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?"