My First Flight
Dr. Barna Richards
Two guys on the ground rolled some steps up to the door of the plane, and I took the first steps to safety. I stopped holding my breath and wanted to kiss the ground when I realized that five minutes ago, when the stewardess said to de-board, I didn’t know what “de-board” meant. I figured they had people who knew what they were doing to remove stuff, like boards, but that cute girl up front kept repeating “de-board through the front door, please.” Well, I would have de-boarded, or done almost anything she wanted me to do, but I had a feeling that if something bad had happened, like a crash, she couldn’t have helped much, but it might have been fun helping her.
The first plane flight of my life had just ended, and I decided it would be my last. The airline called itself Trans Texas Airways, but those who flew more than I, which was just about everyone, called it Tree Top Airlines, or, Tinker Toy Airlines. Those “sophisticated” flyers didn’t help my anxiety by making a joke of my chosen airplane.
My jitters were aggravated from gorging barbeque and scarfing about eight beers the night before, and when the plane took off I thought I would barf, but I held it back and just felt miserable as the plane bumped and dipped along. Soon, the cute thing up front said to prepare for landing at Tyler. “Seat backs and tray tables up,’ she commanded. I didn’t know they could be moved, so I didn’t do anything. Landing in Tyler was a really good idea since I was about to pee in my pants so bad that both kidneys hurt, and I didn’t know if there was a rest room on the plane and was too embarrassed to show my ignorance to ask.
As we landed, I was the only one to “de-board,” as I ran to the rest room. Have you ever needed to pee so bad you couldn’t pee? That’s what happened to me. It just wouldn’t start. I begged, cajoled, turned on the water faucets, and the more I fretted about missing the plane, it seemed my bladder just laughed at me. I finally established a flow, and it flowed and flowed and flowed. I told it to hurry up, but it wouldn’t listen. Finally, when I could release myself from the confines of the rest room, I ran to the plane as it started to taxi.
The pilot looked at me, shook his head and stopped. The guys rolled the steps back, and I sheepishly crawled onto the plane. Now, with an empty bladder and being an “experienced” flyer, I kinda’ relaxed in my seat and concentrated on Dixie, the stewardess (I had asked her name earlier, what bravery), as we now headed for my destination at Galveston. My relaxation didn’t last long, as the first bit of turbulence shook the plane and my confidence. Dixie smiled, and I smiled back, but I felt sure she could tell that my smile reeked of insincerity and apprehension. I wanted to be the brave west Texas guy, afraid of nothing and her protector, but the ground was a long way down, and this shaky airplane felt pretty unstable to me, like the first and only time I rode the roller coaster at the State Fair in Dallas. I wished I had taken the bus.
This trip to Ft. Worth came about because I had applied for an internship at John Peter Smith Hospital, and the medical director wrote me to come for an interview. I really wanted this training program because friends ahead of me told me it prepared them for private practice better than any they knew of, and there were always more applicants than positions available. Doctor Whitley, an upper classman, trained there, and his recommendation might help me to secure a position.
My interview went well. Dr. Goldman, the medical director, had a wry sense of humor, as he shared some weird stories from his experiences and his interns’ that made me feel right at home. The interview lasted about an hour, and he then took me on a tour of the hospital. If a potential intern wanted opulence, he had to go someplace else. There was no opulence here. JPS served as the county, charity, hospital for years and had suffered the abuse of too many indigent patients with every disease known at the time and an inadequate budget that was common to charity hospitals everywhere. Hospital equipment was expensive, even the beds.
The wards were clean, the patients received good care, and the nurses’ frustration was apparent, but so was their stoic pride. Most in-hospital care occurred on wards which held about 10 patients each and staffed by one or two nurses and an orderly. Internal medicine treated the medical, non-surgical problems, MICU (medical intensive care unit) treated those about to die, and, because of the extreme conditions of these patients, there were about 4-5 deaths per day. Surgery patients were treated on their designated ward where elective cases did well, but traumatic injuries like gun shots, car wrecks were pretty iffy.
Dr. Goldman told me the ER treated more patients than ever intended, but there was no choice and no relief in sight because of a tight fist from the county officials who thought the hospital could fend for itself without more money. This didn’t alter my desire to be a part of the melee because it seemed to be the training ground I wanted. I wouldn’t be disappointed.
The ER consisted of 5 treatment rooms when at least 20 were needed. At the triage desk, 15 or so patients were in various states of illness, injury, drunkenness and frustration, as they filled out paper work for the receptionist who was equally distressed, as she received abuse from those she strived to serve. These clerks were hired from the Baptist Seminary, and it occurred to me that their delicate ears would rapidly become accustomed to the real world and enhance their future ability to, like Mother Teresa, serve the lowest of the low, economically speaking. It disturbed me to see children playing on the floor of the waiting room, a sand box of filth and contagion, as some parents paid little attention, while others did their best to corral their brood.
I felt good good about my interview because Dr. Goldman seemed positive during our talks, but I supposed he was that way with all applicants, so I wasn’t sure about being accepted. Nevertheless, I decided to celebrate with a few beers and barbeque. Following barbeque, I needed a “few” more beers to wash it down. My flight would leave at 8:00 next morning, and the beers served as my tranquilizer as my fear of flying mounted.
To get to Ft. Worth, I bummed a ride with a classmate who was going home, but I had to get back to Galveston on my own. Because I had never flown before, I bravely decided to fly back to Galveston. Since childhood, I had an abnormal fear of heights, so, why did I choose to get into a machine which embodies the essence of height. I guess to prove my macho, or, face my demons. Besides, I had to get back in order to go to class on Monday, buses were slow, and I never thought about a train. I didn’t know anything about flying and felt like a rat in a maze in the waiting room. When the loud speaker said “go to gate 3,’ I didn’t see a gate, but I did see people all going in one direction, so, I just followed them and hoped they weren’t going to Timbuktu. On the plane, a really cute thing closed the door with a final “clunk,” and I knew my fate was sealed. Then she talked about oxygen and the seat cushion being a life preserver, and in a crash landing, put your head down between your legs. Thankfully, I bought life insurance at the terminal before getting on the plane. At least my wife would get something from my stupid decision to fly.
I felt pretty comfortable as the plane got into the air, and there were no problems, for a while. But, near Galveston, the plane began to shake until it felt like the time I tried to ride a bull: up, down, sideways, and things flying through the air, passengers crying and screaming “we’re going to crash.” I agreed. How were the wings going to stay on this thing? I looked at cute thing, and she didn’t smile and looked scared, too. Suddenly, it all stopped and smooth sailing prevailed. The pilot then said “it sometimes gets a little turbulent over Pelican Island.” A little? I wished he had told us that earlier. We landed, and I survived, but my hangover persisted unabated.
By the way, I was accepted for the internship and that began July, 1963. That requires several more stories.
Writers’ workshop and writing group