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Flight: A Patriot Day Persepctive
This photo of me was taken in August of 2001 right before 911. I was vacationing in Spain. The flight was fine, thank you.

I had hiked about a mile through the foothills of the Sierra Morena with friends, sat under the shade of 100-year old oak trees and finished off three bottles of Chardonnay. That’s when I realized that it was time to put an end to a popular misconception — a myth if you will.

The mythconception is this: Air travel broadens your perspective.

As the Spanish sun beat down on my spacious forehead, it occurred to me that air travel actually does the opposite. It limits your perspective. Promoters of air travel assume that the passive act of standing in line for hours, sleeping through a high risk flight, and checking into an establishment with the seal of western culture, are somehow meaningful experiences. Your point of destination is promised to be chuck full of life fulfillment. But meaningful experiences are much less dependent on the venue than they are on the performance. Believe me, you don’t need a $250 a night room and a jetliner belching out a tank of fuel to broaden your brain.

Think on this: The pollution from a single 747 take-off is similar to setting a gas station on fire and soaring on the thermals above the smoke. This isn’t some harebrained analogy concocted by a tree-hugger like Nathan Callahan. It comes from Dr. Cladio Parazolli, a physicist for Boeing – the mother of air travel manufacturers.

Cladio, Schmadio, you say. What’s a little gas station fire among friends? That hacking cough a human statistic suffers because of the Freon, Methyl Bromide, Dichloromethane, Carbon Tetrachloride, Benzene, Trichloroethylene, Toluene, Tetrachloroethene, Ethylbenzene, Styrene, Formaldehyde, Acetaldehyde, Acrolein; Acetone, Propinaldehyde, Crotonaldehyde, Isobutylaldehyde, Methyl Ethyl Ketone, Vinyl Acetate, Heptane (my favorite), Phenol, Phenanthrene, sulfuric acid, and the always reliable carbon monoxide — all byproducts of airline fuel — is a small consideration compared with flying to an exotic destination far from home.

Besides, you're in the air above the smoke for now. Air travel, though it may be limiting from the perspective of human survival, oxygenates the air of sophisticated.

Take this for example: Repeat after me: “I got a flat tire.”

Pretty dull, huh?

Now say, “I got a flat tire in Istanbul.”

See the difference?

It’s the inflation of space that air travel provides — the distance between you and the place you call home.

An exotic locale carries social gravitas. If you get herpes in China, it’s an adventure. If you get herpes in Bakersfield, it’s a joke — in spite of the fact that folks from Bakersfield are way more exotic than the Chinese. Have you ever listened Buck Owens?

That’s not to say that travel in general is bad for you, only that it’s become an enormously overrated activity. It may have broadened the mind when we lived in rural communities and plowed fields. But that’s when in the course of a day we saw our family and maybe a couple of neighbors, tops. We all went to the same church, shopped at the same store, and rose with the sun. Meeting people from a strange land was a unique experience. Today, things are different.

My hometown is Irvine, California. Some people think it’s not exactly the most diverse place in the world. In fact, most people think it’s the kind of place you would desperately want to escape by igniting a service station full of fuel. Not so. Five miles to my west — in Santa Ana — 70% of the population considers Spanish their native tongue. Another 5 miles away — in Westminster — lives the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. Two miles to the west — in Newport Beach — Saudi princes cruise the bay. Three miles to the North — on the Loma Ridge — mountain lions and other wildlife eke out a meager existence. I can observe red-tailed hawks, Mormons, Buddists, Humvees and baseball fields from my front porch. My immediate neighbors are African, Russian, Vietnamese, Armenian, Persian, Pakistani and Chinese. If I need exotic experiences, I walk around the block.

It was while walking in my neighborhood in the weeks following 911 that I noticed something comforting and pleasant, peaceful and calm. It was the absence of burning gas stations flying overhead. There was no air traffic.

One of my neighbors noticed this too. She’s a hot-shot executive with AOL. Before 911, she traveled to New York at least once a month on business. On that day nearly two years ago, as we looked up at the empty Orange County sky together, she was grounded.

“Most of my travel is unnecessary,” she confessed.

“Why do you fly then?”

"It's business as usual. Flight gives the appearance of working . . and there’s always the hookers," she said.

For business as usual, our federal government decided it was worth spending billions of taxpayer dollars to bail out the airlines and keep up appearances. Now, the skies are starting to fill again.

Recently, one of my Chinese neighbors said she was flying to Hawaii. “It's a great way to escape,” she said. I asked her who was chasing her. She didn't get it. So I employed the revolutionary rope a dope. I told her about Patriot Day. You know, that's what our President has nicknamed September 11th.

"Patriots respect and honor their land," I said. “And every American knows that flying disconnects you from your land. As a matter of national interest,” I said looking off into an imaginary airline-free future, “President Bush has declared that air travel is unpatriotic.”

"’There's a wonderful world at your feet. Talk to people. Broaden your horizons. Stay home.’ Those are the words of our President," I said.

I don't know if she bought it, but you should.

By the way, that photograph of me wasn’t taken in Spain. It was taken in Irvine. I hiked about a mile through the foothills with friends, sat under the shade of 100-year old oak trees and helped them finished off three bottles of Chardonnay. It beats torching a gas station, any day.

— Nathan Callahan, September 10, 2003


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