My friend Tim Piering recently invited me to join him for a helicopter tour of Los Angeles. Immediately, my mind filled with excuses, searching for just the right one that would allow me to graciously decline. My conscience was switched on that day, and I was unable to fabricate an excuse. "If you are not going to go," my conscience said, "then at least tell Tim the truth: you are terrified."
I was terrified because over twenty years ago I had gone up in a helicopter similar to the one Tim said we would use: you know, one of those tiny things that look like a kid's toy. To me, the helicopter was nothing more than two lawn chairs in a Plexiglas bubble, underneath a whirling blade, which would ascend hundreds and thousands of feet into the air. My earlier experience was a nightmare. I'm sure the pilot was drunk, and once we were in the air he said something to the effect that he had never flown a helicopter before. I was screaming the whole time, he was laughing, and to this day I don’t know how we survived. I vowed then and there that I would never, ever—for any reason or inducement whatsoever—fly in a helicopter again.
I am now in a titanic struggle with my conscience, and with my fear. "Okay, okay. I'll tell him I'm terrified." That made my conscience happy, but still left me staring my old terror square in the face. For some reason, I was unwilling to let that old terror stop me from going with Tim.
So, I accepted his offer. I mentioned my earlier experience and confessed that I was afraid, but that I would go anyway. Tim was great, full of compassion and kindness and understanding, all of which helped calm my mind. Until the day came when I was standing on the tarmac with one hand touching the damn bubble I was about to go up in. The terror came back. I did my best to manage it, listening intently to Tim’s introduction to the machine, a Robinson R22, listening to him tell me how safe it was, how many times he had flown, how easily he could land the helicopter even if the rotors stopped turning.
My terror would have none of it. My terror became deaf to what Tim was saying, and blind to what actually happening in the moment. My consciousness had completely merged with the fearful memories of the past. I can't remember if I was evening breathing.
Finally, the moment arrived. Tim opened one of the doors (if you could even call it that) and invited me in. I won't even tell you what my mind was screaming at me. Let's just say it was in major protest mode.
Tim gets in. We fasten our seat belts and put our headphones go on. He goes through a thorough pre-flight check list, flicking buttons and switches. He starts the engine. I cannot believe I am doing this. I am praying that this is a dream from which I’ll wake up just in time.
No such luck. Oh my God...we are lifting up! Okay, it's not so bad, at just ten feet off the ground. Maybe we could tour L. A. at this altitude, not much higher than a stepladder. I could probably handle that. But Tim had other ideas.
Up we go...My body is stiff as a corpse, and I’m breathing like one. My eyes are closed. I want to die.
Then, something occurred to me. Like an arrow through fog, this thought hit some bull’s eye in my brain. Is your fear related to what is happening now, or to what happened twenty years ago?