I’ve been listening to the tapes of US Airways Flight 1549 as it struggled to land before crashing into the Hudson River. Aside from developing a small crush on the pilot, Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, I also plan to fantasize he’s at the helm the next time I’m on a turbulent flight. His voice — so calm and measured in the middle of a crisis! He’s everything you could want in a pilot.
I’m also uncomfortably aware of why people like me (uncalm and unmeasured and generally prone to hysteria in times of crisis) should not be airline pilots. If I’d been in Sully’s seat, the prevailing sounds on the tape would have been incoherent screams and the deranged noises of somebody trying to get out the side door, waving good-bye to the passengers and crew.
You can tell everything about a person by the way he handles a crisis, someone once said. God, I hope that’s not true. That’s just too dismal and deflating for me to contemplate. I hope you can just tell how a person acts in an emergency by the way he handles a crisis — and not much more. I like to think I have some residue of character that’s simply not evident when I’m on a plane going down or a runaway horse. Some of us are just wired for gentler times. There are reasons why life didn’t call on us to be emergency-room doctors or soldiers in the line of fire or astronauts.
All of which was evident when I was at a reception after a church service the other day. It was an older crowd that gathered at a house, most of them unfamiliar with the fact you had to step down as you came into the living room. I watched a couple of people stagger a little when they didn’t notice the step, so took to warning people before they ventured in.
But I got engrossed talking to my friends Sam and Gloria, whom I hadn’t seen in years. We were sitting on the couch together when we heard a noise from the doorway. The three of us watched, horrified, as an elderly man missed the step and crashed into a nearby table. It took forever — his lurching forward, then backward, then his final disappearance behind a couch that faced us.
“Sam, why didn’t you get up to help?” Gloria wanted to know.
Sam pointed out that there was no way he could have moved to help anybody, since I had wrapped my fingers around his arm and held on, panicked.
“I get a little excited,” I explained.
We walked over to help up the man, who was fine, but embarrassed. “Pretend you didn’t see me,” he said.
Later, we drifted into the dining room and stood around eating and talking. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an older woman pick up her camera, then direct a group of three to smile while she framed the photo. She moved a little backwards, toward the living room. More slow motion. I watched her drop, like a tree falling in the forest, then disappear around the corner to muted noise. “She’s OK,” somebody called out from the living room.
Time for me, I realized, to go home. That living room, like Flight 1549, was a disaster waiting to happen. I’d be doing us all a favor by leaving.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)