A plane, an explosion

Flying again is scary and tender and sticky.

By Gabriel Olds

Published October 1, 2001 7:18PM (EDT)

This is the shirt I'm going to die in, I think as I dress for my trip to New York. It's an old, faded, white T-shirt, "given" to me by my sweet ex-girlfriend Andrea. She gave it the way exes always give clothes. She simply left it at my house one day.

I am not nervous as we drive to LAX. But then our route changes. We head away from the terminal and toward a temporary (?) parking lot where passengers are dropped off and then whisked away in donated buses. I'm being carried off by Hertz, today, and there's an extremely tender and trustworthy man who wants to know where I'm going. He is so kind, in fact, that he gives me great pause.

What a psychic deadness there was in America! A month ago, any bus operator might have conveyed a subtle "screw you" with everything he or she did. And now, this operator, Javier, is my hero. He is smiling, paying attention. This job is new for him, after all, and there's a sense of pride. He's becoming what we need him to become: a sort of father.

How glib we had become! How angry. How spoiled. Think of the Columbine shootings. Where did this American internal combustion and apathy come from? Was it a sort of identity crisis?

Because now, at least for the past few weeks, it's gone. Could Columbine happen again after 9/11? Did we simply need an enemy? Did Javier need an enemy? Are we all that depressingly simple and primal?

The bus pulls into an empty LAX. Holy God, it's empty. The bus jaunts casually up to the curb and begins letting people off, terminal by terminal. Javier smiles, nods and helps. I almost cry.

Finally, after recovering my bags, I roll into Terminal 4, American Airlines.

Ghost town.

I proceed to the scant check-in line and immediately end up with one of the 10 (count 'em, 10) gentle American Airlines employees.

I am jumpy and friendly. I ask for an emergency exit row. The attendant smiles and says, in a wistful way, "Oh, they're already taken." We both laugh a hard, good laugh. As the tears clear up, she directs me over to security.

Once there, my I.D. is checked and rechecked, but my bags aren't searched. This disappoints. I do, however, let my computer go through the X-ray, which is a first for me. (Usually, I make the airports hand-check it. This is a ludicrous procedure -- as long as it turns on, it goes through. Unbelievable. As if a gun or a knife would keep the monitor from working.)

But perhaps this is part of the "new security." I'm usually a surly little jerk when it comes to arbitrary searches and perceived abuses of authority. But, today, I'm a peach. And if normal citizens are more understanding, perhaps the terrorists will stick out more.

But as I'm having this thought, I hear yelling. It's an old woman who's being forced to abandon her sewing scissors. She's pissed. I laugh. The security guard turns to me and smiles. "She hasn't been watching much TV recently," the guard jokes. I laugh again. Lady, you're alive! I think.

If only she knew there'd be an explosion on our plane in two hours.

But now, we're safe. I'd gotten to the gate in 20 minutes, max. So far -- if I don't die, today -- it will be the most fluid travel experience of my life.

Finally, we get on the plane; I resist the urge to cross myself because I'm not religious.

The plane is half-full. I find my racism bubbling up -- or my profiling, as they're calling it. That man's skin is a little dark, I think. I promise to watch him, despite the vulgarity of that thought. Who's it gonna be, I keep thinking, scanning the crowd. Not him: too old. Not her: She's -- well -- she's a woman. Yay: sexism, too! I'm hitting all the right notes. God help me.

As we prepare to take off, the captain comes on. He says a light is blinking and it should be nothing. They're checking it. It is not, he assures us, a security problem. "It's just something mechanical," he says, "like in the old days."

The old days.

Wouldn't that be great if we could just get back to the old days? There used to be a sort of twisted, natural balance. Terrorist groups sat on the edges of world culture, and -- in a bizarre way -- things seemed to even out.

But we can never go back. Not when a fringe group has such astounding success like this. We have to do something.

But what? Perhaps there's a helpful comparison to be made: Osama bin Laden is, after all, someone we know from American culture. He is basically an anti-abortion freak; one of those people who blows up a clinic. It's just religiously sanctioned violence.

How have we responded to these people in the past? When Timothy McVeigh hit Oklahoma, we didn't bomb his hometown. When the anti-abortionists blow up a clinic, we don't bomb conservative churches.

Is it a good idea to bomb Afghanistan? We must show great discretion here. We must think of the world as our backyard. How would we proceed in a domestic case? Detective work, police action, courts, sentencing. We must do the same here, only, use the police of the world -- not just American soldiers. Get the U.N. involved. Take bin Laden to a world court.

We must swallow some of our pride. Resist the Great American Hubris. Maybe we can salvage, savour, some of the first sympathy -- really, the very first -- that America has received in almost 60 years; maybe there would be some good to come of this.

The engine starts and we take off. The stewardess tells us to turn off our cellphones. We ignore her. Everyone has their phones on. Some sort of lifeline, I guess. We know from the hijackings that it won't make the plane crash, and we want to be in touch, just in case. I hear phones ring two or three times as we take off.

And then it happens.

The explosion.

As the stewardess brings beverages through the aisle, she drops a can of Coke. It hits a knob on the floor and erupts, shooting everywhere. And I really mean everywhere. People shriek, jumping from their seats. Towels are brought out. Eight passengers are hit. We are wet. We are sticky. We are laughing. The tension and the grief of this trip has just spilled from us. One woman, as she dabs the coke off her glasses, starts to cry.

We have survived.

Gabriel Olds

Gabriel Olds is an actor and writer who lives in New York and Los Angeles.

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