Because every minute in the air is experienced like the moment before extinction, I never forget a flight. My bumpy flight from Johannesburg to Gabarone, my delayed flight from London to Stockholm, my dusky flight from Frankfurt to Linz, my last flight--September 11, 1999--from San Francisco to Seattle, I can recall them all with the accuracy of a photograph: the shaky lift-off, the fake faces of the hostesses, the unearthly world and color of the clouds (they were an evil pink from Johannesburg to Gabarone), and the Land Before Time geography below.
All of these details are vivid because while in a plane, I'm hypersensitive. The plane's frame is my skin, the groan beneath the aisles is the sound of my belly, the wings are my arms. I'm not a healthy man who is proud of his body and excited about the amazing things it can do, but a very sick man who feels the gravity of everything: the drag of the lungs, the rattling of the Plexiglas window, the dull thud of the heart, the creak in the wings, the sour tooth spreading its needle-pains to the region beneath the left eye, the nervous activity entering and exiting the throat to the cockpit.
This hypersensitivity, born out of the fear of death, is why I can imagine (again, in excruciating detail) the final moments in the flying machines that laid low the Twin Towers. Everyone says that it was like a Hollywood picture, like Independence Day or Deep Impact. But what I saw on TV was oppressively real. Traveling at 600 mph six miles above the ground and landing safely is unreal; blowing up in midair, hearing the death drone of a free-falling plane, hitting the ground with a thunderclap, this is very real.
As far as we know, this is the structure of existence: On this side (life) there is everything; on the other side (death) there is nothing. The wall between the two is as thin as Japanese paper. Our goal then as humans is to stay on the side of everything. This is why the U.S. government has taken such extraordinary measures to protect its citizens from death. We must stay on the side of everything--this is all there is, and all there ever was.
But here and now at Sea-Tac, as at other major airports--the armed soldiers patrolling the once-domestic space, the intensified security searches, the long lines of exhausted passengers, the long list of commodities now banned from the jet plane (corkscrews, baseball bats, golf clubs, pool cues, ski poles, hockey sticks, box cutters), the security dogs (hell hounds) with their sharp teeth, the armed sky marshals who monitor the airborne--all this protection and concern has not eased our suffering, but has made the dangers of flying more apparent and tangible.
Those who used to snore from Sea-Tac to Las Vegas or read USA Today from Sea-Tac to LAX can never rest or read again. They see the somber urgency of those working hard to keep them safe from death. Their property has been inspected by the muzzles of the hell hounds, their identity scrutinized and doubted by federal agents. And this opening up and questioning of their lives by the state apparatus of concern ruins any hope of a "fine" journey.
Suddenly, airplane disasters (deliberate or accidental) are no longer in the distant realm of cinema, but are here in real life and eerily immediate to all. Thoughts of death obsess every plane that bull-roars over downtown, and nothing will quiet them anytime soon.