Recently, Rita over at The Jungle Hut, had a blog post titled: I'm Stumped. That was followed by the header - What Has Been Your Scariest Travel Experience. I took that as a chance to tell her about mine because, if anything, I Was Not Stumped. I knew the answer as soon as I had read the question. The thing was, as usual, I can be long worded in my answers to such question, and it did not fit in the comments section. Heck this comment - even for me - was more detailed than most. I suppose my answer was so long because the question hit what little bit of raw nerve was exposed within my soul and I finally listened to my Psyche crying out and begging for help and sanctuary. I suppose self revelation is often the best way to help and comfort oneself.
Rita wrote to me saying that she saved my comment. She also hoped I had done likewise so that I could eventually post it. So, I am going to post it here. What I am posting is an edited version. I changed a few things as I have thought about them more and remember them a little differently or because I feel a bit differently about what it all means after some few days further reflection and I added some things for effect (for the effect that self revelation and remembering of them has for me). Please note that I am not posting it to boast, nor to look like a hero, nor to talk about my adventures. I am posting it because for me, at least, it is a sort of a self revelation and it is sort of therapy for me to let it out. Some of the things I am about to tell you have been hidden inside of me (hidden even from myself) for the last eight years and have been hurting me along the way. I don't expect that telling you about them will end my pain. What it may do is to at least bring mine to light and the warmth of that light may ease the aching I feel deep within my soul. Hopefully it also may help you to realize your own torment if indeed you have unconquered fears like mine hidden within your heart and it will help you bring them to the light of a new and better day. You see, I am not just going to write about My Scariest Travel Experience, I am going to tell you about The Scariest Time Of My Life:
I guess my scariest travel experience came in about the 2nd or 3rd week of October 2001. I was scheduled to fly for work, I was flying from NY's LaGuardia Airport to Miami. I had been up most of the night before because I was afraid. Heck I had been doubting, over a period of several days, if I could even get on that plane and wondering why in Hades I had decided to volunteer again. Yet, when I boarded the flight it was okay, sort of. Sure I was still scared. Then it was not okay. When other passengers started boarding, it got scarier. I gave them all the once over, some two or three. I was sitting right up front near the flight cabin and entry door. I saw every passenger who boarded the flight and imagined everyone of them from 9 to ninety could have been a terrorist. I know, it sounds ridiculous but that is just what I did. Then when the door of the plane closed right after boarding was completed, fear rolled over me in waves unimaginable. I just about wet myself. As we rolled down the taxi-way I was trembling with fear almost crying. As the plane started to accelerate down the runway for takeoff, I almost started to bawl – as I remember a tear or two started to run down my cheek but I wiped em away fast but I could not stop trembling, not stop being afraid. I mean all that literally. I was terrified, I wanted off of that plane right then and there. Those bastards on 9/11 had sure gotten to me.
Still though, I was flying. I had made an oath that I would do what I could do to either get them or prevent them from doing it again or just live life normally in the face of their terror. So there I was trying to do my part to help prevent another catastrophe despite the fear. I was flying in a temporary assignment for which I had volunteered as an Air Marshal. Those feelings of fear recurred, just about as badly as on that first day, each time I flew for the next two to three weeks. Yeah they lessened and eventually faded to just me remaining in a state of fairly high alert - but that first flight as an Air Marshal - that was the scariest thing I ever did while traveling, heck it was the scariest thing I ever did in my whole life. I have been involved in hand to hand combat twice where people have grabbed my service pistol and tried to kill me - and another time I was beaten with my own night stick by 4 assailants – another time I had two guys try to rob me and I shot one of them - I even climbed over then down a smoldering 25 foot high mound of rubble to retrieve evidence from the Customs evidence vault amid all the destruction of the WTC - I also helped to search for survivors of that attack - and I can tell you - without a doubt - as scary as they were - those incidents were nowhere near as scary as flying that first flight (nor as scary as were at least the next week's worth of flights, maybe not even as scary as the 2nd week's worth) as a temporary Air Marshal.
It’s amazing how it all affected me, tears are running down my cheeks right now. I am not sure why. It is not because I was scared, not because I am all that emotional about talking or writing about it, more I suppose to do with the fact that I was virtually helpless as were we all feeling (most of us without even realizing it) right after 9/11. I would not have been helpless on that plane though, and I guess that is what was so scary. I know that had a flight on which I had been flying had a hijacking attempt the hijacking would not have reached its ultimate goal. There either would have been a lot of dead terrorists or there would have been a downed flight that was not successfully used as a missile against people on the ground, or there would have been a couple of dead Air Marshals. We knew what had to be done, those few hundred of us who volunteered, and I think we all were prepared to do it. Being prepared to do it though, that did not make it less scary, nor any easier, at least for me. I knew as did every flight attendant, every pilot and co-pilot, every passenger on all those planes once the airports reopened that if it happened again - people were going to die but the terrorists would not succeed in their overall mission. I think every American had been emboldened not only by the destruction on 9/11 but also by the words of the one passenger over PA who had organized the others to retake the cockpit. Well, I think they knew they would never live through it, that was a wild hope, they knew they would be killed but they did it anyway. I really have no idea why I volunteered to be a FAM and certainly will never quite fully understand how I got on that plane that first day. I was not prepared for it after a week of training, I knew that. I had never been in the military and never seen war. Sure I had my experience as a law enforcement officer but I was already 43 years old when this came around and I was scared to death.
I have to say I would never have flown, I would have called in sick, or just quit, had it not been for a friend in whom I confided about my fears. He reassured me time and time again, almost all to no avail, that is until he sent me these words:
"THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated." (Thomas Paine the introduction to The American Crisis 1776) (Thanks Pete K. - we have drunk from the same canteen indeed!)
I flew for 5 months. I had some really boring flights, hundreds of them. I also great times, met some swell people, and it was a good experience over all except maybe for how the real Air Marshals treated those of us who volunteered for this temporary assignment. They thought they were elite, I thought they were a-holes - not all of them but certainly the ones who thought they were superior. I never got involved in even one real conflict though this was the same period I think in which the shoe bomber guy was tackled by passengers and flight crew on a flight from London and was the time when a flight went down near JFK and all aboard perished. It was scary for all of us, and I think more so for those who flew anywhere.
I remember one flight attendant though on a really tough day. Though I recall the event vividly, I am not certain of exactly when this happened but seem to remember it was on or just after a day when my partner and I were waiting on a plane at LaGuardia Airport. On that day the captain came on and announced that a flight had gone down at Kennedy Airport and it was believed all aboard were lost. We had no other communication. The television service at the airport was shut down (by airport officials so as to not cause a panic when the news was broadcast - what jerks). We sat and waited for hours before we were told all flights had been cancelled. (This was the flight that crashed in the Rockaways killing all aboard and many on the ground- it turned out it was due to mechanical/structural failure not terrorism but we had no clue at the time.)
I don't remember for sure if it was on that same day, or within the following days once we were flying again, that a stewardess (forgive me my use of that word that flight attendants hate so much but I am old fashioned and it conveys a better time for me) was trembling and crying. She was just about hysterical. I did my best to console her and she ultimately gave me one of the warmest smiles of anyone with whom I flew in those 5 months. Believe me there were plenty of smiles and winks, especially on the shuttle flights to and from DC, especially right after some jerk of a congressman told the news media in which seats the air marshals had to sit. Yep, we were made, would have been anyway doing 4 to 6 flights a day back and forth to DC. Many of the passengers winked at us, smiled at us, patted us on our backs, shook our hands - all the while as we denied being who we were. Well back to that stewardess - she was pregnant - she was sure she was doing something wrong by flying – sure she was doing something wrong just by being pregnant ready to bring a baby into the post 9/11 world - worried about her baby – worried about flying – scared for herself – scared for the passengers - scared for America - almost scared to death. I sure knew the feeling. I had to do something, maybe it was not the right thing but I swore to her that as long as there was one breath of life left in my body - there would be no successful hijacking of any plane on which I was on. I swore that she was safe with me. She stopped sobbing, looked me in my eyes with one of the absolute most piercing stares I have ever seen and asked me if I really meant that.
Before I had said that to her, I already had figured that if we were hijacked we would all be dying, I was convinced stopping a hijacking must have surely meant going down in flames or whatever. Yet, that day, as I spoke to her, I meant each and every word I said to her. I guess I had meant it along that is why I had volunteered for the assignment. As for the hope within my words to her: it may have been a false hope, or maybe it was more - maybe it was a real hope - granted only with a tiny chance of success - one really with almost no chance of working out - but I meant every word of what I told her and I meant it down to my very last breath. She knew I meant it too because that is when she gave me that smile. She wasn't so scared after that - neither was I. I don't even remember her name but I will never, not ever so long as I breathe, forget her smile or what it meant to me at that moment. It truly instilled steely determination within me.
That friend of mine – the one who sent me those words from Thomas Paine – well he sent me some others – also of Thomas Paine that fit at that moment:
"I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death." --Thomas Paine
That surely fit the stewardess - she was smiling in trouble the type of which Thomas Paine was speaking. I guess too that is sort of what that stewardess was thinking about me in her own way. Maybe she thought I looked like a fat and old John Wayne but I suppose, right then and there, I was her hero ready to die for America if need be and she would have been okay with flying with me through hell. Whatever she may have been thinking though – her smile made it worth it. It made 5 months of gut wrenching fear easier to take, and I was sure if called upon I would do it all again because of that. The that to which I am making reference is not merely her smile, nor that maybe she saw me as a hero or protector. Heck, I am sure many of the passengers and flight crews felt likewise – that we were their protectors. The that to which I refer though is not even so much that people were ready to fly because we had helped put them at ease. Nor is it that because we were able as a team - as a nation - as one people to keep on living even in the face of our worst fears and that we were all prepared to die for our principles. I had thought that was it but no – the that to which I am referring is none of them and yet is all of them.
I have never in my life been as scared as back then, nor have I ever in my life been as proud of my country as I was when we all came together to face a common enemy, nor had I ever felt a feeling better than I did than when that stewardess smiled at me and I knew she would be alright bringing her child into the world as my wife had brought our children into the pre 9/11 world. You see, to me at least, the that to which I am referring was something that her smile revealed. Her smile at that moment, amidst all the fear, the uncertainty, the crisis meant one thing - it meant that she knew - as a fear stricken flight attendant - as a soon to be mom - as an American - that America would be alright. As surely as she knew it, I knew it too. That made it so much the easier to overcome, or live with, my fear - and it made it all worth the effort.
All the best,