Regarding the Earth with envious eyes

Published Sept. 14, 2009
Across the gulf of dark night I regarded the Earth with envious eyes. Flying above the dark heartland with a cabin of strangers, I suffered a strange sense of detachment from the world below.*
City lights sprawling across the land formed poetic patterns that reminded me of something, some image that eluded my consciousness. Did they remind me of a science fiction movie, the Borg-Earth in “Stark Trek First Contact,” perhaps, or did they resemble the structure of a neuron whose lighted dendrites reached toward the surrounding darkness?
It was my first flight in several years and only my third by commercial airline in my life. I likely betrayed my fascination with the novelty of it all if any fellow passengers bothered to notice. Most bore the hallmark of the veteran traveler, reading or talking and not one whit interested in what lay outside. Not me. I watched every minute of my flight from Cleveland to Chicago and Chicago to Lincoln, Neb., at least while the clouds allowed it.
When an airplane accelerates on a runway, buildings rush by at increasing speed until liftoff, and very quickly the loss of reference points creates the illusion that the plane is losing speed. I waited for the 737 to nose down and crash into the ground, but I eventually deduced the reason for the sensation. I watched the receding Ohio landscape as we left Cleveland Hopkins, recognizing rivers and highways. I could see vehicles traveling I-80, but as we climbed the vehicles disappeared. Entering cumulus clouds, I lost my bearings and occupied myself otherwise until we neared Chicago, circled around a storm, and headed north to Chicago Midway over miles of railroad yards and Southside apartment buildings.
At Midway I browsed in stores along the way to the food court, where I spotted an Irish-style pub. A man with a case sat at a table inside the entrance, and I asked him if he had an octave mandolin in the case. He was impressed that I knew the case contained a mandolin, not a banjo. He showed me the instrument, invited me to play it and invited me to join him over pints of Guinness. The price for a pint exceeded all reality, but I was on vacation, and how often do I cross the country and hang out in an airport.
My two pints on an empty stomach made me desperate for food and water, and after the mandolin man left I went on the hunt. I found pizza and bottled water nearby, and between the two establishments I spent about $20. How do the owners of those places sleep at night? Probably on fine linen sheets at the Fairmont. (Rooms start at just $225 per night. Book one now.)
I had hoped to see the Mississippi on the flight to Nebraska, but darkness enveloped the land soon after liftoff. Watching the glowing lights below, I thought about the people going about their Sunday evening on a warm night in May. Somewhere down there people were attending concerts, dining at restaurants and shopping. Parents were helping children with homework, and couples strolled the streets. I experienced the same loneliness I feel on a solitary nighttime drive in the country, when I can see lights in windows and wonder about the occupants. I wanted to be part of the life below.
My return to Cleveland a week later threw me again into the dark abyss. The buildings rushed by as we lifted off from Midway, and I struggled to discern the outline of Lake Michigan beneath thin clouds as the light faded. Reaching Ohio, I may have spotted Sandusky Bay, but after that I was flummoxed, especially when I could see a shoreline, discernible by a row of lights, to the north. How could that be if we were over Lake Erie? The surrounding blackness created a sense of motionless, as if the jet had come to a standstill, suspended in the sky.
Soon I saw to the left a long, thin line of light and was again bewildered until I saw the Terminal Tower ahead and realized that the line of light was the shoreline east of Cleveland stretching away at an oblique angle. The expressways appeared, the vehicles returned, and very quickly the jet alit at C. Hopkins, where my wife and mother waited for me, taking me home and back to life on the ground.
* H.G. Wells fans may notice the paraphrase.

This entry was posted in Commentary and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.