Zero Hour (Final Version)

It was a routine red eye flight from Portland, Oregon to Chicago. I was tired; I’d just gotten back from a business trip the day before and it was little more than eight hours before I was called to fly out. Again. It seemed ridiculous to be taking off so soon, but I needed the money and didn’t have the resources to be picky about which contracts I could take.

My wife—we’re divorced now—had never had a job in all the time that we were married. As a result, it was nigh on impossible to make ends meet unless I worked like a dog and then—after I was exhausted–worked some more. I was too stubborn to admit that my life was spiraling out of control and that the marriage was essentially over.

I packed my bag for what was supposed to be only a three day contract, said goodbye (which, inevitably started a fight), and began my drive to Portland, which was about ninety minutes North. I spent most of the trip thinking about life and how unsatisfied I was with every aspect of it. My job was exhausting and taxing; I could just barely drag myself out of bed most mornings. My marriage was dead or at least, it was on its way out the door. There were so many things going wrong there that there wasn’t any way to bring things back. The final nail in the coffin came later, but that’s not what this story is about.

I found myself spacing out as I drove. The whine of the highway became a dull thrum in my ears. The lines of the freeway blended into an endless cascade of yellow, white, and the taillights of the cars that I passed.

As I neared the city limits, the lights greeted me along the horizon; a pinkish amber glow in the distance that belied the mischievous nature of the metropolis that laid below. I took I-205 North toward the airport and lost sight of Portland again. It was like seeing the city of Atlantis splayed in front of you, only to see it sinking back down beneath the waves of the cold ocean. I sighed as I continued on my well traveled route to the terminal.

Twenty minutes later and I was putting my car in long term parking and preparing to flyoff for yet another city to which I did not want to travel.

I thought about my friend, Rob, and how much I missed hanging out with him. Rob had been one of my closest friends during those awful years that my mother was dying of cancer. On many nights I used to call him up and tell him I was depressed or exhausted from whatever had happened that day and he would come over—no questions asked—and cheer me up. I missed that support. I missed my friends. I missed having a life outside of work. I missed being loved. I missed feeling alive inside.

I casually wondered the difference between this and dying. As I walked through the airport I could see the walking dead whom were just like me. You’ve seen them. They’re the people wandering the airport looking like they’re in a half-zombie state. They’re the chronic travelers. The people who have slowly lost their will to live through repeated jumps across states and oceans and lakes and borders, spending more and more time away from the people and homes that they love.

They’re the people you see standing in the bathroom of random airports shaving and trying to talk on their cell phone at the same time. They’re staring into their own eyes in the mirror, trying desperately to convince themselves that they shouldn’t try to slit their wrists with the razor that they are holding in the one hand. They’re convincing themselves to hold on for just a little while longer… and so was I.

I sat in the terminal and waited for my number to be called. Terminals are a lot like doctor’s offices; you find your gaze circling the room, wondering why each person is traveling to their chosen destination and why, for the love of God, are they on the same 1AM flight that you are on?

I heard the announcement that we were being boarded, so I stood up, grabbed my carry on bag, and wandered toward the front desk to have them take my boarding pass. I could tell that the plane was going to be packed–yet again–and I dreaded the thought of the person I was going to have to sit next to this time.

I always seemed to have the uncanny ability to get seated next to the obnoxious business man. You’ve probably met him at least once. He’s the guy that believes his life is more important and interesting than every other person; he’s the guy whom would tell you about the million dollar deals he was brokering, or the Jaguar he would be buying soon, or the model he was banging.

It usually took all of my self control to keep from strangling them with their own seat belt. Or maybe their tie. I hated listening to them so much that I’d finally learned a tactic to get them to shut up: I’d look at them for a moment, make eye contact, and just as their ego massaging monologue was about to spew forth in a torrent of self-satisfaction, I would put my headphones on and blast the music as loud as my ears could stand. Their look of hurt was priceless and, dare I say, it filled me with a morbid sense of satisfaction.

I finally boarded the plane and found my seat near to the window, slightly in front of the left wing. I unpacked my headphones, my MP3 player, and settled in for what would undoubtedly be a boring three or four hours.

Right on cue, my greatest fear became reality: a well dressed businessman sat next to me and gave me that shit-eating-grin that seemed to say “I’m about to tell you my life story”. I sighed. Before he could say anything, I put on my headphones. I figured if the flight attendant was right and the MP3 player could cause interference that would crash the plane, well, we were screwed anyway.

The plane began to accelerate down the runway just as I hit play. The opening notes to the song “Zero Hour” greeted me with a sense of nostalgia and passing comfort. Soon, it was blasting in my ears as we moved down the runway faster and faster, and with the telltale feeling of the wheels leaving the ground and the added feeling of gravity, I knew that we were in the air.

I laid my head back as we began our climb, hoping I might get some sleep before having to get an early start at the client location in Chicago. I’d been suffering from insomnia for quite some time and found relief in even the shortest naps; a zip tie to sanity, as it were.

I slowly drifted off to sleep. The music faded in my ears as I closed my eyes, but the last lyrics I heard were:

This plane feels small.
This is like a dream gone bad.

“Zero Hour” is a song about a plane crash. I’d always thought it was a fitting song to listen to whenever I flew. Not many people shared my enthusiasm, but I smiled as I fell asleep.

I’m not sure how much time passed before I woke up again and realized something was wrong. My music was still playing and “Zero Hour” was still on repeat. I spent the first few seconds of consciousness trying to regain my bearings. It was like that moment when you wake up from a dead sleep and realize that there had been a loud crash somewhere in your house. There’s that initial sense of unease and panic as you try to decide on what to do.

Please observe the seatbelt sign,
For the moment we are all still alive…

The lights flickered for a split second and a vibration that seemed to rattle my insides traversed the plane. The heavy rumbling sound of the engines slowly descended into a whine as if they were struggling to regain altitude; people began to raise their heads from their sleep and their books and started to look around.

I could feel the entire fuselage begin to shudder harder and shake. A rumbling sound came from the far side of the wing when, suddenly, I realized I felt weightless. I could feel my stomach rise into my throat and people began to yell and panic. The yelling turned into screams and crying as all the passengers realized this wasn’t just normal turbulence.

I feel the panic begin to rise, and
My eyes are a little to excited…

I glanced out the window and realized that I could see lightning outside the plane. The lights shut off again, coming back a little slower than before. I couldn’t see anything as I looked down through the window; my eyes were still trying to adjust after viewing the last few strikes of lightning outside. Soon I saw amber lights directly out my window, through tiny gaps in the clouds. I realized that I was looking straight down at the ground. The plane was sideways. And we were falling.

The gentleman next to me began to talk quickly, hysterically.

“Is that the ground? Is that lightning? Are we crashing? We’re crashing! We’re going to die! Jesus Christ, we’re crashing!” He said, rocking back and forth in his seat.

I could hear him over the music that was still playing in my ears. I turned the volume down for a moment as I tried to hear what else was happening inside the plane.

I’ve got a crucifix
I’ve got a bag of tricks
I feel like a wrecking ball
I feel it
I feel it…

I heard prayers in all sorts of religions, cursing in several languages, whimpering, crying, anger and, most surprising, there was laughter. There were people behind me that whom were laughing. They were hysterical. Laughing and then crying. Laughing again. The engines continued to struggle and it became a high pitch whine that seemed to be resonating in the center of my skull. I could feel it in my bones.

The flight attendant came over the intercom and announced that we were going to prepare for a crash and asked everyone to get into the brace position. Her voice was shaky and it was obvious that she was as frightened as all of the passengers that she was trying to calm. As she completed her pre-crash spiel, everyone stopped their praying and their crying and focused their attention on her every word. When she was done, nobody said a thing. There was a stunned silence. Everyone had placed their head between their legs and all that could be heard was a few scattered moments of crying. But everyone was suddenly calm. They had something to concentrate on: trying their best to survive.

I didn’t get in the brace position. I’d been passively yearning for death for quite some time, and this was finally my chance.

I turned the volume back up and sat there listening to my music, looking out the window and wondering if we were actually going to crash. I could still hear the lyrics over the noise and the rush of blood in my ears. I was excited. We were still losing altitude. I could still see lights on the ground, but they were swaying back and forth and back and forth. It was surreal and unbelievable. I’d spent the last several months miserable and now, now I was really going to die.

I like the sound of it
I like the feel of it
I like the deep, deep calm….

I was going to die.

I remember thinking, “Well, this is it. These are the last moments before your death.”

I found myself excited, disappointed, and in some ways, relieved. I was relieved because I was finally going to be liberated from my misery. I could finally just be done with this train wreck of a life and go on to being dust or dirt or worm food. It didn’t matter much to me.

And as the engines fail
I keep on feeling higher
I think my future looks bright
Now that it’s all on fire…

I’d been near death quite a few times, but I’d never had the time to have my entire life flash before me. This time it did and when it happened, I was upset at what I really saw. In every scene and every time my life took a wrong turn, every misery and every foul mood had been of my own decision or my own making. I realized I’d decided to be a passenger and not a driver in my own life. I’d allowed myself to be victimized and used and treated badly, and I’d never taken charge.

My heart was pounding out of my chest. Adrenaline was coursing through my veins. I felt alive. I felt free and fearless for the first time in years. I glanced around the plane, feeling detached from the entire scene. I saw the passengers crying and sobbing. They looked helpless and out of control. Each one was bent over in their seat, quietly waiting for the inevitable and had little or no hope of survival. Everything that could have been and everything that they could have been was about to be taken away.

In that moment, I realized I’d been living my entire life in very much the same way. I’d been living my life like a plane crash in progress.

On the way you blush with terror
Suddenly it all makes you feel so alive…

I laughed. I’d just had the epiphany of a lifetime. I was finally aware of my failed and bad choices and decisions. I felt alive. I felt invigorated. I wanted to go back and change everything I’d done wrong. I wanted to go on living and live life like there was no tomorrow.

And now I was going to die.

I didn’t want to die. I realized that that wasn’t what I had ever wanted. I wanted to live and I wanted to live more than I ever had before. Why did it take until now to realize all of this?

And then suddenly, as soon as it had started, it was all over. The plane had leveled out its descent, the engines changed from a high pitch whine back to a simple rumble, and the swaying and shaking stopped. The passengers raised their heads from the brace position. Quizzical and cautious glances were exchanged by everyone. Nobody knew what had happened, what was going to happen, or if we were safe.

Everyone was wondering the same thing, “Am I dead?”.

We weren’t. We were alive and we made it all the way to Chicago.

When I finally made it to my hotel room at near to 8AM, I felt like I had been watching myself from the outside. I felt high and disconnected and, at the same time, the most connected I’d ever felt in my entire life. I was in a life affirming mood, happy to be alive. I ordered room service: fries, a sundae, some cookies, and a tall glass of milk. I ate it all while watching Looney Toons on the TV, laughing like I hadn’t laughed in years.

I didn’t get any sleep that morning even though I had had a few hours free before heading out. As I left the hotel to start my day, I smiled and said good morning to everyone that I saw. They each seemed surprised, but everyone seemed just a little bit happier for the exchange. I worked that entire day in a great mood, not worrying and not concerned with the things I couldn’t change. It didn’t matter that my marriage was dissolved or that my life was seemingly falling apart.

If I wanted a different life, I had to change it. I couldn’t be the outside spectator to my own existence. I had to learn to direct my life the way I wanted. I couldn’t be the passenger, I had to be the driver; it only took a near plane crash for me to realize that.

A few months later, I was divorced, I was hitchhiking across country, I was free from everything that I had allowed to control my mood and my happiness, and more importantly, even though life got much much harder after that, it didn’t seem like such a big deal.

1.) Floater, Album: “Alter”, Song: “Zero Hour”.

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