By Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published in The Idaho Reveiw; reprinted in DIS MEM BER and Other Stories of Mystery and Suspense.


Ladies and gentlemen WELCOME to our friendly skies!

WELCOME aboard our North American Airways Boeing 878 Classic Aircraft! This is North American Airways Flight 443 to Amchitka, Alaska—Birdwatchers and Environmental Activists Special!

Our 182-passenger Boeing Classic this morning is under the able command of Captain Hiram Slatt, discharged from service in the United States Air Force mission in Afghanistan after six heroic deployments and now returned, following a restorative sabbatical at the VA Neuropsychiatric Hospital in Wheeling, West Virginia, to his “first love”—civilian piloting for North American Airways.

dis-mem-berCaptain Slatt has informed us that, once we are cleared for takeoff, our flying time will be between approximately seventeen and twenty-two hours depending upon ever-shifting Pacific Ocean air currents and the ability of our seasoned Classic 878 to withstand gale-force winds of 90 knots roaring “like a vast army of demons” (in Captain Slatt’s colorful terminology) over the Arctic Circle.

As you have perhaps noticed Flight 443 is a full—i.e., “overbooked”—flight. Actually most North American Airways flights are overbooked—it is Airways protocol to persist in assuming that a certain percentage of passengers will simply fail to show up at the gate having somehow expired, or disappeared, en route. For those of you who boarded with tickets for seats already taken—North American Airways apologizes for this unforeseeable development. We have dealt with the emergency situation by assigning seats in four lavatories as well as in the hold and in designated areas of the overhead bin.

Therefore our request to passengers in Economy Plus, Economy, and Economy Minus is that you force your carry-ons beneath the seat in front of you; and what cannot be crammed into that space, or in the overhead bin, if no one is occupying the overhead bin, you must grip securely on your lap for the duration of the flight.

Passengers in First Class may give their drink orders now.

SECURITY:

Our Classic 878 aircraft is fully “secured”: that is, we have on board several (unidentified, incognito) Federal Marshals for the protection of our passengers. Under Federal Aviation Regulations, no Federal Marshal, pilot or co-pilot, or crew member is allowed a firearm on board any aircraft, for obvious reasons. However, under extenuating circumstances, in the event of the aircraft being forced to land unlawfully, a pilot of the rank of captain or above is allowed one “concealed weapon” (in Captain Slatt’s case, a .45-caliber handgun worn on his person); with the captain’s permission, his co-pilot is similarly allowed a concealed weapon. (In this case, copilot Lieutenant M. Crisco, much-decorated ex-Navy pilot, is also armed with a .45-caliber handgun.) Federal Marshals are armed with tasers of the highest voltage, virtually as lethal as more conventional weapons, which, as they say, they “will not hesitate to use if provoked.”

As passenger security comes first with us, all passengers are forewarned that it is not in their best interests to behave in any way that might be construed as “aggressive”—”threatening”— “subversive”—”suspicious” by security officers. All passengers are urged to report to the nearest flight attendant any suspicious behavior, verbal expressions, facial tics and mannerisms exhibited by fellow passengers; this includes the perusal of suspicious and “subversive” reading material. As Homeland Security advises us: “If you see something, say something.”

To which Captain Slatt has amended grimly: “See it, slay it.” Note also: Federal Aviation Regulations require passengers to comply with the lighted information signs and crew member instructions. Please observe the NO SMOKING sign which will remain illuminated through the duration of the flight; smoking is prohibited throughout the cabin and in the lavatories though allowed, under special circumstances, in the cockpit. All lavatories are equipped with smoke detection systems and Federal Law prohibits tampering with, disabling, or destroying these systems; accordingly, Federal Marshals are deputized to punish violators of this regulation at once, and harshly.

We will quote Captain Slatt in a more waggish mood: “If you smoke, you croak.”

We crew members of North American Airways are here to ensure that you have a comfortable trip but we are primarily concerned about your SAFETY. With that in mind we ask that you take the North American Airways Safety Information Card out of the seat pocket in front of you and follow along as we perform our SAFETY demonstration.

SEAT BELT:

Our first and most important safety feature is the SEAT BELT.

Now that you are all comfortably seated please follow instructions: to fasten your seat belt, insert the metal fitting into the buckle until you hear a sharp click! If some of you are (as we noticed with derisive little chuckles as you’d shuffled on board) “plus-size” you may have some difficulty fitting your belt across your paunch; simply ring your overhead service bell and an airflight attendant, or two, or three as the case may be, will force the belt in place. The ensuing click! means that the belt is securely locked in place. Next, adjust your SEAT BELT to fit snugly with the loose end of the strap. Your SEAT BELT should be worn low and tight across your lap like a leather belt that has, for some obscure reason, slipped from your waist to bind you tightly across the thighs like a vise that will prevent your pants from “falling down” as well as pulling them taut to ensure a proper crease even in the event of aircraft catastrophe.

Yes, your SEAT BELT is locked in place. (Didn’t I just tell you this? Why are some of you struggling to unlock your locked seat belts, if you have been listening?) Flight 443 to Amchitka, Alaska, is a very special flight. Article 19 of Homeland Security Provisions allows for specially regulated flights over “nondomes-tic” (i.e., foreign) territories to suspend “buckle release” privileges for such duration of time as the captain of the aircraft deems necessary for purposes of safety and passenger control.

Use of lavatories on this flight has been suspended, for reasons explained. So you can see there is no practical purpose in your seat belts not being locked.

In any case you have all signed waivers (perhaps under the impression that you were signing up for Frequent Flier credits) that grant to the flight captain a wide range of discriminatory powers for security purposes. (Such waivers are fully legal documents under Federal Statute 9584, Homeland Security.)

EMERGENCY EXITS:

Those passengers who unwittingly find themselves in “emergency exit rows” are expected to assist our (badly understaffed) flight attendant team in the (unlikely) event of an emergency. Namely, you will be expected to struggle to open the very heavy exit door which might be warped, stuck, or in some other way unopenable, even as terrified fellow passengers are pushing against you and trampling you amid the chaos of a crash or forced landing.

Passengers who believe that they are not capable of such courageous and selfless altruism in a time of emergency should raise their hands at once to have their seats reassigned.

(“Reassigned” where?—that, you will discover.)

EMERGENCY MEASURES:

In the (unlikely) event of an EMERGENCY your seat belts are guaranteed to “pop open” to free you. And in the (unlikely) event that your seat belt is malfunctioning and remains in lock mode, a flight attendant will help you extricate yourself, if there are any flight attendants still remaining in the cabin after the emergency announcement.

As you are on a Boeing 878 Classic aircraft you will find that there are ten emergency exits of which the majority are in the First Class and Economy Plus compartments. A map of the aircraft will indicate five doors on the left and five doors on the right, each clearly marked with a red EXIT sign overhead.

All doors (except the overwing doors at 3 left and 3 right) are equipped with slide / rafts (except in those instances in which the overwing doors are at 5 left and 7 right). These rafts are intended to be detached in the event of a WATER EVACUATION. The overwing doors are equipped with a ramp and an off-wing slide. (A thirty-foot “slide” into icy waters is an astonishing visceral experience, survivors have claimed. Some have confirmed that the slide was a “life altering” experience not unlike the euphoria induced by an epileptic attack or a “near-death” experience and that they “believe they are more spiritual persons for having lived through it.”)

Life rafts are located in “pull-down” ceiling compartments at the overwing doors. For our passengers in First Class, your escape routes near the front of the aircraft are clearly marked: FIRST CLASS EXIT. Passengers in Economy Plus, Economy, Economy Minus, Overhead Bin, and Hold are advised to locate the two exits nearest you, if you can find them; two exits is preferable to one, or none, in case one exit is blocked by crammed and crushed bodies or by flaming debris. Detailed instructions regarding slides and rafts are available in cartoon illustrations in the safety information card for slower-witted passengers or for passengers in states of extreme apprehension.

Though the odds of survival in the freezing waters of the Pacific Ocean even amid flaming wreckage are not high you will find in our air flight magazine Friendly Skies Forever! a monthly feature of interviews with passengers who somehow managed just this miraculous feat, in such hostile yet scenic environments as the Cape of Good Hope, the northern seacoast of Antarctica, the Bering Strait, and our destination today, the murky turbulent shark-infested icy waters of the Aleutian Islands strangely beloved by birdwatchers and environmentalists.

FLOOR-PATH LIGHTING:

This state-of-the-art aircraft is equipped with aisle-path lighting, which is located on the floor in the left and right aisles. In the event that “cabin visibility” is impaired—that is, in the event of a “blackout”—the exit path should be illuminated by these lights, except in those instances in which the “blackout” is total.

“White lights lead to red lights”—keep this favorite Zen koan of Captain Slatt in mind as the red light will indicate that you have reached or are near an emergency exit. If, that is, the red light is on.

OXYGEN:

Cabin pressure is controlled for your comfort. However, it may not be to everyone’s comfort. North American Airways is mandated to maintain an air supply containing at least 18 percent oxygen (which may present difficulties for passengers with weak respiratory systems, asthma, extreme anxiety, or expectations of air with a minimum of 21 percent oxygen which is the “civilian norm”). Should the air pressure change radically in flight, which will happen at times, unpredictably, though at other times predictably, compartments are designed to automatically open in the panel above your head. In the event of this emergency simply reach up—calmly!—and pull the mask to your face. Do not snatch at the mask desperately for masks made of flimsy materials have been known to “shred” in such situations.

Once the mask is on your face, oxygen should begin to flow. In the event that oxygen does not “flow” you may simply be, as Captain Slatt says, “out of luck”; or, if so minded, you may try to inveigle your seat mate into surrendering his or her mask, quickly before oxygen deprivation sets in and you begin to hallucinate.

Or, to raise the probability of your oxygen flowing unimpeded, you may purchase our OxFloLifeSave feature for just $400. (Airways staff will move among you to take orders now. Please raise your hands if you are interested in signing up for OxFloLifeSave rather than take your chances with “economy oxygen.”)

Once you have firmly seized your mask place it carefully over your mouth and nose and secure with the elastic band as your flight attendant is demonstrating. Next, tighten by pulling on both ends of the elastic bands—not too hard, and not too hesitantly. In situations of chaos and terror “he who hesitates is lost”—but also, paradoxically, as Captain Slatt cautions, “he who acts impulsively is lost as well.” Even though oxygen is flowing, at least in theory, the plastic bag may not inflate. This is estimated to occur in approximately 27 percent of aircraft emergency situations and it is just unfortunate! If you are traveling with children, or are seated next to someone who needs assistance, this is bad luck for them since you’re obviously having enough trouble trying to secure your mask to your own face, and to breathe without hyperventilating; you certainly have no time for anyone else.

Warning: pure oxygen can be deleterious to the human brain, causing hallucinations, convulsions, blackouts, or stroke. Thus, while you should breathe deeply through your oxygen mask, you should not breathe too deeply.

Continue breathing through the mask until advised by a uniformed crew member to remove it. Do not—repeat: do not— surrender your oxygen mask to any individual who requests it if he or she is not in easily recognizable North American Airways uniform.

LIFE VEST:

Your life vest is located in a pouch beneath your seat. You may locate it now, to give yourself a “sense of security.”

Should life vest use become necessary, remove your vest from the plastic packet as efficiently as possible, using both fingernails and incisors as required, but do not— repeat: do not—paw desperately at the packet which has been made toughly “childproof” for the protection of our youngest passengers.

Once you have succeeded in tearing open the packet remove the life vest by using both hands, with a firm tug; slip the vest over your (lowered) head and pull smartly downward on the front panel with both hands exerting equal pressure. (Do not favor your strong hand over your weak hand as this may interfere with the operation of the life vest.) Next, bring the strap around your waist and insert it into the buckle on the front. (If there is no buckle on the front, you will have to fashion a “buckle” with the fingers and thumb of one hand—use your imagination!) Next, pull on the loose strap until the vest fits snugly—as I am now demonstrating. If you are a “plus-size”—and your life vest does not fit—this is an unfortunate development you should have considered before you purchased your ticket to Amchitka, Alaska!

If you are a “minus-size” and it looks as if you are “drowning” in the life vest— this is very witty of you! You may well be quoted in Friendly Skies Forever! With your oxygen mask and your life vest you are now prepared to attempt to exit the aircraft amid a Dante-esque chaos of flames, boiling black smoke, dangling live electric wires, the screams and pleadings of your fellow passengers—or to, as Captain Slatt says, “walk the walk of Hell.”

As you make your way out of the aircraft, by whatever desperate and improvised means, assuming you have located an exit that is unblocked, do not forget to INFLATE the vest by pulling down firmly on the red tabs. It is very important that you remember to INFLATE the life vest as an uninflated life vest is of no more worth in the choppy seas that await you than a soggy copy of The New York Times would be.

(In some rare cases, if the vest fails to INFLATE by way of the red tabs, it may be orally inflated by a strenuous, superhuman blowing into the inflation tubes at shoulder level, roughly equivalent, it has been estimated, to the effort required to blow up three hundred average-sized party balloons within a few minutes. Good luck with this!) For First Class passengers each vest is equipped with a “rescue light” on the shoulder for night use, which is water-activated by removing the Pull to Light tab located on the battery. In this way your life vest will provide for you a tiny, near-invisible “rescue light” in the choppy shark-infested waters of the nighttime Pacific Ocean.

(It is complicated, isn’t it! Each time we give our life vest demonstration something goes wrong, but it is never the same “something” from one time to another and so we have not the privilege of “learning from our mistakes”!)

“RETURN”:

No Frequent Flier mileage is available for the “Return Flight 443″—there is no scheduled “Return Flight 443.”

This “No Return” from Amchitka, Alaska, is stipulated in the waiver you cheerfully signed before boarding our aircraft without (it seems) having read, or perhaps even seen, the fine print.

APPLICATION:

Some of you are looking alarmed at the possibility of “No Return”—for reasons having to do with the Defense Department’s Amchitka Bio-Labs Research Project which covers six hundred acres on the island though not marked on any (nonclassified) map, and which is your destination upon arrival at Amchitka.

Yes, this is a “surprise.” Yes, it is too late to “exit.”

Please note, however: less than 83 percent of passengers will be taken into custody as subjects in the bio-lab experiments; the remainder of you will be drafted as lab assistants and security staff, for there is considerable employee turnover at Amchitka. Applications for these coveted positions should be filled out as soon as possible, as hiring decisions will be made before our arrival at Amchitka.

Please don’t hesitate to raise your hand if you would like an application.

Note that the application requires a complete resume of education, background, employment, and financial assets. Now is not the time for “false modesty”!

PREPARATION FOR TAKEOFF:

Captain Slatt reports from the cockpit that the mysterious technical difficulties the aircraft has been exhibiting since your boarding ninety minutes ago have been deemed solved (at least by Homeland Security) and the aircraft is now ready for takeoff.

Accordingly, all doors have been locked; all SEAT BELTS are in lock mode; attendants, please be seated.

As some of you have discovered it is too late to change your mind about your exotic “birdwatching” expedition to the North Polar region. It was too late, in fact, as soon as you boarded the plane and took your seats. Therefore, please ensure that your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright and stowed positions and all your carry-on items in secure places where they will not fly up suddenly and injure you or your hapless neighbors.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are now prepared to take off. We thank you for choosing North American Airways. Settle back in your seats, take a deep breath, and enjoy our friendly skies!


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