FEAR OF FLYING – G-RATED VERSION

“My parents are taking me out to dinner. You wanna join us?” asked Chris.
“Sure,” I said.
Since I considered Chris barely more than an acquaintance, his invitation surprised me. Still, to a hungry college freshman, a treat to a restaurant was preferable under almost any circumstances to another cafeteria meal.
Chris Bettiker (not his real name) was a fellow freshman at Dickinson College. He was of medium height and build and wore glasses below a startlingly shorter-than-average-for-the-1970’s light-brown haircut. He worked as an assistant trainer in the athletics department. In other words, he was skilled in the arts of taping ankles and handing out and retrieving towels. Doubtless, I assumed, his position was work/study, whereby the College subsidized his tuition in exchange for menial employment, like the kids who ladled breakfast. Though my family was not extraordinarily wealthy, my parents were willing and able to pay all my college expenses and, for that, I was deeply thankful.
I met Chris in my capacity as goalie for the soccer team; at practices, I idled significant chunks of time standing in front of the goal nearest the locker room. Though my inactivity was occasionally interrupted by a shot, I had ample time to chat with the folks who hung out on the bleachers behind the goal, namely: the Spanish professor who volunteered advice to the team that merited credence solely due to his accent; the ten-year-old neighborhood boy who I was sure worshipped me, until the day he declared “If you really were any good at sports, you’d play football;” and, Chris.
Chris and I never discussed anything substantial. I didn’t even know where he was from or what he studied. We just prattled away without making a personal connection, I suppose, like only males, stereotypically, can do.
“Be outside your dorm at six,” said Chris, when I handed him my towel that day.

I expected his parents to arrive, so I was surprised when a bright yellow Mustang roared to a stop with Chris in the driver’s seat.
“Hop in,” he said.
I glanced to see if his parents were following behind, but there were no other cars on the street.
“Wow,” I said. “Is this yours?”
“Yep,” said Chris.
I was surprised he had a car. Few of my friends had cars and those who did tended to have vehicles nearly as old as themselves. As for me, I’d turned down my uncle’s gracious offer of a twelve-year-old Pinto; our campus was small and I saw no need.
Chris, who I knew only as the mild-mannered guy at the locker room, shocked me by being outfitted in driving gloves, a soft brown leather jacket and dark glasses even though it was already dusk. As soon as I wedged my body into the tiny front seat, and before I could locate a seatbelt, he floored the gas.
“Here we go!” he said, his expression like a madman’s.
“Where?” I said, alarmed. “Are your parents meeting us?”
“Sort of,” he said.
I didn’t focus on his vague reply. I was too busy cringing as we careened with screeching tires through the quiet streets of Carlisle, PA with little regard for posted speed limits.
“Um,” I ventured with relief, once we reached a straightaway just outside town. “What restaurant are we going to?”
“Our club,” said Chris. “It’s good.”
“Nice,” I said, hoping my clothes were adequate.

Chris barely braked before jerking the car into a side road with a final squeal of the tires. A sign flashed through my peripheral vision: “Cumberland County Airport.”
“Is there a club at the airport?” I asked.
“No,” said Chris. “We’re FLYING to dinner.”
“We are?” I essentially gasped.
“Yes,” said Chris. “I keep my plane here. It’s a pretty short flight, only 160 miles.”
“We’re flying?” I said, still processing that basic fact before concerning myself with the duration of the flight.
“Um, I’m not so good at flying,” I said. “I’ve never been in a small plane.”
“Don’t worry,” said Chris. “I’ll make it as smooth as driving.”
I was not comforted in the least.
Chris parked adjacent to the terminal that consisted of a single-story cinderblock building, about thirty feet long. He led me through the small building and nodded to an older man seated at a card table with a newspaper.
“All gassed up and ready to go, Mr. Bettiker,” he said to Chris.
“Thanks, Bob,” said Chris.
“Where are you headed this evening?” Bob asked.
“We’re going to dinner,” I volunteered, anxious to gauge the reaction of another human being.
“Oh, out to Latrobe,” said the man, as though this happened all the time.
“Yeah,” said Chris.
“Little windy out to the west,” said the man, before he added, looking at me: “but nothing Mr. Bettiker can’t handle.”
Latrobe, I knew, was near Pittsburgh, several hundred miles away.
We passed through a door and stepped onto the tarmac. Six or seven small planes were present. I followed Chris as he strode purposefully to the nearest one. I was still trying to comprehend what was happening.
“You sure get a lot of respect here,” I said, thinking of Bob calling him “Mr. Bettiker.”
“Yes,” Chris said, “my plane’s the best they’ve ever seen here.”
He went on to explain with enthusiasm some of the plane’s characteristics. I comprehended the parts about speed and altitude but once he moved on to lift and thrust I only recognized he was speaking English; the content was totally Greek to me.
Chris helped to install me in the passenger-side seat in a tiny cabin. I had a little steering wheel of my own like in a child’s toy car, but I definitely had no more desire to operate it than to use the flotation device that served as my seat.
Among my dissonant collection of thoughts were that I did not appreciate having this “experience” foisted upon me as a surprise. But I also realized if it were not a surprise I would surely have begged off, and then missed what I correctly recognized as a likely life-long memory.
An instrument panel spread before us with gauges and knobs worthy of a spaceship, I imagined. “I hope you aren’t expecting any help,” I said.
“No problem,” said Chris. “The route via Johnstown and Altoona is pretty dark, but I’ve handled it plenty of times. You can just sit back and relax.”
“Haha.” I veritably tittered. “I’ll be as relaxed as a goalie facing a penalty kick at the World Cup.”
“You’re funny,” said Chris.
Of course, I did not think I was being funny at all. In my mind, I recall wondering: “How high can human blood pressure go?”

Chris pressed several buttons and flipped several switches while I squeezed my tiny armrests. A propeller sprung to life in front of us, and Chris steered the plane slowly towards the lone runway. For a moment, I was comforted with the thought that he piloted the plane more cautiously than his car. But then he thrust a shifter forward and we lurched ahead with a roar. Before I fully comprehended we were aloft, I saw treetops, houses and twinkling lights receding like props in a toy train set.
“Wow,” I said, shouting to be heard. “This is amazing!”
“Glad you like it,” shouted Chris, pleased. “Hold tight!”
With a renewed maniacal glint in his eye, he shifted his steering column from side to side causing the plane to shutter.
“That’s okay, Chris. You can just, kind of, like, go straight,” I said, alarmed.
“Oh, you’re no fun,” he said, but he mercifully straightened us out.
“So,” I asked, relieved, “do you do this often?”
I was hoping the posing of inane questions would take my mind off of what I feared was a precarious hold on life.
“I go home most weekends,” said Chris. “But you’re the first friend I’ve brought.”
This information shocked me since I’d assumed Chris had friends closer than I. In fact, I’d never thought of us as “friends” before that day, or even thought of Chris at all when outside his presence. It occurred to me all at once I’d never seen Chris on campus except at the soccer field and once or twice at a classroom building. In what dorm did he live? At what table did he eat at the College’s single cafeteria? As if reading my mind, Chris shouted:
“I get pizza most nights, or I just boil something in my kitchen.”
“You have a kitchen?” I asked, not having known anyone but seniors who lived off-campus.
“Yep,” he said. “I don’t like dorms, and I don’t like cafeteria food, so I rented an apartment.”
I wondered how this apparent extravagance – car, plane, apartment, squared with Chris’s laundry-related duties at the locker room. Perhaps, I supposed, he is not “work/study.” But why would anyone voluntarily handle smelly feet and sweaty towels?
We’re at cruising altitude,” said Chris, after a moment. He pointed to a dial indicating 6,000 feet. At that moment, excruciating pain afflicted my right eye. It was like my eyeball was being squeezed in a vice.
“My eye!” I shouted in anguish.
“Oh, that’s just ‘cause of the pressure. Most people are okay up to 8,000 feet,” said Chris, apparently unconcerned.
“It feels like it’s breaking,” I said, trying not to sound pathetic but also hoping to convey that corrective action needed to be taken, if any were possible. I was sure I was being blinded.
“Hang in there,” he said. “Your sinuses will most likely adjust.”
After several additional minutes of agony the grip on my eyeball relaxed. It continued to grab intermittently, to a lesser extent, for the remainder of our fifty-minute journey. When we landed at Latrobe, an airport only slightly more elaborate than Carlisle’s, I craved escape from the plane forever. Of course, I was painfully aware we would be flying back several hours later. I tried to forget, at least for the duration of dinner.
Perhaps taking pity on me because of my eye, Chris landed and parked without any further hijinks. We entered the terminal and were greeted first by Chris’s handsome, silver-haired father, who shook my hand and hugged me like a dear friend. His mother, dressed in a full-length fur coat, looked like Sophia Loren.
“We’re so glad to meet Chris’s best friend,” she said.
“Yes, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” added Mr. Bettiker “Chris has told us so much about you.”
I glanced at Chris, who averted his eyes.
“We’ve been telling him to bring his friends to dinner,” he continued, “but he says there’s too many to choose from. So you must be really special.”
Mr. Bettiker drove us in a Bentley to the local country club that was festooned as a virtual shrine to Latrobe’s most famous citizen, Arnold Palmer.
“Do you golf?” he asked me when we were seated.
“Not really,” I said, as true then as now. “I play soccer. That’s how I met Chris.”
“Chris plays soccer?” asked his mother.
“No, he works…”
Chris interrupted me: “I met Stuart in economics class. Um, what are the specials tonight?” he asked, turning the conversation to food.
I realized his parents did not know about his job. Perhaps he was ashamed for some reason.
Mr. and Mrs. Bettiker treated me like a visiting dignitary. I recall dinner was delicious. During the course of it, I learned Mr. Bettiker owned a steel company in Pittsburgh, and several other businesses. Besides the plane, they had homes in Florida and at the Jersey Shore and had multiple boats in both places.
“You’ll have to come to the beach with us next summer,” said Mrs. Bettiker at one point.
After dinner, we drove back to the airport with a short stop at the Bettiker’s home. It was a mansion. Mr. Bettiker proudly showed me one particular room, a wood-paneled library, which contained more equestrian trophies than books.
“Chris’s sister is a candidate for the Olympic team,” he explained. “We tried to interest Chris in riding, too, but he prefers faster transport.”
“I’ll say,” I agreed.

The return flight to Carlisle was, happily, not as memorable as the first. Apparently, my sinuses had cleared. My mind was adrift with the entire evening, from Chris’s driving, to the flight, to the Bentley, to the luxurious dinner, to Chris’s lie. I didn’t even take economics. I momentarily considered asking Chris about it, but reverted to my habitual reluctance to discuss anything meaningful. Chris certainly agreed, except to volunteer, at one point, by way of explanation: “My parents don’t know much about me, and that’s how I like to keep it.”
“Just one question,” I ventured. “Since it doesn’t appear you ‘re short of money, why do you work at the trainer’s?”
“Well,” began Chris, looking stricken, “I spend a lot of time all by myself and volunteering there makes me leave the apartment and do something each day. It sort of keeps me connected.”
“Amazing,” I thought to myself, “If I’m his best friend in the world, Chris is the most isolated person I’ve ever met.” All I said to him, however, was: “That makes sense. Anyway, your parents were really nice.”
“They can be,” he said, hinting of another side, but not sharing additional information.
I was shocked by Chris’s situation. How could a person with so much material wealth appear so unhappy? My assumptions about what full-time fun it might be to have extreme wealth were not always correct. Certainly, I’d encountered characters in books and movies that were miserable or lonely despite every advantage. But I hadn’t personally met someone who embodied that contradiction so starkly as Chris.
After the soccer season ended, several weeks later, I never spoke to Chris again, though I saw him striding across campus once or twice from a distance. While I was no whale in the world of social life, I had plenty of other minnows with whom to share a meal or a ballgame or a walk to classes. In the rush of college life, I didn’t give additional thought to Chris’s situation. It was not until the following fall, when soccer resumed, and the trainer told me Chris had transferred, that I realized he was gone.
My recognition that money and happiness are not always equated was neither profound nor unique. Most people come to understand that obvious truth, on some level, and many encounter it before the age of eighteen when Chris served as my catalyst. But I do maintain my understanding was derived more dramatically than most. And certainly, it was on a higher plane. (Pun intended).

EPILOGUE

Out of curiosity, I recently searched Chris’s (real) name. An unadorned page, posted by the Florida Civil Air Patrol, described a retired commercial pilot, single, living in a fly-in, fly-out community. His time was spent, said the posting, in restoring his collection of vintage airplanes. He’d recently received an award from the Civil Air Patrol for “Volunteering his time on a daily basis.”

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