When I was a young boy growing up in Las Vegas in the late 60s there wasn't a lot to do. There was a lot for adults to do, but I wasn't old enough to go to strip clubs or join the mafia. (Actually, that's not true. I went to school with a few kids who's fathers were in the mafia. If I had asked, I'd probably have been let in. But I don't think I'd have been able to whack a kid for not paying protection.)
And so, for a time, my father would drive us to McCarren Airport. We'd park at the end of the runway and watch the jets land and take off. Back then, the only thing separating us from the jets was a chain link fence. Not like today. Try to park near a runway to watch jets take off these days and you'll quickly be met by an Uzi carrying security guard who will not only run you off, but start a homeland security file on you.
Anyway, back in those days of the late 60s, Vegas may have been small, but every major airline flew in from all over the country. Boeing even practiced numerous landing and take-offs of its new 747.
We'd sit in the heat and watch them. Pan Ams. Western Airlines. TWA. United. Continental. I soon learned the difference between a 737, a 727, a 707, a DC-8, a DC-9. In later years those would be added by DC-10s and L1011s (my favorite), 757s and 767s.
I learned to appreciate these amazing things. Even as we sat there in that parked car in the stifling heat, I never wanted to leave. I made my dad stay so long once that an 8-track tape he had on the dashboard actually melted. It was Ferrante and Teicher. So, no great loss.
My love of airlines has continued to this day. I could tell you things about most every model of commercial jet there is. I could. You'd fall asleep. But I could.
But here's the weird thing - I'm afraid to fly. No, REALLY. Just ask my wife who threatened to divorce me on a flight to Costa Rica. I had my head buried in her lap with a blanket over my head. I think I squeezed her so hard it has led to fibromyalgia. I made inhuman noises every time the plane bumped. I asked that they give me an entire bottom of wine in an IV drip. White knuckle does not begin to describe that flight.
Flying for me is an ordeal. I'm the guy who keeps his eyes on the flight attendants faces...to see if perhaps they're hiding something from me...like the fact one of the wings is falling off and we're going to die. I'm the guy who sits there while everyone else watches their movies and reads...or, heaven help me...sleeps. Oh, how I envy those sleepers. Most amazing to me are those people who can sleep on a take-off. I cannot sleep. I dare not sleep. I alone am keeping the plane aloft with my Rosary and Our Fathers.
My dad once told me to never worry. He would say that the pilot wants to get home as much as I do. Yes, but what if the pilot is an idiot. What if he has a massive sneezing fit on touchdown. Or worse, what if the captain leaves the cockpit to use the restroom and there's some turbulence and the captain bumps his head and his hand stays on the flushing mechanism and he's literally sucked out of the plane. His co-pilot then chokes on a pretzel and dies. These scenarios may not bother you. But, to me...
Now, I can tell you what every sound on a plane is; flaps retracting, wheels retracting...etc. I know the plane's wing are built to flex and withstand more turbulence than has ever been experienced. I know all these things. I know...but that's doesn't help.
It wasn't always this way. I used to like to fly. I think it all started to change on a flight from Vegas to Los Angeles. I was heading back to college from Spring break. The aircraft was a small jet. It was a British Jet. It had four engines and the wings were placed at the top of the fuselage.
Anyway, just after boarding, the pilot said one of the engines needed oil. A few seconds later a man showed up in overalls carrying a can of valvoline. He opened it up, opened the engine and poured some in. Now...this was...this couldn't be. Jets can't take valvoline. They must take some other oil...preferably, "Raptor Selestra Nuthian Particle B1H73 Professional Jet Oil Emollient." But surely not valvoline. Not the same thing I put in my 1982 Nissan Sentra...the Sentra that couldn't make it up the Sepulveda Pass without overheating.
It started to occur to me that planes were machines. They didn't just magically fly. They needed oil and had lots of parts and were built by people...some of whom might have been having a bad day when they riveted that flecking stirrup to that glozing nub.
Over the next decade or so I flew regularly but unhappily. After landing I always needed to nap at least 12 hours before doing anything humans normally do.
After flying to San Francisco for a vacation once, I suggested to my wife that we should drive back to L.A. It would be fun. She didn't buy it.
And then about five years ago...I found the cure: International First Class.
I was hired to help write something in London and the company I was working with gave me a first class ticket.
Turns out I wasn't so much afraid to fly...I just had never flown correctly. International First Class is dandy. It is ridiculously expensive. You could buy a small Armenian Village for as much. But when someone else is paying it is the only way to go.
Having spent most of my flying life in 33c, I never knew what 2a was doing. Turns out they were having a lovely party.
When my family and I recently flew to Australia...and I was sitting in economy watching my daughter throw up...I took great comfort knowing that the folks in the front of that huge 747-400 were being treated like royalty. There's a reason they don't let economy class people go past those curtains...because if you did you'd want to stay. You'd ask for a cookie. You'd want to were one of those PJs they give out. But mostly, you'd want to meet the flight attendants who appear to actually be nice. It's a not a real nice, it's a fake nice and it costs a lot, but who cares.
When I flew to London and experienced all this for the first time, I was shocked. While all the economy passengers (who I am in my real life) crammed on board and fought over luggage bins, we International First Class passengers sat in an airport lounge and ate finger foods and drank fancy wines and were pleased as punch to be us.
Then after all the rabble had been boarded, it was our turn. The PA Announcement went something like this: "You're free to board now. Take your time. We'll wait."
So then I boarded and instead of turning right...I made that "you've arrived you magnificent bastard" left turn. I walked into the front of the plane...past a bar. A real bar. There were snacks on the bar. I wandered further forward and a flight attendant lead me to my seat. Only it wasn't a seat...it was a little world. It was complete with everything my world would need. Pajamas. A little kit. (Note: save the little kit to give to your child. Very important.) A glass of champagne. A cookie. A TV screen. A phone. Comfy pillows.
Now normally when I board a plane, I try to run out. I didn't this time. I sat down. I looked at all the cool goodies in front of me. A flight attendant gave me a glass of wine. I put my leg rest up. (In first class, you can do this whenever you want...even when taking off. They just tell you not to do that in economy because they hate you.)
And then the plane took off. There's hardly any noise that far forward. I looked out the window. I wasn't sweating. I was...having...this was a new feeling...fun. I wanted to turn to everyone else in first class and yell, "Whoa, dudes! We're in first class! Woooo! Is this cool? Huh? YAAAA!"
I didn't. They brought a menu. They gave us a cloth tablecloth. And real utensils. Metal ones. Real metal ones. There was desert and cake and people laughing at the bar and overall merriment.
Then the flight attendants came by one at a time to make our beds. They would press a secret button and the seat fully reclined into a bed...with blankets and sheets and pillows and a chocolate. I never got into me PJ's...but most everyone else did.
And then something horrible happened. Everyone went to sleep. Wuh? No! NO! We're in first class. It's my first time. Don't go to sleep! Let's all take pictures and run around and stuff. NO! Don't waste this! Don't sleep! Who wants to play caps? Come on!
But they slept. And then, so did I.
I woke up about six hours later as a woman gently patted me on the back. "Would you like a massage?" At first I thought I was back in Vegas.
But no, she was the first class massage person. She took me to her area and gave me a full rub down. On a plane! I thought about the folks in economy. They were eating cardboard and contemplating suicide and I was getting a massage.
When we landed everyone rushed to get off. I lingered. I think I hugged my seat. "Thank you Mr. Seat. Bye bye Mr. Pillow. Good bye little world. Thank you."