Playlist in the Event of a Water Landing

Whenever I sit down on a plane, I resign myself to death. It’s the only way I can reconcile my fear of flying with the fact that I have had to do it on a fairly regular basis.

Early on, that might have been the result of boarding my first plane in 2002, when I was twelve, and the collective American psyche was shaken by an abrupt realization that a plane in the hands of a terrorist is little more than a ballistic missile with cruise-control. Before that flight, my mom broke a little yellow pill in half and put it in my hand.

“Take this.”

“What is it?”

“Just take it. It’ll help you relax.”

It was valium. And as nervous as I was sitting in Bob Hope International Airport, I can’t say whether or not it worked. But I can only presume that my heart palpitations, my nausea, my paranoid suspicions, would only have been heightened if I hadn’t been slightly drugged.

But drugs aside, I’d conceived my own way to self-sooth. In my carry-on bag, I brought my discman and my vinyl CD case. At the time, I figured that I could just forget that I was on a plane. Lose myself in whatever I was listening to. I intentionally sought out something that would be calming as the plane prepared for take-off, especially since every aspect of the sensation of flight was foreign to me. I didn’t know what it would feel like to accelerate down the tarmac, to feel the nose lift off the ground, to veer upward at hundreds of miles an hour toward an elevation of 32,000 feet.

Plus, there was the reality of flight, which was unknown to me, and then there was my conception of flight, which was stuck vividly in my imagination. When I imagined a plane taking off, I pictured the acceleration, the increased revving of the engines, the lifting of the nose, and finally, the remaining wheels rising off the ground. But in my imagination, we don’t have enough speed, or an engine explodes, or the angle is off, and the plane’s tail drops down too low and smashes into the runway, sending the plane careening to the left or right, wing-tip colliding with the tarmac, followed by an all-consuming, cinematic explosion, and thus ends the life of Stewart Sinclair and everyone on board this Southwest Airlines flight, who just moments before had been bound for San Antonio.

Should that be the case, I decided, the only appropriate musical selection was Johnny Cash.

Specifically, American Recordings, Vol. 2.

A psychological tradition began on that first flight, and was repeated on most of the flights I embarked on over the remainder of that decade. I was somewhat religious, and Johnny Cash’s music was infused with about as much religion as I could still stomach. On Vol. 2, Johnny Cash melded two cowboy poetry classics, “A Cowboy’s Prayer,” and “Oh, Bury me not,” creating something that is at once a transcendental psalm and a funeral dirge. The song begins with Cash singing “Lord, I’ve never lived where churches grow, I’ve loved creation better as it stood.” He solidifies this assertion of the western landscape as a holy place when he sings, “I know that others find you in the light, that sifted down through tinted windowpanes. And yet I seem to feel you near tonight, in this dim quiet starlight on the plains.” But in the end, the cowboy shifts from praying to a Western God, to pleading to those who find his body: “Oh bury me not on the lone prairie…”

I’d sing that plea with him, in my head, like a mantra.

I wanted that song in my head when the plane went down. I wanted to hit the desert sands between Los Angeles and Texas with Johnny Cash’s trembling baritone reverberating through my skull so that, if there was a God, He’d know how I felt. I wasn’t a church-going person, but I believed in the majesty of the wide-open expanse from whose surface humans so foolishly thought they could break free, which was now going to claim my life.

After college, I ended up in a job that sent me flying around the world for business. In the interview, my boss said, “There might be some travel. In fact, we might need you in Abu Dhabi in the spring.” I’m sure that my gulp was audible, but I said it wouldn’t be a problem. And in the years to follow, my job would indeed send me on transoceanic flights: New York to Abu Dhabi, to Cape Town, to Liverpool, to Bangkok. And each time, I had Johnny Cash at the ready in case we hit an air pocket, or an engine malfunctioned, or we ran into the sort of turbulence that spilled our complimentary wine and whitened knuckles and invoked nervous laughter and sent crew members accustomed to walking on shockwaves into their jump seats, buckled tight.

Gradually I stopped playing Johnny Cash in those moments. My playlist became supplemented with songs for other feelings of flight. I played Anderson .Paak, who is from my hometown, whenever I descended into LAX. I played The Beatles as I caught the red-eye into the UK. I still resigned myself to death, still imagined cabins suddenly losing pressure and bursting open like soda bottles in a hot car. I still pictured planes crashing into the sea, into the mountains. But over time flight became familiar, and even the specter of death just became part of the rote process, like taking off your shoes when going through security, or handing your trash back to the flight attendant as you prepare for descent.

It’s possible that my fear of flying has just been subsumed by larger, more existential fears, whose presence is so persistent that to try to blunt the psychological effect with music would essentially mean shutting the world out completely. Should I sing “Oh, Bury me not” in every mall, movie theatre, concert hall or church that could become the scene of a mass shooting? Should I praise Nature in the midst of catastrophic, anthropogenic climate change?

No, flight is a singular, punctuated moment of fear, through which I can grit my teeth, play my music and prepare, mentally, for all eventualities. Everything else is chaos.



Stewart Sinclair is a writer whose reportage, personal essays, and narrative nonficiton has been featured at GuernicaNew Orleans ReviewAvidly, and elsewhere. He is currently working on his first book.  

Categories: Airplanes, Death, Trips

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