This morning a chauffeured limousine whisked me up the freeway to a waiting 747. In a seat more luxurious than anything in my living room, I leaped across America to the metropolitan capital of the world, where a wide-bodied DC-10 waited to race me off to Paris.
I am travelling on behalf of one of the largest corporations in the world, doing business at the hub of modern technology, on my way to two international conferences and a weekend of skiing in the Alps.
I enjoy this kind of travel, this magic of twentieth century technology. I, Everyman, become king and master, catered and pampered, gently eased from place to place around the world.
I am served. Food comes, drink comes, movies come, music comes, magazines come, blankets and pillows come. I have my private stereo, reading lamp, and reclining seat. All along the way chauffeurs drive, porters carry, clerks check, pilots pilot, stewardesses serve. The combined resources of General Motors, Boeing, Douglas, American Air Lines, Air France, and maybe a hundred other major corporations - not to mention the facilities of San Francisco, New York, and Paris - are at my service in one way or another. They say to me: "Fly me. You're the boss. You're number one. We're ready when you are."
Through the window I share views with gods and eagles. Great cities are no more impressive than my children's toys. The mountain ranges that tower over me when I hike or drive are now spread below like ripples in sand. The place where we hiked for three days isn't as long as my finger against the window. One glance takes in Yosemite Valley and Half Dome and Hetch Hetchy and the Grand Canyon of the Tuolomne and Mono Lake, in a single panorama. Another glance absorbs the holdings of a thousand farmers.
Looking down at clouds, instead of up, violates the realities ingrained by years of childhood. Sometimes I speculate on what clouds are, other than the accustomed blotches pasted to the sky. They now appear to be tangible objects of a sort, with thickness, moving in three dimensional space. Grammar school taught me they are made of water, but nobody told me why they are lumpy objects instead of dispersing like steam from a teakettle, or why they are opaque with different shades of white and gray and purple. Or why they have such funny roundish shapes, piled all different ways, in ripples and layers. Why is there a boundary, like a pillowcase, with white cloud inside and blue sky on the outside? And what did the ancients and the Indians think these objects were, without benefit of science or aerial views?
Even for us, clouds have magic: they have the texture of cotton, yet we fly through them like wisps of illusion. When it's raining or overcast at takeoff, we still cross the cotton curtain into a dreamland of perpetual sunshine.
Through the window, I can see "my" wings outspread, soaring so high above everything. Man's dream of flight, realized. I can almost feel the aluminum wing coming in, attached to my shoulder...
Earthly cares literally drop away. I am the prisoner of irresponsibility. A million and one normal daily worries and obligations become totally irrelevant. My time is my own. I can read, write, sleep, or whatever, as I like. No intrusions, no other things that ought to get done. Life is smooth, under control.
Except, that is, for one hour in New York when it all came apart. I found myself standing, alone, in the dark and the snow, wondering how to get two suitcases and myself over the fence and across the highway.
It had all the qualities of a mad, bad dream. Or maybe it was the only touch of reality in a dream world of false securities. Neither was very real.
I, and those who attend to my travel plans, had neglected to consider that it was the second day of January. The whole world was going home from Christmas holiday, overtaxing all facilities. Kennedy was so jammed with ground traffic that the shuttle buses could barely move. There was no way they could make it around Kennedy from American Air Lines to Air France in time.
A million harried people were jammed and milling about. Wall to wall cars and cabs and buses oozed by, drifting to and from curbside, fanned along by the airport police. This bus is full. Twenty minutes later, the next one's full, too. And it won't get there in time, anyhow. Which way is the terminal? I don't know, ask him. It's over there, that way, across the parking lot and the highway. Can I walk it? Maybe. Are you gonna walk? I don't know. Do you think the next bus might get there in time? Could I walk there in time? Could I get through at all?
An enormous personal decision had to be made. Uncalculated risks had to be taken, quite different from choosing between two scheduled flights, or picking a hotel.
The command decision: gulp and go. Thread through traffic with the next crush of people making for the parking lot. Feel the cold, think about gloves inside the suitcase. Walk with the people till they all cut away one by one to their own cars.
That's all it took, a few minutes and a hundred steps, to change my world far more radically than the minor culture shock of crossing one ocean. The crowd and turmoil had vanished. The din had faded out, lost behind the whisper of wind and distant jets. Open space, no crowd, no movement. Just me in the dark, snowflakes drifting by, and my breath steaming away.
The support and care are gone. I'm on my own. I have to think, solve problems, worry about failure, invent solutions, depend on my own resources and resourcefulness. There's nobody to appeal to - no chauffeur, porter, ticket agent, stewardess, information booth, or bus driver.
The illusion of competence is gone. I discover that travel hasn't been smooth because I knew how to cope, but because other people used to take care of the problems.
Other illusions peel away. It isn't a sturdy aluminum pipeline that you flow through so effortlessly from coast to coast to coast. It's a mirage of shiny aluminum foil forever on the verge of crumpling. A thousand hands around the outside hold it together as you glide by. A little overload, or a faltering hand along the way, can tear it.
The slick sense of globe-trotting jet-setter falls away. It's not very chic to have to skid over the snowy grass on the shoulder of the highway, looking for a chance to dart through traffic. Jumping fences and running across the freeway! What indignities for a world traveller.
And pain. Pain has absolutely no place in that high technology dream world. But I am carrying fifty pounds of suitcases. My shoulders ache, my fingers are paralyzed, and muscles in my forearms will be sore for a week. Not only am I mortal, and incompetent, but I drag my own two millstones through this nightmare.
Where are the signs? There's always a sign to help you out. Lavatory that way. Gate 3 straight ahead. Departures announced here. Bank downstairs. Exit. Taxi. Customs. Information. Cocktails.
But here I am staring at a chain link fence, looking for an opening. Somebody back in the crowd had said that there was a path to the other terminal "over there". Over where? To the left, behind those construction trailers? To the right, around the bend? It's dark, and snowing, and I'm absolutely alone, and I have to figure this one out all by myself through sheer blind guess. Where's the sign?
I could have been the first man on the moon, for all the help I was getting from others who'd passed this way before. I was an explorer, at a virgin frontier. I didn't even have the comfort of knowing for sure that there was a way out, only waiting for me to find it. Maybe I had misunderstood which way my informant had pointed, or maybe he was misinformed. Which way to turn? Did it even make sense to press on, or would every step forward just be one more step I'd have to retrace out of a blind alley? Or maybe following the fence would just lead back to where I started, the only way in or out. I couldn't even use my goal for a target. The international terminal was not yet in sight. I was just working with a general recollection of which way somebody had pointed, vaguely across the parking lot and the highway. (And I have a terrible sense of direction.) But turning back wasn't worth much either. It wouldn't get me on my plane, and there wasn't another one tonight. The best strategy was still to press on.
A service gate, thank goodness, locked but climbable. Heave two suitcases over, and myself, to safety (!) sliding down snow-covered grass to the highway.
A highway through the middle of the airport. Who needs this obstacle? It curves by here, up and around a hill, so that I can't see very far to the left at all. Cars keep springing out just as I prepare to step off the edge. I know that if I was driving, the last thing I'd be prepared for is a pedestrian appearing around that curve. So we keep surprising each other. And every time I think to lunge, my leather soles slip a little on the ice at the road's edge. No chance for a running start.
Finally traffic backs up for some reason, and I manage to pass between the cars to the other side. To what? I am in the valley of the freeway, facing another slick hillside of snow on grass. My best chance of getting up is to angle over, but which way? I still can't see the terminal. I picked some direction, trying to go as nearly straight uphill as I could. Then I faced the ultimate incompetence: I couldn't walk. My leather soles kept skidding back, two suitcases dragging me down and destroying my balance every time I slipped. I had visions of tumbling and rolling back onto the freeway.
This couldn't be real. This could not be me at Kennedy International Airport, making a routine connection between flights. My sanity had to be in question, in this surrealistic dream that passed for reality. "Am I dreaming?" "No," said my inner oracle. "I don't believe you."
But I did make it up, eventually, and spotted a terminal in the distance, dotted with unreadable signs, one of which I could only hope said "Air France". I could make out a passable zig-zag of service roads and parking areas and walkways that might get me there.
Picture the gait of this trans-Atlantic traveller: walk ten yards, rest the luggage. Massage the fingers, switch the bags to opposite hands, and go another ten yards. Over and over and over. Cars and cabs pass by on service roads, but not the way I need to go. Just trudge on, ten yards at a time. Even through the international terminal, in which Air France is inevitably at the far end. The one time in my life I desperately want a porter, and not a one in sight. Nor a cart. Just lots of people, who hadn't shared my ordeal, and who quite obviously must be staring at my peculiarly halting progress.
At the check-in counter, my fingers can't get the tickets out of my pocket. My feet hurt, sweat is chilling under my arms, and more is rolling down my back. My shoulders hurt, and my ears are burning from the cold. I shuffle in line, pushing my bags to the counter with my feet.
But I make it. My comfortable hour and a half layover between flights has dwindled to a scant ten minute margin, and I get last choice of seats instead of first.
Ah, but a nice soft seat to settle into. The muted roar and surge of takeoff, two martinis, and I drift gently back into the other dream.
Props. Not propellers, but things that hold you up, bolster your ego, boost your image. Does everybody play these roles, or am I the only one who harbors these illusions?
When high technology panders to everyman's comfort, what's going on? He acquires somebody else's achievements. I know it's not extraordinary. It happens whenever one person serves another. A person is made greater whenever he acquires the services of another - he has more capability at this disposal and control - even if he doesn't have the competence to carry out that capability himself. I guess I've rediscovered the concept of tool. The man with the gun acquires the power of the gun - until the gun jams.
If this disturbs me, then what am I preaching? Total self- reliance? No sharing, no serving, no helping, no progress, no comfort, no safety? Nope.
It had been a shock, an intruding moment of survival and self-reliance. It wasn't until many weeks later that it occurred to me, while reading a newspaper, how soft and pampered and shallow we'd become. My ordeal hadn't exactly been an earthquake, or a flood, or a riot. I hadn't been wandering lost in the woods, or on a stormy mountain top with my life in peril. I hadn't faced a gun, or a rattlesnake, or a bear. I hadn't sat through a critical illness, or surgery of a loved one, agonized over the outcome. I hadn't stumbled on the scene of an accident, needing to decide quickly how to minister first aid to who. These are the ordeals that try people, daily. What had I been so shook up about?