Apr/May 2003 Salon

The Wretched of the Air

by Paul Sampson

This year marks the centennial of the first powered flight. I don't usually get too caught up in birthday celebrations, even my own, but I intend to pay attention to this one. After all, it's part of my family history—my mother was born the same year Wilbur watched Orville Wright make the first controlled, powered, sustained flight.

Many years later, I learned to fly myself. But like most Americans, most of my air miles have been logged in airliners. I took such a trip just a few weeks ago. While it's fresh in my mind, I'll say a little about what the Wrights have wrought.

Sometimes it helps to say things as simply as you can if you want to see them in all their complex richness. So I try to look at airplanes simply and see what they mean to me, bit by bit.

First of all, what does an airplane do? Well, it flies, of course, but that is only its way of doing something simpler: It takes people from place to place. So does a bus or a ship or a horse-drawn wagon. So what?

So, in spite of its unique method of moving, an airplane is only doing what a saddled camel or a dogsled does. They all exist to get us from A to B a bit more expeditiously than walking. They extend our range. They shrink the map.

And that's important to us. It's pretty primitive, and persistent, this drive to travel. From our presumed first home in Africa, we've spread ourselves over the Earth's whole skin, inventing new ways of moving as we moved. Flight's only the latest. What's next? Transmitting ourselves like 3-D faxes? (Okay, you can go first.) We'll think of something, never fear. We always have.

For now, though, flying is about the fastest way we've found. It's still not fast enough to catch up with the horizon, which constantly renews itself ahead of us, but it will do for now.

So we fly to get from A to B. But simplify again: Why leave A?

Just as simply, why stay? We've already seen A. Inertia is only one of the laws of motion. Our living bodies at rest tend to get fed up with rest. Some of us get restless and we want to move.

Not everyone, of course. Some people are born villagers. It would take an earthquake to uproot them, and then they'd pile the rubble back up into another village. Look at the ruins of Troy, layer after layer of essentially the same town, destroyed and retroyed until the last bunch finally packed their salvaged treasures and left for good. I'll bet they built New Troy as soon as they found a flat place to put it. They're probably still living there.

Maybe that's most people, the descendants of the agriculturists who succeeded the hunters and gatherers. This division seems a bit too neat for me, though. We're such a jumble of inheritances that I doubt we'll ever sort them out.

Anyway, one thread that runs through most of history and nearly all of legend is travel. From the great migrations of peoples to the individual quests of heroes runs the theme of travel, and arduous, dangerous travel at that.

In both legends and histories, gods and heroes travel. Osiris, Odysseus, Jason and Aeneas may be fictions, but Alexander, Attila, the Vikings, the Moors, the Crusaders, the Pilgrims, and the founders of Israel (both ancient and modern) were real enough. So were the people they chased or fled from. Hard travelers, all of them.

Most of the serious travelers in history have been professionals: armies, of course, but also caravan masters, sailors, and the merchants whose goods they carried. But a few hundred years ago, a new kind of traveler emerged: the freelancer, the traveler for pleasure: the tourist.

I think it began with the pilgrims who came in the wake of the Crusaders, and with the vagantes, the wandering scholars who drifted among the great medieval universities. The pilgrims sought God's blessing and the scholars sought learning, but they all found a great deal else besides. They found that travel could be delightful for its own sake.

In no time at all, there was a leisure travel industry. Remember Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales? If not, that's the one you read a few lines of in high school, by the fellow who couldn't spell. It's the one that begins on a sunny April morning in Southwerk, a sort of suburb of London, in about 1385. A group of pious pilgrims meets at the Tabard Tavern to begin their trek to Canterbury. A knight and his squire, a couple of nuns, a doctor, a lawyer, several people whose professions you don't remember, and a garrulous woman of a certain age who has had several husbands and tells stories about all of them. The owner of the tavern, Harry Bailey, is the first tour guide in our history, the ancestor of every cruise-ship comic and rubberneck bus driver to come. The guided tour is born.

People have been traveling for pleasure ever since. Airplanes only add the latest step to this old dance. I am an aviator myself, so you may expect that this is the chapter in our travel history I like best. Well, yes, but:

As the actual anniversary day of the first powered flight (December 17) comes nearer, you may expect to see and hear and read celebrations of the sweet achievement of flight until you get so numbed by it and sick and tired of it that you may experience the actual sensations of modern airline travel.

Modern air travel is no fun at all. I speak of using commercial airlines. This has nothing much to do with flying. It is scarcely even travel. Rather, it is a series of waiting rooms.

First you wait in lines to be identified and frisked like a new inmate in a jail. Then you wait in the "'departure lounge," in which you try to "lounge" in a horrid plastic chair. This thing is copied from the ones in bus stations, designed to keep bums from sleeping in them. After a long time you are made to wait in another line to shuffle, again like one in a line of prisoners, aboard the airplane.

Then you sit in a long metal tube, strapped into a still more horrid chair, the wrong size and shape for anyone with a skeleton. Here you wait some more, while your fellow sufferers pile their possessions into spaces too small for them, huffing and grunting as they hoist heavy luggage into precarious overhead bins. When everyone is seated, uniformed guards make sure that you are strapped into your chair. You may reflect that the only other place this happens is on Death Row.

More waiting ensues, until the invisible forces that now control your fate allow the airplane to be pushed away from the gate. Then it, and you, wait in a long line of airliners on the taxiway. Each plane's air-conditioning system inhales the exhaust of the plane in front of it. The guards pass the time by demonstrating the safety features. This demonstration is unconvincing. The plane alternately creeps and lurches its way up the queue. It's takeoff time.

This part is actually rather nice. Your airplane, which is bigger than your house, begins to roll. You gather speed and in less than half a minute you are flying. For a few more seconds, you can actually feel the wonderful sensation of leaving the everyday elements and climbing into the sky. The familiar things of Earth grow small. Whee!

Well, that was fun. Alas, in a few more seconds you have passed into a scum of cloud and there you are, unable to see anything outside. You can feel the boredom seeping into your soul.

The seat, uncomfortable at first, becomes intolerable. The air is vile and dry and you are thirsty. After a very long time the guard asks if you would like a drink. Ah God yes, please, anything, yes, a drink. The guard takes your order and disappears. You begin to suspect a joke, but finally the drink appears: either an overpriced and undersized cocktail or a miniature plastic cup with a few ice chips and a splash of cola.

In days gone by, you got the In-Flight Meal, a little plastic tray with little plastic packets containing little plastic morsels of things you were supposed to eat. Some were scalding hot, some were frozen solid. If you read the labels on these things, you would find that you were being served something called Imitation Cheese Type Food Product Equivalent Substitute. No matter, you couldn't get the little packet open anyway. It had been sealed with a large hydraulic press. They took your nail file away at Security, remember? Try your teeth. Ooh, that hurt, didn't it?

Anyway, these days you only get the In-Flight Meal on flights of ten hours or longer. Otherwise you get the Snack. This is a plastic bag of kibble. You can't get this open, either. Put it in your pocket. It will end up in the hotel wastebasket.

With luck, your dehydrated state keeps you from needing the lavatory. I do not wish to speak of the lavatory, and I won't, except to say that any tales you have heard of lovers getting it on in there are lies. There is no room for one of you, let alone enough for any sort of scandal. And even for amorous contortionists, the aroma would extinguish any romance.

And on you wait, while they slide a lot of geography under you. Finally the guards, who had been sullen and lethargic, snap into a show of hectic preparation, retrieving your plastic garbage and saying alarming things with words like "terminal" and "final approach." The airplane emits alarming noises and screeches onto the runway. All your carry-on items slide under the seat ahead of you as the pilot stands on the brakes. The plane wallows to the gate, and you wait some more, half-crouched in your seat, waiting your turn to wait in the aisle, to wait at the baggage claim, to wait at the car rental counter, to wait in airport traffic, to wait for life to resume.

Who undergoes this torment? Increasingly, we all do. The cross-country trains, a truly civilized way to travel, are nearly gone, and few of us have time to take really long trips by car. So nearly anyone might get caught up in the air travel trap once or twice a year.

But there is one whole class of unfortunate who suffers this misery on a regular basis. This is the Business Traveler, and his fate is hard. Chained to his laptop, bowed under the weight of his carry-on luggage, he is doomed to roam the Earth in search of money. He may not come back without it, and from the looks I see on his various faces in the nation's airports, he's having a harder and harder time finding it. He is truly the Wretched of the Air. Pray for him.


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