Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fear of Flying

I have several irrational fears (raw broccoli, a Kenny G biopic) but my most debilitating would have to be my fear of flying. Statistically speaking, I realize that I am more likely to incur bodily harm on my way to the airport than during the actual flight. This knowledge, however, seems powerless against the onslaught of anxiety that renders me unable to eat or even make passably-clever observations to my wife about our fellow passengers.

I am not really sure how it began. I first flew to Florida with a good friend of mine when I was a teenager and I do not remember being anxious about it but perhaps that was an as-yet-undiscovered side-effect of the Accutane I was ingesting. My wife enjoys traveling, and over the past several years we have flown to New York, Chicago, London, and San Francisco while I white-knuckle the arm rest between us and try to concentrate on something calming like the ocean or the music the Weather Channel plays during the local forecast.

Our most recent journey took us to California and I enlisted some chemical assistance in the form of clonazepam, an anticonvulsant drug used to treat epilepsy and panic-attacks. I only took one, but it had a noticeably-positive impact on my anxiety level and made the flight bearable instead of gut-wrenching. I imagine that someone taking three or four of these tiny pills could remain calm even if the pilot were to emerge from the cockpit naked asking if anyone happened to see which direction his magic kangaroo went.

I did commit one grievous error on our return flight from San Francisco when I decided to take the pill after we passed through the security checkpoint instead of before. In hindsight, it occurs to me that a nervous flier and a domestic terrorist share many of the same mannerisms: shifty eyes, restlessness, profuse sweating, and an absence of nonchalance. I suppose it was for this reason I was subjected to increased scrutiny while my wife breezed through.

It began with the body scanner (popularly known as the nude-o-tron) where I was asked to hold my hands above my head in a pose that is universally associated with being taken at gunpoint. I then emerged from the scanner to face a compact young woman who quickly closed the gate in front of me and gravely asked me if I had “something I would like to declare.”  

Many declarations ran through my mind (I am Methodist, I find the majority of Sean Penn’s work morose, it had been close to twenty-four hours since my last bowel movement) but all I managed was an unconvincing “I don’t think so.” I knew I had answered incorrectly when she motioned to a large TSA agent stationed near the terminal who asked me what I had in my back pocket.

Instinctively, I reached for my wallet which I had forgotten to remove before passing through the metal detector and opened it to demonstrate I was not in possession of any weapons or unapproved fruits. Taking the wallet from my hand, he inspected it taking careful note that our vacation had left me in possession of only $27 in cash. Perhaps surmising that I had nothing to lose (at least financially), he handed my wallet to his female associate and proceeded to manually frisk me for additional contraband.

Finding none, I was then marched to the side of the security area and asked to hold out my hands while he swabbed them with a circular napkin eerily similar to a medicated hemorrhoid pad. He then placed the pad in a rather impressive looking machine that analyzed it for traces of explosive residue. We stood there silently for what seemed to be three or four minutes waiting for what I assumed would be a green-light or a printout that simply said "Abu Ghraib."

By the time the machine came to a conclusion, I was certain that I would be spirited away under extraordinary rendition and held until my wife re-married someone with a more symmetrical hairline. Fortunately, the device’s conclusion satisfied the agent who returned my wallet and allowed me to retrieve my shoes from the grey security Tupperware.

The rest of the flight was uneventful with the exception of a fellow traveler who constantly made simultaneous and unnecessarily loud calls on two separate cell phones while we waited on the tarmac. He then spent the remainder of the flight talking with his seatmate about how busy an entrepreneur he was. Had I not been so nervous I might have turned to my wife and pointed out the irony of a such a successful businessman being forced to fly standby coach, but instead I simply focused on the seat in front of me and prayed that the pilot had left his magic kangaroo at home. 

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