfolds across the hours, its geographical narrative scrolling by 35,000 feet below. The mountains of Virginia and West Virginia, gentle and rhythmic as ocean swells, tipped in mists white as sea foam. The north-south artery of The Mississippi River, swollen brown with recent rains, dotted with barges. The vastness of the Great Plains, the world’s breadbasket, apportioned in geographic regularity across ten states, and westerly-bounded by the brutal beauty of the Rocky Mountains, still lashed with snow late into June. Beyond the Rocky Mountains, the Columbia Plateau, with its eponymous river stitching a turquoise seam across the northwest.
And if the United States revealed in all its stunning expanse is not powerful enough to soothe a nervous flyer, then what about the clouds? How often have I stood with my children, rooted in our native terra firma, craning our necks at the fantasy shapes of the clouds, so far above, so distant and dreamy? Thanks to the magic of flight, here we are, in the heart of the dream. The protean and ever-changing dream. Here are clouds like puffballs bobbing along. Over there, a mile-high river of mist sweeping past. Later on, they rise up in great purpled columns, wreathed in lightning. Sometimes they are fine as powdered sugar scattered across the sky. And sometimes they are a solid cap on the world below, vast and featureless as an ocean.
We don’t need no stinkin’ in-flight movie.
So don’t worry, Sam. It’s okay to be nervous. The butterflies are just a reminder that you are bumping up against something awesome, and that awesomeness will displace any momentary take-off anxiety. Just look out the window with me for a while and you’ll see what I mean.
And, of course, I will always be happy to hold your hand.
Chris Moore lives in the West End with his wife and two sons. He is currently working on a comforting board book called Planes Go Crash.