Fight Or Flight
I wanted to impress new beau, the speed-freak. Could I buck up, and be as fearless — Thelma and Louise style — ready to drive off a cliff?
I had one problem. I couldn't drive. And I was afraid to tell him.
He had excellent command of anything with an engine. “You can drive a fighter jet?!?” My eyes popped open, broadcasting my awe.
Technically, it’s called flying.” he winked.
I was star-struck. I wasn't about to fess up about my driving phobia, how my stomach turned every time I got behind the wheel — my adrenals would shift into one gear — fight or flight. I couldn't go over bridges or highways; I couldn't merge. I was afraid other drivers weren't paying attention — they were watching cat videos.
My Badge of Shame
For decades, my drivers license served one purpose: ID to get into a bar. Native New Yorkers wear their non-driver-status like a badge of honor. I had subway maps imprinted into my skull, taxi money stashed in my boots, and whenever broke, walking fifty blocks was good exercise, and left zero carbon footprint.
But every time I traveled beyond the zone of cabs, trains and ride sharing apps, I was a delinquent; I was dependent on car-owners and their annoyed friends. Some yoga-buffed matron in a Ford Explorer would comment, “How does a person get through life NOT knowing how to drive?” I didn't have a satisfying come-back; I just wanted another way to return to Brooklyn — Where in the hell was I? And how did I end up in an SUV with a soccer mom?
But seriously, maybe she had a point. Did I want to be stuck in the passenger seat for the rest of my life? Maybe I was missing out on something really great.
Post forty, being a non-driver felt wrong. I was a grown woman heading full speed toward the curve of midulthood; It was un-American. How was I going to pull off my Thelma & Louise moment? Forget about motoring off into the sunset. Or living any place without a 24-hour subway. That wasn’t freedom. My phobia would leave me stranded — from sea to shining sea.
Scary shit that didn't scare me.
But before I found the courage to tell any of this to my beau, he invited me for a ride on his military fighter jet.
I talked my nervous system into saying yes. Fight or flight —That's what I'm all about — I'm made for this!
It was the fourth of July. I approached the plane in slow motion, like a zen master on beta blockers — Calm and ready to face death.
It was a lot to take in. There were rules. Standard protocols And mandatory flight suits, made with non-flammable material. How comforting. It took advanced yoga moves to climb in to the rear seat and buckle in. I repeated my list of instructions:
Don't touch anything. Especially not the red handles.
Throw up in THIS bag— not on the dials. Or the red handles.
If you black out; it’s normal. Totally normal.
Oh, and mind my ejection seat. I'm sitting on dynamite set to blow in an emergency —Emergency spelled with a capital, WE’RE FUCKED.
If he yells into my helmet radio: EJECT. EJECT. EJECT. — I should pull the handles, and something happens. Wait. Which handles?
I can’t explain how much harder and scarier this is than sitting in the exit row. Or driving a stupid car. But I am oddly at ease with the risk. No prob, I think, as he closes the canopy and locks me in—I’ve got Obama care.
The engine starts. Through my helmet, it sounds like a Hendrix guitar power chord. My hair stands on end.
3...2...1... We take off.
It’s exhilarating — Soaring at 600mph feels like riding a motorcycle in the air. Gravity gives me a temporary face lift. I feel blood drain from my skull as we go up, up and UP.
At shit-high altitude, he let's me steer the jet! I am Wonder Woman— I got this. I glide left. I glide right. I am in heaven. We cut through shaving-cream clouds and aim for the horizon, where forever is a dome of turquoise sky, and fear has bitten the dust.
45 minutes folds into seconds. We descend in a small airport to refuel. My feet are firmly on the tarmac somewhere in Oregon, but my head is still in the clouds. This date is going very well.
He drives us to a nearby burger joint in a rental car. In the food line, I notice a small boy saluting someone. “Thanks for serving our country” he says, eye’s twinkling my way. I looked over my shoulder to see who he’s thanking. Then it hits me — my olive-green suit. He thinks I’m a flight officer. I bite my lip.
“You’re welcome.” I say. I didn’t want to spoil his patriotic moment.
Word spreads fast that two American flight officers are on their lunch break at the next table. We rise to leave, and a small-village of innocents stand to salute us. Again, I nod back, like a hotshot from Top Gun.
They gaze at us with hope and wonderment in their eyes. They are still watching, when my beau throws me the keys and says, “Can you drive? I need to plot our course around bad weather.”
I gulp. Everyone is watching.
I take a deep breath, buckle up and step on the gas. A little too hard. The car peels off, and I want to scream EJECT. EJECT. EJECT.
But it was too late.
This is what the crowd saw: Two flight officers making a break for it — burning rubber and running a red light, before they jumped the median.
No one was hurt. But it was the end of pretending I was fearless; it was the moment I realized, I had NO business flying a jet.
Shortly thereafter, I signed up for adult driving lessons. By age 47, I'd finally earned my rite of passage as an American. I've been acing bridges and merging onto highways in my red Mini Cooper ever since. I pledge my allegiance to the road, while blasting out-dated songs, like the wild child I finally get to be.
But I'll never forget THIS — my first loop. Ever.