Fear of Flying

Before I even entered the plane's cabin I could see disaster lurking in the boarding tunnel. This is the staging area where mothers and fathers gear up like wilderness backpackers at a trailhead, disassembling baby joggers and strollers, taking inventory of their provisions: Pampers, Baby Wipes, cartons of scented Kleenex, giant stuffed animals, teething rings and rattles; tubes of mineral oil and boxes of weird-colored juice; books, paints, smelly markers and crayons; and high fructose gummy granola bars, chocolate treats and stockpiled cans of formula. Pioneers crossing the West on the Oregon Trail survived on considerably less.

My boarding progress was impeded by a large woman and her four-year-old daughter, who was as thin as a used match. I named them Mama Bear and Baby Bear. Mother was as big-boned as an Idaho black bear, her child-cub skinny and already demonstrating the hyperactive effects of a lifetime of sugar and Disney.

My seat on Flight 51 from Detroit to Seattle was 24-F, a doomed window assignment near the rear of the plane where airlines always stick the small children and single fares. You are guaranteed a flight accompanied by a wailing chorus of toddlers, the stench of leaky diapers and repeated back seat whip-lashings, courtesy of the muscular calves of soccer sons and daughters.

Don't get me wrong. I like other children from a distance. Some of my best friends were children once. But airplanes, wimpy modern parents and hyper children do not a good trip make. In our over-reaching efforts to prop up self-esteem at all costs, we've lost control of our offspring. I'm as guilty as anyone. I remember asking my toddler daughter each morning what she wanted for breakfast as if the wrong meal might cause her permanent mental damage. Would you like poached eggs? No? Well, how about oatmeal? No? Cereal?

My mind is full of such personal parenting failures as I fold my 73-inch frame into my window seat. Soon another man takes up the aisle seat. So far, so good. One more adult in the middle and I'm home free. But here comes Mama Bear marching down the lane, chatty child in tow. Because mama's seat is behind her child's, she begins to seat hop with other passengers. Soon Baby Bear plops down next to me and Mama Bear squeezes in next to her. She is visibly exhausted.

The pilot ("Rusty") announces in a southern drawl that the total flight time to Seattle is four hours and forty-five minutes. So settle in and enjoy the ride. On cue, the man ahead of me in seat 23-F slams his seat backwards into my knee and I lose another six inches of precious leg room. Four hours and forty minutes to go and already I'm miserable. I would trade my pinky finger for a sleeping pill.

Baby Bear soon begins an annoying habit many young children have of staring at me even though I feign sleep. Is that man asleep? she bellows to her mother. Is he? Is he?! Then she breaks out with a horrid rendition of Old McDonald. Every ee-i-ee-i-o is punctuated with a belch that contains the scent of regurgitated Lucky Charms. Mama Bear shifts uncomfortably in her seat, causing our entire row of seats to lurch forward in a jolting wave. Maybe it's a coincidence, but the plane also roils in the same general direction.

Shsst, she tells junior in a soft, sing-song whisper. That man is trying to sleep.

Why is that man trying to sleep?!!! Why is that man...!!! (five times)

You need to settle down, her mother cautions in a sing-song voice. It is apparent that the girl has never been disciplined in a consistent manner. She continues to prattle on at full volume while standing on her seat and waving her boarding pass in my face. Mama Bear stirs and roots around in one of those mammoth child supply bags and digs out a box of pure sugar drink, pops in a straw, and hands it to the kid. The drink has the effect of a syringe of speed. Child begins her mindless channeling of Disney songs and pounds the seat in front of her with her Mary Janes. Wow! she screams. Wowie! Her self-esteem is soaring.

I peek at my watch. Four hours to go and we're experiencing turbulence over the Midwest. This flight is cursed. From the cockpit, Rusty instructs us to stay in our seats indefinitely. Worry slips out of his voice. Something about unexpected thunderstorms over Lake Michigan. Pieces of plastic flap loose above me. If oxygen is required I am not sharing with the child. We are in a Lord of the Flies situation.

I want you to stop that right now, growls Mama Bear, in a voice devoid of any trace of adult authority. Inside my mind I am imploring. Restrain her! Shake her! Sedate her! Whatever happened to placing a hand over a child's mouth? Can't we have scenes anymore? Are there any adults left in the world?

I cannot complain in public, of course. Children are the sacred jewels of American society, and any irritation shown toward them is usually cause for mob retribution. Passengers would quickly turn against me in a collective rage. How could you!? She's just a child! Even worse, they might think that I am the father.

I have to pee! Mommy, I have to pee, I have to pee! Now! I push closer toward the window just in case. First class has just closed the curtain but I can sense uncorked champagne bottles and smell hot sandwiches full of sirloin and cheese. People are smiling up there. I am going to pee RIGHT NOW, and I MEAN IT! child yells.

Her mother, ignoring the pilot's caution to stay put, grabs princess roughly by the wrist, ejects her from the seat like yanking on a dog's leash, and pushes her toward the lavatory, where, I hope, both of them will be sucked out the toilet vent over a Minnesota soybean field.

I was already in a foul mood after enduring, on an earlier flight, an hour and a half of mindless, illiterate chatter by a 25-year-old boy-man wearing a T-shirt scrawled in hip-hop gang script with the name of the band Cult.

Guess how much I paid for the shirt? Come on, guess! (Twenty-five dollars was the correct answer.) He lived with his mom in Canada and owned a hundred Stephen King books, but had only read one. Each time the plane dropped and swooned from turbulence, he would rock in his seat laughing, We're going to crash, man. Cool! I was at the Ozzie Fest. I was so fuckin' wasted!

Did you enjoy Raleigh, I asked politely, trying not to imagine this lad's future.

I didn't see it much. See, I crashed at my brother's for 18 days. We watched movies and drank. I was so fuckin' wasted, man!

Yes, I think I get the point, I said.

Mother and princess return. Row 25 groans under the weight of them settling back in. In a voice that sounds like someone who has just begun to drink his third beer, Rusty cheerfully announces that we are free to move about the cabin. But how? Is this some joke? My bladder is stretched to its capacity. The tendons in my knee are frozen. I've lost all feeling to my legs. I would sever my second pinky in exchange for a chance to stand and pee. I now understand Sen. John McCain's hostage experience.

Cold sandwiches filled with mauve-colored mystery meat arrive; mama bear snatches her daughter's sandwich. Daughter is left with Fritos and a brownie. Drinks are offered and she chooses Coke. Stupidly, and because the child does look cute, the steward gives her the entire can and, of course, the can overturns. Little soaked princess wails in misery. I hand over all my napkins and lift my carry-on off the floor and elevate my feet, but already I can sense that my new running shoes are drenched. Mama Bear comes to the rescue with a airline blanket that she shoves beneath her daughter's wet bottom. We are only to Rochester, Minnesota.

The gooey mess is more or less soaked up and the girl -- now clutching a fork -- resumes her idiotic chanting. We're traveling through snow. Snow!, she yells peering out the window at clouds, her face so close to mine that I smell a tortuous mixture of Coke and Frito breath. Then, standing on her seat again, swinging the plastic fork centimeters from my cornea. Get my light on! Get my light on! She then throws her tiny, empty head against my shoulder and sings, We've got seatbelts! We've got seatbelts! Then louder, I can't see the airplane! (eight times) I am ready to stuff this creature in the overhead compartment.

Is it against the law in an airplane to noogie someone else's child, or to slightly place your elbow in her tiny ribcage and apply viselike pressure? What is the penalty for pinching? Would I serve time or get off with community service? Could prison be worse than this plane?

During one of the many Bear family pee breaks, I hustle down the aisle through the first class dividing curtain, past the disapproving stares of the privileged, and into the restroom. I stand there willing my distended bladder to relax and empty, but all I can manage is a flaccid dribble on my shoe tops. Have I done permanent damage to my urinary tract by waiting for two hours in a sitting position? More importantly, and to the point, so to speak, is an erection still possible? I look down and gasp. What I am holding is no larger than a pencil stub. I am ruined.

We are now over the scarred Badlands of South Dakota. Down below live robust men who pee when and where they wish in long, rushing currents, their hands jauntily on their waists, legs apart and staring at the horizon. Confident men who have more than 2-square-feet of living space, their shoes unsoiled from soft drinks and bodily fluids, and men who do not have hate in their hearts for 50-pound children. I will never be one of those men.

Back in Row 25, Mama bear threatens to take her daughter to the restroom and whip her (gasp!), but she obviously doesn't have the willpower to pull it off. (I'll do it, I mutter.) Child glares back at her mama and hollers Why are you making me SO mad! (four times) Mother finally belts her. The initial blow to the wrist misses her daughter and instead grazes mine. Then she wallops her on the upper thigh of all places, but it makes no impact on her daughter, except for a crimson rose on her leg. She must be used to regular beatings. Worse, the still smiling child leans against me for protection, but I am hardly an ally. I push back ever so slightly with the sharp bone of my elbow. She looks up at me in shock, but I pretend I'm still asleep. (My little immature push confirms my reservation in Hell's Hall of Fame. But isn't this Hell?)

The mother, perhaps feeling a tinge of guilt from watching past episodes of Maury or Montell on child abuse, pats her angel's head and digs out another box of bright blue drink. This sends baby bear into more high energy antics. She shakes the box of speed and blue drops of syrup cascade over all of us while pounding seatback in front of her.

Ladies and gentlemen. On your right is Miles City, Montana, and the Yellowstone River. We are approximately two and half hours from Seattle. The weather in Seattle is... Let me guess: low clouds and sixty degrees?

A week before I was in Miles City, in fact, standing on the banks of the Yellowstone River at about the same time of day, chatting with a fisherman. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: What are you doing?

Montanan: Fishing.

Me: Catch anything?

Montanan: Nope.

Me: River sure is beautiful.

Montanan: Yup.

Me: Well, good luck.

Montanan: Yup.

How I long to be back in Miles City this very moment, stretched out in the city park under old-growth cottonwoods, or in the historic Montana Bar with its stuffed longhorn steers and dark wood booths. I could drink with reticent cattlemen and freely use the bar's original marble urinal, too. Eastern Montana is paradise from up here.

The color red snaps me out of my daydreams. Baby Bear's left elbow is bleeding at a moderate rate. Seems our princess picked apart a scab. The oozing elbow shares my armrest. Up until now I only worried about soiled clothing and head lice, but now I am thinking about blood-borne diseases. The little creature does not seem alarmed. Her attention is now riveted on a four-page comic spread that appeared out of thin air. She stabs Beetle Bailey, Doonesbury, and Charlie Brown with the fork, over and over again. I hate you Charlie! Hate! Hate! Kill Charlie! Wowie, Zowie!

I look down the row toward Mama Bear, pleading with my bloodshot eyes for some help. But mother is fast asleep. Her mouth is slightly open and a low snore emanates from deep inside her belly. Out of the corner of her mouth a spot of silver spittle is about to head south toward her chin. It is October 3. She is hibernating.

Baby Bear and I are now alone. Realizing that I have to try and salvage my humanity in the short time remaining on this flight, I turn to her and give my most loving smile. Perhaps I've been all wrong about her. All that high energy might mean a high IQ, a future as a geneticist, a ballet dancer, or an opera diva. Maybe she will cure the worse forms of cancer, or find a way to feed all the millions of starving children in the world. What a heel I've been to close my heart to this child.

Sweet child looks back at me, smirking devilishly and looking suddenly much older. In a soft voice she sings, Old McDonald had a duck. And a quack, quack, here. And a quack, quack, there. Then she smears her bloody elbow against my shirt. Ee-i-ee-i-o!
About the author:
Stephen Lyons is a native of the South Side of Chicago and, after living for almost thirty years in the West, now resides in a small farming town in central Illinois. He's been employed in nine different states as a tree planter, daffodil picker, dude ranch cook, ice cream vendor, magazine editor, phone solicitor, newspaper reporter, professional tofu maker, grain truck driver, assistant dairy herdsman, and agricultural extension editor.
He once worked for a week in Colorado pulling nails out of two-by-fours, and for one twelve-hour day picking hops in southern Oregon. He was fired from the hops job after accusing the foreman of having bad karma. He was also fired from the phone solicitor job when he was overheard telling prospective customers that the deal (a lifetime of magazine subscriptions at creative interest rates) was a scam.
Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart: Writings on Daughters and Journeys, a single father's memoir. Author Terry Tempest Williams wrote about the book, "Stephen J. Lyons has offered us his grace and compassion...These essays are the deliberations of a sensitive and intuitive mind, a mind not afraid of exploring regions of the heart, so often side-stepped by men. Mr. Lyons's writing reads like poetry and has the effect of a lingering memory of love."
Stephen writes articles, reviews, essays, and poems for a variety of national magazines, newspapers, and journals including Northern Lights, Salon, Newsweek, Sierra, USAToday, High Country News, Manoa, Commonweal, The Sun, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Whole Earth Review, Hope, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is a member of National Book Critics Circle.
Lyons' poetry appears in the anthologies Passionate Hearts, Bless the Day, and Split Verse. His prose appears in Living in the Runaway West and Idaho in Black and White. Lompico Creek Press published an essay by Stephen in its just-released anthology Love is Ageless: Stories about Alzheimer's Disease. University of Iowa Press will publish prose by Stephen in its forthcoming anthology Father Nature, writings by fathers about children and nature.
This past year Lyons was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for "Seymour's Last Dollar," an essay about his step-father that appeared in the October 2001 issue of The Sun. This year he received a 2002 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Prose Writing.
Stephen is a lively reader and he has appeared at many writing venues including Elliot Bay in Seattle and as guest writer at the YMCA's Writer's Voice in Billings, Montana. For appearance fees or to send Lyons feedback, email him at: midlife@austinmama.com