Plane thoughts

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What I didn’t tell you in my column last month, about the future of print media, was that I wrote it partially in preparation for a speech I was to give on that topic at a national conference.

It so happened that I flew to Chicago for the conference on March 24, the very day Germanwings Flight 9525 was intentionally crashed into the French Alps by its co-pilot.

I fly on commercial airliners several times a year for both business and pleasure, and I am not a particularly nervous air passenger. But I always seem to be of two minds when I fly.

First, I still find flying to be the amazing and exhilarating experience I first felt upon taking off in an airplane as a child. And second, I confess that I pray with great fervor that this flight not be my last experience on earth, regardless of how exhilarating it might be!

During these particular flights to and from Chicago, I continued to have both feelings, only more so.

On the return flight, I boarded prior to sunrise on a Chicago morning enjoying a light snowfall. My window seat looked out on a wing encrusted with snow as we trundled along the runway, heading for the “de-icing pad.”

There, a line of planes pulled up alongside a line of white trucks, in whose cherry-picker baskets stood men bundled in padded orange jumpsuits. They wielded hoses that noisily (and blessedly) blasted the wing with what appeared to be hundreds of gallons of de-icing fluid.

But once we took off through the gray clouds and left the dreary, windy city beneath us, we were soaring above a fluffy white carpet of cloud enjoying a glorious sunny day and a brilliant blue sky.

For some reason, I am always astonished to see that the sun is always shining in a clear blue sky above the clouds. Similarly, I am always surprised come evening time to realize that the stars and the moon are always there, too. It’s just that the sun’s rays during the days so brighten our atmosphere as to erase most of them from view.

So many things hide in plain sight.

By the time of this return trip, we knew a lot more about the circumstances of the originally mysterious plane crash earlier in the week. We knew, for example, that the co-pilot had acted intentionally, and that he had a history of psychological problems he had hidden from his employer.

I read one account that quoted a former girlfriend of his who had heard him say, “One day I’ll do something so that everyone will know my name.”

Those telling facts reminded me sharply of an earlier experience I believe I related once before in this column.

I ran into a fellow with whom I had a casual acquaintance. In one of our earlier conversations, he had described to me the company he had founded and still ran. It sounded like a very successful operation, and I felt a twinge of jealousy.

On this particular occasion, he didn’t seem his usual chatty self. I casually asked him how he was doing. He answered me in a way I have never heard before or since. In a soft monotone, he said, “I’ve never been worse.”

It took me a second to process the unexpected reply, and I gave him a quizzical look as I muttered, “I’m sorry to hear that.” We stood there for an awkward moment, but were quickly interrupted by other people, so I slipped away. 

The next day, I learned the fellow had committed suicide that very night.

I attended the funeral, both to show my respects and to try to better understand who he was and why he would have done such a thing. Of course I learned nothing of the sort.

But I did learn a very important lesson: When you are given a glimpse into another human being’s deep sadness or depression, you don’t just mutter you’re sorry and walk away. You will never forgive yourself if you don’t at least ask, “Would you like to talk about it?”

I have had several opportunities since then to do just that with other friends, and while I don’t think I’ve saved any lives, I think it’s made a difference.

I wonder how many people might have noticed something about the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, that suggested he was depressed or suffering from a psychological malady. Conditions of this sort are all too common in today’s world, and the conditions themselves keep many sufferers from seeking treatment that could help them.

The sun may always be shining somewhere above us, but when we’re walking around under a cloud, it’s hard to remember that.

Sometimes, maybe, a caring word or listening ear may cause a break in the clouds, or melt a layer of ice, and help prevent a tragedy.