The first time I went up in an airplane it was to attend a funeral in Philadelphia. The person who’d died was my first great love. Shortly before his death I had distanced myself from him in that capricious way young people do when they truly believe that they’ll have the rest of their lives to work things out. I was just shy of twenty-four years old and this was my first and most terrible encounter with regret. I didn’t think there was any way I could attend his funeral; no way I could look into the eyes of our friends and his parents. And worst of all, to see the girl he had taken up with (when he realized that my stupid desire for what I called “freedom” meant that I was out of his reach for the foreseeable future). I wished I was dead instead.
When I was in my early teens, I’d had a premonition that I would die in an airplane crash. It seemed as plausible as any other outcome, especially in my raw, fatalistic mindset, so I decided that if I boarded the People Express to Philly that would be the ticket to permanent escape. Some real Romeo-and-Juliet stuff. The week before I flew, I made quiet arrangements for the care of my dogs, the dispersal of my belongings, and some last words for the people I would surely be leaving behind. I was almost positive that in the grand, sick scheme of things, this was how it was Meant To Be. Grief made me an idiot.
I showed up at Logan in an eerie state of calmness. I spent some of the downtime before my flight watching through one of the great windows as massive aircraft lumbered out on the tarmac, guided in by tiny humans in orange safety gear, backing into their terminal bays like huge, patient draft horses. There was something beautiful about it.
Boarding the plane, I checked the faces of my fellow passengers as I made my way to my seat. Did any of them know this was their final flight? It didn’t look that way. Most of them seemed to be bored. When the flight attendant began her presentation, preparing us for the emergency that I knew was to come, I was the only person who seemed to be paying attention. It’s a lost cause, anyway, lady—we’re goin’ DOWN.
I strapped myself in and leaned back in my seat. I was going to meet my fate and that’s all there was to it. I had my trusty Walkman with me and dug it out of my bag as the little plane made its way to the runway. As we started taxiing with some speed, I hit the “Play” button and the tape faithfully picked up where it had left off in the middle of a mix of singles by The Damned. As if on a perfect soundtrack, the opening guitar attack of “I Think I’m Wonderful” kicked in just as the wheels left the tarmac and I was pressed back in my seat by gravity. Beneath me, the shitty little place I called home grew smaller and smaller and disappeared to be replaced by the competing blues of sea and sky as the aircraft banked into its ascent.
Suddenly, I didn’t want to die anymore.
There’s a reason people complain about flying. Most problems stem from the forced citizenship you have to assume once you enter the Airport State.
Touring as much as we did over the past couple of years meant that we spent an inordinate amount of time in airports. Contrarian that I am, I’ve actually come to really enjoy this, with a few notable exceptions. (I’m looking at you, unheated terminal at O’Hare with your permanently open skyway door.) The familiarity of Newport News vendors, the bizarre presence of those haute couture handbags and colognes icily glaring out from sleek, perpetually empty storefronts, the commingling of pretty much every race and economic class of human being as we all move toward our destinations: all of this color and motion and the collective air of frustration that accompanies it is the closest I ever feel to a Utopian moment. Yes, we’re all in this together, comrades. Even you, Haven’t-Bathed-Since-The-Bush-Administration-Guy, and you, Entitled-Self-Aggrandizing-Leash-Holder-Of-A-Fake-Service-Dog-Gal.
My first experience as a passenger happened in the early ‘90s. It was absent of all of the current government-sanctioned groping and Alice in Wonderland-like logic of the TSA era, which might have colored my romantic view. By the time all of that was in place, I’d flown a few more times and convinced myself that it was all worth it, just for that feeling of leaving everything behind on the ground. And I was also born too late to enjoy the true golden age of commercial flying, when people actually dressed up before boarding a plane and it was all chic cocktails and snappy repartee at thirty thousand feet. Somewhere between a gilded privilege and a total ass-ache is probably the best descriptor of the modern flying experience.
Probably the most harrowing moment during any of our air travel is what happens when we approach the ticket agent with our merch bag and instruments. I’m a pragmatist: I purchased a lovely but dirt cheap Malaysian-made Cort bass while in China with the understanding that it would be more reasonable to lose it to theft or damage than my other, spendier instrument back home. If I detect a whiff of hassle from the agent about having to check our instruments, I often offer up the Cort to the Baggage Gods while Paul always fights to the last to keep his beloved and irreplaceable Ampeg Stud with him on board.
If we make it past the ticket takers, convincing the gate agents to let us bring our guitars on the plane with us has proven to be a real temperament test of the people in charge of our travel. The stern but benevolent matron who headed up the flight crew on one Icelandic Air plane looked at us with dismay when she saw the two black cases entering the cabin, but she somehow found room for them in First Class while we crammed ourselves into our usual coach seats. On the other hand, in Boston we were lectured by a walkie-talkie-brandishing Idi Amin wannabe for even daring to ask if we could just carry them on. A bit of dramatics on my part, appealing to Idi’s masculine sense of saving a damsel in distress (“I swear I didn’t know…. please, we have no moneeeeey to pay for them as extras…”) saved us that time, but just barely. Another Boston experience had the two stereotypical Southie-based security guards at the gate asking us in all sincerity about the band and, “What kinda music ya play?” (“Uh…rock n’ roll? Kinda punk rock?” “Like The Dropkicks?” “Yeah….sure! Just like them!”)
The only time we ever had a real problem with flying our guitars was during the relatively short hop from Shanghai to Hong Kong. I had purchased the aforementioned Cort bass along with its serviceable hardshell case in Beijing only a week before, and was becoming attached to it. Although we expected to bring everything on board the small Spring Airlines plane without a problem, the lady at the window decided to have a bad day at our expense and erupted into a loud argument in Mandarin with Lao Bi, our guitarist. Although he’s normally a master negotiator, he failed to convince the increasingly grumpy employee. The bass had to go under the plane.
The flight was short and less terrifying than we had expected. (I was told that the majority of Chinese commercial pilots are ex-military guys who make landings as if they’re getting a bonus for every drop-out-of-the-sky vertical approach.) When our luggage was finally wheeled over to us, I was dismayed to see that my case had been dented and one of the clasps completely ripped from the side. The bass within looked fine but the case was no longer safe to travel with. Lao Bi, who resembles a young Hunter S. Thompson, is an American who had disappeared into China some twelve years before and “gone native.” Not only had he mastered the language, he had also become adept at what I came to understand as the Chinese way of doing business. Let’s just say that there’s not a whole lot of “the customer is always right” philosophy going around, nor are service providers considered to be much more than inept, malevolent parasites that one should treat with suspicion and a bit of contempt.
Lao Bi marched to the customer service window. Mandarin Chinese sounds angry even when people are just saying, “Hello, what a lovely day it is!” so I can only imagine what sort of aural assault the unfortunate recipient of his wrath had to suffer. But fifteen minutes later, he returned with my bass, a promise of reimbursement for the baggage charge, and a large blue and green checkered luggage strap that wrapped around the case’s neck, giving it the air of a dignified dog wearing a big, dumb bandage on its leg.
The longest flight I’ve taken was the one that got us to China from the States. The massive 777, booked fully, took nearly an hour to board. Entire families occupied the banks of seats in the middle, jaded solo travelers sullenly grabbed their single seats and sprawled as much as they could, staking claim to the tiny bit of real estate that would be theirs for the next sixteen hours. It looked like a village sprouting up in the cabin.
As the attendants began their safety presentation in English and Mandarin, it hit home that we were going to be aloft for the better part of an entire day. The stretch of aisle between us and the next bank of seats would become as familiar and depressing as a high school hallway, and that adorable Chinese baby across the way would soon become my bête noire. I never watch in-flight movies, preferring instead the real-time map that shows the progress the plane is making on its journey. If the duration of one’s flight is more than a quick hop between states, this, of course, is the route to madness.
I was half-awake when the cute little icon on my seatback screen representing the soaring behemoth with four hundred or so souls aboard started to cross the northernmost part of the Arctic, taking the “great circle” route that would land us on the other side of the world. I couldn’t wait to look out and witness the epic white wasteland as it passed harmlessly beneath our climate-controlled capsule. But as soon as I started to raise the shade, letting in a piercing ray of sun, a flight attendant appeared out of nowhere and politely demanded that I close it. The other passengers were almost all asleep. I might wake them if I raised the shade. I meekly agreed—I probably even apologized—but then I sat there in a state of disgruntled awe.
We’re cruising at thirty-nine thousand feet, going about 550 miles per hour in a giant steel brick that weighs four hundred tons. How the fuck can you sleep? Don’t you wanna see the Arctic Circle, you complacent bums?
I gently elbowed the complacent bum next to me.
“We’re going over the North Pole! And they won’t let me look out the window! It’s like sky jail.”
“Okay, that’ll be fine… mmmph… zzzzzz.”
Alone with my thwarted sense of wonder, I stared for long minutes at the screen in front of me and watched as the symbol-plane hovered over the blob of white that represented the polar ice caps. I had no idea what time it was up here in the sky. My eyelids were getting heavy, but it was hard to relax. Fatigue and excitement competed for the pilot’s seat in my brain. I considered that perhaps a lonely bear might be looking up at that very moment to see our anonymous silver glint in the sky over her head. I wanted to wave to her. Smiling at the thought, I finally fell asleep.
I still hold on to my adolescent premonition about airplane death. I don’t want it to be true, especially now that the lion’s share of my air travel is at the side of the person I care about most. But it’s always sat there in the back of my mind, this promise of a fiery demise in the company of hundreds of strangers. A spontaneous mass grave in the ocean or on some wooded mountainside. Groupon death. And at every hiccup of turbulence, every weird noise, the trap-door trivia that I know about onboard fires, malfunctioning electronics, and vindictive pilots opens up and sucks me in. I never say anything. I don’t even feel that scared. But I will always hope I’m wrong.
Because, look—look at how lucky we are to do this. Look at all of the people whose sole purpose is to get us from one place to another in a manner that was science fiction little more than a century ago. Look at all the people flying with you: from that smoothed-down first class passenger in their individual pod, to that scared kid with a backpack, to that big old family of agreeable louts in jogging clothes; that’s humanity right there. You get to see it in its full, stinking flower when you serve a stretch in Sky Jail.
And look out your window. Look at the western light on the water, the wakes of the boats drawing faint V’s against the blue-grey herringbone of the coves and harbors. You can see secrets from up here! The sandbars that would beach a sailboat, the hidden cliffs that would frustrate a hiker, the mysterious bends of a river that some terrestrial traveler can’t wait to get around, they’re laid out below you in all their logic. You’re kind of a god. A god crammed into a tiny space, eating peanuts out of a tiny bag, trying to rest your head on a tiny, useless pillow as the vastness of the planet spreads out beneath you. But still a god. Enjoy it.
J.V McDonough is old enough to be your favorite aunt. She played bass in some Boston bands you never heard of, then joined The River City Rebels (now defunct) in 2010. She now plays fulltime for M.O.T.O. with her husband Paul Caporino. Between November 2012 and the present they have played dates in China, Hong Kong, Japan (twice), Finland, Estonia, Berlin and dozens of U.S. cities. Click this link to learn more about M.O.T.O. and talk to J.V. via Facebook.