|Apr/May 2016 Nonfiction|
In the summer of 1991, at age 19, I boarded a plane to Charlotte and the second half of my military training. There were three girls in the group who had never flown, and they held each other's hands as the plane taxied down the runway, screaming when the pilot pushed the throttle forward. They hugged each other the entire flight, their lips moving in silent prayer. They screamed when we lifted off and screamed when we hit pockets of turbulence and screamed when the plane banked for its final approach. When we landed in Charlotte, they walked unsteadily off the plane, still holding onto one another.
Inside the terminal, the three girls recovered. They laughed about their earlier fear. They were younger than the rest of us, still in high school. They had never been away from home, and though we made fun of them in the way that men will sometimes laugh at what scares them, too, we told them there was nothing to be ashamed of, that fear affects everyone differently.
Walking through the Charlotte airport in our uniforms, some people shook our hands, confusing us with soldiers returning from the Middle East. The Gulf War had just ended, and there were soldiers everywhere, celebrations erupting at every terminal, men hugging women hugging children.
I had been scared on the plane, too. The summer before I had flown from Little Rock to Dallas on a small jet, and then from Dallas to Fort Sill on a puddle jumper, a twin prop so loud I couldn't understand the pilot's words, and so small there was only one attendant who couldn't hear over the noise of the propellers nor yell loud enough when outlining the safety procedures. I didn't ask anything out of fear I would vomit if I opened my mouth, but two questions I might have asked were: Do the rivets in the paneling always rattle like that? and Could you go over the safety instructions again? Like the three girls, I had been scared of what I was getting myself into. I had joined the military because my father and grandfather had served, but bouncing around between the clouds on that small plane, I had begun to reconsider the wisdom of my decision. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait just a few weeks before I graduated Basic Training, I would reconsider again, and again when the bombs began to fall on Baghdad.
But now the Gulf War had ended, the troops were returning home, we were flying to complete our military training, and the celebrations in the airport made us forget our earlier fears. We went along shaking the hands of the people who mistook us for war veterans.
If there was any lingering fear in us then, it had been placed there by the staff sergeant who briefed us on military travel protocol. This was in Little Rock, right before we boarded the plane, before the girls' fears began to get the better of them and they began to cry and pray to God to protect us from crashing.
The first rule was we had to stay together and maintain our military bearing at all times. We were representatives of the United States military, and we would behave as such.
We were not to swear, or insult anyone, or act inappropriately in any way.
We were not to use the word bomb, or detonate, or rifle or hijack, and for most of the flight a guy named Bryant and I made up words we could use instead of the forbidden ones. Bryant said balm and I said defecate, and together we created riffle and hijinks, which we found hilarious. Later, as we began to descend toward Charlotte, we wondered why we would not be allowed to say the real ones, concluding that in crazy countries, as we called them, balms and hijinks and defecations were serious threats.
Our gate was at the far end of one of the airport wings, and we walked together, occasionally whispering defecate or hijinks or laughing about the three girls' silly fear of flying.
We were almost at the gate when we saw the terrorist. A bank of payphones hung on one wall, and he stood next to them, turned sideways. He wore a black silk turban and black silk robes. He carried a staff—not a cane, but a wrist-thick, five-foot tall staff with some sort of gem or polished stone atop it. One arm covered the lower part of his face, like a vampire in an old film, and he peered over his arm with eyes I can only describe as beady. A suitcase rested at his feet.
Balm, I thought. Defecate. Hijinks.
Other people must have thought he was a terrorist as well, for a small crowd had gathered around him. A group of three or four soldiers watched him. Airport security stood nearby, walkie-talkies in their hands.
Ten years later, in 2001, I would turn on the TV just as the second plane crashed into the South Tower on that morning in September. All that day and into the next the footage rolled, again and again, on video and timed cameras, in frames that could be paused, enlarged, and shrunk, rewound and played again, and again, and again. People jumped from the towers, falling in slow motion, and then the towers collapsed, smoke billowing skyward. There were different angles and different quality of film and different lighting in each one, as if our collective conscious had captured it, even though we would all remember it differently.
Not quite a year later, in the summer of 2002, I flew to Arkansas to visit my family. My wife and daughters had flown back a few weeks before, so I was on my own, and since I didn't have to pretend to my daughters that I am not deathly afraid of flying, I started thinking about the plane crashing, about September 11th, about those three girls from ten years before, about the man in the black silk robes with the suitcase that we thought might have contained a balm.
I had an aisle seat, and as I bent over to slide my backpack beneath me, I saw a man coming down the aisle. He had a thick black beard and dark skin, and though he was dressed in jeans and a collared shirt, I remembered hearing that the 9/11 hijinksers had shed their desert robes for Western clothes when they boarded those four flights. It was early in the flight and I didn't think the move-about-the-cabin-light had come on yet. He had one hand behind him, as if he were reaching for something in his back pocket, which I was sure would be a box-cutter that he'd use to slit the throat of the flight attendants, then kick open the cockpit door and bank the plane sharply as we re-routed toward the White House.
All this flickered through my mind, and then the guy sidled past. He was not reaching for a box-cutter. He did wear a beard, but it was neatly trimmed, and his dark skin came from tanning in a lighted bed or lying beside a kidney-shaped pool. He would have looked more at home in Pennsylvania or Ohio than Iraq or Afghanistan, some small town with a name like Wrinkle Creek or Deerfield.
"Why is he looking at us like that?" one of the girls whispered on that summer day in 1991, the Gulf War just over, the troops returning, no threats on the horizon that we could see. I thought she was going to cry, that her earlier fear had come back. The man looked like he hated us, though I could be conflating memory with what I know now, how simple it is to see others as other, to project our own fears onto different skin.
I'd guess now that the man had never been to a Western country, that he was confused as to why so many people had crowded around him as if he were a zoo exhibit, something dangerous that needed to be guarded. I'd say he simply didn't like to fly and was worried about the immediate future, the same way all of us were as we stood in our skin beneath whatever we wore on the outside.
I knew none of this then. I had only been to half of my training, where the cardboard cut-outs we aimed our riffles at still wore Soviet symbols, though I had begun to suspect that the balms we had dropped on Baghdad a few months before might hurt us more than the men we intended to hit.
"He looks like he has a riffle hidden in his robes," one of the guys in our group said. "Or a balm in his briefcase."
More security came down the gates; more soldiers joined the crowd.
"He looks like he wants to defecate us all," we said, not understanding how words work, how easy it is to turn toward the terrible.
We were young then, not at all educated about the forces at work in the world, nor how much hate we can hold. None of us could see the awful future, nor understand how we would react to the singular moments of our lives, the ones we replay in our heads again and again, wondering what they mean, what we can learn from them.
"Balm," we said. "Balm, balm, balm, balm, bomb."