Submitted by Ishmael von Heidrick-Barnes
Two weeks before Hurricane Sandy swept up the East Coast, I boarded a westbound plane at JFK Airport in New York City. I was flying home from the Princeton launch of my new book, Intimate Geography. It was an uneventful flight until we approached the Arizona-California border and our flight was diverted to Los Angeles due to fog over San Diego. As we approached LAX, the Captain, announced that the weather over Lindbergh Field had cleared. We would land in LA, refuel, and then head down to San Diego.
After about an hour and a half wait on the tarmac while American Airline ground crews refueled the Boeing 757, we were in the air again. It was clear out over the ocean as we flew south within sight of the coast. Under normal conditions, the landing pattern at Lindbergh follows Highway 94 west over downtown San Diego.
We began descending eastward while over the Pacific Ocean. I saw no sign of foul weather until our plane reached Point Loma. The fog I spotted from my window had a sinister consistency resembling low-lying smoke. The roofs of houses remained visible, but all around them, a river of the black mercurial substance poured in from the sea.
Our plane reached within a few hundred feet of the runway when the engines suddenly roared and the landing gear groaned back into the belly of the fuselage. We shot vertically into the sky, turning 360 degrees back out to sea. The pilot came on the intercom and explained the aborted landing and announced that, given the poor weather conditions we would have to go back to LAX.
I felt good about the Captain’s decision not to land in San Diego. We flew north out over the Channel Islands. The black Pacific was dotted by the occasional lights of cargo ships.
The inconvenience of spending a night in LA was nothing compared to the risk of an accident.
Memories of PSA Flight 182 flooded my mind. In 1978, a 727 had slammed into a North Park neighborhood not far from my high school. Everyone on board died along with several people on the ground. Since that tragedy I had suffered from a terrible fear of flying. For reasons unknown to me (at the moment the Captain had aborted our landing into Lindbergh Field) my anxiety had unexpectedly lifted from my mind. I felt liberated and lost in my yet new-found freedom.
As we began our descent into Los Angeles, the pilot’s voice crackled over the intercom again. “This is just not my day, ” He announced. “We now have a hydraulic leak and have been cleared by the tower to make an emergency landing at LAX.” The 757 immediately banked sharply east towards the city. The turn was radical, my window looked straight down to the ground.
Once more, I was surprised to find myself completely absent of fear. A haiku my friend, Karen Kenyon, had written about pulsars eclipsed every other thought orbiting my mind. Looking down over Los Angeles at night felt like I had a front row seat to a sprawling firmament of man-made stars.
Poetry revealed its power to transcend the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which had hijacked my emotions for years, and I was amazed. Karen’s three line verse poem became the mantra that erased the conscious separation of matter and mind. I could hear her soothing voice reading,
In your bright dying,
pulsing two times each second,
lighthouse for the stars
I thought of Carl Sagan, who was the inspiration behind Karen’s haiku. He used to say, “We’re made from star stuff.” I couldn’t find anything to fear as our plane touched down so much faster than usual and trembled to a stop in the middle of one of the main runways.
My fellow passengers, borrowing a page from a Hollywood script broke into applause. As the fire trucks raced to our side I sat calmly inside myself in the middle of the tarmac soaring among the stars.
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