Below the Beltway

Flight of fantasy: Gene's delusions of grandeur get Sullied

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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, December 12, 2010

If you are like me, your life is a daily drone of pedestrian chores, banal events and assorted other reminders of your pathetic irrelevance, interrupted by the occasional, startling moment of crystalline clarity in which you see that it's all even worse than you thought.

For example, I recently found myself at the University of Massachusetts, speaking to an auditorium filled with intelligent, engaged, sophisticated, accomplished individuals, most of whom, I realized, were born in ... 1991. Nineteen-ninety-one was the year I started taking pills to shrink my prostate.

At moments like this, I long to become a real-life romantic action hero, someone like Chesley Sullenberger III, the laconic, silver-haired, preternaturally patrician pilot who successfully landed a disabled airliner in the Hudson River last year.

I was thinking about Chesley one day not long ago while driving alone on the Beltway: how, the instant after his engines failed, he seized the stick with a masterful, karate-chop command to the co-pilot: "My. Aircraft." Then, in a sure-handed triage of unequally bad options, speaking in sentence-fragment hiccups to save time, he made a series of split-second decisions that saved 155 people. Would he return to LaGuardia? No time. Try for Teterboro? Might make it, might not. Unacceptable risk over land. No. Bing, bang, bing. The Hudson. Going in. Brace for impact.

Chesley. The Man.

Lost in this reverie, I casually looked down at my dashboard. As befits the rest of my weenie life, I have a generic, late-model car in that ubiquitous cranberry color, a car filled with all the sterile, pointlessly modern digital instrumentation, including a gas gauge that is not a needle but a picket fence of bars, like the battery indicator on a cellphone. As I watched, more in fascination than horror, the gauge went from one bar to zero.

Officially, I had no gas. At 70 miles an hour on the Beltway.

Did I panic? I did not. To men like Chesley and me, crisis brings only clarity and a steely sense of calm.

My. Vehicle.

Signal right. Ease across lanes, hug shoulder for emergency glide-off if needed. Kill heat to conserve power. Kill radio to focus mind. Scan signage. Next exit, half mile. Inventory memory of neighborhood: likelihood of gas station, low. No.

The next exit: amenities unknown but apparent uphill gradient. No.

Stay alert to subtleties of highway topology. Anticipate downslopes and shift to neutral to catch the crest, like a spacecraft using planetary gravity for a slingshot effect.

Third exit: area that is familiar to me. Nearest gas station at roughly a mile, largely downhill through residential community with speed bumps that can be adroitly negotiated with sum-zero momentum change. Proceed accordingly. Eliminate any idling. Alertly run two red lights, risking citation but not loss of life.

Chesley's adventure took three minutes, 20 seconds. Mine was a half-minute longer. I believe I know Chesley's euphoria on gliding to a safe landing in the water without a single injury in what could have been a mass fatality. I believe I know it because I felt it myself, every throb and pulse, on gliding safely up to the No. 3 pump outside the Exxon Auburn Tiger Mart on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda.

After filling up, I consulted my owner's manual and deducted the number of gallons I had purchased (11.7) from the total capacity of my tank (13.2). It turns out that, even with its gauge showing empty, a Honda Civic still has about 60 miles of road left in its tank -- a full circle of the Beltway.

It was my startling moment of crystalline clarity. I drove to the mall to complete my morning's errand. I needed socks.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com.


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