As the wheels of the plane lift from the runway, we relinquish our spirits to the cupped hands of God.
I am a small-town Southern boy. I have never before been anywhere far enough away to warrant flying. My feet have known this earth for twenty-seven years. I’ve only hopped away from it for split seconds in joy, only lain suspended above it at the height at which my own bed holds me.
Now, as this plane climbs ever higher, the soil and trees of my home become hazy smears of brown and green below me. My eyes focus, for the first time, on the crisp, forbidden blue that lives only above the clouds. I do not consider myself a religious man, but the thought crosses my mind that this might be a sin.
When I was younger, my parents could not make me wear shoes. I liked the feel of grass and earth between my toes, under the bottoms of my feet. I went barefoot even in the shopping mall, despite the signs forbidding it, and returned home with the soles of my feet blackened by the dirty tile floors.
Bare feet on the ground hum. There is an electricity that sparkles and pops between skin and soil. For me, the hum is strongest on days when the sun is bright, the air is cool, and worries and obligations are few. But it is always there.
Now a hum from the floor of the airplane penetrates my shoes, the electric hum of the powerful jet engines. It is steady, but tame and artificial, and it numbs my feet. A sign in front of me says that there is a life vest under my seat and that my seat cushion can be used as a flotation device. I imagine thirty thousand feet of air rushing beneath me, and I am not comforted. Although the sun rides close outside the window, I am cold.
From the air, North Carolina is all squares and rectangles, the shapes of cornfields and tobacco farms. I understand the fields of Kansas, on the other hand, are circular, and the principal crop there is wheat. With these bits of knowledge, I give meaning to what are only colored shapes to my eyes.
As a child, I would search for Indian artifacts with my friends in the cornfield behind the neighborhood swimming pool, especially on days old Luby Edwards had plowed the fields, because then chances were great some treasures had been unearthed. We’d plunder carefully between the corn rows, our eyes toward the earth, our hopes high. On those days, my feet would quickly take on the color of the loose soil, and if standing still I probably appeared to have grown up from the earth as surely as the tall green stalks beside me.
When I did come across an arrowhead or a small fragment of clay pottery, I’d hold it toward the sun between thumb and forefinger, and think of the Indians who’d left it behind. The Indians believed in the connection of all things, the equal importance of trees, animals, earth, and sky. They did not fly, but they respected the eagle, who did.
My mother says my family has Cherokee blood, and perhaps it is those few drops inside me that stir in protest as I peer through the window of the plane. I am high above the fields below, but my arms are covered by hair, not feathers. I respect the eagle, but know that I am a different creature altogether.
I suddenly fear these thoughts I am having. I fear the effect of their weightiness on this delicately balanced flying object. I fear the potential gravity in my desire to return to the ground. For the good of the souls sitting around me, I should reach over and pull the window shade down.