Mostly no one ever asks you to grab your ankles. Actually, the thought of doing so reminds me of yoga or prison. Either way, an ankle is probably a body part best left for gladiator sandals. But I thought about my ankles again recently when the Asiana jetliner crash- landed at San Francisco International Airport. While I was at the gym, I caught a terrifying television screen full of smoke and rescue vehicles, and I remembered my almost crash landing.
The plane ride from Oakland to Los Angeles didn’t start well. My husband Michael and I were surprised to find ourselves in a prop plane, two seats on either side of the aisle that was barely big enough to walk down. It was the last flight of the night and storming hard. We sat on the tarmac for a long while, waiting out some ferocious deluge, and then finally, we took off. Sort of. There was something odd about the take off, the lift low and gurchy and full of a thwarted motor sound, an “err” and “urg” grinding that occurred three or four times. I waited for something worse, but nothing worse happened, so I turned to look out the window at the Bay Area night lights. And there they were. And were. Again and again.
“We’re not going to LA. We’re circling the Bay,” I said to Michael who was deep into the in-flight magazine.
We both stared out the window, and yes, there went the Bay Bridge, the San Mateo Bridge, the Bay Bridge, the San Mateo Bridge. Repeat and repeat again.
“Shit,” I whispered, just as the captain’s voice boomed into the slim cabin space.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “After takeoff, our landing gear failed to retract, and we are going to have to make an emergency landing at SFO. Your flight attendant will lead you through the emergency procedures. Please pay attention carefully.”
The flight attendant, who looked to be about twenty, explained to us how we were going to dump fuel and then land at SFO. We needed to assume the brace position and grab our ankles. She would tell us when to do so, and we were not to lift our heads until the plane had come to a complete stop.
“Compete crash is what she’s saying,” Michael said. We looked at each other, stricken.
When the flight attendant was done with her lecture, she came over to our aisle and looked at me directly. “You are in an emergency row. Will you be able to open the door and assist others?”
I heard the rest of her sentence: “. . . during a crash.”
I nodded, my heart thumping.
After a few more minutes—the entire cabin silent, fear-struck, and dense with anticipation, the flight attendant began her spiel.
“Please assume the brace position.”
Michael and I bent over, and I grabbed one of his ankles instead of my right one, liking the feel of his sturdy self. The attendant began her litany. “Brace, brace, brace.”
I was crying, glad that I had seen my mother earlier that day, hugged her, kissed her. My boys had just left for the Northwest, and they knew how I felt about them. My love was next to me, going into this with me, whatever it was.
The plane slowed down to a hovering drift, the pilot’s touch light, deft, and careful. First the back tires, and then, yes, the front tires, the whole plane shoved and yanked as whatever was there of the landing gear tried to find traction.
I squeezed Michael’s ankle, so firm, so real. I cried even though I realized I wasn’t actually scared. I just didn’t want it to hurt.
For a moment, it seemed that something would rip, the plane opening up like a tuna can, but then the shaking slowed and calmed, the scream down the runway now only a yell, a shout, a call out, a whisper.
We’d made it.
Sitting up from the brace position, I looked out the window again. This time, the night was brilliant with emergency vehicles’ flashing lights. Soon, we were told to disembark, and we walked down the steps and out onto the tarmac. I glanced over at the landing gear or what was left of it. The front tires were blown to shreds. Like a bad pirate, we’d landed on one peg.
After a few moments of waiting out in the wet night, we were loaded into busses and brought back to the terminal, the ride there full of amazed laughter.
I won’t waste your time on the rude personnel who told us that no, they wouldn’t pay for a cab back to Oakland, giving us only instructions to the BART terminal instead. I won’t bore you with the long train ride back to Oakland, our hearts shaking in our chests.
After calling our children to tell them we loved them, I thought about what I should take away from this near-injury/death scenario. I knew it was something really important and crucial. Probably life changing. Maybe I should be thinking about what the flight attendant told us to do: Brace. Wasn’t that what we were all really doing down here on earth anyway? Waiting for impact?
But as we chugged around the Bay headed back to Oakland, all I could feel was Michael’s ankle in my hand, warm and solid and true. Like the earth we landed on.