The TSA agent didn’t seem to notice the tiny B.A. Baracus that rode on the x-ray conveyor belt along with my wallet, phone, belt, shoes, and carry on bag. I dropped him into the basket designated for the contents of my pockets just before crossing through the metal detector. I met him at the other end of the conveyor and put him back into my pocket. I was on edge about the flight to the West Coast that was waiting for me just past the TSA checkpoint so I decided to bring my B.A. Baracus action figure along as a sort of talisman to ward off my anxieties.
I’d flown to Florida from Massachusetts with my mom a couple of times when I was in my early teens. The worry of crashing did enter my mind, but I felt invincible in those days, long before the concept of mortality was realized. I was mostly excited by the novelty of flight and distracted from such worries by the promise of palm trees and beaches. We’d be visiting with family in Miami, and I was looking forward to experiencing the pastel Art Deco world that I had only ever seen on Miami Vice. I loved how different Florida was in contrast to my native New England. There, I picked ripe grapefruit from the tree in my aunt’s back yard, chased anole lizards through the tough Miami grass, and swam in the impossibly clear water. On one of the trips, we even drove up to Orlando to spend a day at Disney World and Epcot Center; something I never expected to experience. I returned home safely from both trips, rewarded with a head full of pleasant memories.
Around the same time as the trips to Florida, I moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut with my mother and would return to Massachusetts to see the rest of my family on the weekends. During these visits, I would sometimes spend time my younger cousin Christie. On one such occasion we found ourselves sitting over her Ouija board. I’ve never been much of a believer in communing with the spirit world, and the idea of being able to do so using a Parker Brothers board game seemed even more ludicrous. Nonetheless, I played along. With our hands on the on the planchette, we asked questions of the omniscient spirits and waited as they—and by “they” I mean my cousin Christie—slowly spelled out the answers on the board. With a skeptic’s bravado and exemplifying my aforementioned adolescent invincibility I asked, “How am I going to die?” The planchette moved below our fingertips and spelled out A-I-R-P-L-A-N-E. Dramatically, Christie asked, “Oh my god! Don’t you take a plane to get here?” “No, we drive here. It only takes three hours,” the subtext of my reply being “nice try.” Christie, like many of my Fall River family members, seemed oblivious to, or afraid of the world beyond its perimeters. I wondered at times if they were still operating under the delusion that the world was flat,or if they possessed maps that warned “here be dragons.”
My guess is that Christie was steering the paranormal conversation in an attempt to frighten me. Ultimately it worked well beyond the intended measure or duration. When delivered as a premonition, the idea of death by flight wriggled its way into my mind and has remained ever since. My previously quiet worries have hatched into irrational nagging fears of the worst possible outcome. And, while some may find comfort in the heightened modern air travel security, for me it serves grim reminder of how things can go terribly wrong. I’m squeamish to the thought of unfamiliar situations and unpredictable variables that are beyond my control. It isn’t exactly healthy, and can only lead to a long list of regrets and missed opportunities. My wife and I share similar anxieties that we attribute to our parallel turbulent upbringings which were filled with unpredictable characters and unstable situations. Realizing the malignancy of this cognitive shadow, we are both making a conscientious effort to be more courageous, to defy the fear that has been genetically and environmentally bestowed upon us. This is how we found ourselves on a plane heading to the West Coast.
The opportunity came as a wedding invitation from a friend who was to be married this summer on the southern coast of Oregon. We accepted the invitation also deciding to swing by California to make up for never having been to the West Coast. Our goal was to stay in Santa Monica for a few days and then head to Oregon for the wedding. It sounded simple enough. This meant that we’d first drive for two hours from Hamden, Connecticut to JFK International airport in New York. From there we’d catch a five-hour flight into LAX and then a cab into Santa Monica where we’d be staying for two days. From there we could check out the Santa Monica pier, Venice Beach, and Hollywood. After that we’d catch a commuter flight into Portland, pick up our rental car and drive for three hours to our hotel in Newport, Oregon. We’d go to the wedding, which was just outside of Newport and drive back to Portland, check out the sights, catch a red-eye back to New York, and then drive home. We had 4 ½ days to do it all. Clearly we were making up our previous lack of adventure.
Including the three flights, the trip was rife with unfamiliar settings and unpredictable variables. I started to identify with B.A. Baracus, the tough as nails, milk loving, mechanical genius played by Mr. T on The A-Team. Despite his physical brawn and no-nonsense attitude, B.A. (which stood for Bad Attitude) was terrified of flying. Whenever the mission required air travel, the rest of the A-Team often resorted to drugging, hypnotism, or knocking him unconscious with a blow to the head as a means to getting him in the air. As I was packing for the trip, I dug out my vintage B.A Baracus action figure hoping that it might absorb my anxieties. I’m not above admitting that this plan is equal to packing a security blanket or even using a Ouija board. Many people resort this sort of magical thinking to traverse situations outside of their control. This is commonly seen in the odd rituals performed by baseball players to ensure that luck be in their favor. Ultimately, I’m not sure I believe in luck but still I brought B.A. along just in case. In him I’d find a transitional object, a semblance of consistency and familiarity, to mitigate this geographic upset.
Despite the anticipatory dread, I made it through each of the flights, as well as the rest of the trip, with an uncharacteristic calm. My wife, B.A. Baracus, and I met all of the goals on our itinerary collecting a bunch of fond memories in the process. None of which we could have experienced had we decided to stay home. We watched the sun set over the mountains from the Santa Monica Pier, then played Ms. Pac-Man and Skee-Ball in the Playland Arcade. We tried mojitos for the first time, and ate the best tacos of our long taco-eating careers. We gazed into the Pacific Ocean for the first time from the end of Route 66. We walked the beach from Santa Monica through Venice, the old haunt of some of my favorite musicians like the Doors and Jane’s Addiction, and all the way to Culver City for a taste of the legendary In-N-Out Burger. We trekked into Hollywood to see Grauman’s Chinese theater, the Hollywood sign, and the Walk of Fame, a pilgrimage of sorts for a television and movie freak like myself. Despite my fondness of the Hollywood product, I found the town itself vacuous and shallow. Certainly a picture better viewed from a distance. However, I was amused to happen upon the star of Stephen J. Cannell, the creator of many television shows including The A-Team.
In stark contrast, we drove along the Oregon coast in awe of the arboreal giants and craggy bluffs. We spent a morning at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. We attended a beautiful wedding at the Heceta Head Lighthouse overlooking the Pacific and were visited by dolphins at the shore front reception in Yachats. While disoriented by the incredible cleanliness and functionality of Portland, we enjoyed a cup of coffee from Stumptown Roasters. We stopped in at a Doctor Who themed pub called The Tardis Room and braved a plate of their fish fingers and chips. On the red-eye home amid an eerily beautiful lightning storm, instead of fretting about the turbulence, I found myself wondering where we might go on our next vacation.
Shortly after returning from our trip I caught a news report of a plane crash that occurred just miles from where we live. A small plane had crashed into a residential area, killing a number of people in their homes. Such tragedies are sad reminders that things can go wrong in any setting, and we are never truly in control.
Sometimes there’s far more to lose in attempting to play it safe. Ferris Bueller said it eloquently, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Similarly, Guy Lombardo sang, “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.” And before all of them, the poet Horace wrote, “carpe diem.” I need to remind myself of these sentiments now and then, as I attempt to unlearn a lifetime of unhealthy behavior and to let go of my obsolete fears. If it means carrying around a plastic likeness of a 1980s pop icon, so be it. For me, the 30-year-old action figure represents the idea that even big strong men get scared sometimes, and that’s okay. I pity the fool who thinks otherwise.