Later this week, God willing, I will get on an airplane to fly cross-country. I know I'll be frightened, but I feel it is my patriotic duty to overcome my fear. If we give into terror, the terrorists win.
In the best of times, I'm a white-knuckle flyer, yet I fly more than 50,000 miles every year. I've been on planes when the hydraulic system has gone out shortly after take-off, when engines failed, when galley fires erupted. I've been through aborted landings and take-offs and had one near-miss coming into Los Angeles International, when another plane was on the very runway we'd been given clearance to land on. On Jan. 13, 1982, I took off in a blinding snowstorm from Washington's National Airport headed to Florida. The plane taking off behind us, Air Florida, Flight 90, crashed moments later into the Potomac River. Until I landed safely in Miami some three hours later, my family and co-workers thought I was on the doomed flight.
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, I was on the runway again at National waiting to take off on a 9:05 a.m. flight on the first leg of a trip to Oklahoma City. Uncharacteristically, I had dozed off when the pilot came on to announce we were second in line for take-off. But then I felt the plane turn, and I looked out the window to see that we were pulling off the runway, along with another plane. I said to my seat mate that there must be a problem at our destination, bad weather or an air traffic hold.
Like thousands of other travelers that morning my journey ended abruptly -- and with searing panic. I learned of the tragedy at the World Trade Center over my cell phone as I sat on the airport tarmac, trapped inside the plane. I have never been so terrified. Slowly we made our way back to the terminal, with the pilot informing the passengers what had happened only when we arrived at our gate. The terminal itself was nearly deserted, with scattered security personnel fleeing along with the few passengers from the canceled flights.
When I finally reached the outside, the sky above was black with the billowing smoke from the Pentagon, hit just moments before. People stood, frozen, staring at the sky. I fled, running up a grass hill in high heels to retrieve my car from the parking garage, frantically dialing my children and husband from my cell phone as I ran.
I am still shaken, not to mention saddened and angered, by what has happened. At this moment, I would like nothing more than never to set foot on an airplane again, never to go into a tall building, to keep my family next to me at every moment. But we don't live in a world in which such choices are real options. And I doubt I would be happy for long if such a world existed.
So, I, like millions of others, must decide to go on living a normal life, which includes getting on airplanes. I can't promise I won't be terrified as we speed down the runway. I hope they won't confiscate my rosary with its small, silver crucifix at the security checkpoint, but I'll have a Bible and a prayer book with me just in case. I've always measured runways in Hail Marys. This time won't be any different.
In the days ahead, many American servicemen and women will risk their lives to defend our country. But most of us are neither young, strong, nor courageous enough to join them. The best that we can do is to go bravely about our ordinary tasks.
C.S. Lewis once wrote: "Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of." For me, stepping on a plane in a few days will be that small act.