Getting over a fear of flying

I was afraid of flying for most of my life but after spending a grueling two days on the road driving to New York for the first time in April 2002, I decided to bite the bullet in the interest of time and hop a plane for my second trip.

It was glorious and fast. I didn’t know what I was afraid of all those years. I’d fly into the news office every day if I could. It’s the only way to travel.

Everything about an airport is magical to me. When I lived in St. Louis, Lambert International Airport was on the way to church in Hazelwood. When Dad was in a good mood, he’d pull over on the side of the highway so we could watch planes land and take off. All those lights made it seem like Christmas year-round.

I enjoy that same thrill now, living so close to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. It is so cool to drive on I-75 and see planes flying so low overhead. When I have to cover Forest Park City Council meetings, I am frequently distracted by the jets coming in for a landing. I could stand on Forest Parkway for hours and just watch the planes. You can see them in the distance for miles, making their approaches.

The Autry family didn’t fly, though. Our family vacations, taken the last week of July and first week of August, were spent camping in the Ozarks. Those experiences were also glorious. Dad was outfitted with a Coleman stove and lanterns. Mom packed all the food we needed. We had tents and sleeping bags, no RV or camper for us.

We hiked in nearby woods and I remember being terrified to have to walk on a fallen tree to cross a creek. Fear of heights, you know. Dad threatened to carry me, which scared me even more. I didn’t trust him to not drop us both.

The campgrounds were primitive but always had showers and toilets in big white block buildings. As cozy as that was, I managed to find something creepy about it — granddaddy longlegs seemed to cover every inch of the walls. I still hate them.

But I loved camping, being outdoors, meeting other kids, the smell of food cooking on that Coleman stove, hitting the tourist spots. We visited Silver Dollar City, Mark Twain’s home in Hannibal and caves.

Missouri is crazy with caves and we toured as many as we could. I can still smell the cool, moist air wafting from the deep holes in the earth and hear the water dripping from stalactite onto stalagmite, forming those incredible columns. You can’t see that anywhere else in nature.

Now that I’m grown up and living in Georgia, I visit St. Louis regularly, flying in and out of the airport I admired from afar as a child. Last year, as I sat at the gate at Lambert, a couple with children sat nearby. The little girl, about 5, started talking to me. Ashlynn told me that she was flying for the first time. They would be on the plane with me, headed to Atlanta, but they would be going on to Florida.

“We’re going to Disney World,” she told me.

I’ve never been to Disney World but she was excited so we chatted about Mickey Mouse and Goofy and what she would ride when she got there. I tried to imagine being 5 and getting on a huge plane for the first time. Would I be as scared as I was crossing that creek? Probably.

We boarded. I took my seat and waved to Ashlynn as she and her family walked past me to their seats in back. As the plane climbed high over the city I love and would miss until my next visit, I could hear a faint “Weeeeee” emanating from the rear of the plane.

I like to think it was little Ashlynn.