It’s not easy to fly with me.
I’ve never loved it, and often avoided it; I didn’t grow up in a family that flew frequently, and because we drove almost everywhere, that’s what I did, too, until I moved to London in the summer of 1995.
There, I became a frequent, if not entirely comfortable, flyer: three trips back to the U.S. every year, monthly flights within Europe. As with most hard things, routine made it easier, and there were too many places I wanted to go and things I wanted to see to avoid getting on airplanes, and gradually, the panic decreased; sometimes, I even looked forward to those airborne journeys.
I came back to the U.S. in 1998, returning to England twice a year, flying with what I imagined to be Earhart’s insouciance; I was finally a grown-up—sort of—travelling like grown-ups do.
In mid-August of 2001, I returned from a trip to England, landing at Newark on a beautiful late summer afternoon; taking a shuttle bus to Manhattan, I was dropped off at the Marriott World Trade Center, making my last leg of the journey home to Brooklyn from there. I barely cast a glance at the Towers just to my left, their presence ubiquitous in my life, visible daily from my Brooklyn neighborhood just on the other side of the East River.
With one exception, that was the last flight I took that decade.
I shy from “where I was on September 11” narratives, but I can’t tell this story without telling that one. Where I was was at school, on my fourth day as dean of the 11th and 12th grades, and when told that a small plane had hit the World Trade Center, the 9th and 10th grade dean and I walked down to the Brooklyn Promenade, a few blocks away, to check it out so that we could answer students’ questions. On the way, I overheard someone say it was a terrorist attack. “#*^%ing paranoid people,” I muttered. The second plane had hit by the time we got to the Promenade. Debris was already wafting down into our neighborhood.
Over the winter I booked a March trip to London, and decided the day before that I wouldn’t go. I went to Florida once, a trip that caused so much anxiety that I swore I’d never fly again. I became an even more intrepid driver, determined to explore places closer to home that the promise of more exotic travel had pre-empted. I checked them off the list: Toronto, the Hockey of Hall of Fame, hockey games in Ottawa, tennis tournaments up and down the East Coast. I got to know the route to Florida as well as I know the Northway.
Fortunately, all of my family live within easy driving distance (if you consider Brooklynà Florida easy driving distance—and I do), so I didn’t forsake time with them in my airplane aversion. Mine was, admittedly, the firstest of #firstworldproblems: a limitation on my leisure. If I’d had to fly in order to see my family, I’d have forced myself to at some point in the first decade of the 21st century.
But I didn’t have to, and even when, within a few years, Kentucky became part of my personal landscape, there was always a better reason to drive than fly. It’s expensive to fly there, and by the time you add up travel to the airport and driving from Cincinnati and checking in an hour before boarding…well, really, it’s almost just as quick to drive, right?
Until the fall of 2010, when Ed DeRosa and Thoroughbred Times invited me to contribute to their coverage of the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs.
My schedule at school made it impossible for me drive. If I wanted to go, I had to fly. So: how badly did I want to go?
Badly. Badly enough to get on a plane for the second time in almost 10 years. Five months later, I did again, for the Florida Derby, and a month after that, I flew to Louisville for my first Kentucky Derby. Not exactly easily, and not exactly comfortably, but I did it.
This is no ennobling tale of September 11 recovery: every year, I am grateful that neither I nor anyone I love lost anyone that day. Miraculously, no students or faculty at my school did, either. Like millions of others, my daily and my internal landscape were changed forever that day, but they were not irreparably riven; the scars aren’t permanent. I am among the lucky ones.
Daily attention to racing can—and does—yield, at least at times, cynicism, frustration, anger, and disappointment. But often enough, it also yields beauty and excitement, friendship and profit, history and meaning, often enough to induce me to do the thing that still never comes easily.
So in the midst of mournful memory on September 11, I offer gratitude, too, to horse racing, for giving me back something, no matter how small, that had been taken that day. It’s still not easy to fly with me, but I give thanks for the ability and the opportunity to do it at all.