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  • Southern Oregon Journal - Heading into a Northwest storm

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  • Once you’ve survived the long lines, the disrobing of coat, belt and shoes, the humiliating pat-down by gloved security, the real danger of flying in an airplane awaits.
    Your seatmate.
    Will he or she talk incessantly? Snore loudly? Sneeze with abandon? Hog both armrests?
    Me, I ruminate on more spiritual issues. If the plane were to spiral into the cold, hard ground and explode into flames, who would be dying with me?
    It‘s a terrible thing to think about when you’re boarding a plane, but I can‘t help myself. Humans aren’t supposed to fly. If they were, they’d have been born with jet engines under their arms or at least enough free SkyMiles for first class.
    On a recent return flight from Newark, N.J., I pondered my seatmate fate as I boarded a plane in the middle of a rainstorm. I was bound for Seattle, where I’d have a quick layover before catching the puddle jumper home to Medford.
    As I found my window seat over the wing, I spied a woman sitting in my row on the aisle.
    We looked at each other with some relief. I had one small carry-on, she an average body mass index.
    As we ascended into the night sky, I stole a glance at the woman who would accompany me to the afterlife if both jet engines failed. She was about my age, perhaps a little older, with shoulder-length auburn hair. She was an experienced traveler: airline blanket reserved in the seat pocket in front of her, book in her lap, headsets at the ready.
    “Where are you headed?” I ventured.
    “Home to Seattle. I’ve come from Rome,” she said, her red lips curling around a set of braces. She seemed self-conscious of them.
    I was jealous. I’d been training for a week at Ottaway headquarters, where the only sightseeing within miles is a designer outlet mall.
    “A storm awaits us in the Northwest,” she said. “We may not be able to land.”
    I asked her what brought her to Rome. She said a friend who’d “married well” and nodded her head as if I should read between the lines. I asked if she traveled a lot.
    “I used to,” she said.
    We fell silent as the plane climbed to cruising altitude. I liked my seatmate. She seemed strong, resilient, yet strangely vulnerable. Maybe it was the braces.
    As we flew toward the Canadian border, the pilot announced that those sitting on the right side of the plane could see the Northern Lights.
    “I’ve never seen the Northern Lights,” she said. The man across the aisle offered to let her take a look, and she rose quickly, what I guessed was a rare moment of girlish excitement for her.
    “We’ll take turns,” she said, pointing to me. “This lady next to me wants to see them, too.” I was sorry, for her sake, to discover the northern lights on this day were nothing but a green glow above the mountains.
    I asked her whether someone was meeting her at the airport. “I’ll have to take a taxi,” she said. “Mom and Dad are at a game.” She wore a ring on her left hand. Why would she be living with her parents? Was she recently divorced? Or had her husband, with whom she‘d traveled the globe, recently died?
    Toward the end of our six hours together, we hit the storm raging over the Northwest head on. The plane lurched from side to side, dipped and rose, shuddered in the relentless wind.
    As we descended, I heard a sudden rush. Though it probably was just an adjustment in the wing flaps or rudder, I had this absurd, fleeting notion a door had opened and we were about to die.
    As my body recovered from the unexpected surge of adrenaline, I thought: The two of us would‘ve taken care of each other as best we could in those last moments, that much I knew.
    Cathy Noah is city editor at the Mail Tribune.
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