My first airplane ride was a flight from St. Louis to JFK, the start of a three week trip to the USSR. I was 14 years old and thrilled to be leaving my family on my first independent adventure. In command of lots of bravado and some pretty sketchy Russian, I was really excited and really nervous.
My parents made sure I ate a good breakfast before going to the airport, since a good breakfast is how you start any long trip. Being excited and nervous, I surely ate more than I should have. (Then as now, I had an unhealthy habit of taking comfort in food.) Fried eggs, bacon, lots of buttered toast... what I now know to be the worst thing to have before a flight.
Our flight had a scheduled stop in Detroit. My nerves, excitement, and an unrecognized propensity for motion sickness conspired together, much to my detriment. During takeoff, I was violently ill, uncontrollably throwing up my substantial breakfast into my air-sickness bag. When mine was full, I used my neighbor's.
There is no humiliation so blazing as that of a 14-year-old boy throwing up in public. Of that, I can assure you.
My situation was made worse by the terrible headache the exertions of my vomiting brought on. By the time we began our approach to Detroit, I was thoroughly shaky. When we began our descent, I began throwing up again, this time into my other seatmate's air-sickness bag. Only when we were taxiing to the terminal did it stop.
By then, it was hard to know where my physical misery ended and my psychological misery began. And if I'd known that worse was to come, I might have gotten off the plane in Detroit and hitchhiker home.
We sat at the terminal for what felt like a year - a slow, burning, excruciating year. For the most part, the people around me did everything they could to ignore me. Their restraint was forced upon them by circumstances, of course. It was a full flight. It would serve no purpose to complain about the sweaty, pudgy, trembling young man in 23C who had been steadily vomiting for the past hour and a half. The smell, the noise, the sight of it all... none of it was intentional. The best thing anyone could do was grit their teeth and suffer through a flight from hell.
I was left alone to cope as best I could.
When the plane left the terminal and began the taxi for takeoff, I was terrified that I would lose control yet again. After all, I was now out of air-sickness bags in my entire row. What would I do if...?
Alas, I had occasion to find out. My terror of further humiliation had amped up my adrenaline so much that just as the wheels left the ground, I felt another wave of nausea. With a voice that was spooky with dead, flat calmness, I gently asked the person sitting in front of me if I might have their bag. Three people passed me theirs.
It turned out that I barely even needed one bag. Vomiting, yes, but dry heaves. Yes, dry heaves as we gained altitude leaving Detroit. Why? Why me? I had nothing left to give, no further sacrifice to offer up for the gods of air travel. Why punish me so?
The heaving stopped as we leveled off. I just wanted to die in peace.
The flight attendant came back to my seat and asked if there was anything I needed. Ashen-faced, drenched in sweat, trembling from my illness, half-blind with a terrible headache, I stared down at my hands. After a moment, I spoke, again in a voice that was so calm, so flat, so drained of energy and emotion that it must have been creepy as hell to hear.
"Yes," I said. "May I have a vodka tonic, please?"
(Note: you might think it strange that a 14-year-old would even know what a vodka tonic was, let alone order one on an airplane in a desperate attempt to find some way of calming his own overwrought nerves. I'll spare you the full background, but leave it by saying that a) that wasn't the first vodka tonic I'd ever ordered, and b) I had a strange childhood.)
If the flight attendant gave me a funny look, I didn't see it. What she did was to leave and return a moment later with a glass of iced tonic water, a lime wedge, and a little airline bottle of vodka. With my shaking, sweaty hands, I opened the bottle, poured it into the glass and stirred. I began to take small sips, one every few minutes as we flew on to New York.
The man sitting next to me, who seemed old at the time, but who was probably close to the same age I am now, spoke to me for the first time since we'd left St. Louis.
"Good idea. That'll help calm your nerves."
"Yes," I replied, "I hope so."
Neither of us spoke again. I finished my vodka tonic a little while before the approach to JFK. I didn't enjoy the landing, but I didn't throw up, either.
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