Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Talk Talk

I am happy to report that last night, against all odds, I won the Toastmasters Area F4 Humorous Speech contest, competing against three other folks from several other clubs in the Area. I now get to progress to the Division F contest to be held Thursday, September 18, hosted by State Farm in Ballston Spa.

I will be making some tweaks (including some cuts—I was, I was told I came within 10 seconds of being disqualified for running too long) for the next stage, but for the amusement of those who are not able to come to any of the contests, here is the text (sans ad libs) of the speech as it stood last night:
Fly the Unfriendly Skies

In April 2000, my fear of flying hit critical mass. Granted, I was never a very good flyer. Whenever I flew, I would grip the armrests with a force that could crush coal into diamonds. On one particularly rough flight, I gripped them so tightly that my fingers became embedded and I couldn’t get them out. After we landed and everyone deplaned, I was still unable to get free. The flight attendants had to literally remove the armrests from the seat and I needed to find an emergency room to have them surgically removed. So there I was, walking through the Los Angeles Airport looking like Edward Armresthands or something. It was very embarrassing—and it was then and there that I vowed that I would never fly again. And, for the next seven years, I kept my word.

In the years since, I had joined Toastmasters to get over my fear of public speaking and began accepting offers to speak professionally. Last year, I had to give a presentation in Atlanta, Georgia, so I began to investigate how to get to Atlanta. By train, it would take about 18 hours—one way. Since I would only be in Atlanta for less then 12 hours, that meant that it would take longer to get to Atlanta than I would actually be in Atlanta. That seemed really silly to me, so I decided that it was high time (so to speak) to conquer my fear of flying.

I went to online and started looking at flights. Did you know that the least expensive way to fly from Albany to Atlanta—and I’m not making this up—is to fly from Albany...to Detroit...to Chicago...to Atlanta. Why not throw Seattle in, as well? The kicker is that would actually take longer than the train! So that wasn’t going to work.

I discovered that there are no non-stop flights from Albany to Atlanta, but Delta has nonstop to Atlanta from, of all places, Newburgh, NY. Yes, the bustling metropolis of Newburgh, as opposed to the backwater of Albany. But, whatever. It was a one-hour flight; up, down—perfect! I made my reservations, gritted my teeth, and hit Purchase. And I was on my way.

It was then that I remembered one potential problem. I know there’s not a term for this, and there probably aren’t any self-help books, but in addition to a fear of flying I also had a dread fear...of Newburgh, NY. Now, let me explain. Some years ago, a friend of mine told me about a near-fatal experience she had in the Newburgh, NY, hospital, thanks to the ineptness of the staff. And she said to me, “Whatever you do, never go to the Newburgh, NY, hospital.” To which I responded, unthinkingly, “Oh, I can’t imagine my ever needing to go to the Newburgh, NY, hospital.” I’m not superstitious, but even I know that you don’t say things like that! It just incurs the wrath of the supernatural force that avenges really dumb statements. So now I suddenly had a whole new level of anxiety in addition to the flying: what would happen to me in Newburgh on the way to the airport that would result in my ending up at the Newburgh hospital?

So the next several weeks were fraught with tension.

Finally, D-Day arrived and I am happy to report that I made it to the Newburgh airport without incident. Now, I wasn’t expecting a huge, international airport like JFK or LAX, but I was unprepared for how small the Newburgh airport actually was. For example, the main terminal was located in a strip mall between a Family Dollar and Mr. Wang’s China Buffet. The runway doubled as McDonald’s drive-thru. On the plus side, the only time flights were delayed was when someone didn’t want pickles on their Whopper.

I was very early, as usual, so I checked in—at the Dunkin Donuts counter—and shambled into the terminal and chanted the religious mantra I always repeat when I am under stress: “Where’s the bar?” Well, not surprisingly, there wasn’t one. And Mr. Wang’s didn’t open until five, so I was out of luck there. Fortunately, I had my carry-on bag and had brought a bottle of my favorite single-malt Scotch—a little “liquid courage.” However, you can’t take containers larger than three ounces through airport security—so I had to improvise. (Take out and hold up Ziploc bag with 8 or so 3-oz vials of amber liquid.) Unfortunately, one was shampoo and I had neglected to label them, so it was kind of like Russian roulette. Blecch.

So the plane started boarding and I guess I was expecting a bigger plane, like a 747, or one that was...airworthy. I should have been suspicious when I saw “Spirit of St. Louis” written on the side. The plane looked like something the Air & Space Museum had rejected for looking too antiquated. I climbed in behind the pilot, tied the rope around my waist, and put on the leather aviator’s helmet and goggles. There weren’t armrests, so I didn’t have to worry about that.

The pilot got on the megaphone. He introduced himself as “Wrong-Way Rogers,” which did not inspire confidence. But, soon we started taxiing down the drive-thru—I mean, runway. We were only slightly late taking off; the pilot didn’t want pickles on his Whopper. But soon we were in the air. And, sure enough, an hour later, we landed on time...in a cow pasture not far from the Atlanta airport, which wasn’t bad when you consider that we didn’t have any real instruments to speak of. I quickly deplaned, and was about to kiss the ground, but then remembered that it was a cow pasture, so I simply heaved a sigh of relief.

That night, it occurred to me that in the past few years, I’ve actually conquered what polls have found to be peoples’ top fears: public speaking, flying, Newburgh, NY.... Death is also up there, but I think I’ll put that one off for a while.

I’ve actually flown about a half dozen or so times since then, often on real planes. I have discovered, though, after one particularly horrible experience involving a missed connection and a night spent in an airport, that I had been wrong all these years: I wasn’t afraid of flying, I was afraid of airlines! Which, as anyone will tell you, is a perfectly rational fear.

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