THE AIRPORT IS CROWDED, NOISY, FRENETIC. There are yowling babies, people being paged, the usual ruckus. Outside, a mixture of snow and sleet is coming down. The runways show signs of icing. Flight delays and cancellations are called out over the PA system together with the repeated warning that in view of recent events any luggage left unattended will be immediately impounded. There are more people than usual stepping outside to smoke. The air is blue with it. Once aboard, you peer through the windows for traces of ice on the wings and search the pancaked faces of the flight attendants for anything like the knot of anxiety you feel in your own stomach as they run through the customary emergency procedures. The great craft lumbers its way to the take-off position, the jets shrill. As it picks up speed, you count the seconds till you feel liftoff. More than so many, you've heard, means trouble. Once airborne, you can hardly see the wings at all through the gray turbulence scudding by. The steep climb is as rough as a Ford pickup. Gradually it starts to even out. The clouds thin a little. Here and there you see tatters of clear air among them. The pilot levels off slightly. Nobody is talking. The calm and quiet of it are almost palpable. Suddenly, in a rush of light, you break out of the weather. Beneath you the clouds are a furrowed pasture. Above, no sky in creation was ever bluer.
Possibly the last takeoff of all is something like that. When the time finally comes, you're scared stiff to be sure, but maybe by then you're just as glad to leave the whole show behind and get going. In a matter of moments, everything that seemed to matter stops mattering. The slow climb is all there is. The stillness. The clouds. Then the miracle of flight as from fathom upon fathom down you surface suddenly into open sky. The dazzling sun.