Mom never learned to drive. She never learned to swim. And for a long time he had never stepped foot on an airplane. When she finally did at the good age of 58, it would be one of the last adventures she would ever have.
I have to believe she dreamed of traveling to Europe, of seeing Paris, Rome, the Vatican, but back when she was young, people still took transatlantic voyages by ocean liner. Now that is something I always wanted to do, and obviously will never do. Air Flight of course took off in the 1960’s (Come Fly with Me….we’ll float down to Peru”), and airlines like TWA and Pan-Am ruled the skies.
So for whatever reasons, partly I am sure economic, partly fear, she never took flight.
Dad I have to believe, having been a Marine, would have had the opportunity of taking a flight. Unfortunately, he did not get to fly to Paris or London, but he did, compliments of Uncle Sam, get to see the wonders of Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal and Peleliu. I could of course be wrong, as he did regale us with stories of shipboard life, and the Marines were a nautical bunch, so maybe he too never had the pleasure of looking down through the clouds and seeing Mother Earth.
In the late Seventies, early Eighties the discount airline made its appearance. These airlines used small planes, had no amenities at all, and if you were willing to take the chance they could bring you half way across country for $49; not bad.
PeopleExpress was the name of one of the first, if not the first. of these airlines and it flew from Newark Airport to most American cities for a fraction of what one of those classy big ones would charge. You even paid for your flight while you were on it! At first it was cash only, then they started to accept credit cards, but often the cost of the flight was literally pocket money.
Now I have a memory of the first time Mom took a flight; it was in the early 80’s and we went to see Don and Rhonda in Virginia and we took PeopleExpress.
But let me preface this memory with the fact that Mom didn’t travel well. She was a nervous wreck sitting in a moving car. She was notorious for sitting in the passenger seat as Dad drove the Rambler, and being wracked with terror for the whole time the car was in motion. She would slam the floor with her foot, hitting imaginary brakes to slow the car down if she thought Dad was driving too fast, which was all the time, she would grab the dashboard white knuckled when a car merged into our lane, she would start reciting the Lords Prayer if it started to rain, all the while keeping up a steady banter with Dad while he drove:
“Tony that car has his turn signal on”
“Yes I see that”
“He may want to get in front of you”
“Yes, yes he may”
“Tony do you see that truck is braking??!!”
“Yes Babe, I see the truck is braking”.
“Tony you’re driving too fast”
“No, no I’m not, I am doing the speed limit”
And on it would go….every single time.
So if she was that way in a moving car which was attached to Planet Earth, what would she think about getting into a steel tube and getting shot into the heavens?
We did our best in the weeks leading up to the flight to re-assure her that it was just as safe as……well we couldn’t say driving given how she dealt with that…and we couldn’t say swimming for the same reason….er..er..as safe as taking a walk? Sitting on the couch?? We tried everything. Dad had a more fatalistic view of the world; if your number is up, your number is up. I guess that attitude comes from having had to charge through a jungle or up a hill with people shooting at you. After that, taking an hour long flight to Norfolk Virginia was a breeze.
But Mom was another story.
Trying to convince her was quite a task; the rosary came out, the prayers were recited, the candles at daily Mass were lit.
The airplane awaited.
I am sure she didn’t sleep the night before the flight. We made our way to Newark airport on a bright sunny day. The flight was a short one; so short that by the time you reached cruising altitude, the plane began its descent. We got through Security, which would be un-recognizable today as it was virtually non-existent. You could pretty much carry on a sub-machine gun back then and no one would stop you. We settled in to our seats, Les and I sitting directly in front of Mom and Dad – the plane was so small it had two rows of seats on each side of one small center aisle in between. I kept turning around to check on Mom, trying to make small talk to get her mind off the moment of take off. Thankfully for such a cheap plane, the engines were quiet and smooth sounding, and when the plane started to taxi to the runway, you could hardly feel you were moving. It certainly must have seemed that way to Mom as she made no indication of being upset or scared by the beginning of the flight. We had been talking back and forth, enjoying the ride after take off, and I was pleased and amazed that she was taking it all so well. I turned at one point to tell her how good she was doing and she responded:
“Well as long as we are on the ground, everything is fine”.
Les and I looked at each other. Huh? On the ground? What was she talking about?
“What do you mean?” I asked with some dread. She looked out the small window and said:
“I can still see the runway so I’m ok.”
See the runway? What was going on? How could she still be seeing the runway? We were flying!! And then it dawned on me: from her cramped aisle seat with a limited view out a miniscule window, all she could see was a slight expanse of smooth grey – the wing of the airplane. But it looked like the grey of the runway we had just left. How the heck she missed the whole take-off thing I don’t know, but she was smiling and feeling safe on the ground, so why tell her any different. Dad was snoring away next to her in the window seat, so Les and I just went along for the ride so-to-speak and before we knew it we felt the plane begin its descent. Well, I couldn’t keep this up any longer.
“Mom, that isn’t the runway you are seeing.”
She looked at me, perplexed.
“That’s the wing of the plane.”
Her look changed in a second from one of confusion to one of abject horror! She shot out her arm, clutching Dad’s hand in a vise like grip; he woke up howling.
“Mom, it’s ok – we are landing soon….its all over..you did it.
Dad was totally lost.
“Babe youre killng me- what the hell is wrong?! Wha? Wha? What happened?!”
I heard Leslie laugh, and that was all it took. I tried to stifle my laughter as I shook my head telling Dad:
“I’ll tell you later”.
We proceeded to have a wonderful visit and that first night around the dinner table, the story of our flight was related and met with great laughter and Mom, to her credit, laughed the most.
And just like that, a simple trip to Virginia, became another chapter in family lore….the strange and wonderous journey of PeopleExpress, Flight Number 532 and the bizarre appearance of a phantom runway, high above the clouds.