Don’t Panic—London Time

British Airways 747

Don’t Panic—London Time

[This is a bit experimental, so feel free to “punt” if it gets tedious. Much of it was written under the influence…of mortality.]

I planned on continuing last week’s story. I wanted to record the fun bookish things I found in London, but other things got in the way. Maybe next week I’ll write up the rare book show and the Hardy Tree and the Da Vinci…

It is Tuesday, June 11. The map on the TV screen on the seat in front of me says we have traveled 2671 miles from London. There are just about 1056 miles left until we land at Dulles at 8 o’clock tonight. We left London at about 5pm. The five hour time difference means I will have spent eight hours in this metal shell. There are two and half hours left to go. I just want to be home. This trip has not ended well.

I’ve written for hours and hours today. There was so much time to kill in Heathrow. I wrote to keep my head together. And to keep the sadness at bay. I’d been so happy the last couple months. Laughing and joking. That old sad possessive companion was gone, I thought. But then things seemed to peter out the last couple weeks. I tried and tried to be funny. I just wasn’t funny anymore. Where did it go? I dunno. Up and left, I guess. Now my “friend” is back. I’m officially sad.

So on Day 6, I wrote and wrote in Heathrow Airport. I had only planned a 5 day trip. I arrived at 8 am to be sure I had a seat to go home. I couldn’t check in online. Turns out I did have a seat. The plane would depart at 5:10 pm. 9 hours to kill in Heathrow Airport. I didn’t want to go back into the city. There was nothing I was anxious to see. And I’d already been in and out of Paddington Station nearly twenty times in 5 days. And it was rainy. So, I was a “captive” audience. I had some yellow legal pads that were covered with stuff I’d written as long as four years ago. I was able to bang out a lot of things onto the laptop. A permanent “archive” as it were. I will print everything out when I get back. I keep a pair of printed archives as well. Why? It is a hobby, I guess. I could have worse avocations. Maybe if they survive, some future desperate PhD candidate will need a subject. Perhaps late 20th and early 21st century used bookselling in the Washington suburbs will be suggested by an advisor.

Now, why did I spend an extra day, all day in Heathrow Airport? That gets a little strange…a little “stream-of-consciousnessy.” But that’s what I experienced, and the end of this is written exactly as it happened—in real time. So here it is:

Monday, June 10, 2019 British Air west of Ireland

Don’t Panic

In this shell 8 miles high. I’m packed with 500 or so strange souls. The attendants just began the drink service in the aisle behind us. The loudspeaker intones: “Would a senior flight attendant come to the cabin?” The cabin crew stops the drink service. A steel cart rolls quickly past my elbow and into the curtained galley. I wanted some wine.
“Two reds please,” I was prepared to ask. I’d taken a pill and hoped to sleep all the 8 hours home. The wine would ease that in. The movie on the little screen on the back of the seat before me froze. Newt Scamander’s face stared out fixedly. Some static and then a map appeared.
England and Ireland familiar shapes. I loved maps when I was a schoolboy.
I’d stare at the vast colorful sheet hung from the ceiling at the front of the classroom.
I’d always choose a seat near the front. Close to the teacher’s desk and blackboard.
But more importantly I was close to the big map as well. I dreamed of seas and mountains, rivers and cities.
Someday I’d go there and there. The places I’d seen on paper in books or magazines or newspapers. Or on the fuzzy gray-blue “black and white” TV screen at home.

Now there’s a little electronic map on the seat before me. 2019.
England, Ireland and a cartoon plane. The plane is a third the width of Ireland.
It turns around and points east like a video game.
Its nose almost touches the Aran Isles. I’m in that plane. Would a magnifying glass show a cartoon me looking out a window confused? I’m in a Nintendo plane flying the wrong way. The screen crackles with static and goes dark. I hadn’t felt us turning back so gentle was the arc. Imperceptible—to me at least. “Ladies and gentlemen this is your captain. [oh captain my captain.] Some of you can tell we’ve turned around.
We are, I’m sorry to say, returning to London. [I love London and would go there anytime.] We have had a technical issue and, in an abundance of caution,
we have determined it safer to return rather than to continue to Washington.
We are heavy with fuel. Too heavy to land. Normally we would exhaust most of the fuel
on our flight across the ocean. We will need to dump some fuel.
[A 747 can hold about 48,000 gallons of jet fuel.]
It will come out of the wing tips. If you see this out your window,
it is entirely normal; necessary. You may even smell jet fuel.
This is entirely normal. The crew will come through and answer any questions.”
I am a few rows from the curtained kitchen. Women and men in dark blue suits do drills.
[Batten the hatches. Bind the foresail. Secure the yardarms
in case there’s a blow ahead.] “We anticipate a normal landing.”
A concerned woman leans into my row.
A dapper blue-black string bow tie about her neck. “Do you have any questions?”
The little old woman one seat away—she had begun the flight
berating her young granddaughter: “That will not look good on your resume.
A server! The colleges, they’ll look at that—as a waste.
How will you pay for your trip and apartment? Have you even asked to audition for Disney world?” Her focus has changed now.
She cannot dominate the child’s life if they die.
She holds the safety card up to the attendant. The card shows how to evacuate the plane in an emergency.
She asks: “What do I do?” “I assure you, you will not need that,” the attendant replies.
“We fully anticipate a normal landing. Please don’t panic.” Everyone on the plane is thinking of death. I presume my eyes look the same as all of theirs. Big round hollow vacant. Scared? No. More concerned, I think.
There’s no flight or fight up here. We each of us are impotent to our fate.
I sit and watch the professionals behind the curtain a few rows ahead.
They are methodical. Steps. Procedures. Duties.
They do not seem to worry. They do not have wild eyes. “What is happening?” The passenger next to me asks.
“We do not know what the problem is.
We are just stewards, and that is being done above our level.
But we are assured this is being done in an abundance of caution.”
I say a prayer. We will die, or we won’t. “We will be back at Heathrow in an hour.”
I don’t count the minutes. I say a prayer.
As in Hamlet I believe if I die in prayer I’ll not go to hell.
There’s no downside to the belief.
If my body hurtles, frozen, miles to the ocean surface
as hard as stone. Well, I’m as hard as stone.
The sea is hard as stone. If I hit oblivion, I’ll never know my faith is misplaced.
It is an easy choice. My prayer passes some minutes. If we evacuate in panic, what should I have in my pockets? You cannot evacuate with your bag. I stand and retrieve my passport and phone from my carry on above. The plane rumbles. We descend. That is perceptible.
The landing gear grinds out beneath us. Will we hit the earth a ball of flame?
“Don’t panic,” I tell myself. “There’s nothing to panic about.”
I tell myself: “I am dead, or I am not.” We bump and screech.
All is normal on the runway. Normal but for the fear of death
each of us had in the last hour. “There was a signal there was smoke…” we are told.
…somewhere in this giant craft… “In an abundance of caution…”
We roll and roll and roll on the solid flat earth. Firetrucks follow, red lights flashing
on either flank. “We will soon be at our gate. Remain seated with your…” We are not in flames. Yet. Fireman come on board as we file out.
There is nothing for them to see. Unless they see our eyes.
Tired eyes. Worn out from fear and desperation.
In an abundance of caution, I’d said my prayers.
I wish I were home an ocean away. I did not panic.

In the future, when certain death is upon me—
the doctors decree these are the last hours—
Will I scream and rant and rail at fate?
Or will some stewards tell me: “Don’t panic.
You are stuck in this shell. There is no where to go
Until we let you out.”

First Version

June 10, 2019 British Air west of Ireland

Don’t Panic

In this shell 8 miles high
I’m packed with 300 strange souls
“Would a senior flight attendant come to the cabin?”
The cabin crew stopped service
Carts of drinks. Drinks quickly past my elbow
I wanted some wine
“Two reds please,” I was prepared to ask
I’d taken a pill and hoped to sleep
all the 8 hours home
The movie on the screen before me froze
Newt Scamander’s face starred out
Static and then a map appeared
England and Ireland familiar shapes
I loved maps when I was a child
I’d stare at the maps hung from the ceiling
I’d chosen a seat near the front
Close to the teacher’s desk and blackboard
But close to the big map
I dream of seas and mountains; rivers and cities
Someday I’d go there and there
The places I’d seen on paper or the fuzzy TV screen at home
Now there’s a little electronic map on the seat before me
England Ireland and a cartoon plane
the plane is a third the width of Ireland
It turns around and points east
Its nose almost touching the Aran Isles
I’m in that plane
Would a magnifying glass show a cartoon me
looking out a window confused
I’m in a video game flying the wrong way
The screen crackles with static and goes dark
I hadn’t felt us turning so gentle was the arc
Imperceptible—to me at least
“Ladies and gentlemen this is your captain
(oh captain my captain)
some of you can tell we’ve turned around
We are, I’m sorry to say returning to London
(I love London and would go there anytime)
We have had a technical issue
and, in an abundance of caution,
we have determined it safer
to return rather than to continue to Washington
We are heavy with fuel
too heavy to land
Normally we would exhaust the fuel
in our flight across the ocean
We will need to dump some fuel
It will come out of the wing tips
If you see this out your window
it is entirely normal; necessary
You may even smell jet fuel
This is entirely normal
The crew will come through and answer any questions
I’m a few rows from the curtained kitchen
women and men in dark blue suits do drill
Batten the hatches, bind the fore the foresail
Secure the yardarms
in case there’s a blow ahead
“We anticipate a normal landing”
A concerned woman leans into my row.
A dapper bow tie about her neck
“Do you have any questions?”
The little old woman one seat away
—she had begun the flight
berating her young granddaughter
“That will not look good on your resume
A server! They’ll look at that
—it is a waste
How will you pay for your time?
Have you even auditioned for Disney world?”
Her focus has changed now
She cannot dominate the child’s life if they die
She holds the safe card up
she asks what do I do
“I assure you, you will not need that
We anticipate a normal landing.”
Everyone on the plane is thinking of death
There’s no flight or fight
We each of us are impotent to our fate
We sit and watch the professionals behind the curtain
They are methodical
Steps procedures duties
They do not worry
They do not have wild eyes
“We do not know what the problem is
We are just stewards and that is above
But we are assured this is being done
in an abundance of caution”
I say a prayer.
We will die or we wont
“We will be back at Heathrow in an hour.”
I don’t count the minutes.
I say a prayer.
As in Hamlet if I die in prayer
I’ll not go to hell
There’s no downside to the belief
If hurtle, frozen, miles to the hard
as hard as stone
I’m as hard as stone
The sea is hard as stone
I’ll never know if my faith its misplaced
It is an easy choice
My prayer passes minutes
The plane rumbles.
We descend
The landing gear grinds out beneath us
We will hit the earth a ball of flame
“Don’t panic” I tell my self
“There’s nothing to panic about”
I tell myself
“I am dead or I am not”
We bump and screech.
All is normal on the runway
Normal but for the fear of death
each of us had in the last hour
“There was a signal there was smoke
somewhere in this giant craft.
In an abundance of caution…”
We roll and roll and roll
Firetrucks follow red lights flashing
on either flank
We come to our gate
We are not in flames
Yet
Fireman come on board as we file out
There is another for them to see
Unless the see our eyes
Tired eyes
Worn out from fear and desperation
In an abundance of caution I’d said my prayers
I wish I was home an ocean away
I did not panic
When certain death is upon me
The doctors decree these are the last hours
Will I scream and rant and rail at fate?
Or will the stewards tell me:
“Don’t panic.
You are stuck in this shell
There is no where to go
Until we let you out.”

4 Comments on Article

  1. Tobi commented on

    This was not tedious at all. It is very well written as I feel the emotion but it isn’t overly dramatic. Stoic but real. I’m sorry you are sad. I’m suffering from a bout of melancholy myself. Here’s to happier times to come for both of us!

    1. Chuck replied on

      Thanks Tobi! The blues are back at bay thank goodness. Where do they come from? How can they just take over?
      I hope yours disappear soon!
      Now I’m just tired. So much to do here and I’m so far behind…
      Thanks for commenting!
      Best
      Chuck

  2. Elizabeth commented on

    I loved your reflections on this adventure! Your prose reads like a composite of academic, novelist and poet – 21st century version. I find your threads of thought, reflection, feeling and
    candor oh so refreshingly honest! Having just returned from a flight across country – fraught with all the delays, rebooking flight waits, unwillingness to give passengers any information and the final 11 pm on the final stretch of runway interruption: “We have to wait for the fueler to check; he isn’t sure he put the gas cap back on.” (Visions of take-off spewing jet fuel all over Newark.) The trapped in the airline misery experience honestly expressed. I found myself
    wishing this saga was a book, along with the “Gold ring, mirror, owl” adventure. You are “The bookseller”. Those reflections are a book I would love to read. I am so sorry for your experience of “sadness”. I know it isn’t at all pleasant, but this culture is so superficial and generally trite. (The grandmother thinking of the resume comment.) For a person of depth and sensitivity, living in this crass culture, to be without an underlying sense of pain and sadness, would be unusual. Sensitivity to yourself and the huge world of your awareness comes at a price. Often sadness is a cue to return to your creative self, with tenderness … and time.
    I love your work, the heart you share. Please keep writing and sharing. It is a cup of water for many thirsty souls!

    1. Chuck replied on

      Dear Elizabeth, Your comments are so beautiful and inspiring. Thank you so much! You make me want to continue and try harder to do well. The Round and round stories are 10 parts long now. If I can come up with more plot and an ending it could be a “book”! Fingers crossed!
      Thank you again,
      Chuck

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