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Reality strikes at 30,000 feet

Ms. Garvey's New Year's plans are supposed to assuage the fears many travelers have about Y2K and its effect on the safety of flying. While I'm not sure that the turn of the century automatically will make planes more dangerous, I'm also not sure that I can ever get onto one again. Thirty thousand feet above the ground on which you usually tread is probably about the worst place to hear the following words: smoke, probably, quickly and emergency.

Yet, Thanksgiving night as I sat with my parents and sister on a plane headed for home -- after eating the holiday's traditional fare not 30 miles from the spot the Pilgrims partook of the first meal -- I heard those fateful words. Not to sound melodramatic or anything, but from the moment I was informed there was a potential problem with the machinery keeping me aloft, my life changed.

For the first time ever, I actually recognized my own mortality. I always used to object when people would remark that young people think they're going to live forever. I knew that one day I was going to die and it would be sooner rather than later if I took unnecessary risks like driving drunk and playing with guns.

Knowing this, I stayed away from the dangers that had been red-flagged by society. I figured I'd live to see 80, at least. Apparently, it never occurred to me that some accident could befall me and that would be the end of Katherine White. Accidents happen all the time and hand people unfair deals, I knew, but I was not and could not ever be one of those people.

Something about me, my aura, made it impossible for tragedy to penetrate my blissful existence. How arrogant I was. I'm not sure if I should be thankful about my newfound humility, or if I should lament the loss of my obliviousness.

At one time, flying was a novelty that I looked forward to with great anticipation. Plane rides were my favorite part of trips. This euphoria over the flight experience lasted until I was 11 or so and the rides started to get tedious. Nothing eventful ever happened in the air, all the good stuff occurred while I was on the ground. But once my grandfather informed me that, due to increased air traffic, by the year 2000 there would be an average of one plane crash a week, flying ceased to be a mere annoyance but became cause for concern. After a while, my irrational reaction to turbulence became a running joke for those flying with me. My sister often has been amused by my fervent piety when aboard a 747. While my heart pounded and my head spun, I really never thought anything bad would happen to me.

Thanksgiving night, as I sat next to my sister chugging Sprite, occasionally shooting glances at my father who I'd banished from our row in favor of increased personal space, and my mother quietly reading across the aisle, all was right with the world. I watched the pilots take turns walking to the back of the plane and assumed that someone was occupying the lavatory located in the front of the cabin. The uneasy smile the flight attendant shot me was chalked up to her discontent over having to work the holiday. A particularly rough patch of air that caused me to spill my drink all over myself was just another one of those things that made me whimper a little, and caused my sister to roll her eyes and announce that I was being ridiculous.

The captain's sudden announcement that there was smoke in the cabin and we would be making an emergency landing within the next 15 minutes in New York caught me by surprise.

As the 20 other passengers buckled their seat belts and the flight attendants quickly collected our garbage before taking their seats, for the first time I was faced with the possibility of imminent physical danger.

I can't say that for the next 35 minutes (about 20 minutes longer than originally thought necessary) my life flashed before my eyes. I didn't think back upon my life and see it in a whole new light. There were no epiphanies as I clutched the hands of my family, beyond the one that my life and the lives of the people closest to me were tenuous. By the time we landed, and were chased down the runway by a fleet of emergency vehicles, the world had changed.

My proverbial bubble was burst, and I entered the ranks of the world-weary. I experienced something that made it impossible for me to see things the same way ever again: fear. In some ways I feel lucky that it took 20 years before I had to know what it was to be truly afraid, and at the same time I'm disappointed that I had to be really scared at some point in my life at all.

Logically, I know that it's still safer to travel by plane than by car, but I'm still frightened to board another flight. Just the thought of going back to the place where I felt the most powerless and fragile nauseates me. Losing a sense of control over my life has thrown me for a loop, but it does make me wonder if maybe life actually has been made more exciting by my experience.

Now, instead of paying lip service to the idea that there are endless possibilities in life, I understand and actually embrace this truth. For, if unforeseen bad things can happen at any given moment, completely unexpected amazing things can likewise occur.

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