The need for speed

Maverick: “I feel the need…”
Goose: “…the need for speed!” — Top Gun, 1986

planesTrailways Bus Lines and its competitor, the Grey Dog (Greyhound), were once the undisputed kings of long-distance travel. “Leave the driving to us,” the TV ads crooned, as gleaming buses piloted by singing drivers rolled across the snow-covered Rockies, through woodlands and plains, beckoning us to forsake our cares and take to the open road.

But our nation grew impatient, and now we’re content to glimpse America from 35,000 feet. The Grey Dog no longer bounds down the highway, but walks with a noticeable limp, and an occasional snarl.

Air travel was once luxurious, too. The chic, cross-country traveler dressed up for the occasion. Hot meals were served on china. Flying was a chance to be pampered, and to impress your friends that you had really made it.

But as seats, legroom and meals have shrunk, experienced fliers have learned to dress comfortably, not for style.

(And, the dirty little secret is that the Grey Dog has way more legroom than a coach seat on any US airline — plus, their seats actually recline.)

I’m in a hurry today. The airline reservation system wouldn’t let me print my boarding pass, so I’m standing in front of the electronic agent, trying to prove to the machine that I really am who I am. I’ve given it my credit card and the 3-letter code for my destination, but now it wants to know what time of day my flight leaves. Doesn’t it know this already? And would I be standing here at 6:00 in the morning if my flight left in the afternoon?

I’m checking a bag and the man in front of me is too, only he forgot to tell the machine. This causes eye-rolling in the gate agent. The man is escorted out of line and taken to a back room where he will undoubtedly receive remedial computer education reinforced with electric shocks.

The security line swells and writhes like an overfed python. I strip to my underwear and walk through the metal detector, but my nose ring sets off the alarm. A sneering man built like a linebacker takes me to a small room. They implant a radio transmitter under my skin and let me go. I begin hearing an FM radio station in my fillings.

Airport waiting areas are all designed by industrial architects. Cold and noisy, their huge, dirty windows look out on a vast wasteland of baggage trains and taxiing aircraft. There are no electrical outlets for my laptop, which means these carpets have not been vacuumed since the Carter administration. A loud voice comes over the PA system and a drunk Hungarian says something that was probably important, but it’s drowned out by a CNN report on George Clooney’s latest love and the din of people yapping on their cell phones.

The man sitting across from me is dressed in orange sweat pants and a white “Don’t Mess With Texas” t-shirt. A burley fellow across the way has chosen baggy, camo shorts and a sleeveless black shirt that shows off his Guns and Roses tattoo. A young student in jeans is carrying a straw hat that looks like it was rescued from the HOV lane on the way to the airport. The young woman with her pierced navel showing will be looking for a blanket as soon as she boards the plane.

A college women’s volleyball team is here and they are all stuffing breakfast burritos into their mouths. Some of them are watching the news on the big-screen TV overhead. Others are talking animatedly to themselves, but on closer examination, their ears are plugged with those little Bluetooth headsets that are all the rage.

We stumble together down the long tunnel, hurrying to make an on-time departure. I look for the plane’s registration tag in the door frame as I step inside — April, 1982 is the year this plane rolled off Mr. Boeing’s assembly line. 26 years. You’re out of college and on your own, working at that first job, making real money for the first time in your life — or what seems like real money. Life is good and the world is your oyster.

Twenty-six isn’t so bad, except that 26-year-old humans don’t suffer from metal fatigue and spider cracks in wing spars.

I’m seated today in 13A. The overhead sticker actually says 14A, but the row ahead of me is 12 — you can do the math. Apparently, we’re still a bit superstitious when it comes to being sealed in an aluminum pipe and hurled through the air at 450 mph. I wonder if the cockpit has lucky dice dangling between the pilots and a horseshoe over the door?

Does the missing 13th row mean the airline knows something I don’t?

The movie screens drop and a computer-animated family of three demonstrates our safety procedures. The father, I notice, has a very bizarre hairdo. His leggy blonde wife must be a gymnast, since she has no trouble bending forward to assume the crash unscheduled landing position. Then I notice that her knees are not painfully embedded in the seat in front of her like mine are.

In the event of a “water landing,” the narrator assures us, the pilot will deploy the emergency Evinrude 350’s and motor the airship serenely to a dock while the crew distributes complimentary soft drinks and pretzels. Relax and leave the flying to us.

We are pressed back into our seats as we roll down the runway. I give my seatbelt another tug as the plane sways and bumps and rattles. We approach the moment when we should rotate, and then, with a shudder, the nose lifts and the jet claws its way into the sky. The landing gear thump closed and the houses and automobiles begin to shrink away below me. My ears pop. I start to relax. We’re airborne, the wings didn’t fall off, we’re fine. Probably.

Icarus flew too close to the sun and fell. We are seven miles high, beyond the reach of the birds. The movie starts, the beverage cart squeaks down the aisle and the Jamaican flight attendant takes drink orders in a lilting, sing-song voice. A baby is crying behind me and the mother stands and rocks her child to sleep. My eyes grow heavy as the sun reflects off a vast sea of downy-white clouds stretching to the far horizon.

I dream of sailing, tacking across a silvery sea, the breeze heeling the boat as it slices through the rolling swells. I’m laughing. Seagulls swoop and circle lazily overhead. I don’t wake up again until our tires bump down the runway at the other end of the country.

Fifteen hundred miles in about 3 hours. Not too shabby. The Grey Dog has gone the way of dial telephones, black and white television and letters sent to Grandma by US Mail. We’re hooked on speed.

It takes 20 minutes for my luggage to tumble down the conveyor belt. 20 minutes! Practically a lifetime. Ridiculous, I think, as I hurry out to the street and search for the hotel shuttle.

You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand. My entire lifetime is just a moment to You; at best, each of us is but a breath. We are merely moving shadows, and all our busy rushing ends in nothing. We heap up wealth, not knowing who will spend it. And so, Lord, where do I put my hope? My only hope is in You. — Psalm 39:5-7, NLT

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  1. Wow, great writing Charlie. Just for fun but with a point.

  2. I enjoyed this. (=