Most people dread cross-country plane rides. Unless you're a coal miner, or cubicle mouse at a particularly restrictive corporation, you don't spend five hours cramped in a tiny enclosure. My mom (Susan, a divorced neuroscientist) and I (Ben, a hyperactive, impossibly stubborn kid) were known to spend twenty hours on a 747 circumnavigating the half-globe between Australia and Michigan—forty, if you count the trip home.
My mom's parents, Lily and Andrew, moved from Johannesburg to Melbourne close to three decades ago. They were part of an exodus of light-skinned, English-speaking South Africans whose country was being cut off from the world. (The upper class that remained would soon find itself even more pinched. Formally classified as "white" in an explicitly racist system that measured, among other things, hair curliness, they had been protected from the police state that exploited the lower classes on their behalf. The South African economy had been built on cheap black labor whose proceeds were funneled upwards; when apartheid collapsed, the upper class's ersatz prosperity disappeared with it.)
My grandparents enjoyed air travel: it was futuristic to them. They were natives of an era when the car was new and other continents were indescribably distant—the long twilight of global exploration, when you could still draw a straight line backwards from the invention of the jet engine to the voyages of Cook.
Our own biannual voyage to Melbourne was drudgery for my mom. It was drudgery for me, too, but because I'd been taking the same trip my whole life, at such wide intervals, it took on a certain ritualism. Even now, air travel gives me a nameless feeling I can't quite describe in words, a feeling that hasn't lived in me for enough seconds to coalesce. The oddly anonymous taxicab interiors, bright semioitics-less terminal halls, low hum of the engines—these live alongside the powdered sugar on my grandmother's cookies and my mom's guitarsound in a Peter Pan corner of my mind orphaned from the rest of my personality, a tiny, primordial piece of 7-year-old Ben that remains relatively intact inside 24-year-old Ben, and whose language I no longer understand.
I'd take a million books, store them under the seat in front of me, alternate visiting Xanth or Narnia with watching sheep-sized clouds dot the Pacific below. The sky and plane-wing became comfortably familiar, the cabin confining. My mom would strip the plastic wrap off an egg salad lunch, or we'd wait for the cabin attendants to bring Sprite, meat, and peanuts on an indecipherable schedule composed of equal parts Michigan time, Australia time, Polynesia time, and some obscure central ocean hour known only to WWII battleship sergeants. My mom would complain about the tea, I'd shift uncomfortably in the tapestry-blue seat. I've spent so much understimulated time in airplanes that I can chart the low details: the way the plane air smells (and the way it changed when they banned smoking), the strange way the sunshafts shift when you're tilted, the soda carbonation—somehow different at high altitude—the rounded-rectangle porthole of not-quite-clear plexiglas whose inner pane yields just a tiny bit when you push it, two screws set in the middle-top and bottom. Condensate would accumulate between the panes sometimes, and these featureless hours condense themselves into small memories whose depths, like those of a Kinkade painting, reveal mostly surface.
I wonder sometimes whether business travelers, like eskimo equivalents, have a million words for armrests and soda cans, words for each angle of wing skew and degree of jet lag. A kid like me who'd crawl into the wide central section of seats on half-empty flights and sprawl there playing Gameboy: layabout. My mom, asking people for the aisle seat even though she's 5'2’': faux switcher. First class passengers are front fucks and coach passengers are steerage. There's a postapocalyptic science fiction story buried in here somewhere; I can feel it. Or maybe a baffling allegorical science fiction story of the soviet bloc school, where broad metaphors sing on their own to readers who would never be allowed to hear the unburied truth. In that story, the plane ride would never end, and the passengers would forget their families and lives. The world would be gone—just the sky and the plane, blue and silver, endless.
At this point I should mention a caveat: we didn't fly nonstop from Detroit Metropolitan Airport to Melbourne. There were usually two stops, one in Texas, California, or Hawaii, the other in Sydney. The Pacific flight was the conduit, a numb experience that changed winter to summer and day to night. The constellations are strange when you step off, and your coat is a dead weight in your backpack. (This magic-realist description, I hesitate to add, is one that can only appear in retrospect. One of the ways you fill your hours is by thinking about things like time zones and the Earth's axial tilt, and once you get to the other side of the world, the consequences of your travel seem completely mundane.* )
Sometimes I’m jealous of people who get to see their relatives every day, or every week. Or every year. My grandparents are my grandparents: they’re family. They have the welcoming affect everyone’s grandparents have. I know their stories about the Greek sunlight and the South African business climate. But as they near the end of their lives, and in particular as my grandmother struggles through complications with hip surgery, it hits me more and more that I don’t really know them—not as people. Two weeks every two years isn’t enough time for that. I’ll be making the twenty-hour flight again this fall, and maybe I’ll change that a little.
The human story, on the very largest scales, is one of travel, and in the United States, that story is time-compressed. Some Brits and Japanese can trace ancestors back hundreds of years and only tens of miles; some Africans live near the very first human habitations. But almost all Americans have a transoceanic migration within family memory, whether a religious pilgrimage or a sickening captivity on a slave ship. In my family in particular, the time-compression is profound. Our generations are scattered to the wind, pollinating North America, Europe, Africa, Australasia—my grandparents, fleeing South Africa’s collapse like air particles escaping a plane cabin as its relative pressure rises; my great-grandparents, fleeing World War One as it destroyed Europe. Only a few generations more and you reach the ancestors who fled the Spanish Inquisition, whose genes made Colombians assume my mom spoke Spanish (and Bronx grocery store clerks assume I did).
The plane rides to Australia were boring, but writing years in retrospect, I can think about them as microcosms. Even if the necessity of making those flights is isolating, it’s a way of thinking that brings me closer to other people.
*The exception, for some reason, is changing into shorts in the middle of December. It's always sort of fascinating. Maybe my mom's paeans to the South African climate rubbed off on me.