“We’re going to crash,” said the man on my plane . . .
For a long time, I rejected faith in stuff I thought was just too stupid to believe. But at 30,000 feet I strove to be a believer, first in the miracle of heavier-than-air flight, but second temporarily in God if that didn’t work out.
Isn’t it ridiculous to think that airplanes can fly? Empty, they look awfully heavy. With the addition of all the people and luggage and fuel and instrumentation and peanuts for coach and salmon fillets for first class, the law of gravity would seem to insist on a plunge rather than soaring through the heavens.
I was a skeptic of the first degree. I couldn’t join in the post-Wright Brothers mass delusion.
But I flew anyway. I was thankful there were plenty of bars in airports.
Back in 1985, I sat in a cramped coach seat on a People’s Express jet. I was bound for London. It was my first trip overseas. That very word made me nervous: 0ver-seas. On the over-night flight over-seas, if anything went wrong, we’d be under-water.
As the plane backed away from the gate, I tried to muster up the assurance that this 747 – this oh-my-goodness isn’t it a huge (heavy) airplane – could actually achieve and sustain flight for 7 hours.
Unable to reach that sort of faith in flight, I went with my backup plan – perhaps I could muster up a little faith in He Who Must Not Be Believed In. Prayer couldn’t hurt. In fact, it would give him – excuse me, Him – a chance to show Himself powerful, capable, and caring.
They say there are no atheists in foxholes. There are no atheists among the fearful fliers on an airplane, either, especially when the turbulence starts. That’s when atheism ratchets down a bit toward agnosticism. “I’ll say a prayer just in case.” At least that was my experience.
On this particular flight as we pulled away from the gate there lurked an even bigger doubter than me. For as we began that big turn from backing out to heading forward toward takeoff – the big turn toward no-turning-back – the Voice of Doubt arose from the cheap seats just behind where I was sitting.
“We’re going to crash.”
The tone of this fellow aeronautical heretic was not anywhere near as matter-of-fact as his simple statement appears on the page. But it wasn’t full-throated terror, either. Somewhere between fact and terror was . . . confidence. Assurance of catastrophe. His was the proverbial Voice of Doom, reporting the Terrible Truth with only a tremor in his voice to attest to the fact that he was living the disaster, not just observing it.
He proclaimed his Truth once again. “We’re going to crash.”
As for my nervousness about the flight to London . . . this wasn’t helping.
A flight attendant rushed to the man’s row. “Sir, you’ll have to be quiet.”
But how do you shut up when you know what you have to say is the anti-gospel truth?
“We have to turn around. It’s going to crash.”
Now there were some murmurs of annoyance at the prophet. Someone a row over tried reassurance. “Come on, let’s get going and we’ll be all right.” Was this comforter sure, or was he trying to shut down a display that was getting him in touch with his own doubts?
Another voice had a more practical suggestion. “Somebody buy that guy a drink.”
There was a titter of nervous laughter. It didn’t affect the oracle at all. “I know this plane is going to crash. Please turn around. At least let me off.”
The flight attendant walked back to a phone that I guess called up to the pilot. Or maybe it went straight to God. I didn’t think there was much difference on a plane.
The 747 lurched and groaned to a stop. They weren’t going to mess around.
In a moment we were turning around.
They actually believed this guy? We were going back to the terminal?
Good. Maybe I could take a train to London.
We reached the gate, the jetway was reconnected, and it was strongly suggested to the “we’re going to crash” fellow that he get off and perhaps find another way to the Old Country. All I saw of him was the back of his gray suit as he was escorted up the aisle and off the plane.
They didn’t believe him at all. He was just an apostate in their eyes.
Planes don’t crash. Everybody knows that.
Planes fly. And if you don’t believe it or don’t pretend you do then get lost, we don’t want you around, because you might just cause us to doubt. And what would happen then? People won’t fly anymore. They’ll take the train, or the boat, or they’ll drive. Or they’ll stay home. Then what happens to the airlines? What happens to the economy? No, we can’t have that because civilization as we know it depends on our ability to get from Boise to Burlington in a few hours.
You know what I thought was crazy about the whole thing? They didn’t give anyone else a chance to follow the Chicken Little dude. Just get him off the plane, shut the thing back up, and once again we’re backing toward London.
I wanted to get off. I really did. But did I have the guts to stand up in front of the however many hundreds of people a 747 holds (it wouldn’t be on Jeopardy, so I don’t know it) and affirm my own unorthodoxy by following the man in the gray suit? No way.
But I was imagining the interview with that Survivor who’d just left the plane. The interview I’d never see because I didn’t follow him to safety; the interview I’d never see because I’d be under-water or maybe washed up on some beach in Nova Scotia – an Unidentified Body speculated to be from the plane crash you all heard about last week – and did you see the interview with the guy in the gray suit?
You’ve seen those interviews. After every plane crash, the crack reporters from ActionEyewitnessOnYourSideLiveLocalLatebreaking News find some guy – some lucky guy in a gray suit – Mr. “I was supposed to be on that flight but something told me/traffic was just worse that day/my wife had a feeling/my dog looked at me funny” – and interview him. And we all sit there and watch and think, “Coincidence or . . .” and then the TV is showing the wreckage and smoke and carnage and always the investigators measuring something or standing around drinking coffee (I imagine them getting to the crash site and barking, “Black, and keep it coming!”) and we’ve forgotten about the guy who was supposed to be on the flight and we start thinking about . . . who? The people on the Doomed Flight? (It’s always THE DOOMED FLIGHT on the News, in bold letters under that graphic of the cartoon plane spiraling out of control behind the matched set of his and hers anchorpeople.) Are we thinking about the ex-people who are now squashed charcoal? Of course not. We start thinking about ourselves and the next time we’ve got to fly and what the pilot said at the end of the last flight about, “Good luck on the most dangerous part of your flight, the drive home from the airport,”- tell that one to the folks on THE DOOMED FLIGHT – and we wonder if it’s worth the risk.
But, when we need or want or are ordered by our bosses to go, we line up again – I’d say “like lemmings” but, really, what an overused metaphor (and totally done after The Police had commuters “packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes” in “Synchronicity II” . . . and according to Wikipedia lemmings aren’t really suicidal) – and we get in the metal birds and take off, hoping that our faith will be rewarded with an uneventful flight and maybe a headset that works on both channels so we don’t just hear the drums and backing vocals on early Beatles stuff that was recorded in diametrically split stereo tracks.
And those who doubt the viability of planes flying through the air shut up about it if they want to stay on the flight so they don’t make the other passengers uncomfortable and get escorted off the plane like the man in the gray suit.
When I was an atheist, one thing that kept me away from churches was that I thought they were like airplanes and I was the guy in the gray suit. Growing up, I never heard anyone in church express doubts about faith or the Bible or religion or anything else. There seemed to be an unspoken Code of Silence. Or a Code of Conformity.
I used to joke about my fear of flying by saying I believed that since it was obviously physically impossible for heavy aircraft to stay in the air, it must have been the faith of the passengers that kept it from crashing to the ground. And since I was a doubter, I was dangerous to the whole enterprise.
That’s the way I saw churches – and the Christians who populated them. Their houses of faith were houses of cards, where any doubt or dissent would result in the whole institution crashing down. Most of the Christians I met didn’t seem interested in my questions; it was like they just wanted to pound me into submission with their answers.
I suspected that I, like the Voice of Doom on that plane, was just getting them in touch with their own doubts that they didn’t want to admit or deal with.
And I feared that if I ever did set foot in a church, I would just end up like that guy in the gray suit – escorted out the door for the comfort and protection of the true believers.