I periodically am asked to tell this story, usually after a few beers. It’s a somewhat comical way to see how anxiety and panic have changed my life. I’ve had it written down for many years. I figure it’s a good time to put it out there.
Page down to the ‘Now the Story (Really)’ section if you want to skip the background.
My Flying History
I have anxiety. I have had it from an early age. First grade (6-years-old) is the first time I can remember an event that I can link it to. I also started flying at an early age because my father lived in Chicago and my mother and I lived in Iowa. After many driving trips between Iowa and Chicago, my father got fed up and told me I was flying. My first trip started out probably as normal as any. My mom took me to the airport, to the gate, and onto the airplane. This was before 9/11 and there was no concern with my mom going all the way to the plane with me. We were first to board, as we were “special.” The stewardess was nice and wanted to make sure I was all set. She pulled out the wings and all the niceties. She proceeded to make sure I was aware of the safety procedures, telling me “if we land in water my seat could be used as a flotation device.” I replied with “I’m supposed to land at Chicago O’Hare and if we are going to land in the water I was not going to fly.” The argument went on for many minutes with my mom finally pulling the stewardess aside and telling her to shut up on the “in the event of” crap.
Well, I flew for a few years with my anxiety, not really knowing what it was and that I had it. My stepfather got to the point of teasing me before all my trips with a “feeeewwww, boom” and a hand gesture of a plane crashing. On one trip, we were headed to the airport and I found my way out. It was snowing and really slick. We were passing SouthRidge Mall in Des Moines when a lady came down a steep hill, out a parking lot, and slid through a red light. She proceeded to slide right into us. My mom swerved to avoid her and went into the traffic light. My mom and grandmother went into the windshield. Hmm, where were seatbelt laws back then? My grandfather, who was in the back seat with me, smothered me to ensure I wasn’t going to be hurt. Luckily, no one was seriously injured. My mom had headaches for a few weeks but was fine otherwise. We called a taxi to get us to the airport. The driver went way too fast for the conditions and was sliding through red lights with his hand on the horn to signify he wasn’t stopping. When we got to the airport, I told my mom I wasn’t going. She called my dad and explained that we had been in a car accident and I wasn’t going to be on the plane. Wow, cool, no more flying. After many hard conversations with my dad, we finally agreed that I would take the train and the overall problem was solved.
In 1998, I was in college and got an opportunity to do a 30-minute on-campus interview with a large software company in Seattle. The interview was delayed and the interviewee was probably more stressed than I was. He threw out questions and I attempted to answer them. 25 minutes later, he said he was way off schedule and that was it. I left and headed to my morning classes. My roommate, who also had an interview earlier that day, was in the class and we compared notes. I said, “There is no way in hell I passed that interview.” My roommate was the opposite and said, “No worries, that was easy.” Well, a few days later I was called with the request to fly out to Seattle. (My roommate was told they were pursuing other people.) This was in February and I was told that they wanted me to come out in April. My spring break was the second week in March so I pushed the recruiter to get me scheduled early. They agreed to fly me out two weeks later. I later found out that all the intern positions were filled by the 20th of March so my insistence for early interviews paid off.
Now the Story (Really)
I was asked to fly to Seattle to do in-person interviews. Wow! I talked them into flying me out during my spring break in 1998. The plan was to fly out on Wednesday, interview on Thursday, have Friday to sightsee, and return on Saturday. The plan was sound and followed to a tee. However, on the trip back, I hit a snag. I was headed out to SeaTac like any normal person. I got to the gate early and looked at the plane. Hmm. It’s 1998 and the plane outside the gate was an old United jet still painted in the rainbow colors. I told myself, “Wow, that plane must be old.” So you know, that color scheme was used 1974-1993. I didn’t know at the time that planes were ever that old. I get on the plane. It was a DC10, which were retired by United in 2001 by the way. The thing was ancient. The overheads looked like something out of a 50’s film. I sat down, looked around, and then panicked: I’m not flying on this. I grabbed my duffle and headed off the plane. Not something you could do today. The stewardess at the door kind of stopped me and in passing I said “I’ll be right back.” Of course, I had no intention of coming back. I was in the north satellite so I headed straight to the underground transit.
How am I going to get home? Ah, car rental? The baggage claim area is filled with them. Avis, Budget, Enterprise … I hit all of them. Of course they had cars. But have you ever tried to rent one from Seattle to Iowa? They don’t want to do that. And they don’t want to do it on 5 minutes’ notice. After 30 plus minutes of trying for a car I had to resort to thinking of other options. Hmm. Ok, train, no I think it goes to California and then to Iowa. Bus? Yes, that may work. I gave Greyhound a call and I was in luck. There was a bus leaving in 30 minutes. Then I asked, “Can I make it from SeaTac to the bus depot in Seattle in 30 minutes?” The lady said, “I don’t think so, you’ll have to take the bus tomorrow.” No way. I ran to the taxi stand, jumped in, and said “Greyhound!” I made it with 3 minutes to spare. I got my ticket and was on my way.
Anyone that has ridden a bus will know that it was horrible. It stops ALL the time. And what do you do other than try to sleep on a seat that is not made for sleeping (remember, this was before portable electronics were common). Hours and hours went by and then we made it to Spokane. That will be an hour layover. What?
On I went. At this point I was supposed to be home hours ago. This is before cell phones were mainstream. My girlfriend was staying at my apartment because the dorms hadn’t re-opened. I had called my place a few times at the various stops and finally reached her. She’s like where are you? Um…. Montana …. What?! I’ll be home in a day or so. What? Really?! Don’t tell my mom. Of course, my mom calls because she wants to know how the interview went. He’s not here. Where is he? Not here. Will be home in a few days, what? …. Um bus, what?
After a miserable sleep on the bus overnight, we pull into Billings, Montana, Sunday morning. It will be a 2-hour layover. As I sit in the terminal, I’m saying to myself “this is ridiculous.” I could have driven home in this amount of time. I called all the car rental places again and got the same response as in Seattle. We have cars, but none one way to Iowa.
Now what? Another day on the bus? Do I have any other options? Hmm. Then it came to me. U-Haul! I gave them a call. I want your smallest truck from Billings to Des Moines. “OK sir, you are reserved.” Another problem: the U-Haul dealership is a mile away. No worries, I’m young; I’ll walk it. 20+ minutes later, I’m there and walk in. Can I get a 14-foot truck? Sorry sir. We don’t rent the 14-footers one way. The smallest is 18 foot. Well ok. A few minutes later, I’m driving off in my rented 18-foot U-Haul.
Things are progressing fine. I have my duffle on the passenger seat and I’m cruising down I-90 on my leisurely 13-hour Sunday drive home. I had to stop for gas at the edge of Wyoming. Then it starts. As I’m pulling back onto the interstate, the truck shows its first sign of problems. A little hiccup. Then recovers. Ok. That was nothing. On into South Dakota. Have you ever been driving and the vehicle just starts failing? I’m going along and then, putter, putter, putter… And it got bad. I had the accelerator to the floor and I was still only going 30 mph. The minimum on the interstate is 45. Oh geez. Ok, I’m 30 miles outside Rapid City. I’ll stop there and call U-Haul. Made it. Time check: It’s now Sunday afternoon so the U-Haul dealership was closed. I pulled into a gas station a few miles away and called the help number.
We’re sorry you’re having problems sir. We can call a guy to the dealership to meet you. Can the truck make it? I think so. Ok, he’ll be 45 minutes. So I’m sitting in the gas station parking lot reading the U-Haul agreement and got to the part about how you are responsible for maintenance during your journey. Ok, hmm, maybe I should check the oil. Popped the hood and pulled out the dipstick. So, you know how there is supposed to be oil on the end? There wasn’t. It was just a dry piece of metal. And it even had the whiff of steam like in the movies. Oh shit. Great, now I’m a real idiot. I’ve just ruined a U-Haul and will have to pay for an engine. Quick, put oil in it. I go in and buy two quarts. That isn’t even close. I think I ended up putting in five more before it went to the “you’re good” level.
Now it’s about time to meet the guy at the U-Haul dealership. I get in and start driving. Imagine that, with the new oil, the truck has recovered and is running great. When you press the gas, it actually goes. I go to the U-Haul dealership and pull in. There is an old guy there that reminds me of Doc Brown from Back to the Future. He’s like “I was just off an hour ago and now you made me come back in.” Sorry! He starts poking around. He finally pulls out the dipstick and smells it. Then pushes it in my face and says, “What do you smell?” Um, gasoline??? “Exactly. The engine is shot. We’ll have to rebuild it and that will be a few days.” May I have another truck? “No, sorry we don’t switch out trucks because of all your stuff and having to transfer it.” I don’t have anything in the back. I have one duffle. “Oh really? OK, then I guess we can give you another truck.”
Now it’s late evening on Sunday. I have a different U-Haul truck. This one is a diesel. So add the pain of having to wait until the starter light comes on before you start it. It’s not that bad and, still, I’ll be home in a few hours. I finally get rolling out of Rapid City. A few miles down the road, it starts snowing. Really?! This isn’t happening. A few miles later, it’s a blizzard. Really??? Now, it’s getting late and the roads are bad, so I decide to pull into a truck stop and get an hour of sleep.
Have you had a time were you’ve said I’ll get up in an hour and done it? Well, it happened. I laid across the bench seat and slept for exactly one hour. I sat up and looked out. Still snowing. Let me test the roads. Drove as far as the interstate onramp and slid all over. Well, back to the truck stop, one more hour of sleep, and then I’ll go. This time it didn’t work so well. I woke up when the sun came up five hours later. It’s now officially Monday morning.
Good news though! It stopped snowing. I headed back to the interstate. Bad news: The road was only one lane with two clear tracks. I drove the rest of the South Dakota interstate at 35 miles an hour with all the other sorry travelers that day.
As soon as I could, I opted to cut down to Iowa going through Sioux City and cutting through on smaller roads. Fortunately, once in Iowa, the snow was gone and the roads were clear.
A few more hours later, I pulled the U-Haul onto the Iowa State campus. I was just in time to pick up my girlfriend from class. We drove down to Des Moines and stopped at the airport for my car and luggage. I went in and said I need my suitcase. The lady looked at me strange and said, really? Yes, it was on the flight and I wasn’t. (Again, not something you’d see today.) A few minutes later she unlocked a cage and there it was. All nice and safe.
We dropped off the U-Haul and headed back to Ames.
At this point, now most people are telling me I’m an idiot. I would have been home two days sooner on the plane. If I would have stayed on the bus I would made it at the same time as the U-Haul. Yep, the bus was scheduled to get into Des Moines 30 minutes after I actually got there. Granted, I never went back to see if the bus was delayed because of the snowstorm. But anyway…
Well, that’s the story. Since 2001 I’ve flown so much every year, I’ve been able to maintain elite status (25k+ miles a year). I still have panic attacks occasionally when flying, but I found that Xanax helps a lot.