by P. S. Nolf (Rated G)
You feel the Boeing 747 shudder like a horse shaking off a fly. The plane develops a slight yaw. The flight had departed over two hours late on its Philadelphia to Frankfurt route. As the snow machines plowed the runways, the planes had been stuck in the line to go through the time consuming de-icing procedure.
After takeoff, you review your work schedule for the week. Soon you drift off to thoughts of Christmas market shopping in Heidelberg and Waldorf. Should you buy a Black Forest or Bavarian cuckoo clock for your grandparents? Perhaps your niece might like a Nutcracker since she is a dancing sugar plum at the Christmas recital? Your mouth starts to water at the anticipation of that first bite of fresh, nutty, Lebkuchen accompanied by a sip of hot, mulled Glühwein in the Christmas markets.
“All passengers, please return to your seats. Fasten your seatbelts.” You observe that the flight attendants are exchanging uneasy glances. Only a few business men and women look up from their computers. Most passengers remain caught up in their conversations, books, computer games, or movies. Across the aisle, a year-old baby continues to sleep in his mother’s arms.
“Flight attendants, take your seats.” The attendants efficiently move up and down the aisle collecting trash, checking seat belts, and ensuring seats and trays are in an upright, locked, position. The plane has developed a slight pitch and roll. More and more passengers start to look up from their pastimes.
“One of the engines ingested a chunk of ice during the de-icing procedure in Philadelphia,” explains the pilot in a calm, even voice. “We shut down that engine and are returning to Philadelphia. We will be landing in about 30 minutes.” Most of the passengers are now fully alert, looking around the plane, and checking their seatbelts. You speculate about if an empty plastic cup were placed in the center of the aisle how fast would it roll towards the cockpit. Are you over water or land? In the evening darkness you can’t tell. You check the in-flight magazine, trying to determine how far the plane has flown in thirty minutes. Which major airports are nearby?
The plane starts shuddering. It yaws unpredictably. You’ve never experienced such motion in twenty years of air travel. Couples hold hands. Parents grasp their children. The baby across from you starts to cry–perhaps due to an ear ache from the change in air pressure, perhaps picking up his mother’s emotions. One man continues to sleep. You wonder if he took a sleeping aid to doze through the long flight. How capable will he be of exiting the plane in an emergency landing? Feeling nauseous, you grip the arm rests, close your eyes, and try to think calm thoughts.
A man starts to pray out loud in Greek. You remember the Eastern, or perhaps Russian, priest who smiled at you as he took his seat in the row in front of you. Out of the soothing tone of the words, you recognize the recurring “Kyrie eleison.” You are a Protestant of no particular sect and an infrequent church goer. No matter. There is a comfort in the words “Lord have mercy” so you whisper along. You check on the other passengers. Some pray, others smile a bit regardless of their personal religious affiliations. The sleeping man continues his nap.
“Folks, we are beginning our descent to the Philadelphia airport. Flight attendants, prepare for landing.” You sense the landing gear retract. The pilot takes the plane into a controlled, even descent. It gently hits the snowy runway. The passengers clap and cheer. You think “Thank God.” But then you realize that your right foot has been pumping an imaginary brake.
The plane pulls up to the gate. As the chime sounds, the “fasten your seat belt” light turns off. Passengers are smiling and laughing. As they deplane, they thank the flight attendants and the pilot standing by the cockpit door. You hear “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Holidays,” “Happy Hanukkah,” or simply “Good bye.” Some passengers depart silently. The napper is a bit groggy. He stumbles in the aisle. You are one of the last passengers to exit the plane. How do you acknowledge this mercy received?