THE RED-HAIRED woman looked terrified. Her eyes were closed tight and her lips were moving as if in silent prayer. Her hands were in her lap, clasped tightly. Down the aisle, a young couple sat together and hugged, he with his arm around her, she with her arms around him. They looked pale.
Across from me, the man in the business suit was taking deep gulps of air, and next to me the man in the polo shirt and dungarees pointed to the emergency vehicles waiting for us on the runway and shrugged his shoulders as our plane, crippled in some way, came in for its landing. We handled it perfectly. We were, I have to tell you, heroes.
All the time we had known something was wrong. First they had announced that we were turning back, and then we realized that we were coming in for a landing from the wrong direction - pointing toward the sea rather than away from it - and last, we saw the emergency vehicles waiting for us, their warning lights revolving, the firemen at the ready. They had told us very little - something about hydraulic failure.
"Hydraulic," the man next to me said, "works the landing gear."
It turned out it wasn't that at all. It was something different, something having to do with inability to steer the plane on the ground, but we didn't know that at the time. All we knew was that we were coming in for a landing we didnt want, that the crew was telling us precious little, that we were being talked to the way parents treat children when there's something wrong - the way cops talk and doctors talk and airline people talk.
It's the language of the old Dragnet Show, Sgt. Friday always saying, "It's just routine, Ma'am." It was never routine. It was always Murder One. In this case it was the steering. They didn't have any.
There was a gasp when they announced that. We were already on the ground when we were told, and so everyone laughed and sort of congratulated each other. And then a funny thing happened. Nothing happened. You sort of expected something would - that the captain would come out of his little cabin and talk it over with us, say it had been awfully hairy up there, but we had come through together.
There was none of that. Instead, there was a chit for a meal, a free drink and a plane later that day. I felt somehow cheated, I wanted someone to tell me I had been right to be so scared.
I suppose I am conscious of this now because my mother had just had a serious operation and all anyone would tell her is that it was routine. That was the line. The doctors said it and the nurses said it and all of us in the family said it. We were all trying to assure her, but all we were doing, really, is what the airlines do - heighten the anticipation, robbing her at the same time of the right to feel that what was happening to her was, indeed, special, not to mention dangerous.
This is something akin to the way we felt on the plane. We wanted someone to come down the aisle and say, "Boy, you people really went rhrough something." Maybe we wanted the stewardesses to pass out little certificates of heroism. What we did not want to hear is how we had had nothing to be afraid of, how it was all more or less routine because the routine they were talking about is theirs - not ours.
We have no place in ours for heart-stopping moments, and when that happens we want to be treated as if something exceptional had happened. There is something about the word "routine" that connotes more than quiet confidence. There is another message there and it goes something like this: Don't bother me. Maybe this is why telling people that their problems are routine is so annoying to them. Sometimes, it's a brushoff.
Anyway, the next day I called the airlines and asked what had happened. I called as Reporter Cohen and not Passenger Cohen, and so I spoke to a public relations officer. He called me Richard and told me I had nothing to be afraid of. This is not what I wanted to hear. He said that Hydraulic System A had gone on the fritz and he made it sound as if the plane had the mechanical equivalent of a runny nose.
I didn't want to hear that either. I pressed him and he had to call me back twice, but each time the flight got no more dangerous. Silly us, we had been scared for nothing.
So this is in praise of the passengers aboard Delta Flight 211. This is for the red-haired lady who seemed to be praying, and this is for the couple who hugged, and this is for the guy next to me who took his breath in large, frightened gulps. This is also for the young girl who said she was too young to die, and to the guy next to me who thought we had no landing gear, but stayed calm anyway - to all of us who didn't know enough not to be afraid.
Raise your glasses. We would have acted the same in the face of real danger. We were, I have to tell you heroes.