The hero of Gate C17

I hate flying.

I think it’s some combination of my fear of heights, claustrophobia and vertigo. Shove me in a giant Pringles can with wings, and I find myself enclosed in a tight space 30,000 feet above the earth while the world is spinning. I freak out.

Unfortunately, an enormous percentage of the people I love live on the opposite side of the country, so unless I feel like chilling in a car for two solid days, air travel is a necessary evil.

Truth be told, I avoided flying for many years because of my fears. But that meant missing my family more than I could bear, and I knew I had to face my fears. Thankfully, there is a wide array of pharmaceutical solutions available to people with debilitating phobias like I have.

Before I get going here, I need to clarify a few things. I do not advocate relying on benzodiazepines to function on a regular basis. I work very closely with a psychiatrist to make sure I take exactly the correct dose I need, and I use it only in situations of severe panic where all other methods of controlling my total freak-out are exhausted. I only take this medication at the prescribed dose, and I only take it when I fly. So please don’t read this as me advocating recreational drug use and/or abuse.

I flew to Ohio this past weekend to celebrate my great-aunt’s 90th birthday. It reminded me of the first time I finally got the courage to fly (medicated) after eschewing air travel for almost a decade (seriously).

My cousin (who I love to the ends of the earth) was getting married in Ohio, and I was determined to be there.

I arrived at the departure gate and took my sedative. There weren’t many other people at the gate, so I tried to settle my nerves with some low-key meditation. I was drawn out of my zen by a somewhat disgruntled airline employee confronting another passenger a few chairs down from me. 

I can only assume based on her tone and general knowledge of the woman that they’d had a prior verbal altercation, because the employee snipped, “That bag is too big for carry-on. It has to fit (in the carry-on size guide), and that bag is too big. You’ll have to check it. And since it’s your third bag, it’s going to be $300.”

The woman protested that she didn’t have $300, but the employee shrugged and reached for the woman’s bag.

The bag definitely could have fit the dimensions for carry-on, but it was stuffed to the point that it was too fat to fit.

As fate would have it, apparently the same part of my brain that regulates whether or not it needs to freak out about flying also controls how much I shove my nose into other people’s business, because I found myself waving my hands and saying to the employee, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait,” and then turning to the woman and saying, “What’s in your bag?”

Both women stared at me.

Their stunned looks reminded me that my actions were abnormal. “I’m asking because maybe there’s a way to make it fit in the carry-on if you can move some stuff around.”

“Clothes,” she answered.

“Ok, great, open it up, let’s see what we can do.”

The woman clearly thought I was insane, but faced with a $300 fee, she was willing to take her chances with a strange and clearly medicated woman in an airport terminal.

The first thing she pulled out was a large, chunky sweater. (It was freezing cold out but warm in the airport.)

“OK, put that on.”

She put it on, all the while maintaining eye-contact with me, clearly searching my face for signs of mental instability.

“OK, what else?” I asked.

She pulled out another sweater.

“Tie that around your waist.”

By now, the entire gate was staring at me. 

She continued to produce more items of clothing, and I continued to summon sartorial creativity from the recesses of my brain.

Eventually, other people joined in my crusade.

“Put those socks in your pocket,” someone said.

“Put the beanie on,” said someone else.

Eventually, in addition to the aforementioned sedative-inspired wardrobe, we had the woman wearing a parka with another scarf tied around her ponytail like she was going to a sock hop. She had three pairs of gloves and yet another scarf in her purse. She had been wearing tennis shoes but had enormous rainboots in her bag, so we convinced her to swap them out. She looked utterly ridiculous, but technically, there’s no limit to how much clothing you’re allowed to wear onto the airplane.

By now people had come from the next gate over just to watch the scene unfold: a punchy and somewhat disoriented person breaking all social convention to lead a charge of people helping a stranger shove as many articles of clothing on her body as humanly possible.

Finished with my work, I said, “OK. Now try fitting it in the carry-on sizer thing.”

It fit.

The gate cheered and clapped. I was a hero.

That was several years ago, and I’m happy to report that I can now fly with a very miniscule dose of sedative. It’s not nearly enough for me to approach a complete stranger and ask them to show me what’s in their luggage. But I’ll always look back on that day and smile, not only because it’s a genuinely hilarious memory, but because I was able, despite my mild incapacity, to help someone in need.