Flotation device

Sometimes you have to look where others don't to find safety

If my plane crashes into the ocean, I doubt my seat cushion will save me, but you never know. I'm not that picky or proud about things that might save me or my daughter. I'll grab at anything.

I know this after watching the movie Titanic 24 times, all without sound, since it was playing on a movie screen of an L-1011 during international flights, and as an international flight attendant I was frowned upon if I plugged my earphones into the armrest to hear it. Believe me, I tried.

I watched it, though, over and over and over again, while serving Cokes and overcooked meat, and I always wondered why the hell didn't those people — the ones who drowned — why the hell didn't they grab onto something? Jesus God, in the time it took that giant ship to sink, those people could have dismantled the paneling in the mezzanine level and built their own damn boat. Just the lid on the grand piano in the dining room alone would have floated a whole family, probably. Make something, do something! I kept imploring the poor idiots who were left to die like flies after the ineffectual lifeboats launched without them. What are you doing standing in line to get on a lifeboat? Look around! Build your own damn boat!

Today my daughter, Mae, turned 7, and we travel a lot together. I'm a writer now and no longer a flight attendant, the difference being — and it's an important difference — that my girl can now come with me on the plane when I work. My company, which I founded, takes me to tons of places a 7-year-old would love to visit, mostly because I am my own boss and I make sure it does.

On the plane, when we take our assigned seats, the safety placard is usually the first thing Mae reaches for, and I tell her the difference between the oxygen system on this plane as opposed to the last plane we were on. "These masks, we have to yank on 'em a little, see? Because there's that pin — see the pin? — you have to yank that pin loose to activate the oxygen. Don't forget that."

And we count the rows to her closest exits, too. It took her a few times to get that down, because sometimes the closest exits are behind you, and people tend to run forward in a panic. They don't think to look behind them. Just like with those passengers on the Titanic. First they wasted critical time denying the severity of the impact, and then once the crisis was evident, they were so busy crowding forward toward the inefficient lifeboats, they didn't look behind them, where tons of wooden things were begging to be made into makeshift flotation devices. "Look behind you, look to the side of you, don't just be looking where everyone else is looking," I tell Mae.

Christ, I hope she'll never have to use this information, but I can't help but think it might come in handy. Back when I first got hired at the airlines, for example, I figured I'd be working there until they pried the peanuts from my cold, dead fingers. I had no plans to leave. Ever. I wanted to hang on until I was nothing but a withered bit of beef jerky in a work smock, cracking wise with the passengers, ignoring call bells and belting fine wine on European layovers. It was a great job up until the precise moment the first 757 crashed into the World Trade Center. At that precise moment, even before the second plane hit, I knew it was over.

My job didn't sink right away. In fact, it stayed afloat, though crippled, for a deceptively long while after that, long enough to keep my fellow blue-collar co-workers hoping the blow wasn't that catastrophic, long enough to allow first class to board the lifeboats all by themselves. But our jobs were sinking, that's the truth, listing this way and that, and when it finally became evident the ship was going down, that in fact the officers had spent the entire time building a whole other ship for themselves, one with the same name that would replace the one that was already lost, that's when the mad dash for the emergency exits began.

Now I've made a lot of mistakes in my life — I married the wrong men, I've turned down perfectly good, guilt-free sex with B-list celebrities, I wasn't at my father's side (where I rightfully should have been) when he died without warning one night. But once you become a mother, you have to figure it out. It's not as though you can no longer afford to make mistakes; it's just that you can no longer afford not to learn from them.

So when the first plane hit the World Trade Center, I wasn't going to make the mistake of denying the severity of the impact. I immediately started looking around for things that could keep me afloat. I looked beside me, I looked behind me, I especially looked where others weren't. I didn't find any one thing that would work on its own — like another big ship — but I'm not that picky or proud about things that might save me or my daughter. I grabbed at anything, and found a lot I could cobble together, so that by the time others were mobbing the ineffectual lifeboats, I had already built, rickety as it was, my own makeshift flotation device.

Hollis Gillespie is an NPR commentator and author of two acclaimed memoirs. Her website is www.hollisgillespie.com.

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