By Tom Clark.
Shades of George Saunders harrowing flight…
When Jo and I spent nearly a near in India (1967-68), courtesy of the Berkeley Professional Studies Program in India, which was funded with vaguely Fulbright money, one of the best benefits was two Round-the-World Plane tickets on then-thriving Pan Am.
The ticket generously included many jaunts to out-of-the-way places, on small planes in sometimes heart-stopping circumstances. Royal Nepalese Airlines, for example, had no radar on their planes, and so the pilots flew blind through a massive cloud cover to land in Katmandu. We did not learn about their safety record until after we got home. We had been lucky that day, flying through fog-shrouded mountains, and finding the tiny airport.
On leaving India we flew on a reasonably safe Air India plane to Kabul, and after three days in that very strange place, we left Kabul on a Royal Afghani Airlines flight to Teheran.
The flagship of Royal Afghani Airlines was a World War II C-47, which was the airplane equivalent of a Jeep. The C-47 is a smallish, two engine prop plane, without anything that could be called a frill. Ground crews had to hand crank the propellers to get them whirling. There were prominent oil stains on the engine housings, and oils stains, as well, that had been blown back along the fuselage.
It was not an inviting sight, this clunker of a plane, but Jo and I were young and most definitely foolish.
Our Royal Afghani flight flew south of Kabul for about 45 minutes and landed on a strip in the desert, ostensibly to pick up several more passengers.
There was no town, let alone a village—just a shack in the middle of nowhere. And I do mean nowhere. We were encouraged to get off the plane and stretch for a bit, which we did.
We re-boarded the plane and waited to take off. One or both engines were not working. We had to get off and wait for an hour while turbaned people who did NOT look like airline mechanics jabbed wrenches into the engines.
We re-boarded and again nothing seemed to work.
Read Part II of A Toast to Royal Afghani Airlines on June 11.
I included Tom Clark’s story, A Near-Death Experience, in my book, The Enneagram of Death—Helpful Insights by the 9 Types of People on Grief, Fear, and Dying. When he was 20 years old, he was the passenger in a car that rolled over three or four times in the New Mexico desert following a blown-out tire at 75 miles an hour. He tells us how this affected his philosophy of life. “The experience I had, ultimately, is not even about death. It is only about the door that opened for me into that spacious presence that surrounds us, always. That’s all.” Recently, Tom sent me this account of the airplane incident.
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