The week before I was scheduled to fly home from St. Louis, where I'd been a visiting writer at Washington University, there were periods of bad weather—severe storms and tornadoes—in several parts of the South and Midwest. I thought there was a good chance my flight to New York would be canceled. But that morning in St. Louis the weather was flyable. We took off only slightly later than scheduled. The plane was full, every seat taken.
We had not been aloft for long—the seat belt sign was still on—when the plane began to shudder. I travel often and have never been afraid of flying. I assumed we were going through what is normally called turbulence, though I had never felt such lurching.
I kept waiting to hear the familiar words: "Ladies and gentlemen, we seem to be experiencing some turbulence. Please stay seated with your seat belts on." But no such assurance came.
Instead there came a sudden gut-loosening dip. A cry of alarm rose from the passengers. I dropped my book in my lap.
"Are you all right?" asked the young man sitting next to me. He wore a billed cap with some sort of logo and looked to be still in his teens. I was grateful for his kindness and nodded.
"It's the clouds," he said. "Look how dense they are." There were only two seats in our row, and he was beside the window. He told me he had just joined the army, and that he was going to be a pilot. He began to explain what actually happens when an aircraft moves through a dense mass of clouds such as this, but I have no memory of what he said. He seemed excited, whether about joining the army or becoming a pilot or the fact that our plane was now pitching like a boat in rough seas I didn't know. Before our troubles began, he'd been listening to music on his iPod. But now his attention, like mine—like every passenger's, I have no doubt—was focused on our flight.
"Good thing we hit these clouds before the beverage service," he said, "or we'd all be soaked!" This was no exaggeration.
Now it felt more as if we were on a Ferris wheel than a boat. A rickety Ferris wheel. And still no word from the pilot.
There followed a moment or so in which the plane glided smoothly, and you could feel everyone start to relax. But almost immediately we began pitching and shuddering again—this time so violently anyone could have been forgiven for fearing the worst. A man across the aisle was gripping the bottom of his seat as if he expected to be ejected from it. He rolled his head rapidly from side to side against the headrest like a sleeper trapped in a nightmare. Another man nearby began hyperventilating. The young man beside me sucked in his breath. "Oh boy, oh boy," I heard him say as he rocked back and forth. My turn to ask: "Are you all right?"
Together, he and I checked for airsickness bags in the pockets in front of us. Turbulence severe enough to cause nausea: Oh boy, indeed, this was a first. I remember thinking what a blessing it was there were no children onboard.
But what did the continued silence from the crew mean? That the pilot was too preoccupied getting the plane under control to address us? What about the copilot? The flight attendants, it turned out, were strapped in their seats at the back of the plane, as helpless as the rest of us.
An unpleasant smell filled the cabin, like the stench of overheated electrical wiring. Then, somewhere below us and to the right, there came a rhythmic ker-chunk, ker-chunk, ker-chunk—exactly like the sound of a car whose right rear tire had just blown out. That's when I began thinking maybe it wasn't turbulence. Or at least not just turbulence, not anymore.
And that's when a woman began to wail. "Oh, God, no. Please, God, no, no, no." Hers was not the only terrified voice to be heard, and at least one person was sniffling.
I took a deep breath and told myself that even if the plane was damaged or there was some kind of mechanical problem, this did not automatically spell doom; there was such a thing as an emergency landing. And how often, after all, do large passenger planes crash? Everyone knows it's one of the least likely accidents to befall a person.
Nevertheless, my anxiety soared. At the same time, I was overcome by a piercing sadness, but this sadness was mixed with strong feelings of wonder and awe. It was as if every idea I'd ever had about dying had been faint or ambiguous, and now here it loomed, the real thing, stunning in its vivid clarity. Then I remembered reading about a Japanese man who, in the minutes before the plane he was traveling on crashed, managed to scribble a note to his wife and children.
And what if we, like that man, were only minutes away from crashing? Such presence of mind, such stoic control—I knew I would never be capable of that. But it struck me with the force of lightning that I needed a plan. If the plane started to go down—if nothing could save us—what should I do?
One thing I knew for certain: I did not want to go out in a blaze of terror. I will not die screaming for my life! my inner voice screamed.
Perhaps if I, like that Japanese man, had a spouse and children, I would have wanted my last thoughts to be only of them. But now, as thoughts of my family and friends—and even of the cat waiting for me to come home—crowded in, they were too much for me. Too much! They brought on panic and despair. I had to push them away, for I did not want to die with turbulence in my soul.
I told myself that if we started to go down, I must reach for the hands of the young man sitting next to me.
And that was my simple plan. To hold on to this kind young man, and to comfort him and be comforted by him. To be calm and present. To gather myself, and to distill my thoughts. This is how the story ends. So be it.
I had just time enough to make this plan when the plane stopped jerking, and I realized it was all over. Sighs and chuckles of relief all round, the flight attendants up out of their seats at last, moving along the aisle, speaking gently to passengers. I remember one of them stroking and squeezing my arm, and how everyone laughed heartily when the young man beside me shouted, "Hey, do we get our drinks now?"
"How long was that?" asked the man who'd been gripping his seat and rolling his head. "I think it must have been like 20 minutes!" I heard murmurs of agreement, but I'm sure this was wrong. Had it been that long, they would have had to carry some of us off the plane when we landed. I don't believe the entire episode could have lasted much more than five or at most ten minutes.
No satisfactory explanation was ever provided. The flight attendants told us the problem had indeed been turbulence, and when pressed about the bad smell and the knocking sound (both of which had mysteriously vanished, as if we had collectively dreamed them) they said, dismissively (but to me, at least, not entirely convincingly), that these things were also "turbulence related." And they said that they themselves had gotten the worst of it, sitting way in the back.
The rest of the flight was without incident. Our landing was smooth, the applause energetic. Leaving the plane, I thought the young man was right behind me. But when I turned to say goodbye, I saw that several people had got between us, and I would have felt foolish waiting up for him.
At the baggage carousel, I heard various passengers telling people who'd come to meet them about our scare. ("I really thought I'd never see you again, hon." "I thought for sure this was it.") Then I caught sight of the young man, scratching his scalp under his billed cap while talking to an older man, and I felt my cheeks flush. A young soldier, a pilot in a time of war, headed for who knew what inescapable dangers, the likes of which I myself would never have to face. And I was ashamed of my fear and what now seemed like an exaggerated reaction.
I had thought that, in all likelihood, from now on it would be hard for me to fly. But happily this has not turned out to be the case. For a while I continued to feel resentment toward that pilot for his inexplicable silence. But since I don't know what really happened that day, I figured I might just as well feel gratitude: What if he'd saved all our lives? And though I hope never to have to go through another such episode, I can't say that I regret it, for it showed me a resource I was not sure I had.
I am used to thinking of myself as a nervous person, easily overwhelmed, the last one to stay cool in the face of extreme danger. And quite possibly, had the plane actually started to go down, I would have lost my head completely—to hell with my earnest little plan! But on reflection, I don't think so. I like to think I'll be able to find my way to that state again, in whatever challenging situations may come, when being calm and present is the best plan to have.
Sigrid Nunez is the author of The Last of Her Kind (Picador), which is now out in paperback.
Printed from Oprah.com on Thursday, December 5, 2013