My eyes peeled open as I was coming out of a deep sleep, forced from it because of the sudden shaking of my seat. As the kaleidoscopic mirage of lights and colored blobs met in the middle, I saw the cabin of the plane come into picture. Nobody else’s seat was shaking. Everybody’s heads seemed to be cocked back with mouths open like limp ventriloquist dummies. The sound of the engines were a relaxing low hum like when you hold your ear to a conch shell. The grey patterned seat in front of me was inches from my face, but not shaking like mine.
The force was coming from the right of my seat, and as I fully came out of my haze, I glanced to my right at the window and saw a large mass bobbing up and down in the darkness. With one such as myself that has a vivid imagination, I felt like pulling out a scene from Twilight Zone and yelling to the flight attendant, “There’s….there’s something outside my window!” But the mass wasn’t outside my window, it was in the seat beside me.
I fiddled above my head and clicked on my reading light to see long shadows cast over the the seat-back tray from 8 tiny liquor bottles. All empty. And they all rocked perilously because the man’s knees touched the bottom of the tray and were shaking. Yes, it was only a man beside me and not something from my nightmares, but you could make an argument that it was. As my eyes trailed up from the wobbling booze soldiers on the tray I realized that this man was a hulk.
He was the largest man I’ve ever seen; red-haired and red-bearded, as if my seat mate was someone who would be in the front lines of the Braveheart movie. And from the looks of it, it seemed like he was preparing to go berserk for battle. I’m sure that, given this was my first ever international flight, my face was twisted in fear. But for this story, I will simply say that I was calm and collected. Except, I was really freaking out inside.
The hulk was arched forward over the tray, his fingers bright white from the immense pressure of his grip, and the seat cushion was twisted inside of it. His eyes clinched so tight they could have probably juiced an apple, and he was heaving for breath louder than the plane engines. He might have been foaming at the mouth, but that could be memory exaggeration. I thought that either he was going to tear the seat from its bolts, or have a heart-attack. But to poke him to ask if he was okay could turn out to be like prodding a grizzly bear with a twig.
After building up enough courage, I croaked from my dry mouth, “Are you okay?” It’s possible that the croak was a mouse squeak, but either way I got the question out and received no answer. Then the cabin when bright white. It wasn’t angels coming to save me from this awkward situation, and there was no hymnal music accompanying it — just the lights beaming on as the flight attendant softly announced, “We will now be serving breakfast, arrival time is 2 hours.”
That’s when the beast looked over at me.
His face was bright red and dotted past his fire beard, and his brow was still furrowed with what I thought to be anger. I know you watch Game of Thrones, so you’ll understand that at that moment I felt like he was The Mountain about to squeeze my head in. But then it spoke.
“I’m sorry if I woke you.”
The feeling that I was going to pee myself in fear subsided as the hulk turned out to be more like a teddy bear. A wasted teddy bear that could break a shield-wall in battle, but none-the-less he was soft-spoken. He eased his grip on the chair in front of him and blinked his eyes, deeply inhaling. I could smell that potpourri of alcohol waft from his beard as he spoke, and the seat before him kept that mushed shape. He seemed to relax once the lights came on, for maybe he was immensely hungry, but he leaned back into his seat and wiped his sweaty brow.
“I am afraid of flying.” He sighed out in a harsh Scottish accent.
“I am terrified of flying” I replied.
“Not like me you aren’t” he chuckled.
No shit I’m not! Of course I didn’t say that, but I thought it. Here was a giant of a man having a panic attack beside me, and I thought that I was the one who everyone would look at weird.
Flying is one of my biggest fears as a traveler, which is a terrible thing when all you want to do is fly off to every damn country in the world. Actually, it isn’t flying that I’m terrified of, it is the take off and landing that scare me the most. It is a fear that has subsided in the years since that first flight abroad in 2011 to New Zealand, but there are flights where I still shut my eyes and pray to every God I can imagine.
“Please Gods of the clouds and thunder and wind and rain and plane wings and terrible airline food and birds, please don’t let any Final Destination shit happen to me.”
If you’re seated next to me, you may see my lips twitch slightly reciting these prayers as my head and body are pressed flat against the seat back. Normally, I just ask my mother and father to keep me safe, but a sudden jolt in the plane or take off and landing still keeps me on edge. Though I used to be visually terrified of flying, nowadays after flying more that 50 times since 2011 I will try to still my nerves by popping in the headphones and trying to fall asleep before the plane takes off. Funny enough, I sleep like a baby when flying. And even with this fear, sitting in a window seat watching the cities drift away or the landing strip approach below is one of my favorite things.
The hulk beside me eased some of these fears just as we were approaching Auckland airport, enough for me to enjoy watching those sapphire shores and the vibrant green hills on approach. I also enjoyed it more because he left his seat to use the restroom and I could stretch my legs peer out the window. Except when you stick your hand on the seat for balance and feel that it is soaked with a bathtub amount of sweat.
The flight wasn’t actually why I was so scared.
Truthfully, the “minor” breakdown of the giant beside that me freaked me out wasn’t why my flight to New Zealand was the scariest moment of my life. It wasn’t the fear of the plane crashing or Red Beard’s berserker rage — it was the moment that I stepped onto that plane that was the scariest moment of my life.
The thing that scared me the most was following my own path for the first time in my life.
Up until November 15th 2011 I had celebrated 23 birthdays in the United States. I had celebrated 22 birthdays in Maryland, and even when I moved out west to Nevada and California, I still flew back to Maryland for my birthday. I had spent my entire life in the confines of the United States always dreaming of what was beyond, but I never had the courage to find out. Most of my childhood memories are scarred by domestic violence. Most of my teen years are tainted by being told I couldn’t be anything that I wanted to be. And my late teens and early twenties were consumed by death and anger and pain and alcohol and denial. For some reason, even when I had the idea of breaking free to do what my heart yearned for, I was caged by physical and emotional prisons. Caged by the feeling that I couldn’t do something different even when I wanted to, because something disastrous would happen.
I had been on auto pilot all of my life until that very moment. To change that was terrifying.
Before boarding that plane in Los Angeles, I had taken the train across the United States chock full of the rebel spirit. I had a passport; the golden-freaking-ticket to the world and my dreams so everyone could fuck off and I’d leave the old life behind. I was the first of my family to possess this key to the world, and after over a decade of telling me I’d be nothing special, I was making something of myself. But then you get to the moment of truth. It’s one of those times like when a friend double-dog dares you to jump off a cliff into the lake. You go through the motions of over-exaggerated courage saying things like, “Psh! Why don’t you do it!” or “Ha, that isn’t scary at all!” and then you come to the edge and look over. GULP. It’s at that moment you realize you’ve talked a lot of smack and you either have to own it and jump, or become a chicken-shit for life. And boarding that plane was like one of those moments multiplied by a billion. Because it is a life decision, not one just to show off, but one to finally prove to yourself that you can do this however scared you are.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” — H. P. Lovecraft
I got a passport. I sold all of my belongings. I gave my notice at my job. I told my brother that I was going to travel the world. I had been disowned by my brother for saying this. I visited my parents graves to tell them I was leaving to make something of myself. And I rang out to the world and everyone I knew that I was going to travel the world. But there was still that moment of choice, of jump or don’t jump. Everything happened so fast up until the moment when I was supposed to board I didn’t second guess myself. But as I stood at the edge of my dream and boarding that plane, no matter how much I knew this was what I wanted, fear still gripped me.
“Fear stifles our thinking and actions. It creates indecisiveness that results in stagnation. I have known talented people who procrastinate indefinitely rather than risk failure. Lost opportunities cause erosion of confidence, and the downward spiral begins.” — Charles Stanley
It was exactly as the quote above stated. It is fear of doing something outside the lines, something bold, something from the heart, that halts each humans potential. When we feel the pull for something great, but we fear our own greatness. That was the biggest fear of my life was the fear of failing at my attempt of greatness. Not like I had to measure myself against anything else, but I felt the need to. And that feeling nearly paralyzed me from traveling. I didn’t want to give something a shot that I was told I always couldn’t do, and then fail at it to have it thrown in my face. In reality though, nobody can measure your worth except you. And nobody can live your dreams except you.
The scariest thing up until that point in my life wasn’t some imaginary monster in the closet when I was younger, nor was it all of the crazy things that had happened to me up until that point. It was attempting to do something my heart and soul and spirit desired to do. You stand at the edge and look over and there might be some push to prove others wrong, or a push to be brave to show others you were. You have to leap because dammit you wanted to leap off and feel the rush of life fill your body.
And I did that day. 1,460 days ago I did the scariest thing of my life by listening to my heart. I’ve had plenty of ups and downs and bumps and bruises along the way, but I haven’t ever had one regret since.
Have you had a similar experience?