I’m on my way back to Poland, where I’ve been a dozen times designing Western-style shopping malls in Eastern Europe. Flying from my home in Dallas to Toronto on the first leg of my trip, I experience nothing unusual in the air.
The plane lands in Toronto and after a long taxi, pulls to a stop at the gate. I’m sitting in an aisle seat on the front row of first-class so I leisurely rise, stretch, and retrieve my leather shoulder bag from the overhead compartment when the seatbelt sign dings off. I yawn then smile at the first class flight attendant, a saucy forty-something blonde named Meg who I’ve been exchanging pleasantries with the whole flight. Just as I place the strap of my bag over my shoulder, the pilot comes over the loudspeaker.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please be seated. We seem to have stopped a few feet short of the jet-way. Flight attendants, prepare for arrival.”
I sit back down and the plane lurches forward a few feet and then stops again, abruptly. Within seconds, an unmistakable odor fills the cabin.
In the brief moment following our initial stop and unbeknownst to everyone on board, an overeager crewman races up and inserts his hose into the plane’s fuel tank. Jet fuel is already flowing when we lurch forward. The hose is yanked from its insertion and jet fuel sprays the plane’s tail and spills onto the tarmac.
“This isn’t good. Goddamn it,” Meg says nervously under her breath, loud enough for those of us in first class to hear. “We’re going to have to evacuate.”
"Evacuate?" I think. "That sounds overly dramatic. We’re only a few feet from the terminal. And to where are we going to evacuate? Just move the plane forward."
“Excuse me, people,” the pilot comes back over the loudspeaker, “but we’ve stopped just short of the jet-way again. It seems the ground crew started refueling before we were fully parked and jet fuel has spilled onto the tarmac. If we move the plane forward we may burst into flames.”
Don't move the plane forward, I think.
“Flight attendants, prepare for evacuation.”
Meg singles me and another first-class cabin-mate out for special assignment. I half-expected her to pick me. We have an unspoken rapport. My red hair and simulated wood-grain spectacles scream reliability like a 1950’s station wagon. But the other guy? He’s a bit pudgy and there’s no way that’s his real hair.
“When we open the goddamn door, an inflatable slide will deploy,” Meg tells us."You two get your asses down first and catch the other passengers as they slide down after you.”
I imagine this magnificent yellow slide unfurling, something I’d seen in made-for-TV disaster movies—its gentle slope at the top transitioning to a long gradual middle that culminates in a soft landing at the bottom. If we had landed on water and managed to stay afloat, this air-filled marvel of engineering would morph into our life raft. I’m daydreaming of floating in the open ocean, uplifting the spirits of the fellow passengers I’ve just saved with hope-filled anecdotes, when Meg man-handles the exit door, jars me back to reality, and deploys the slide. The marvel of engineering that deploys is a dull gray version of an upturned inflatable kayak covered in duct tape. The angle at which it hits the tarmac screams compound fracture.
Nonplussed, I prepare to do as I’m told. I owe it to Meg who has put her trust in me, and to the rest of my fellow passengers who I imagine will soon be thanking me. I do as I’m told, that is, except that I keep hold of my shoulder bag after we’ve all been told to leave our carry-ons behind. I figure since I’ll be the hero at the bottom of the slide breaking everybody’s fall, I deserve a little leeway.
I sit and slide at breakneck speed over the duct tape, hit the tarmac in an improvised tuck and roll and come to an abrupt stop on top of my shoulder bag, crushing my laptop inside. I wonder seriously if the threat posed by the jet fuel could be any worse than the dangers of this slide.
I wave for my cabin-mate to try his luck and surprisingly he lands upright with his hair intact. We brace ourselves on either side of the slide and give the flight attendant our thumbs up.
The first passenger is an elderly gentleman who shoots through our outstretched arms onto the concrete, crumpling up in his khaki suit in considerable pain. The next passenger, a heavy-set high school kid, yells "COWABUNGA" and leaps out of the plane, bouncing once in the middle of the slide then up and over our outstretched arms. He lands on all fours beside the elderly gentleman who has struggled up into the same position.
“Don’t JUMP!” Meg yells to everyone in line. “SIT and slide, goddamn it!”
“Now you tell me,” the high school kid mumbles.
Passenger after passenger slides down between us and passenger after passenger tumbles onto the tarmac, unfettered by our weak attempts to stop their momentum. My cabin-mate and I remind me of those two spiders in the Far Side cartoon who spin a web at the bottom of a kids’ slide, look at each other and say, "If we pull this off we’ll eat like kings." My cabin-mate and I are not going to eat like kings.
In time the crowd of casualties spreads over the tarmac, moaning and groaning and large enough that I think I can sneak away unnoticed. As I slink towards the terminal, I look over my shoulder to see if Meg is watching from her perch atop the slide. Not only is she watching me slink away, she’s shaking her head and mouthing something that looks like, “You could have been a hero.”
In hindsight, it was more like, “You're such a fucking zero.”
Mark Edwin Jenkins is a world-traveling architect. He draws and writes in New York City.