Why It’s Good to Look Up Occasionally

How a giant of the skies can alter your perspective on life

Image credit: British Airways

My tutor was a little ahead of me, at the top of the hill. I’d stopped to wipe sheep poo off my shoe.

“Look!” he said, pointing straight up. A Boeing 747 was about 3,000 meters above his head, on its way from Leeds Airport to some unknown destination, an aluminium cylinder filled with perhaps 300 living people.

He gazed at the aircraft as it thundered overhead.

“I’m an engineer,” he said, half to himself, “and I understand all about thrust and weight ratios, bypass ratios, lift and vortices. But the real reason that something weighing 20,000 tonnes of metal can fly is very simple: it’s pure magic.”

I shared his sense of wonder. Though I’d been flying since before I could remember, it never ceased to amaze me that we can step onto an airplane in one part of the world and step off in another as though it were the most perfectly normal thing to do.

One hundred years ago a journey from Paris to San Francisco would have taken weeks; today it requires a mere eleven hours in a relatively comfortable seat (yes, even Cattle Class seating is luxurious compared to a wooden bench in a jarring stagecoach hour after hour with no refreshments and no lavatory available).

I had an additional reason to gaze favorably at the 747 as it climbed and edged toward the horizon: just five weeks short of my eighteenth birthday my brother and I flew to Australia to spend Christmas with my father. Normally the US company he worked for was ultra-frugal with regard to salaries and benefits for non-US citizens but in this case someone at headquarters must have blundered because we were in First Class.

Back in the old days before yield management conquered all, the upstairs bubble of a 747 was given over to a bar and seating area. As you can imagine, this was irresistible to two young males and so as soon as the seatbelt sign was extinguished my brother and I headed up the stairs to order sparkling water with ice and lemon.

Our first foray was brief because we were on a multi-hop journey of which the first hop was merely London to Frankfurt, with a layover of 90 minutes between midnight and 01.30 local time. My brother and I wandered around the dimly illuminated and entirely deserted airport building and were astonished to discover a booth in which one could, if one had the requisite quantity of Deutschmarks (this being the pre-Euro era), watch pornography. As everything else was closed, this was the only distraction on offer but we had neither interest nor Deutschmarks so we simply walked back and forth until it was time to reboard our flight.

We’d begun the trip as the only two passengers in the First Class section; when we reboarded we discovered our solitude was over. A slender woman with dark black hair cut pixie-style was now resident in a seat across the aisle. When the flight attendant came round to offer drinks, my brother and I had orange juice while the new arrival had champagne. She was strikingly attractive and I guessed in her early thirties. As it was rude to stare, I opened the magnetic chess board I’d brought along as in-flight entertainment and soon my brother and I were engrossed in a new game.

As before, once the seatbelt sign was turned off, we unbuckled and headed up to the bar. The elf-like woman soon joined us. As before, I sipped sparkling water while my brother daringly had a cola with ice and lemon. As before, she ordered champagne.

She initiated the conversation, asking about our final destination. I told her Sydney; she told me she was deplaning in Bangkok. We talked about travel. She’d been to South America; we’d been through the Middle East, Africa, and much of Europe.

My brother grew tired and decided to return to his seat. I stayed to talk with the woman, whose name turned out to be Renate. I’d always had more affinity with adults than with people of my own age, so I was used to talking to those significantly older. In fact, Renate was younger than most of the people I generally socialized with.

Although I was a teenage boy with raging hormones and an ever-ready erection I had no thought whatsoever regarding any potential liaison with Renate. I wasn’t handsome, I wasn’t tall, I clearly wasn’t of model-like grace and physique, and I obviously wasn’t the scion of a wealthy family. In short, I had nothing whatsoever going for me and I knew it. Sure, I’d had quite a bit of sex with somewhere in the region of a dozen partners by that time but they’d all been around my own age and, I presumed, far less picky than a mature adult woman would obviously be.

I was simply enjoying the conversation, fascinated by the stories she was telling about her own life, and also beginning to feel somewhat drowsy as from my body’s perspective it was nearly 3am and I’d been awake since 6am the previous morning.

So I was completely unprepared for when she looked at me quizzically, then smiled mischievously, then took my hand and gently led me to the lavatory.

Aircraft designers began shrinking airplane toilets in the 1990s but this was 1976 and in the First Class Bar. Consequently there was sufficient room for what Renate had in mind, and so it was that I became a member of what I later discovered was called the Mile High Club.

Our flight proceeded from Frankfurt to Bahrain where we deplained again for 60 minutes. After that we flew to Mumbai and deplaned for 30 minutes, every second of which was spent trying to ignore the overpowering stench of raw sewage that enveloped the entire city. We then flew on to Bangkok where Renate terminated her journey. Between Frankfurt and Bangkok Renate and I occupied the toilet on a total of seven occasions during which we availed ourselves of every possible physiological option.

And all the time I couldn’t understand why she was having sex with me. I wanted to ask her why, but a little voice inside my head told me that verbalizing the question would most probably not be in my best interest, so I the question remained unasked. To this day I can’t decide if she was simply bored and I was the only available option, just a make-do to liven up an otherwise tedious journey, or whether she had a thing for teenage boys. Whatever the case, I was very grateful and it augmented my perspective on the magnificent Boeing 747.

Ironically I’ve never since renewed my membership of the MHC. Dense packing of passengers so that every seat yields precious revenue plus the shrinking of airplane toilets down to absurdly tiny proportions has meant that indifference has been accompanied by impracticality. Today I regard airplane journeys as a baleful necessity, though I am always filled with awe and gratitude that such an experience is possible. While everyone else is staring at their monitor screens I’m invariably gazing out the window, reveling in the cloudscapes or looking enraptured at the ground below.

We take so much of our daily lives for granted, yet we are surrounded by technological marvels. My tutor was right to stare awe-struck at the 747 as it passed overhead all those years ago. He died before the age of smartphones but I’m sure he’d have been equally awed by the notion of a tiny device that enables us to be connected with thousands of others within fractions of a second from almost anywhere on Earth.

Everyday magic is worth noticing afresh, because when we look with new eyes at what we take for granted we come not only to an appreciation of what we have but also of ourselves. Do we really want to live as slaves glued to shiny little screens at all hours of the day and night? Do we truly want to dedicate the precious moments of our lives to gawping at mindless trivia? Are we really so concerned about being au fait with whatever happens to be transiently fashionable this month?

If we take a moment or two to step back, we may even discover that many of our beliefs aren’t really our own at all but merely sound-bites we’ve absorbed from someone else’s narrative and are actually quite insufficient to form the basis of any meaningful existence.

Each second is precious and never returns. We don’t get to do make-overs of our lives. I remember my time with Renate in infinitely more detail than I can recall any in-flight movie. While our everyday magic can enrich our lives, too often it now impoverishes them. Our natural human tendency to want to stare at the flickering flames of a camp fire makes us easy prey for the lures of meretricious entertainment and vacuous nonsense. But surely we can aspire to be more than mind-numbed consumers, mere receptacles for whatever trash large corporations want to pour into us?

So the next time an aircraft flies overhead it may be worth looking up for a few seconds and simply marveling at how absolutely extraordinary a phenomenon it truly is.

And then see where your thoughts, freed from the confines of a flickering screen, may lead you…

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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