A little over 10 years ago, in Frankfurt, West Germany, I boarded a Pan Am flight with my sister. It was bringing us to “the States”, that place we’d stopped by a few times as my father moved us around the world. It was where my mother was from, and where we’d be living for the foreseeable future (three years?). I wasn’t terribly thrilled about leaving Germany, but hey, I’d be living in the place where you could buy Now & Laters, T&C shirts, and see first run movies.
But as far as I could see at the time, those were really the only advantages. I mean, in the end, it’s all the same, right? Just a little difference in language, store hours, and things you could buy. It was with these thoughts that I boarded that flight.
Andrea and I ended up sitting next to another “unaccompanied minor” on this 747 packed full of strange people leaving also leaving Frankfurt. She was fairly quiet, but we slowly moved into conversation as the night passed.
Her name was Marta, and she was on her way home, too. Turns out she had a much better conception of home than we did. She’d never left before (that was very odd in itself to me), but had been sent away for a couple of months during some “family troubles”. She didn’t say quite what, at first, and I didn’t ask. Probably a divorce or something.
It was a long night, and we ended up talking a long time. As the conversation flowed, it became clear that while she missed her mother, she wasn’t too excited about going home. The connecting flight at JFK that would take her home landed in Haiti. Her “family troubles” were that her grandfather, mayor of some town, had been pulled out of his bed in the middle of the night. A day and a few bullets later, her grandfather was dumped in front of her house. She said she thought she’d rather be living in “the States”.
In almost any other circumstance, I wouldn’t have believed her. But there was a certain sincerity to her words that struck me at the time, and I was amazed. Maybe “the States” were a better place to be in some cases.
Dawn started to come somewhere over Nova Scotia. People were waking up, repacking the bags that served as makeshift pillows over the night. It was a full flight, and the usual empty-row-as-bed reprise from the discomfort of coach was nowhere to be found. It’s particularly difficult to be anything but crabby at that point on any transatlantic flight.
By the time our final descent started, everyone was up. Some tried to finish off a last chapter in a book, some stared out the windows at the coastline, and others drifted back into sleep. The plane angled sharply, and we would soon be on the ground.
Suddenly there was a chattering. Mostly in languages I’d never heard. Everyone was looking out of the right side of the plane, and Andrea moved back so I could see. Oh, it was the Statue of Liberty. Neat. Are we there yet? Oddly, folks stayed glued to the windows, and the stewardess had to get up and tell them to sit down and put their seat belts on again.
The pilot turned the plane again, and leveled out. Shortly, we’d be on the ground, and I was going to have to figure out exactly how to get me and my sister to the Northwest flight to Minnesota. I wondered to myself about Marta, and made sure we exchanged addresses.
The scenery was suddenly rushing by, and passengers all went quiet, that way they do just before a plane lands. And with a screech of rubber, we were back in “the States.”
At least, I’m assuming there was a screech of rubber. I couldn’t hear it. See, the whole plane, almost all 420 passengers, was cheering. Cheering. And yelling, and crying, and damn near everyone was smiling the biggest smiles I’d ever seen. It didn’t stop till long after we’d reached the gates. They were finally in “the States.”
I can’t begin to explain how profound the experience of that flight was, or how it’s become the base of my faith in America. It wasn’t a capstone, but a beginning. Prior to that, American was simply the thing that my American family was always telling me I should be more like, and that dammit, I wasn’t English. Or American was the part of me that kept me from understanding cricket, as my English family said.
American was loud, obnoxious, and usually what I distanced myself from. English was a bit easier to digest for most, and anyway, England was closer than “the States.”
This is not to say that the flight was a permanent step into patriotism. Since then, I’ve railed against this country, worked for and with innumerable organizations many would call “subversive”. America manifest is something that occasionally still turns my stomach.
But America the ideal, the one everyone was cheering for that day, the one they recognized before I did- that’s mine. It’s theirs, too. And goddammit it’s yours if you want it.
Don’t treat that as anything less than what that is.