My nails are very short, but not because I bite them. It’s a hereditary thing. Genes may also play in my fear of flying. My mom wasn’t crazy about it, and my father, although he wasn’t afraid, once regaled me with the story of how he and his fellow passengers had a knuckle-whitening experience landing in foam at a Chicago airport.
OK, enough said. This is not a story about plane crashes. This is a story about the kindness of strangers, and more specifically, the comfort of a stranger’s arm.
There was a study once reported in a psychology magazine about armrests and individual dominance on planes. You know what I mean. You find your seat, you put your stuff in the little pocket in front of you, you take off your shoes, maybe, and you buckle yourself in. Then you settle in and move your arm to the padded armrest — but the person in the seat next to you has gotten there first. So you recoil and wait for the moment when your rowmate has momentarily relinquished that perch and you quickly, but not too obviously, move your arm into position. Nicely done.
But this story is not about that either.
I’m one of the few people who is grateful when another’s arm is on the armrest. This story is a tribute to all the arms, soft and strong, bare fleshed and clothed, that I have grabbed over the years in my attempt to hold on for dear life when an air pocket, or the grating sound of the landing gear, or continuous circling over a destination, or any number of lesser vibrations, terrify me.
Those sinewy, muscular, boney, silky, hairy, cashmered, cottoned, and polyestered limbs have been my pacifiers for years. Sometimes these unsuspecting souls don’t even know I’m there until of course, like a shark attack, I am. Grabbing hold is not a premeditated act. It’s spontaneous or maybe prophylactic. Just anticipating a bump that the captain says will come, but never does (a pet peeve of mine) can create a reflex action in me that puts a hold on my neighbor who, for that instant, is my BFF.
He might be a CEO like the one in first class whose arm was hijacked when we had to circle Toronto in a lightning storm, or a weight lifter like the guy whose bicep had a girth greater than my leg’s. Lovely. Perhaps he suffered less than the little lady who finally gave me a small crucifix to help calm my nerves. Then there was the teenager who let me share her music with an extra set of ear plugs. She did this all with one hand since I was holding onto the other.
I know I am not the only one who has used such tactics. Just this morning, for example, a friend was telling me about her flight to Chicago. Apparently she was surrounded by Marlboro men (the hockey kind). As they were taking off, one of them grabbed her arm in sheer terror.
My intrepid seatmates are my high-flying heroes. I owe them an eternal debt. They remain anonymous, kind folks who are probably grateful that I don’t have sharp nails. They will not be scarred for life, but they will be remembered forever.