I have transportation phobias.
For one, I’m bad at flying. Not that long ago, I would cry during takeoff. Once in the air I would settle, but takeoff represented the last chance to bail before imminent destruction. It seemed downright stupid not to get off. I always wanted to leap out of my seat and shout, “I’ll just teleport there, thank you!” No amount of smiling people serving cookies could take my mind off the fact that we were leaving the Earth.
Once, on a red-eye flight in a distant land, I noticed what appeared to be smoke pouring into the plane through the windows. I began to hyperventilate. The guy next to me, already asleep, let out a snore. I decided to use his body as a flotation device if needed. When a flight attendant walked by, I grabbed her arm.
“What is that?” I asked, pointing to the smoke monster. “Is the plane on fire? Why are the windows smoking? Are we in hell? ARE WE ALREADY DEAD?”
She stared at the smoke, then me. “That’s condensation from the air conditioner.” The way she emphasized –er on conditioner indicated she had a certain amount of contempt for my kind. I don’t blame her. I’m the passenger who causes trouble for other nervous passengers, the first domino in a panic chain reaction. I must be stopped.
My fear of flying is so bad that I even get nervous driving by Newark Airport on the Jersey Turnpike. The airplanes, which take off and land right next to the highway, are giant hawks that seem to hunt down cars like field mice. One of these days, I fear they’ll catch one.
I’ve also been in two car accidents. They weren’t serious and no one was injured, but they shook me. For a few months after the first one, when falling asleep at night, I would jolt awake in bed from the recurring image of a truck slamming into the side of my car. Sweet dreams indeed.
But I think the real culprit behind my transportation issues, if I had to pinpoint an origin, is the time I was in a train wreck outside of Jacksonville, Florida in the late ‘90s.
I had just been on a weeklong visit to see my grandparents, only about two hours into my 20-hour journey back home. I was young, about 18, and it was my first solo trip. My seatmate was an expat named Julia who lived in Switzerland and was home visiting family. The guy in front of me, James, was a 20-something trust fund kid with time to burn. And to his right was Lucy, a lesbian stripper on her way back to NYC. As Lucy mentioned many times, she was worried about any possible delays because she had to be back in time for her shift the next morning. Yes, you can get lap dances in the a.m. in NYC.
We were having a rousing conversation about – guess what? – travel phobias. Lucy mentioned she was afraid to fly. Julia wasn’t bothered at all. James said he had no issues, either, even after being in a plane crash and surviving. (James said many things during that train ride, some of them suspect. Like that a wild falcon once followed him around, or that he had almost died after getting lost in the Moroccan desert, or that he had once been in the crossfire of a drug shootout. I guessed these fantastical tales were for Lucy’s benefit, because she was blonde and pert. But the grander he made his life and the more obvious it became that he liked her, the more of a lesbian Lucy became.)
James sat on his knees, turned around in his seat to face Julia and me. “The plane crash was nothing,” he said. “Just some bumps and bruises. I love flying.”
“Then why are you on a train now?” I asked. (I was a rude brat at 18.)
“Trains are a romantic way to travel, a forgotten art. I plan on taking the train all the way West once we reach New York.”
It was hard to see the romance in the microwaved sandwich sitting in front of me, but I nodded anyway.
“I’ve taken every type of transportation, been in all sorts of accidents,” James said. “But never a train wreck.”
It’s funny how life works sometimes. I don’t believe that there’s any sentient being messing around with us for his own amusement, but sometimes I do wonder. Because right after James declared himself train accident-free, our train slammed into a tractor trailer that had stalled across the tracks, and we all lurched forward on impact.
They say time moves slower during a traumatic event. I wouldn’t say that’s true. It’s more that certain details stand out during the chaos. And even though the chaos itself moves at warp speed, it’s those details that seem to slow its pace. For me, it was seeing parts of the smoking tractor trailer fly past the window outside. Or watching my water bottle tumble and spill all over the back of the seat in front of me. Or seeing James do a cartwheel in the air and land in the aisle, eyes blinking.
We helped James up, looked around. Everyone appeared to be OK. Some luggage had come off the racks but thankfully hadn’t hurt anyone. A train conductor came running through the car, commanding everyone to stay seated. Then he disappeared.
Lucy stood. “I don’t know about you all,” she shouted, “but I’m getting the fuck off this train.” Lucy, it turned out, was a great leader in time of disaster.
We started filing out, shaken and quiet. Once outside, we had a clearer picture of what had happened: the first four cars of our train had derailed. Ours had been the fifth car, still on the tracks but lifted up at a weird angle. We were right outside of Jacksonville but a world away in a farmer’s field. There was nothing around us now but dirt roads, corn stalks, and sunshine. It was hot.
Other riders must have seen us through their windows and followed suit because soon the entire contents of the train – almost 200 people – filled up the cornfield. Children on a field trip who had been in the third car bounced out with bloody noses, excited and proud of their injuries. There was rumor that no one had been seriously injured and we consoled ourselves with this info.
I was physically unhurt, aside from having banged my head on the cushioned seat in front of me. Mentally? I felt detached from my body; I was unable to say much. James had lost a bit of his bluster. He sat by himself chewing on a piece of hay. Julia complained about train service in the United States compared to Europe. And Lucy, determined to get home, had stomped off to find someone in a position of authority so she could discuss alternate travel options.
It was almost night before they brought several buses to take us to the nearest train station. The school children, who had brought along glow sticks for their trip, were now running through the farmer’s field playing a version of tag. Their bodies disappeared and they looked like nothing more than zigzagging lights, shrieking fireflies. As I boarded the bus, I remember thinking that this image of the children is what I wanted to remember most. To this day, it’s the first image that comes to mind when I think of the accident.
For their part, the train company – let’s call them Shmamtrak – did a great job responding to the accident. They gathered us up, put us on either another train or a flight home, and fed us free meals for the remainder of our journey. Everyone on the train helped one another, too, a great reminder that humanity is at its core decent, even after injury and heightened anxiety.
Lucy boarded a flight back to NYC so she could make her shift. Julia had a relative take her onward by car. I got on another train and so did James. We sat next to each other on this new train home – a bigger, brighter car train with an upstairs. When we took off from Jacksonville, James turned to me.
“I feel responsible,” he said. But I shook my head no.
It wasn’t Shmamtrak’s fault. It wasn’t the tractor trailer driver’s fault, either. And it wasn’t James’ fault. It was no one’s fault. This may have been the hardest aspect to accept. It wasn’t in anyone’s control.
Perhaps that is at the core of all phobias: lack of control. The train wreck marked the start of my transportation fear issues, reminding me that I am orbiting much closer to death on any given day than I might like to admit. We all are. As soon as we’re born, we have a contract with death. It would be nice if we could call the shots, control the moment and manner in which we go. I’d love to go in my sleep right after eating a gigantic ice cream sundae, but I don’t get to choose.
There’s a great mantra that Apache warriors would say to each other on the day of a big battle: “Today is a good day to die.” As morbid as it seems, this is actually a very life-affirming saying. If you know you can’t control when or how you die, how will this impact the way you live? Today is a good day to die when all the days before it have been good days to live.
I’ve boarded many planes and trains since the accident. I had a job that required travel, where I had to fly several times a year. I’ve been to Africa, which required five flights for the round trip. I take the subway to work every day. And I’ve been back on Shmamtrak trains many, many times – by choice. I no longer get as worked up about travel as I once did. Repetition helped to abate some anxiety. The more I traveled and came back in one piece, the less inclined I was to worry about it. I wanted to travel more than I was concerned with death.
I will never be the type of traveler who can forget that she’s thirty thousand feet in the air or that she’s racing along electrified rails at 100 miles per hour. What I can do is decide to live despite this fear.
That I get to choose.
If you have a flying phobia, a great resource is http://www.fearofflying.com/. It really helped me and I would recommend it.