Third boxcar, midnight train (OR: Nora's first flight)

I don't like the takeoff during flights. It's not natural. Don't argue with me there. It's not. I mean, I guess when you get down to it, none of flying is, but I've got my own weird logic and the takeoff is the only part that bothers me. The takeoff and the few moments after takeoff. You know why. Yeah you do. The phrase "shortly after takeoff" is familiar for a reason. And if that phrase does make it into the news, whatever happened, big or small, it's never like "shortly after takeoff everyone relaxed and had a great flight." The thing is I actually like flying once the beginning part is over, and honestly, I know it's one of the safest modes of transportation. I've been flying all my life, and I love it once we're up above the clouds and the pilot has made an announcement about how everything is going just fine, and you settle into a book or movie or whatever. And although lots of people find landing scary, it doesn't bother me in the slightest, even if it's bumpy. The landing is when you return to Earth as God intended.

The point is, I was just beginning to calm down during our flight out of JFK Monday night when, shortly after takeoff, we encountered what seemed like turbulence. The kind where your stomach sort of drops because you've lost a few hundred feet of altitude.

I realize a few bumps here and there never really mean anything when you're flying, it's just part of the deal, except that this time, you know what? The bumps totally did mean something. Nothing seemed right. My ears were popping again. I could see land below and we were getting closer, slowly. All of a sudden a flight attendant was explaining over the loudspeaker that the reason we were descending was because we were landing. In Maine.

Something was wrong with the stablizer, she told us, which is a part of the computer system and its malfunctioning was the reason for the "rocky ride." So, long before we'd gotten to watch the movies we'd been excited about watching, before we'd read our magazines or had a drink, and still so, so many hours from Rome, our plane was out of commission.

Landing at the Bangor airport was uneventful, but the aftermath wasn't. As soon as we pulled into the gate, medics rushed aboard so that they could treat three people who'd apparently had anxiety attacks. It was by no means an emergency landing, but hey, people get scared, I understand. The flight crew was immediately assaulted with questions from all sides. What had happened? How could they fix it? Could anyone get off the plane?

Nora found it all wonderful. The bright lights, the loud noises, all the people frantically talking and, once they noticed her sitting there smiling, paying her lots of attention. "Hey little baby, what do you think of all THIS?"

The first plan we heard was so heartbreakingly ridiculous that I was ready to call the whole vacation off. Delta would send the replacement computer part we needed up on a plane that would arrive in about two hours. They would make the repair right there in Bangor, then fly us all back to New York, where we would get a new flight crew (our current crew would, by that point, be over the hours they are allotted to work) and then we would continue on the Rome. Nobody liked it - the backtracking! the long wait! - but what could we do?

The universal sense of dismay was why the second plan was greeted with applause; Delta would send a replacement plane and crew to us and Bangor and we would leave for Rome immediately. Hurrah! The only problem was that the plane would not arrive until 1:30 a.m. It was 10:30 at that point, already 5 hours after our scheduled departure.

But we, the passengers, could live with this and settled in to enjoy it the best we could. J and I worked on getting Nora, who is usually out for the night by 7:30, to sleep, and then put her down on a makeshift bed on the floor of the plane. The flight attendants served us dinner. Vinnie showed us the more hilarious items in the Sky Mall magazine. One guy got out his guitar and started playing.

Finally, in order to speed up the transfer process, they allowed us off the plane and into the (tiny) airport where we would wait for the replacement. A hundred and some Rome-bound Americans and Italians and others, sitting on plastic chairs in a waiting area at the Bangor airport, pictures of, like, Maine wildlife on the paneled walls. It was almost 3 a.m. Things were taking longer than expected.

Amazingly though, everyone remained in good spirits. We talked to a group of five senior citizens who told us they'd known each other for 60 years and were going to Italy on vacation. I saw one woman doing yoga on the floor, and you could hear people laughing - actually laughing.

The new plane finally arrived and, upon boarding, we were greeted by well-rested, happy flight attendants, who told us "good morning," which seemed, you know, premature. But there was cheerful music playing and Nora went back to sleep quickly after a bottle, lying peacefully on my chest. I felt a strong appreciation for these Delta employees who had come to save us, and towards the other passengers. We were all part of the same travel adventure. Everything felt right and we were on our way.

There was no wait behind other departing planes, because the Bangor airport at 4:30 a.m.? Not that happening. As we taxied towards the runway - towards Italy! - the sun was rising far off in the east. Takeoff was smooth and quiet, and even I could appreciate its beauty.