By Francine Mathews
The news that a jet had crashed today outside of Moscow, killing all seventy-one people aboard, reached me as I deplaned from a red-eye in Denver this morning. Red-eyes combine two things I truly dislike: disrupted sleep and air travel. I’m the sort of fragile buttercup who requires ten hours a night in a great bed, complete with ear plugs and a noise-suppressing fan. And the air travel? This child of an Air Force pilot is terrified of crashing. There was a period in my life when I had full-blown panic attacks at takeoff, fingers gripped on my arm rests and lungs hyperventilating. I love the view from a plane. It’s the spectre of plunging five miles to earth I can’t stand.
I used to tell people that my panic attacks were probably the result of working briefly on the investigation into the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded a few days before Christmas, 1988, over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing everyone on board as well as eleven people asleep in their homes below. This is not strictly true. Pan Am 103 reinforced my pervasive dread, gave it a reasonable outline; See? Look what can happen! None of us can control anything!
But the real source of my fear-of-flying was the consciousness of Sin.
I was raised Catholic. By a very Catholic mother. Who believed quite pre-Vatican II Catholic things. And whether I shared those beliefs or not, I suffered for them. I lived in the long penumbra cast by their certainties. This one, for instance: Thou Shalt Not Have Sex Before Marriage.
As I frequently had sex before marriage, with men other than the one I eventually married thirty years ago, I sometimes took planes to exotic locales and enjoyed torrid weekend liaisons. But, oh, God–the guilt. It haunted me most at take-off. Because I am hiding my life from my mother, this plane will crash and she will discover my sins when I am too dead for forgiveness.
The Poster Girl for this sort of Vengeance Theory of Transgression
is, and will always be, the irrepressible Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, Jack Kennedy’s favorite sibling and 1939 British Debutante of the Year. Kick wasn’t a traditional beauty, but as one of her English contemporaries once explained, “She had more S.A. than any woman I have ever known.” That’s a discreet British abbreviation for Sex Appeal, and with her roguish sense of humor, high spirits, and dusting of freckles, Kick took London by storm when she was nineteen. She had been schooled by Sacred Heart nuns for years, and was so devout a Catholic that when air raid sirens blared in wartime London, where she was living with her ambassador father, Joe Kennedy, she would hurry to the air raid shelter crossing herself “and commending my soul to the Lord.” But Kick was also a rebel–and she fell in love with Billy Hartington, heir to the Duke of Devonshire, who was emphatically not Catholic. Billy’s father was as violently opposed to his son’s match as Kick’s mother, Rose. When Kick and Billy finally married in the middle of World War II, Rose Kennedy did not attend the wedding. She regarded Kick as having chosen to live in Mortal Sin by marrying an Episcopalian, and is reputed to have muttered darkly: “God may forgive her, but I never will.”
|Joe, Kick, and Jack Kennedy, Sept. 3, 1939, entering Parliament to hear the Declaration of War|
When Kick’s oldest brother, Joe, was blown up in an experimental plane full of explosives in 1944, the new Marchioness of Hartington returned to New York for his memorial service. There, Rose informed Kick that Joe’s death was her fault–God had punished the entire family for her sinful marriage to Billy. When news of Billy’s death from a sniper’s bullet arrived by telegram a few weeks later, Rose expressed her profound relief that at least, now, Kick would not go to Hell. Kick’s parents did not acknowledge her grief or speak of Billy again, one reason she decided to return to England instead of remaining with her family.
After the war, Kick fell in love with the Eighth Earl Fitzwilliam, a married Englishman whose wife was an alcoholic. The pair intended to marry once Lord Fitzwilliam obtained his divorce, and in the hope of securing the blessing of Kick’s father, Joe Kennedy, they flew across France in a small plane in order to meet him. Kick, of course, was essentially Living in Sin at this point. She had contraceptives in her suitcase. And due to the Vengeance Theory of Transgression, she was a prime target for smiting with thunderbolts.
The small plane encountered a storm, and after what must have been twenty nerve-wracking minutes of extreme turbulence, broke apart in a dive and crashed, killing Kick, her lover, and the two-man crew. Naturally, her father found her birth control among the things recovered from the wreckage, when she was long past forgiveness. I imagine her crossing herself as the plane plummeted, commending her soul to the Lord, aware that her mother would believe she had earned the only fate she deserved. I worry that she might even have believed that as well. She was twenty-eight years old.
I am no longer afraid of flying. A few summers ago, I even strapped myself into a Cessna and flew over Denali, landing on a glacier. I toy with the idea of learning to fly myself. But I have given my terror and panic attacks to a number of characters in my novels. I find that allowing fictional people to grapple with difficult emotions is sometimes an effective way of exploring fear myself. And I like to think that my diminished panic is the result of spiritual growth. No, I can’t control anything. None of us can. And with that acceptance comes freedom from fear–as well as guilt. In the end, I’d rather crash and burn with Kick’s sinners than stay safely on the ground with Rose’s forbidding saints.
Now, when I board a plane, I utter this simple prayer:
If I cannot be safe–Let me be brave.