Sun, 15 Jun 2003


Kirk Coningham

Bruce Martin had been flying forever. Twenty-two years in advertising had taken him 10 times around the world and back again. Flying always made him feel melancholy. He was either going somewhere he didn't want to go, or, worse still, coming back to a place he didn't want to be.

A glance from his aisle seat across the couple beside him and out the window confirmed it was dark outside; otherwise he didn't have a clue what day it was, what time it was or where he was. He looked at the screen to be reminded that in 45 minutes or so he would set down in Jakarta, the second-to-last stop of a three week trip that had taken him through the Americas, Europe and back through Asia on the way home to Australia.

Lightening flashed long enough for him to make out the spongy tops of huge tropical thunderheads. At 45,000 feet the boiling clouds were high. He felt the DC10 lurch on the first of the churning winds and groaned. Say good-bye to that final numbing scotch.

The plane lurched again in agreement. The announcement was made, "Please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts. We are coming into a bit of bad weather." Three increasingly bumpy minutes later there came another call: "Flight attendants, please prepare for landing."

At more than 30 minutes from their computer estimated arrival time, Bruce understood what this really meant: "Buckle up, this is going to be a rough one."

On cue the aircraft lurched again, rolling stomachs while the night sky got even blacker. The air outside looked thick, wings pushing through treacle, held aloft by viscosity alone.

The aircraft dipped heavily again, earning a gasp from the couple beside him who were holding on to each other's arms. They were older Indonesians and apparently not accustomed to flying, although, Bruce had to admit, this was getting unusually bumpy. He could see the eyes of the flight attendant, strapped into the backward facing jump seat two rows up. She was looking nervous; a bad sign.

The biggest jolt so far hit the aircraft and the engines gunned to full power, settling the plane but unsettling the passengers. Murmurs of alarm grew as two overhead compartments burst open, spilling their contents onto worried heads.

Bruce wondered about the couple beside him, now clinging to each other like preschoolers on their first day. He experienced a twinge of envy. Bruce's marriage had dissolved into a series of claims and counterclaims, more abuse than regret, and a court order that changed "till death us do part" to "irreconcilable differences".

It was a sad finale to something that had started with such promise; yet another disappointment to go with his wardrobe full of disappointments. He had so many it was hard to keep track, but the big baggy ones that still fit included the disappointment he was to himself, to his family, in his work, and he felt there was also one in their labeled "disappointment to God -- don't wash".

He couldn't blame God or anyone else. He had been dealt a fair hand but had played it badly. Although older, his parents had loved him deeply and had spared nothing in his upbringing and education. As he grew his parents told him he was a "miracle birth".

The doctors had told them that they would remain childless, but when his father was 48 and his mother 45 she had fallen pregnant. Bruce was born healthy and strong. He was a miracle and his parents understood their gift from God was destined for special things.

By the age of three nothing too special had emerged and that was the pattern of his life. Bruce continued to underachieve in everything he tried and his parents' dreams of the miracle child sent to earth to do great things slowly diminished along with Bruce's self-esteem.

When he finally died, on Bruce's 30th birthday, his father had never once told Bruce he was proud of him. Bruce sometimes cursed the brutality of his father's honesty. He hated that he had disappointed the old guy at every turn.

Still, at 35 he had a wife and family, a good job and career. To the untrained observer Bruce may have even been mistaken for a person "going places".

Ten years later, wrapped in the light shell of a DC10, it was all gone to hell.

His wife had left, not unexpectedly, one morning after he was once again passed over for promotion. Bruce really couldn't fault her. She had encouraged him for years. She had told him to quit. She had told him that she believed in him; he was smart, talented and worthy of better things. She had searched out job opportunities and urged him to apply. At one time she had even loved him, or, more precisely, loved his potential.

Even now he wasn't sure if it was lack of courage or a sincere belief that he didn't need to change jobs that made him stay with the company until he was well past his use-by date. He suspected it was the former but lacked the courage to admit it. He hoped that by saying over and over again that he was happy with his lot he would come to believe the lie. The relief had never come. Only disappointment.

The plane jolted again, dropping hundreds of feet before leveling out into its previous roller-coaster course. Now he was thinking of a different relief that would require no action or courage on his part. It would just happen.

A few hundred kilometers to the south, and 45,000 feet below, a shantytown built on the edge of Jakarta was being torn apart by a viscous tropical storm. The storm grabbed a sheet of corrugated iron from a patchwork roof and hurled it twenty thousand, forty thousand, sixty thousand feet into the air.

It flew like a kite before rolling itself into a cylinder and starting its long and deadly free fall back to earth, shooting downwards like a sky diver in a spy movie. The wild decent was checked abruptly at twenty-five thousand feet when the iron pierced the thin fuselage of the DC10.

The hostess was looking worried, then instantly horrified as Bruce saw something crash through the aircraft and the mechanism that held the emergency exit door in place. There was a small bang and the door flew into the nothingness.

The inside of the aircraft exploded in chaos. The roar of the engines and the storm was equaled by the roar of the cabin pressure instantly departing through the neat hole in the aircraft's skin.

Baggage from the spilled compartments flew for the gap along with dinner trays and a man in his twenties who had risked releasing his seat belt to restow his possessions. The debris and the surprised looking man smashed along several heads on their way out. It was lucky in some ways that the weather had been bad. Everyone was strapped in tight and expecting trouble.

So was the flight attendant with the frightened eyes, but her seat was no longer fully attached to the aircraft. A thin strip of metal and an overworked bolt was all that held her to life. The metal was peeling like an orange as she was dragged toward the opening. Her frightened saucer eyes held Bruce in an appeal for help.

It wasn't an act of courage. He really didn't care anymore, so he had no fear. The old couple beside him watched as Bruce, with unnerving calm, released himself from the seat belt and allowed himself to be carried by the rushing air toward the hole. Belts from the unoccupied seats in front pointed to the hole like accusing fingers.

He grabbed a likely buckle with his left arm, twisting it several times around his wrist, while maintaining his view of the woman's eyes. He grabbed her arm with his right hand and pressed down hard. She was suspended a meter from the hole as Bruce held fast to the buckle in his left hand and the warm human arm in his right.

Which arm, thought Bruce, would let him down first? He decided it would be his left; they could make the jump together.

When she realized he was not going to be able to hold her, the flight attendant lessened her grip and invited him with her eyes to let go. Bruce held on to her even more tightly. Seeing his determination to save her or die trying the flight attendant reached to her waist with her free hand, flicked her belt buckle and let the jump seat fly out of the hole. Stripped of the weight of her seat she felt the strain on his grip lessen.

Twenty lifelong seconds later the aircraft had dropped to ten thousand feet, cabin pressure had been equalized, and it looked like they were going to make it.

The battered aircraft stretched out its wheeled talons and grabbed the tarmac as every passenger on board bar one cheered and cried in relief and wonder that they were still alive.

Bruce stepped onto the emergency ramp, following the instructions of the woman whose life he had just saved, and bounced out of the aircraft into a light rain. He joined emergency workers and sirens on the dark tarmac as passengers hugged each other and cried.

"Man," a younger passenger enthused. "I saw what you did, the most amazing thing, she was a goner. You were fantastic, so brave, how did you do that?"

But amid all the joy, tears, hugging and slaps on the back, Bruce saw his life once again stretching out in front of him and all he could feel was disappointment.