It was my first flight, my first time stepping on a plane. Add to the normal anxieties of first-time air travel the fact that this flight was to take off for New York City during the early breaths of this country’s War on Terror, and you have one very nervous junior college student. I walked on shaking knees through the different lines and security checkpoints and finally to my seat on the metal monster. I hoped that the girl I was with wouldn’t notice the shaking, wouldn’t detect the anxiety. We had met at the junior college, and I was trying very hard to impress her on this trip. I remember her jumping up and down, squealing like a little girl at a birthday party while we were waiting to board. But I also remember her complete emotional collapse moments before the plane took off.
On the phone with her mother, she began to cry. She was afraid of crashing, of hijacking, of exploding in the air. She feared all of the things that technology has taught us to be afraid of, all of the things our government told us to be afraid of. She cried and cried and told her mother that she loved her and to tell her father and sister and dog that she loved them. And I had to talk to her mom. And I had to tell her that I would look out for her and I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to her. I hoped that her mother couldn’t hear the tremble in my voice, and I hoped the girl who I was trying to comfort sitting next to me couldn’t feel my shaking knees. As the phone was finally turned off and the plane began to lift off of the ground, struggling against the forces of physics that kept man grounded for so many generations, I wondered what good using my seat as a floatation device would actually do. I came to the conclusion that it would probably not do very much good at all. However, I did not share this revelation with the girl who sat to my right, the girl who had finally calmed down.
Jokes made her feel better. Jokes made me feel better. We landed in New York with only the slight trembling of knees and absolutely no tears. She loved taking pictures. She always entered her photography into contests, and she always won some sort of prize. New York for her was a photographer’s playground. She wanted to see everything: Central Park, the Empire State Building, Ground Zero, and Grand Central Station.
We boarded the subway to go to Grand Central Station together. The subway system was another frightening place. All of our young, southern lives we were pumped full of urban legends concerning people being killed in the underground. And now here we were: in the underground. We boarded the train after the locals. The car was full, and I clutched one of the metal poles. She grasped the same metal pole, just below my hand, and just as tightly. The doors stayed open. The doors stayed open longer than I had seen doors stay open. The doors wouldn’t close.
A tall man wearing tattered jeans and a blue rain jacket boarded the train just before the doors finally did close, and he began speaking in a loud voice, a voice too loud to keep us calm. “I’m blind,” said the man with his eyes closed. “I’m blind,” he said as he opened them and laughed. “I just need a little money,” he announced to the entire car. “Crisp 50s and 100 dollar bills will do. My mother told me once,” he stammered on, “that if you ever wanted anything in all of your life, just ask for it.” He continued his monologue. The locals rolled their eyes. I looked at the girl, noticed her nervous smile, and moved my hand down the metal pole slightly where the bottom of my hand was resting on the top of hers. I gave her a nervous smile back.
The man moved slowly through the train. The train moved quickly along the tracks but refused to stop. He made a few more absurd demands and finally came to the point. He said, “If nobody can come up with some money, then I’m gonna just have to shoot up the whole train. I got a nine millimeter, and in a few minutes everybody’s gonna be screaming to get up out of here.”
The fear of dying hadn’t been more real even in the days after the Columbine shooting when my own school had threats called in. It was scary, and I was nervous. The girl I was with, who had only wanted to see Grand Central Station, hid behind me, trembling. And I felt safer knowing that she felt safer because of me. And when the tall man said that he was going to pull out his nine millimeter and shoot up the train, when he said that everyone would be screaming to get out, I wondered if I would be able to comfort the girl who hid, shaking behind me and maybe make her laugh one more time.
But the man didn’t shoot up the train. I was able to play the hero with the girl again even though my knees were shaking again. Sometimes I like to think that Beowulf’s knees were shaking when he fought Grendel. And I like to think that the many other heroes had shaking knees as they fought with their sworn enemies, often to the death. I like to think that what makes heroes different from normal people is not their super powers or ridiculous strength, but their ability to stand firm on shaking knees.