First Flight: How Travel Helped Me Grow Up

The cold snapped at my calves, which were covered only in panty hose and exposed beneath the hem of my coat. The wind gushed and ushered me into the airport terminal entrance and my parents, who were both damning the weather under their breaths, were right behind me. I had never seen a moving walkway before, but I was about to step onto it. I had never been on a plane before, but I was about to step onto one of those, too. I had received a ride home to Ohio for Christmas with a friend, but the holidays had blurred into the horizon behind me, as they do, and the solo trip back to New York was before me.

My father, who at that point hadn’t been on a flight since his honeymoon, tried to comfort me as I hugged him goodbye.

“Everyone does it. It’s easy. Just read the signs,” he told me.

Flushed over with naivety, my heart was racing. I pursed my lips, stood tall and did as my father had instructed; I read the signs. Although I didn’t have enough money to buy anything in the airport, I had dressed up in an outfit I perceived to be elegant, under the impression that only rich people flew. Once I boarded the plane, I listened attentively to the flight attendant’s emergency instructions, begging my brain to record every single word, just in case. When she was done preparing me for the worst, I flattened my face against the cold windowpane and witnessed the world shrink beneath me for the first time. I imagined what childhood must have been like for my friends who had been flying since they were babies. They knew what French sounded like in elementary school. I envied their world-weary nonchalance as they described the long airport security lines, their disdain for the airplane food and small seats as they shared their summer stories. They were boarding planes by themselves in high school for spring break. I felt poor and inadequate by comparison. I was determined to stay silent beneath my headphones rather than risk admitting to the person beside me that I was on my first flight.

When I arrived at LaGuardia, I stepped outside feeling different somehow. I had quietly moved through a rite of passage. Adulthood wrapped around me like a soft blanket, soothing with the strange comfort of the unfamiliar. That pride vanished on the train ride back to my dorm and in its place moved an unshakeable knowledge of what else I had yet to do. I felt crushed by the weight of my own ignorance. I had never eaten asparagus or cherries that weren’t out of a jar – my list of edible food was laden with high-fructose corn syrup and embarrassingly short. I had never seen the Pacific or the desert, the Redwoods, or any mountains other than the old and low ones I grew up in, the Appalachians. Aside from a short trip to Toronto with choir in high school, I had never left the country. I could not even guess which languages were being spoken around me during my first few months in New York, nor did I know the difference between Islam and Hinduism or Judaism and Buddhism. I recoiled at the thought of myself, doe-eyed and dumb. I felt like a child and I thought like a child, but I promised myself to become as absorbent as a sponge, to seek out that which did not first seek me. I swore to myself that I would, somehow, learn about the world. A decade later, I’m not sure I would recognize that version of myself, but I’d like to think that if I met her, I’d give her a chance to learn from me and I from her. After all, intrigue is not marked by the experiences we are given, but rather by those we pursue.

Galley Gossip: A memorable flight for a first time flier

I knew something was up when an attractive woman wearing a fur vest walked to the back of the airplane during boarding and pulled my coworker aside on a flight from Dallas to New York. I couldn’t really make out what they were saying as I set up the galley, shoving snacks in a drawer and stacking cups in an insert, but it had something to do with a kid who had spent his entire summer babysitting while his friends went on vacation. The woman, it turned out, was the aunt who wanted to do something special for the boy, something that his friends had never experienced.

“Ya think he can visit the pilot during the flight?” asked the woman smiling brightly. “It’s his first flight.”

“No, I’m sorry, we don’t do that anymore, not during the flight,” said my coworker. “But you can take him up there now while we’re still boarding.”

The exchange reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a guy who recently told me about a memorable flight he’d had as a child. It happened back in 70’s when passengers actually dressed up to travel. He’d fallen asleep next to his mother and awoke to find that a pair of wings had been pinned to the lapel of his jacket. Not only did he keep the gold American Airline wings, he shared a photo of the jr. pilot wings, circa 1977, that the flight attendant had given to him aboard a B707. “It was the strangest thing,” he said, reflecting back on the flight in awe. So strange, in fact, the experience may have been life altering. Bryan is now a pilot who also creates aviation T-shirt art.

Bryan isn’t the only one who has experienced a memorable flight while growing up. I’ve heard several amazing stories over the years that have actually affected me! Now whenever I have kids on board I make it a point to march them up to the cockpit to meet the pilots. If they’re lucky they’ll get to push a few buttons and might even get a copy of the flight plan after we land. You never know whose future you may be shaping with one simple push of a button and a handful of paper.

With that in mind, I stowed the plastic mallet I’d been using to break the ice and made my way up the aisle to the front of the aircraft where I could see a familiar furry vest standing just outside the cockpit door. “Do you have a camera?” I asked the woman.

That’s when my colleague magically appeared with an iphone and said, “I’ve got it,” as she snapped a photo of the boy sitting in the Captain’s seat, a boy I would soon come to know as Cade, which is the adorable boy pictured above wearing the pilot hat. I decided to interview Cade later in flight.

NAME: (Spelling) C. A. D. E. W. I. L. L. I. A. M

AGE: 6

Where do you live, Cade? White Oak, Texas.

What are you going to do while you’re in New York? See the Lion King

Fun! Make sure to visit Toys R Us and ride the ferris wheel, too. So tell me, what did you like best about the airport? The restaurants. And how the airplane is parked right beside the airport.

What did you like best about visiting the cockpit? Steering

What’s your favorite thing to do on the airplane?
Look out the window.

If you could be anywhere in the world, where would you want to be? On an airplane, except not in this seat. It’s not a good seat.

Yeah, I know what you mean. First class seats are much better. Where do you think you’ll travel to next? Antarctica. Wanna know what I want for Christmas?

Sure. A baby penguin. But it might be hard to keep up with.

You might be right. I know a pilot named Kent pretty well who likes to answer questions. If you could ask him a question, what would it be? What states have you been to?

Good question. I’ll see if I can get him to answer it. Do you know what you want to be when you grow up? A scientist. Because I can draw dragons and ghosts and cars. Want me to draw you one? Want me to write you a story?

Of course! I’ll get you a piece of paper so you can get to work….


One day I got on a plane. And I got an intervu. And who did my intervu? Was Mrs. Heather. My Captin was sleepy so I helped him out and got to drive the plane. We got to New York!

What a great story! I’m really impressed. Okay, now do me a favor and draw a picture of a dragon while I double bag the coffee and offer the pilots a cup.