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Connections

Strangers on a plane: Overcoming my fear of flying

Getting help with my phobia — and a lesson on judging others — from an unexpected source.

gracia lam for the boston globe

She squeezed past me into the window seat of the plane: young, sporting a hot-pink track suit, with fingernails and toenails painted to match. I eyed her heavy makeup and improbably blond hair while she rummaged in her tote bag and pulled out pink headphones and a celebrity gossip magazine.

I don’t like to think of myself as judgmental or curmudgeonly, someone who sizes up another woman’s appearance and choice of reading material, then draws uncharitable conclusions about her personality. Somehow, that didn’t occur to me as I buckled my seat belt. Instead, I sighed. I’d been hoping for a conversation on the plane to D.C., something to distract me. But I took one look at Celebrity Girl and buried myself in my book. Margaret Atwood would have to see me through the next three hours.

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I would have exited the plane, snooty attitude intact, had it not been for the storm that struck 80 miles from Washington. Rain lashed the windows, and the plane took a sickening lurch. I drew in a breath and began my mental run-through of appeals to an Almighty I don’t really believe in, throwing in some Hebrew and Arabic for good measure. The engines made an ominous grinding sound, and the plane bucked like a rodeo bull. I let out an involuntary gasp.

“Are you OK?” my neighbor asked, removing her headphones and looking at me in concern.

“I’m, uh, just nervous about flying,” I confessed.

This was an understatement. Flying terrifies me. I know, I know: I’m far more likely to meet a fiery end on the freeway; but statistics are cold comfort at 30,000 feet.

I fished for the envelope of family pictures stashed in my book, determined to go down gazing at the faces of my husband and sons — all of whom inexplicably consider airline travel a treat. The plane dropped another few feet. I barely repressed a yelp.

Celebrity Girl turned to me and put out her hand. “Here, hold on,” she said firmly, taking mine in a surprisingly strong grip. “This doesn’t really bother me,” she continued, cheerfully. “I’m a firefighter. I’m used to heights. And you should see the way our ladders sway sometimes. Takes getting used to, I’ll tell you that.” She looked directly into my eyes. “We’re going to be fine. You know that, right?”

Celebrity Girl’s hand felt warm, and her confidence seemed to transmit itself to me through that clasp. Only once before, the night I gave birth to my first child, had a stranger’s touch conveyed such reassurance. I remembered the darkened hospital room where I struggled through the relentless contractions. My husband was dozing in a chair when a new nurse came in, a compact woman from Croatia. She didn’t say much. She simply sat down beside me and took my hand. “You can do this,” she said. And I found I could.

For the next 20 minutes, Celebrity Girl — no, Firefighter Woman! — kept up a steady, easy stream of talk about Washington’s old buildings and their fire hazards, about her boyfriend in the Army, even about her pet fish. She talked until the plane landed, and she never let go of my hand.

“Thank you so much,” I told her gratefully when the wheels touched down. “My kids will be thrilled to hear I sat next to a real firefighter.”

“You’re welcome,” she said warmly, stowing the magazines in her bag and retrieving a bubble-gum-pink smartphone. “Hey, babe,” I heard her say into it. I wondered if that guy knew how lucky he was.

Kate Haas is a writer in Portland, Oregon. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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