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My mother—a timid, housebound woman who studies the life cycle of a traffic light before crossing a street and counts herself lucky if she gets across uninjured—flew up from Florida not long ago. She flew in a jet, one of those ambulatory aluminum thunderstorms which populate the air these days. We met her at the airport, our traveling stock of smelling salts and tranquilizers at the ready, but before she reached our solicitous grasp she looked at the horizon with a 50-mission squint and said, "piece of cake; tailwind all the way." On the way into town she elaborated on her confectionery flight, noting that she'd asked the pilots to "drive carefully" but that otherwise she found jet flying far more relaxing than walking or similar hazardous pursuits. My sudden discovery that my mother had entered the jet age so painlessly left me feeling a little cheated, like the proprietor of a good joke everybody knows. For I took my first jet flight about eight years ago. It was an awesome and unnerving journey—no trip for anyone's mother—and it seems unfair that its awe should have dimmed so easily and so soon.
I first flew in a jet from a big naval air station in northern Florida that I shall call Sims Field. At the time I was a crash officer but not an aviator, and it embarrassed me to live and eat with several hundred aviators and not to fly. Accordingly, one Friday at supper, I asked a pilot friend at my table if he would let me ride in a jet someday. He said that he was flying to Memphis on a training flight that evening—he called it a "hop"; he planned to be home by midnight and would be glad to take me along.
After supper we walked down to his hangar, and climbed to a roomful of green metal lockers. He rattled one open. It held, from top to bottom, a helmet, an oxygen mask, a flight suit, a life vest and a pair of shoes, the whole reminiscent of the remains of some complex insect which had gone somewhere else and left its shell.
Doing what my pilot was doing, I took off my uniform and wriggled the flight suit over my underwear. I put on the helmet, a heavy, ribbed plastic bucket lined with straps and foam rubber. It came down over my eyes.
"Backwards," the pilot said. I turned it around. "How's your mask?"
I didn't know how to tell how a mask was. He pushed it tight against my face, pinched its hose and told me to inhale. I couldn't, and he seemed satisfied. "No need to put it on now," he said. "It gets hot."
He took the yellow rubber life vest off its hook and threw it over my head. "There," he said. "You look just like an aviator. We have to bail out over water, you pull the D ring—I'll show you that when we're in the plane. But don't worry, there's no water between here and Memphis anyway. Come on, I want to get going. There's weather due in off the Gulf."
We walked downstairs and came out on the flight line. The last plane in line had its wings folded, a cartoonist's bleary caricature of an anguished bird with a headache. "Where do you get in?" I asked. My pilot somehow put a hand into the body of the plane, followed it with a foot, then scrambled up and perched on top of the plane. "Just follow the white lines," he said, and I discovered a pair of broad white lines ringing the plane's body. I put my right hand at the bottom of the right-hand line and found a hinged plate that folded in under the pressure of my fingers. More plates and one T-shaped knob followed; I missed my grip on the last, stuck grunting with my head half over the roof of the plane, and a sailor had to jump down from a wing to the ground and push me up the rest of the way.
In the cockpit there were two seats, side by side, the only recognizable islands in a black and tangled sea of switches, dials, wires, knobs, lights, buttons, handles, cranks and hoses. I lowered my legs over the ledge of the hatch, stood on the right-hand seat and then sat down, cramping my legs into the narrow space between the front of the seat and the bottom of the instrument panel.
A sailor appeared and dropped a pile of fabric straps over my shoulders and into my lap. "That's your chute harness," said the pilot. "You're sitting on the chute. Pull the leg and shoulder straps tight." Another lapful of straps came from above. "That's your shoulder harness."