Saturday, June 20, 2009

On Another Plane

The last time I flew on an airplane was a year before 9/11, before a fear of flying was instilled in the heart of America.  I’m flying home from Charleston after visiting my Dad, and his side of the family, when the most horrific storm I’ve ever been in engulfs my plane.  My window looks out toward the left wing, which turns out to be the worse possible place to be.  Lightning flashes all around the plane; as far as I can see; there are silver streaks dancing in the atmosphere.  Hundreds of them at one time, but its strange─no thunder.  The plane rattles and jerks convulsively, shaking the passengers, and making the babies cry.  Tiny droplets of rain whip by my window, and the wing is violently waving in the wind.  Cold sweat fills my palms as the plane drops in altitude, leaving my stomach fifty feet above my head.  I clean my glasses and push them back on my nose.  I pray to myself, wishing this broken rollercoaster will let me off.  I pray, “God, there is no way you will let this plane go down with babies on board.”  But then I think, “Those babies are innocent souls, and if they do die, they’ll go straight to heaven.  But, what about me?  I’m not ready yet.  I still have things to do; I’m only seventeen!  I promise I’ll never fly again if you get me home this one time.”  I close the shade over my window, and flip the repeat switch on my CD player, putting in John Lennon’s Imagine album.  I’m not sure what it is, but I’ve always felt something comforting in the Beatles.  I listen to John for three hours straight, and the pilot manages to push through the storm. The plane is slow as an old mule, but steady as a wise elephant.  When those wheels touch down in Des Moines, the greatest weight I ever felt is lifted from me.  I never appreciated being alive more than in this instance.


            Well, it turns out I lied.  I’m going on a cruise in a couple of months, and in order to get to Florida, we have to fly.  Mom knows how I feel about flying, but we really want to do something together.  It’s a celebration for a couple reasons.  Mom just got a promotion, and I’m moving out of the house, and up to Iowa City.  We haven’t gone on vacation together for several years, so we thought it was about time anyway.  The two of us research for weeks, seeking out the best cruise we can find.  We settle on a Royal Caribbean ship called, Mariner of the Sea.  We’ll board at Port Canaveral, and head south for a day.  The first stop is Labadee, Haiti.  There’s another day at sea, and then Ocho Rios, Jamaica.  Grand Cayman is on day five, and Cozumel is the last stop before heading back to the States.  I’m dreading the flight, the whole time remembering the promise I made last time I flew.


            It’s a beautiful morning.  One of those days where you can’t tell if it’s spring or summer.  The sun shines his face into mine, and the sky is a soft shade of blue.  Not a cloud in sight.  Today, I must fly for the first time in three years.  Mom peaks her head into my room to see if I’m awake.  She’s already showered, dressed, and ready to start her vacation.

We board the plane headed for Orlando.  She’s meeting up with some of her old friends for a couple of days before our cruise, and it turns out my uncle’s family is going to be in town at the same time, so I’ll have something to do.  Mom rented a time share, which should be interesting, considering neither she nor I have ever done such a thing.  The plane takes off with no problem.  Nevertheless, my muscles tense.  I try some music, but I can’t get my promise out of my head.  “What am I doing up here?”  A stewardess brings us some Coke and a tiny bag of roasted peanuts.

            “Mom, how’d you get me up here?  I should’ve never done this.”

            “Oh c’mon, it’s not that bad.  You couldn’t ask for a better day to fly.”

            “Yeah whatever, if God wanted us to fly he would’ve given us wings.”

            “He didn’t give us wings, but he gave us a brain and the ability to create.”

            “Well, I think knowledge can be our downfall if we’re not careful.”

            “True, but when it comes to aeronautics, I think God is pleased with what has been accomplished by mankind.”

            “Maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong.  I guess we won’t know until we can ask him in person.”

            This banter distracts me for a while, letting me forget all about my high flying airplane.  I still feel tense, but not as bad as when I was in that storm.  The plane lands in Orlando, and much to my relief, I’m still alive and well.  Mom’s friend greets us at the gate, and he drives us to our time share.  It’s a whole house with its own pool out back!  I can’t believe my eyes.  There’s an upstairs, a kitchen, everything!  The three of us decide to get something to eat, so we unload our luggage from the car, and head out.  After a steak dinner at a local bistro, the two of them drop me back at the house, and they go to meet up with some other friends.  I feel tired and still a little messed up from the flight, so I decide to go to sleep, rather than wait for Mom to return.  I remove my contacts, and pass out.

            Creeping out of bed the next morning, I feel an intense pain in my lower back.  “I knew I shouldn’t have flown.  I should’ve never gone back on my word.”  I manage to stand, but any other movement is out of the question.  If I move my back in the slightest, I receive a severe shock through my entire body.  It feels like I’m being stabbed in my spine every time I bend, twist, or turn.  “Great, I’m going on a cruise for the first time, and my back is out of whack!  Of course this is happening.”  Going back on your word with anybody can have severe repercussions.  It seems going back on your word with God can be a crippler.

            I have three days to get better.  As long as I don’t move my back, I’m golden.  Luckily I’m in Orlando, where there’s plenty to see.  Uncle Mark and his youngest daughter, Lexi, are picking me up shortly.  We’re planning to go to Epcot Center. 

Mark, with a Salem hanging out his mouth, and a ball cap with a sharply creased bill resting on his head, greets me with a hug, and asks, “What you been eatin’ boy?  You’re taller than me now!”

“It must be the corn.  But be careful with my back man, the flight really messed it up.”

“Oh yeah, you gonna be alright?”

“I think I’ll make it.”

 “Alright Douglas, you ready?”

“Yeah!  Let’s do it.”

We walk around Epcot for hours, but I don’t mind.  At least I don’t have to bend my back.  We check out all the different villages and shops, and like always, by the end of a day in the sun, my fair skin is now bright pink.  I have to deal with the discomfort of a sun burn now, but that all seems to fade away. See, it’s a huge perk having Mark around before I go on the cruise, because he smokes grass, and has since before I was born.  So, like good family does, he takes care of me.  He says, “After we drop Lexi off, I’ll give you a ride back to your place.”

I wasn’t expecting this.  But, anything to get my mind off my back was fine by me.  That ancient herbal remedy hasn’t failed me yet.  We leave Lexi back at the hotel with her mom.  Mark drives out of the parking lot, handing me his bag and pipe.  The stuff he has is pretty good.  No seeds and it smells like we just drove past a skunk.  His pipe’s a little one-hitter made out of copper.  Mark doesn’t need much, maybe one or two hits.  As for me, I hit that thing at least ten times, knowing I won’t have access to any grass for a whole week.  We get back to the time share and he lets me out.  I walk around to the driver’s window and beg, “You think I can get a bowl off you man? I got a whole day to kill tomorrow before the cruise.”  With the shake of the hand, I’m left with a little green in my palm.  I bum one of his Salem’s so I can roll a makeshift joint.

“You need a lighter too?”

“Ah, you know what, I do.  Thanks man, you’re the greatest.  Well, I guess I’ll see ya around.  Love you man.”

“Alright Douglas, have fun, and be safe on your cruise.”

“I’ll do my best.  Peace.”


            Well, its day four of the cruise, and the highlight of my vacation.  Mom and I are hitching a ride on a taxi boat away from the Mariner.  The clearest salt water I’ve ever seen splashes us in the face.  The two of us arrive at the dock of Ocho Rios, where mobs of people from the ship search for their tours.  I had the idea of visiting Bob Marley’s childhood home and mausoleum up in Nine Mile.  Mom thought it was a cool idea too; its way up in the mountains and should be very beautiful.  There’s an hour-long bus ride through Fern Gully and up through the Blue Mountains.

            The bus is slow going, but the view and music make up for it. Bob Marley blares through the speakers, all the way there.  We ride through Fern Gully, but it feels like a rainforest.  The variations of the ferns are incredible.  The driver says there are over six-hundred different types.  We make our way through this treacherous one lane road, narrowly missing an oncoming car.  Halfway up the mountain, we stop at a little shop that sells some kind of flatbread taco, bottled water, and Red Stripe.  The beer’s only a buck, and the water goes for two?  I toss back a Red Stripe and take a look at how far we’ve come.  The hills roll for miles around, everything lush and green.  Small houses speckle the valley, where family gardens are forged in rust colored earth.  Gray clouds approach from the east, but the driver assures us it won’t rain.  Back on the bus as Marley sings, “We unite we will be free.”  On the road we pass through a little village.  Children run after our bus. They yell and wave their arms, holding out their hands. 

We reach an eight foot wooden gate, painted red, gold, and green.   The bus is let in.  The fifteen or so of my fellow shipmates file out of the bus, Mom stopping for a photo of me kneeling by a six foot ganja plant.  We enter a little gift shop selling t-shirts and CD’s.  Nag Champa fills our nostrils immediately.  Mom and I head up a couple of stairs and walk into a courtyard.  I look over by the fence where a group of “salesman” are hanging over the top, frantically trying to get our attention.  A couple of the guys from my ship go and talk through a crack in the fence, and then another guy and his girl go.  I didn’t think pot would be so readily available, plus I made a deal with myself long ago, I would never smoke in Mom’s presence.  Nevertheless, this was too good to pass up.  What a story this could be to tell my friends.  I walk to the fence and eye all the dread headed Rastas.  I spy an old man with long gray dreads and a gray beard.  I hand him ten American dollars in exchange for a five-inch long baseball bat of a doobie, a genuine Bob Marley spliff.  I walk back towards Mom and she asks, “What are you going to do with that?  You heard what the driver said; you can’t bring that on the bus.”

            “I’ll smoke it then.”

            The five of us make our way up some stairs and into a café.  We walk out on the deck and spark our newly acquired spliffs.  I finally get the baseball bat lit, and puff away for a while.  After smoking a quarter or so of the Marley joint, I stroll back to the main group.  I give a wise ass grin to Mom, and then glance at our Rasta guide.  He’s wearing a red, green, and gold striped stocking cap, with matching sweatbands at the wrist.  His khaki suit and grizzled beard, gives him a rather militant look.  When he laughs, he reveals his capped bronze teeth up front.  I stare a little longer, and his voice starts to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

            Wah wah woh wah wha waoh.

            “What the hell?  What’s wrong with me?” I think to myself.

            I flash another smile at Mom as the group gets up for a tour of the estate.  I’m the last to stand, still trying to shake off this impending feeling of doom.  My heart’s racing and my vision begins to close in on a center point, like old televisions do when they’re turned off.  I try to stand anyway, and manage to stumble a few feet.  My leg catches a chair and I lose my balance.  As I fall, my sunglasses fly off my face and hit the ground right before I do. 


Next thing I know, My Rasta friend is shoving pungent leaves towards my face.  I open my mouth wide, and he says, “No mon, hold dem under Jah nose.” 

I take the herbs and hold them close to my nostrils, not knowing what they are.  He gives me a glass of incredibly sweet juice which tastes amazing.  Again, I don’t know what’s in the juice.  My white t-shirt is completely soaked with sweat, and Mom says I look as pale as a ghost.  I look at her, and she somehow has a face of absolute calm.  She lets the Rastas “help” me. 

She later said they looked like they knew what they were doing.  She didn’t want to upset me, so she didn’t make a huge scene.  She thought I might die up in the Jamaican highlands though.  I on the other hand, like to play it down.  God only knows what would have happened had I waited to smoke that spliff.  With nobody around to help me; I won’t even think about what could have happened.

I pull myself together, and a little shaky, rise to my feet.  Embarrassed and ashamed, I apologize to Mom.  She says, “It’s alright, we can talk about it later.  It can still be a good day.  You ok to go on?”

 I hesitantly say “yes,” and our Rasta guide leads us downstairs and into the courtyard, letting us rejoin the group.  Not a word is said about what just happened.  I look up towards the heavens, and give a silent prayer of thanks, knowing full well how blessed I am to be alive.  Feeling completely drained, I drag my feet through the tour.  We climb a huge hill, reaching Bob’s mausoleum.  We’re told to remove our shoes before entering.  I walk in behind Mom, dragging my fingers across the cold marble box.  A fallen soldier resting inches beneath my fingertips.


1 comment:

  1. I think you could use this as sort of an outline for a much longer story...