Learning to Fly

Amy Roper

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I am afraid of flying. More accurately, I am afraid of falling.

Today, we are flying Southwest, on a Boeing 737, from Salt Lake to Portland. My grandpa spent most of his life as a machinist for Boeing. He was a good man, and good at his job, which should make me trust the planes, but I don’t. After all, he failed to tell his employers that he was blind in one eye, ever since a car accident when he was twenty—a fact I didn’t even learn until just two years ago, when he was ninety-five. But since no one knew about this handicap he was promoted to head foreman and happily continued working on the planes for many years to come.

Still, half-blind machinists can’t entirely be blamed for the 3,839 fatalities in the history of Boeing 737s. Most plane crashes are a result of error on the part of the pilot. The second biggest cause is mechanical failure, and the third is bad weather. Usually though, it takes a striking combination of the three to actually bring down a plane. I don’t know of any planes that have been 30,000 feet up, ceased functioning all at once, and plummeted nose-down, gaining velocity, to fantastic death below—and yet, that’s all that my imagination allows, as I sit here looking warily out the window, slung through the air at 485 miles per hour, in a cramped seat typing on my laptop.

I don’t quite understand how planes work, and what I don’t understand makes me nervous. Yes, someone can explain to me that as speed increases, pressure decreases; that the wings act as an airfoil and produce lift; that the jet engine creates thrust, and it’s the intense speed of the thing that carries it through; but in the end I’m still left gaping at an enormous hunk of metal that can fly. Recently I had a dream that I was flying like a bird through a desert, thirty feet off the ground, following the contours of the dunes. Suddenly a canyon fell out from beneath me, and in a moment of terror I began to fall. I couldn’t stop the fall—I didn’t understand how I was flying in the first place.

The first time I flew I was eighteen, traveling the same route, Salt Lake to Portland, for my brother’s wedding. I got a window seat over the wing and I was sucked to the window the duration of the flight (one hour, thirty-five minutes), taking pictures of clouds and blue sky and the back of an airplane wing. I think my fellow passengers were amused at my expense, but I was too engrossed by that feeling of being on top of the world to pay attention.

I don’t know what changed since that exciting first trip three and a half years ago, to my fearful ninth trip today. Maybe it’s because teenagers often feel invincible, and I was no exception. Maybe it’s because the more that I have—the happier that I am with life—the more I cling to it, afraid of what I have to lose. I look over at my husband, stereotypically engrossed in a computer game, and wonder if it’s his fault; ever since I married him I’ve been afraid of losing him. Then again, maybe it’s just that death was unknown to me then.

Last year, a well-known man in my hometown, well-respected, involved in his church and community, fell off his roof. He was fifty-seven years old. I was away at BYU and didn’t know about it until my brother mentioned it to me, a few weeks after the fact. The man was working on his roof on a beautiful sunny May afternoon, and several hours later he was found dead on the ground. What was he thinking as he fell? Did he have time to berate himself for a quick, preventable accident, a misstep, a dropping of a tool, a confident reaching out for it, an overreaching, a loss of balance, a shuddering thud on the ground? Did he know it would be his twelve-year-old son who would find him, broken in the grass? It doesn’t matter that I didn’t know him well—I can’t let go of that story. Maybe because true tragedy is when something irreversible happens, something that was preventable. It seems like falling should be preventable.

My dad was also fifty-seven when he fell from a heart attack.

I wonder why the story goes that Adam and Eve fell. It seems like nothing fell before they did. The rain didn’t fall. Instead there was a mist that rose up from the earth to water things, maybe like those built-in sprinklers that suddenly turn on and mist the vegetables in the grocery store. Apparently the forbidden fruit never fell either, otherwise they might have picked it up, ripe and intriguing, from the ground. Adam and Eve were vegetarians, the animals were vegetarians, and really nothing ever died except the vegetation, when something ate it. Until Adam and Eve ate the fruit and suddenly things began to fall: rain, fruit, sweat from Adam’s face. Fifty-seven year old men.

Maybe it was a mistake for me to pick a window seat, on this comfortably empty plane. The distance from the ground is dizzying. I fix my eyes on cars, homes, orchards, hills, watching as each fades from view as we climb ever higher. Why must we climb so high? It seems like we’re always rising, like we can never reach high enough, like we can never bypass that distant blue upness, and yet we never give up. Paranoid, I listen too carefully to the subtle changes in sound from the engine, dreading that heart-stopping silence that means it’s quit. It would be an excruciatingly long fall: just over four minutes, if a person falls at 120 feet per second. The Boeing 737 I’m on falls at about 548 feet per second, taking into account the height and width and volume of the plane, which means it would all be over in approximately one minute. I guess that means when it comes to jumping out or staying put, I’m better off staying on the plane.

Last summer I went on a free-fall ride at an amusement park. It was not amusing. The safe mimic of falling did not quell my fears, but instead was exactly as I had imagined falling feeling; sick, my stomach ten feet ahead, my head oddly disconnected, already tasting the crunch of impact in my mouth. For some reason I don’t imagine a fiery explosion. I don’t imagine the smooth, rolling hills of Idaho, down there, giving way to our impact—I imagine them shiny, harder than steel, the plane simply crumpling against the side, leaving the surface of those hills smooth and unmarred. We would simply disappear from the world, a cold mash of metal nestled in a crevice.

A flight attendant stops by to feed us the requisite snack: cinnamon graham cracker sticks, which I am grateful for since peanuts trigger my gag reflex. I am thirsty and wish the water came before the crackers. I look suspiciously at the flight attendant. She has comforting gray hair in a ponytail and dark lipstick. She seems about the age of the man who fell off the roof. How does she handle this flight, these repeated flights, with no apparent worry? I wonder if she was once afraid of falling, but all the trips have acclimatized her to it. Then again, maybe she isn’t even afraid. Maybe she doesn’t mind vanishing from this world.

Maybe it would be different if I looked up instead of down. I love to climb things: trees, ladders, stairs, hills. I can’t resist the pull to reach the top. Part of it is the exultation of being so high, but I think the biggest factor is the challenge of the climb, the working of my body to reach that seemingly unattainable point. I wonder if that’s what flying is like, when you understand how to do it. I understand climbing, and so I’m not afraid of it. I become so focused in the detail of hand foot hand foot that I fail to realize where I am until I reach the top—and then I look down and I’m sick with fear. I have been officially stuck in at least four trees, on top of the smooth red rocks of southern Utah, and at the top of a fire escape in Walla Walla, Washington. Fortunately none of these resulted in having to call the fire department—I was able to feel my way down, slowly, with careful guidance from friends below.

I am startled, when next I look out the window, to see that the view has changed. We have reached the topmost cloud layer; we are above it. It’s easy to look down now, because the white fluffy ground seems so close, obscuring the long drop of reality. A word pops into my head—“heaven”—which then strikes me as funny, because in the event of a plane crash we would plummet all the way down, only to have to come back up here to heaven, and that seems inefficient. I think about heaven. I wonder if anyone believes in harps or rhymes or sparkling wings any more? I strain my eyes over every bump of cloud, searching for the contents of heaven—the man who fell off his roof, my half-blind grandpa, my grandma who encouraged me to write, my dad, three cats, two dogs, innumerable bunnies—but I can’t find them.

This would be a pretty boring heaven, anyway. That old couple in the seat across from us might enjoy the tranquility of it, but I think even old people tire of tranquility. I suppose if you really wanted to you could sit around and play a harp, but seeing as the temperature of the troposphere is about negative forty degrees your fingers would get rather stiff and cold. Eventually, wouldn’t you get tired of a bland, white-bread heaven? It would just be a colder and whiter version of the Garden of Eden, where nothing fell. Besides, if this were heaven, it would be even easier to fall out of than the Garden of Eden. One misstep, one dropped harp, one overextended hand—

Falling is so easy.

There is something eerie about this place, this white silence where no living creature stirs. I am far too aware of the discord of our 67,000 pound bulk, how unnatural that we have climbed so high, past the highest mountains. I can’t help but think of the Tower of Babel, as all the people work together to build a city into heaven. The Lord sees what they’re doing and notes that “now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” And he confounds and scatters the people. The building doesn’t fall, but it doesn’t keep climbing either. The people simply drift their separate ways, leaving the tower still, crumbling, etched into dust by the wind. The Old Testament has a convenient way of leaving out intentions. Why did they want to reach heaven? Why were they thwarted? Why are we warned from reaching to the heavens?

Eve reached up, climbed into the tree, her eye fixed upward on ripe, smooth skin, the bark scraping her naked limbs, and plucked the fruit. And then they fell.

We sink lower. It is then that I realize that we are moving downward, but we are not falling. We are flying. The Biblical account does not include the Garden of Eden high atop a cliff, and God dropping Adam and Eve, screaming and flailing, from the top. They are simply removed from the garden: meaning what? Perhaps they were given some clothes and gently told to leave, and perhaps they simply walked from the garden, and perhaps they stood at the edge and gazed longingly at what they once had, and then perhaps they pressed forward without looking back. And then perhaps the rain began to fall, and they wondered what it was, and Eve’s hair went frizzy and they both got colds shortly thereafter. But they didn’t disappear, they simply lived somewhere else, a different life, outside the garden of Eden. Perhaps falling merely takes us to different places; it doesn’t extinguish us.

The announcement jumps over the loudspeaker that it is overcast and drizzling in Portland, 38 degrees. It’s nearly time to put away our electronics. Soon we will be solidly on wet gray cement, a little above sea level. As we descend, I marvel at the variance of the clouds; at times I see nothing but white fog, spotted with gray. Then we break through and we are between layers, a thin mist above, a darker platform below. The darker platform becomes an intricate stack of white, whitish-gray, gray, grayish-black, layered thinly like a flaky crust. The variance of color, the layers and angles are as beautiful as a rainbow. We emerge from the fog directly to the runway; a landing that startles me with its gentleness.

I have survived another flight. From the ground, I search upward, looking for that grayscale rainbow of clouds, but I am disappointed to see instead a gray, perspiring, impenetrable ceiling.