This is a personal essay I wrote for a class at college. My teacher enjoyed the essay and recommended that I submit it in the college’s writing competition. I don’t know how many pieces this essay went up against, but I do know that it came in second place.
It was judging day at the Maryland Anne Arundel County Fair. I was ten years old, helping my family in the Farm and Garden department at the front of the exhibit building. My mother was having my brothers and I tie ribbons on to the plates of produce as the judges made their decisions. I remember the warm sunlight filtering through the large doorways, striking the plates of peppers, potatoes, and peas. The red tomatoes, orange pumpkins, yellow sunflowers, green string beans, and purple eggplants covered the shelves, lending the scent of clean dirt and freshness to the air. I remember tying a red ribbon to a plate of jack-o-lantern pumpkins when my friend Kristin came up to me.
“Debi, did you hear what happened? Two planes have crashed into the Twin Towers!” She sounded agitated, and her brown eyes were wide with excitement.
I stared at her, not understanding what she said. I didn’t really know what the Twin Towers were, so I didn’t get the world-changing significance of the news.
Then a woman announced over the loudspeaker with forced calmness, “The fairgrounds will be closing due to emergency conditions. Everyone needs to leave now.”
Kristin disappeared, and I looked around as everyone began packing up to leave. What was happening? What did Kristin mean “two planes crashed into the Twin Towers”? It was an accident, wasn’t it? Didn’t these things happen all the time? Why would the fair close because of some plane crash?
Then my mom came up to me. She seemed really tense as she guided me away from the pumpkins. “Come on, Debi. We need to get your sister.”
Obediently, my brothers and I piled into our family van to pick up our sister from her class at the community college. I felt the fear pulsating in the air around me, but I didn’t understand what was happening until my mom calmly explained the situation to us. Terrorists had purposefully flown planes into the Twin Towers, killing thousands of people. It could happen again. At any moment, another hijacked plane could soar through the skies and demolish schools, churches, fairgrounds—anywhere with a dense population. I thought of my sister, Beckie. She was at the community college, a place with a dense population. She could be next. And I was scared.
We picked Beckie up; she looked pale and panicked, but we all were safe. We went home and waited. Another plane hit the pentagon, and a fourth plane was reclaimed by its passengers, who drove it into a hillside in Pennsylvania rather than letting it hit the White House.
The weeks following the attack were filled with eerie silence. Our house is just a few miles from the airport. We used to bike to the observation park and play on the playground while watching planes take off and land. At home, our conversations would be interrupted by the roar of the plane engines as they passed overhead, and we would have to wait for them to pass before we could continue. Now there were no planes. Only the birds flew overhead. And I was scared.
War was declared against the terrorists, and the airports re-opened. There were tighter security procedures now, making it difficult for terrorists to get through—difficult, not impossible. I had seen enough movies to know that bad guys always found a way to hurt people. Only this time, there was no Batman or Superman to stop them. I was glad we went to war, but I was still scared. Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were still out there. They could still hijack planes and hurt innocent people. They wanted to kill all Americans and all Christians. I am both American and Christian—they wanted to kill me and my family. I did not want to get on a plane. I did not want to fly.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to fly. I could stay home and play with my toy plane, where any terrorist that came aboard was defeated and the plane was brought safely to its landing point. Then in 2007 I won the state bicycling competition, and I was expected to fly with the rest of the Maryland team to Lafayette, Indiana. I was expected to get on a plane. I was expected to go into terrorist territory. I was scared.
Six years after that terrifying attack, I found myself standing at the airport, facing a long flight with a group of strangers. My parents hugged me, wishing me luck as they promised to pray for my safety. One of the other team members came over, introduced himself as Phil, and helped me get my bike checked in.
Phil was tall and a little bit chunky. He was my age, had red hair, freckles, blue eyes, and a silly grin that helped ease some of my fear. “You ever fly before?” He asked.
I shook my head. “No. This is my first time.”
I nodded vigorously. “Yes! Most definitely!”
He smiled. “Yeah, I was scared my first time, too. But hey, you can sit next to me. I’ve got a pack of UNO cards, and we can play while we’re flying. Do you know how to play UNO?”
“Yeah, it’s one of my family’s favorites.”
We began discussing our different house rules as we went through security. Phil played doubles and stacking, and I played blitz. We began making compromises to our rules, and when we had agreed, we sat down in the waiting area and began to play. Phil kept me distracted from the impending flight, and I forgot that I was scared.
“Flight 3327 nonstop to Lafayette, Indiana, now boarding zone one.”
We put away the cards, and my fear returned at full force.
Phil walked in front of me, going first into the long, lighted tunnel toward my doom. Tall walls, narrow hall, rickety tunnel—it felt as if I was being herded to a slaughterhouse. The people around me walked forward nonchalantly, pulling their carry-ons behind them as they chatted on their phones. My heart was pounding as we drifted toward the plane. Phil paused outside the plane entrance and touched the outside of the plane.
“For good luck,” he told me.
I used the outside of the plane to brace myself so I could get into the thing.
Once inside, I followed him to our seats, mumbling apologies to anyone I hit with my carry-on as I squeezed down the main aisle. My heart tried to jump out of my rib cage as I went farther and farther down the aisle. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to kick, scream, even cry! Ironically, I was too scared to do more than take that next step forward. Then we reached our seats at the back of the plane.
Phil helped me get my bag into the overhead department, and then he scooted into the window seat and I sat beside him. He pulled his cards out of his backpack again so we could play while waiting for the plane to take off. My mind wasn’t on the game this time—I could see the runway out the window. I could feel the seconds slip by me, counting down my thudding heart beats until we were up in the foreboding sky.
The flight attendant closed the door, trapping me inside the plane. She reached for the microphone and began giving instructions on what to do if the plane crashed. I peered over the heads of the bored passengers in front of me, watching attentively as the flight attendants demonstrated the various life-saving techniques. Phil gave up trying to play with me, distracted as I was, and fixed the tray tables and put away his cards. The flight attendants put away their visuals and began making the final preparations.
I slumped back in my seat. I could barely remember anything they had said. “I’m going to die, I know it.”
Phil grinned and reached into the pouch on the seat in front of us. “Here,” he said, pulling out a pamphlet. “This has everything they just said. Now you can save everyone’s lives.”
I seized the pamphlet and went over all the life-preserving instructions nestled within its folds. Crash landing on land, crash landing in water, oxygen failure—it was all in there, except what to do if terrorists hijacked the plane. I glanced at my purse resting at my feet. The only weapons I had were about fifty pens and five books. I could stab the terrorists with my pen or bash them over the head with my purse, but I doubted either option would do much good. They would recover and just shoot me and everyone else on the plane. They would probably shoot me before I even had a chance to jump from my seat.
The plane started moving, rumbling as its mass pulled away from the loading dock. I jumped at the sound and looked around wildly. Phil was sitting back in his chair, looking quite relaxed. He looked at me and raised one red eyebrow. “You doing okay?”
No, I wasn’t. I could tell we were turning; I could see the pavement moving, but I couldn’t tell anything beyond that. I couldn’t see the pilot or the co-pilot. I didn’t even know what they looked like. They could be terrorists for all I knew. But I forced myself to dismiss such thoughts as irrational, and I nodded.
Even though he had just met me, Phil could tell I was lying. He took the safety pamphlet out of my hands and tucked it back into the pouch. “We’re going to be fine,” he promised.
Something rumbled, and the plane creaked. I looked around, expecting a bomb to go off.
“That would be the plane flaps lowering,” Phil explained, pointing at the wings outside the window.
I nodded, relieved that it was supposed to creak. The plane jumped, and my head bounced against my headrest. I gripped the arms of my seat and gritted my teeth together.
Phil smiled. “We’re getting ready to take off. Watch. Here we go!”
Gravity pressed itself against me. Too terrified to fight it, I closed my eyes and melded into the blue seat. I could feel when the landing gear left the asphalt. My heart leapt to my throat as I was detached from the land and whisked away into the air. Pressure built up in my ears, muting the sounds of the world around me. I wriggled my jaw and winced when the bubbles popped. The plane rumbled again. I opened my eyes, certain that the terrorists had finally showed themselves.
“That’s just the landing gear being raised,” Phil explained. He glanced out the window and then looked at me with a challenging grin on his square face. “Want to look?”
Silently, I shook my head and squeezed my eyes shut again. A few minutes later, I felt the plane begin to even out, though I could tell we were still going up. I slowly opened one eye and then the other. Phil was looking out his window, his head occupying the entire breadth of the small window. He looked over his shoulder at me and sat back, letting me see what was outside. I quailed at first, but curiosity got the best of me and I leaned over to look.
Below me was a patchwork quilt of dark green grass, light green fields, and brown plains of dirt, stitched together with thin freeways, highways, parkways, and side roads. I watched in fascination as the minuscule cars zipped back and forth on the shrinking gray roads. If there were people down there, they were no bigger than specks of dirt. Then we pierced the clouds and entered the whole new world of Aladdin. The glow of the sun laid pink and purple tints across the sea of clouds as they rose, swirled, and fell. There were castles up here, and mountains and valleys and seas! I wished I had a camera to capture the magical world I was seeing, but I knew that nothing could recreate this scene.
As I looked at the world below me, I felt different, as if I were in a berth of safety. The height was unreal, but it showed me what I had been missing all this time. Who could create something so beautiful? Only God. He had created the valleys, the mountains, and the clouds. If He could create all that, He could protect me from Bin Laden himself. God had to pull me into what I feared to show me that I didn’t have to be afraid.
“Pretty awesome, isn’t it?” Phil asked.
I looked at him, smiled, and nodded.
He grinned and lowered the tray tables again. “They’ll come around with drinks and peanuts soon. Want to start our game again?”
“Sure,” I said, but it was a lie. As fun as UNO was, I didn’t want to stop looking out the window. I didn’t want to forget what I was seeing. I looked out at the sun-bathed clouds as complete peace settled over me.
I wasn’t scared anymore.