The first time I ever flew on an airplane by myself was shortly after I had turned 18. I was going to Ireland, to do volunteer work, the nature of which was a mystery to me still. I was scared, but determined – I couldn’t swim across the Atlantic, and a plane was the only way I’d get to see the world. So I went through the motions – ticket agent, baggage check, metal detection, pre-boarding and finally, strapping myself into adventure.
My flightmate was an older gentleman, with snow-white hair and a bushy mustache. He wore all black with a square of white peeking out at the neck. He was a priest. He struck up conversation first.
“I have an extra eye-shade, if you need it,” he offered to me a black eyeshade made of silk.
But I was already prepared. “Thanks, but I’ve got my own,” I revealed a neon-yellow sleep mask. The words “Cat Nap” were written across the top. It was from a goodie bag I received on my flight to London a mere six months before. But that was a trip taken with about fifty students from my high school. First trip abroad, but not alone.
So we began talking. He was visiting a friend’s parish in Shannon before heading to Dublin and then flying back home to take a sky-box train across Canada’s natural terrain. He lived in Sayville and was retired, but still filled in every now and then at the church in his area. It put me slightly at ease – there’s no way God would cause a plane crash carrying a nice, old priest as a passenger. But even so, if the plane went down, I could just grab on to him as he shot up into Heaven.
Fortune, however, smiled down on me even further.
“I’m also a pilot,” he explained, after I admitted my fear of flying. “I fly small planes as a hobby. There really isn’t anything to worry about. Those planes are much more dangerous than these huge tin cans.”
We took off.
True to form, my knuckles whitened as they clenched the armrests for dear life. Flying diagonally in the air is such a strange experience, unnatural and very upsetting to me. I felt a bump and heard some mechanical noises.
“Don’t worry, that’s just the wheels going into the shaft,” he explained.
Some whirring sounds. He explained those as well. He explained everything to me. Every utterance and every shift – my fears were quelled by his guidance. In minutes, we reached a cruising altitude and the stewards began serving refreshments. We both fell asleep.
A sudden jerk woke me. I involuntarily grabbed my flightmate’s arm. Startled, he woke up, asked what was wrong.
“I felt something bump,” I said, my breath quickening.
He was half asleep. His eyes drooped as he talked to me, but he didn’t seem upset. “Watch the stewardesses,” he advised. “If they are panicking, you should panic. But look, they are still moving about, standing up. We’re okay, there’s nothing wrong.”
And then, he asked me.
“Do you believe in Jesus?”
The entire time we’d been sitting together, we had managed to avoid the whole religion conversation. It intimidated me, at first – the priest from my High School was so devout that all he seemed to talk about was God and Jesus and religion and what it meant to us. It was uncomfortable. The fact that this priest had hobbies and a life outside of the church was something new to behold. He’d never even asked me if I was Catholic.
I sat silent for a moment. “I guess so…” I finally admitted.
“Well if we have faith in Jesus, then no harm can come to us. He is our salvation, and we must respect…”
He rambled on for a few more minutes. Looking back on it, I think he did it to keep me from waking him up again.
We reached Shannon airport at approximately 6:17am. The priest and I parted ways, exchanging contact information.
“If you ever want to come out to the airport, I’ll take you and your friends up in my plane. I do tricks, you know! It’s fun.”
I wasn’t convinced I wanted my third time on an airplane to be one that did barrel rolls and nose dives. But I said I’d let him know, and that I did have friends who liked that sort of thing.
My bus to Kilarney wasn’t due to arrive until 10:00am. As I sat on the polyvinyl chairs of the airport, waiting, I still couldn’t believe my luck as I flew over that vast ocean.
Sometimes, I wish I had had the courage to fly on that trick plane.