In the heart of a storm

At times, it's difficult for the human spirit to take flight, particularly if one is already up around 35,000 feet above sea level, near Anchorage, Alaska, bouncing at crazy angles through icy storm clouds. The walls of the jet liner seem eggshell thin at such times and the muddy tundra of Alaska begins to lurch up at us, then fall away again while the aircraft bucks and shudders in its erratic path.

The flight from New York to Tokyo, with a refueling stop at Anchorage, had begun normally enough, with the first six hours spent enjoying conversation, a meal and a book. Tired of reading, I plugged in my headset and browsed through the selections of taped music until I settled on Mozart's Mass in C, the exuberant "Coronation Mass" written in his youth in Salzburg. Just a few seconds into the Mass, in the middle of the soprano's silken "Kyrie eleison," a shiver went through the metal frame of the plane, as if we were suddenly skidding over gravel.

The seat belt sign flashed on, as it had several times throughout the flight, but his time the captain's voice came with it, warning of approaching turbulence. I barely noticed, not wanting to miss a single soprano phrase, just gave my already-fastened belt a tug for security and entered the music again. Voices twined and separated, dancing through the "Christe eleison" as I slowly became aware of an alien bass note behind the music, a dark hum which became a growl and then a ragged roar. I could not tell how much was the sound of wind tearing at the plane's hull, and how much was the sound of galley equipment or hull metal shuddering; things began to slide from seats or even topple into the aisle.

With supreme artistic irony, the full fury of the storm broke against us as the whole chorus burst forth with radiant ebullience: "Gloria in excelsis Deo. . . . Et in terra pax. . . ."m It looked anything but peaceful outside where currents of driving snow writhed and twisted, offering broken views of the greasy mud and rock below, then a long stretch of choppy water crammed with chunks of ice. We seemed to be losing altitude at an alarming rate (the pilot, trying to avoid the storm? I reasoned with myself); I felt myself go suddenly cold and pale as the cabin floor dropped -- and took us with it. We were exemplary passengers. The others in the first class cabin sat totally still (and pale), staring ahead and gripping their armrests.

Maddeningly, the joyous voices still rang in my ears: "Laudamus te . . . Benedicimus te . . . Adoramus te . . . Glorificamus te!"m A gust like a giant fist slammed the plane up again, and a camera bag toppled out from where it had been securely tucked under a seat. When the voices began their sonorous discussion "Qui tollis peccata mundi . . ."m I flipped the headset into my lap and cut them off; too much the tincture of last rites. But when I tried to manage some pleasantry with my seatmate, I found my throat too dry; we could only exchange wan smiles. An elderly Japanese couple across the aisle sat rock-still, with mask-like composure; but when the plane fell through another trapdoor, we all gasped -- something seemed wrong with the plane, even beyond the wind thrusts.

As it followed its rollercoaster path, I plunged back into Mozart, whose voices chased us gleefully across the darkening skies, minute after endless minute: "Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto . . . Et in Spiritum Sanctum Dominum et vivificantem. . . ."m In the confusion of the reality and unreality which swirled and held us in its grip, those voices took on more substance than the terrible maelstrom or the broken rock and ice below. I can't say that I was totally comforted, or that I triumphed once and for good against fear; the private thoughts I had for that interminable half hour still remain with me, and are useful grist for contemplation.

But somewhere in the glorious driving tempo of that youthful devotion, the joy took hold of me, against my will. (Against my will? That commodity, evidently, had been totally occupied in trying to hold the plane up.) I had been too busy fighting the wind, the idea of danger in the mud and icy water to feel the comfort of the idea which welled up unbidden, whole and perfect: "and . . . underneath are the everlasting arms. . . ." Not literally, I thought (still fighting), perhaps not any more literal than the wind; but as the lights of Anchorage began to flicker through the murk, I felt the perfection of what that phrase meant, and heard it in the closing bars of the Mozart.

After a rough landing, on an unscheduled overnight stop while the plane was being repaired, we learned that roofs had been torn off houses, and falling electric wires were causing blackouts citywide and beyond. Yet, long after Anchorage, halfway around the world and back -- through more turbulence and mechanical difficulties, though less severe -- I hear that Mozart, and feel that perfection still.

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