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It's Nelly's World

A Wing. And a Prayer

alec vanderboom

Airmen are sexy. They always end up looking like Gary Cooper when they wear their leather flight jackets. This is because they are the sort who look right into the steely eyes of death. And they don't blink either. There is the sense that they can do anything, and running along the narrow edge between life and death, the possible and the impossible, is "anything," all right.

They take a knowledge of science (and you better have a supremely tight grip on aerodynamics and internal combustion, when you're venturing where nature never intended you to be) and marry it with courage. What could give more of a shiver? What could throw a brighter spot on the dark place where sex and death whisper into each other's ears?

They seem to say, Hey! It's all a big crapshoot anyway!
Hand me those dice.

And sometimes they get out alive. There's a picture of my father (not this one)--yes, boyishly handsome in his leather flight jacket, trained as a bombardier, and because he was a college boy, sent out west to train other bombardiers. Instead of overseas to war. He was never sent to unload a bomb over Berlin, or even more thankfully, Nagasaki. No, by chance (or by fate, thinks the person who writes this),
he was kept where he had a far better try at coming back.

His daughter is made of different material: fear, at least when she gets in a plane. Though after years of almost exploding panic (averted only by fervent scribbling in her journal; see next week's blog for more on this), she now has blessed assistance in the form of little blue pills. These are courtesy of the Veterans Administration, as it happens, via a vet who was given far too many. These now enable her to sometimes, incredibly, sleep on a plane. As if she could stay awake. But, as she discovered, an adrenaline rush can all but wake the dead.

Two weeks ago. Returning home. Sitting comfortably, the Airbus ready to throttle up and take us above the Salt Lake airport. The pill has been taken, is doing its work. Then it comes. My son, in the window seat, looks up suddenly from his book. "Mom, can I tell the future?"

The heat--or is it a chill--geysers up from my feet to engulf
my head. Dead fear pinions the gut. My words come out half-strangled; I have to get them out quickly, before he says any more, because I know what he is going to say, and maybe if he says it, it will happen. "No, honey, probably not." I think to say "probably" because I need to at once tell the truth, and what I hope to be the truth. "Good," he replies. "'Cause I don't want what I saw to happen."

Oh, god. I reach for another half pill. There is nothing else to do. We are tied here, to whatever might happen. Whatever will. And then, for one small second, a calm thought slides by before going out the window into the rushing air: If it's going to happen, it's going to happen, and that's all right. Then it'll be over. At least we're together.

When the second leg of our journey is finally over, and our plane lets down in the dusk of Albany onto a snow-covered runway, prompting a round of applause from the cabin, I turn to him again. "Now can you tell me what it was you thought would happen?"

"I had a bad feeling about that flight. I thought we were going to, you know, crash."

This incident has caused me to hold in the forefront of my mind the realization that fears are not the same thing as destiny. Sometimes they might be, but what makes them
so is just luck.

This week, in the icy Hudson after a jet had improbably, impossibly, ditched there, fears became reality, but also did not. I don't know what to think, or what to take away. I stare at the picture in the paper. Relief. Appreciation for the cool skills of airmen, their nose-thumb to the greatest dangers of them all. And renewed belief that the future is, thank heaven, not ours to know.