Roland Wilke was a short, fattened young man who looked much older than his thirty three years. He had a bald head and wore round glasses that suited his equally round face. One Halloween he had dressed up as Rich Uncle Pennybags, the Monopoly mascot, and it suited him so much that his friends began to demand he wear the costume to random gatherings they held where strangers would be present.
He held a job of no apparent consequence, an auditing clerk for the County Controller’s office, but Roland proudly considered it his identity. Numbers and figures were a delight to him and he enjoyed the mundane, tedious work as if it were his life’s calling.
He considered himself a blessed man, even though he had not yet married. His parents, who were still married and very much alive, loved him and his large cache of friends admired and enjoyed him. Life was good for Roland, until the day he had to face his fear of flying.
In his thirty three years Roland managed to stay clear of air travel the same way he steered clear of amusement parks – another phenomena that induced fear in him. One morning his boss Mr. Greenly, a tall former Marine, mentioned a conference on County Planning in Atlanta.
“I can’t go without you, Roland,” Mr. Greenly said over his thick walnut desk. “You know the county’s books better than anyone and I need your mind, damnit!”
The compliment pumped Roland up so much that his shiny black loafers barely touched the ground the rest of the day. It wasn’t until that afternoon when Mr. Greenly arranged to meet Roland at the airport and handed him a boarding pass that he realized what was ahead of him.
No one who has a fear of flying looks forward to air travel, but Roland’s scientific mind took this anxiety to a new level. He created an invisible graph that occupied the shadows of his mind, reflecting statistics of fatal accidents involving commercial aircraft. The numbers were staggering.
By the time he had neatly packed away two dress shirts, four tee shirts, eight pair of underwear and socks and three ties, Roland realized that his graph did not include military, private aircraft or helicopters. And his whole body broke into a sweat.
He packed “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, a book he had already read. He planned to hold it and stare at it so that he would not have to speak to anyone or answer questions. If anyone dared interrupt him and ask what it was about, he’d be able to answer without much effort. The jaunt was six hours. He would have to have faith in aerodynamics and the pilot for six hours, lest he be considered a coward.
All night long Roland prayed to God, sweating profusely and wondering if he should admit to his tough Marine jarhead of a boss that he was terrified of flying. Terrified.
By morning, Roland’s bloodshot eyes and reddened face were a dead giveaway that he had not slept. He brushed his teeth with such nervous fervor that his gums swelled up and bled all the way to the airport. He found Greenly in the overnight parking by supreme coincidence and laughed merrily as they rode the shuttle over to the departing gate.
Each step toward the departure gate Roland practiced swallowing, trying to keep the phantom graph from popping up inside his head. He could feel pools of sweat under his sleeves and was grateful for his jacket. Greenly talked incessantly about planning a city like Atlanta and the urban strength their own would one day have. Roland felt like he had swallowed cotton balls that were spilling into his ear canals. His bladder seemed unstable and he used the urinal thrice before realizing the urge was all in his mind.
“Hello,” a flight attendant in her mid forties, hair in an updo with frizzy tendrils descending, greeted him with a smile as he boarded the narrow aircraft.
Roland was unable to answer and in his nervousness, he attempted to smile.
“Are you alright, sir?”
“Oh, yes.” Roland heard own voice as if he were speaking into an empty tin can. He needed to get to Atlanta. His own livelihood and future in county government depended on it.
The flight attendant watched him as he squeezed himself and his carry- on bag down the center aisle. It would have been so much easier if there were seat assignments, Roland thought. So much was left up to chance in airplanes.
“Let’s take these two,” Greenly motioned to two aisle seats across from each other. Before Roland could answer, Greenly was stowing his carry-on in an overhead compartment. “Want me to get yours?”
Unable to answer, Roland surrendered his case, watching it be stowed by the tall Marine who had no fear. Roland remembered his book and sadly could do nothing but sit in his seat and adjust the seat belt to fit over his girth.
As he struggled with it, his foot involuntarily kicked something under his seat. As he looked to see what it was, he realized his leg was reaching under the middle seat’s storage. He turned to apologize, and saw a smiling woman of perhaps eighty years.
“It’s alright, dear,” she said softly. Roland was so grateful that she lowered her voice. He felt clumsy and fat and embarrassed.
“That’s Cici,” the woman said, pointing to the bag Roland had kicked with his foot. Upon closer examination, he could see two chocolate brown eyes looking up at him. The eyes locked with Roland’s as if they understood – perhaps even shared -- his fear of this horrid prospect of flying and having no control.
“Is that your dog?” Roland asked the woman, never taking his eyes off the container.
“Yes,” the woman answered, softly. “That’s my Cocker Spaniel, Cici. She travels with me everywhere.”
Cici licked her lips and looked guiltily at Roland.
“Does she like flying?”
“Oh no,” the woman laughed softly. “She hates flying and she hates airports, but she loves me so she goes.”
Roland sympathized with Cici, who decided to put her paw on the nylon netting that obstructed her view.
“Can’t you take her out and let her sit on your lap?”
“No, she’s got to stay in that crate for six hours.”
Roland looked up to see if the flight attendant was near. She was, and was watching him. He had somehow managed to stop sweating and called her over.
“I’m sorry, Miss, but is there a way this dog can come out of her case and sit on her lap?” Roland asked, even though the woman had not asked him to.
“Usually this is granted with a doctor’s note, specifying that the dog is used for therapy.” The flight attendant said this to the woman, even though it was Roland that asked.
“The dog may need therapy from her owner,” he suggested. The flight attendant smiled and shrugged.
“I’m sorry, it’s not my call. Do you have a doctor’s note?”
“Yes, I do.” The woman’s answer shocked both Roland and the flight attendant.
“Why didn’t you tell them?” Roland asked, starting to sweat again.
The woman looked into the flight attendant’s eyes and answered shyly. “When I was seated, the man pushing my wheelchair put my luggage up there. That’s where the note is.”
“Here?” the flight attendant pointed to the overhead compartment directly above them. Cici and Roland followed with their eyes.
“Yes, I’m pretty sure.”
The woman handed an oversized satchel that might have been beautiful once to the woman. She examined its contents while Roland and Cici watched in desperate hope that the letter would surface.
One by one the woman removed items: a frayed cloth, a large calendar, pre-wrapped muffins, spools of thread and then finally…an envelope.
Her hand shook as she handed it to the flight attendant who accepted it with a smile. She opened the envelope and read the letter, then asked the woman to wait while she cleared it with the flight crew.
Roland helped the woman get the contents of her satchel reloaded. Its weight was intense, but the letter was worth the effort. Soon, Roland thought, the dog would be free to cuddle his owner – his mother – in the plane. They would all stretch out their faith together.
Roland impatiently watched the aisle while the flight attendants chatted. He heard Greenly ask him if he thought the crew would allow it.
“I think this is all supposed to be cleared through the gate check, isn’t it?”
Roland barely heard him. His eyes were on the one flight attendant with the letter. She came back after the last passenger had taken their seat.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but your dog will have to stay in her container until the captain turns off the seat belt sign. It may be ten minutes in to the flight, it may be twenty, all depending on turbulence.”
The woman was nodding and smiling, but Roland looked down at Cici, who seemed to know the answer. She would have to stay trapped in her nylon bag, sick and confused until the wretched seat-belt sign clicked off.
“Well,” the woman sighed contentedly. “At least she gets to sit on my lap when the light goes off.”
It took forever. The plane took off, sputtering and heaving against the power of the gravitational pull of the earth. The engines shifted into a lower gear and the plane’s body evened out. Roland tried to listen as Greenly went on and on about government, but his eyes kept watching for the seat belt light to go off. The plane bounced up and down in the air and Roland’s esophagus closed and opened in nervous spasms. He tried to swallow and breathe. He longed for the book he packed just to shut Greenly up.
Suddenly a “ding!"
Without being asked, Roland unbuckled his own belt and reached down for Cici, who craned her neck toward him. With one swift unzip, Cici’s head emerged and instinctively hopped up on the woman’s lap.
As Cici was released, Roland began to breathe easier. He watched the exchange between the woman and the dog and smiled. Cici’s eyes were deep pools of brown, occasionally glancing back at him in thanksgiving.
Roland leaned back into his seat, relieved and exhausted. His one act of courage on the flight gave him strength to endure what was left and perhaps even sleep. He heard the familiar voice of the flight attendant over the PA:
“Ladies and gentleman, the captain has now turned off the fasten seatbelt sign. You are free to use the bathrooms located on each end of the plane. For your own safety, we ask that you keep your seatbelt fastened while seated, as we may encounter unexpected turbulence.”