First Flight

We had taken trains all up and down the eastern seaboard, and as true baby-boomers we had traveled across the country several times by car, but I had never flown. It was 1968 and I was 15 years old. My father raised me and my four siblings and I had not seen my mother in a number of years, so Dad drove me from the small western Kentucky town we lived in, across the river to the neighboring state, and to the airport some 40 miles away so I could fly to New Orleans during spring break to visit with my mother. It was my father's Easter present to me.

I wore a coat and tie because flying in those days meant dressing the part. Armed with my older brother's driver's license and a trove of misinformation about New Orleans from equally untraveled classmates, I anxiously awaited my great adventure. And I worried about flying. As we navigated the two-lane roads, Dad recounted stories to me of the food in New Orleans and the Spanish moss. He told me tales about voodoo and card-readers and street artists. He talked about the French Quarter with its courtyards and wrought iron rails and exotic clubs. But he didn't talk about flying.

We arrived well before the flight, and he sat with me at the gate in the airport. I was nervous, having no idea what it was like to fly, and also not knowing just how this visit to see my mother might go. Dad watched me fidget and just smiled. When they called my flight, we stood up and I reached over to hug him goodbye, but instead of the familiar hug, he reached out and shook my hand and said, "Enjoy your flight, son. I'll see you next week."

Was this what it feels like to be grown? My father treated me like a peer, like an adult. My head swam a bit. Heavy clouds passed over as we boarded the plane by walking out onto the tarmac and climbing the steps that had been wheeled over to the propjet. The seats were far more spacious then, but my inspection of the seat pocket in front of me yielded no magazine or catalogue—just an air sickness bag and a safety card that I set about memorizing.

The doors were pulled closed and the flight attendant gave her safety lesson, the one most of us can recite now; I was mesmerized. As she discussed the proper way to buckle up, I checked and rechecked my own. I located the exits with my eyes. I made a note of the cover that would be dropping the air mask somewhere along the flight, and I wondered if there was any body of water between Indiana and Louisiana large enough for me to need the flotation device that was my seat.

It began to rain. The engines started up, the big propellers becoming a blur, and the plane started moving. My heart pounded. I had a window seat and watched us head down the taxiway. I looked for my father to be waving from a window of the terminal, but I couldn't see through the glass, and besides, he had turned around and headed for the Buick by the time I had checked through the gate. We gathered speed and the rain ran in streams across my window. I was aware of myself gripping the arm rests intensely, leaning forward, trying to remember the details of the safety talk just moments before. The engines whined a pitch higher and then, we were off the ground.

I sat back now, still staring out the tiny window as we climbed up into the rain. We flew into the darkness of the clouds themselves, and still I watched the window. Suddenly, we came out above the clouds and the entire world was cast in a brilliant white. I was soaring in the heavens and I was exhilarated. I had never experienced anything like it. My father had given me a gift I would cherish.

My mother took me to the parts of New Orleans that many visitors don't see, and I went on my own to the French Quarter, and even treated myself to dinner at The Court of Two Sisters. And I had my great adventure: flying. I flew back the next Saturday, a bright sunny day. I walked off the plane and into the terminal where Dad was waiting for me. He reached out his hand and said, "Welcome home, son." I shook his hand and then gave him a long hug.


Formerly a philosophy professor and then a college president, Lawrence Weill is a writer and artist in western Kentucky. He has published short fiction and poetry in a number of regional journals, and his book, Out in Front, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2009.


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