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Fearful Flier Gets Help From Seat-Mate

airplane landing

Read Part 1 here.

I hadn't flown commercially in 17 years until I flew to Washington, D.C., with Dustin last month.

Being in an airplane wasn't as bad as I thought. Aside from digging my nails into Dustin's forearm and panicking over every creak or thump, I kind of enjoyed myself. (I can't say the same for Dustin.)

Also, watching the nation's Capitol come into view through the airplane window was nothing short of spectacular.

But I wasn't disappointed when we touched down at Reagan International Airport. I was in no hurry to fly again. Except, eventually I had to fly back to Maine -- alone.

A week later, Dustin walked me to the airport's security checkpoint and went over my instructions: "Put your shoes in the plastic bins. Your computer, too. Show your ticket to the attendant and get on the bus when they tell you to."

I felt like a child with her name and bus number safety-pinned to her shirt. I was crying and scared. Everyone in the airport knew it.

A kind man befriended me on the bus that took us to the CRJ-200 waiting on the tarmac. My hands were shaking as I talked to him. My heart beat in my throat.

In Maine, when I got on the airplane with Dustin, I walked through a hallway first, allowing me the illusion that I was still in a building, not a metal tube. Now I had to board from the tarmac, where I could see my worst fear up close and personal.

My bus friend -- we'll call him "John" -- walked beside me off the bus. Just before we got to the stairs of the airplane, I panicked. I turned to John, my hand at my throat, and said, "I can't do this; I'm going back."

John got behind me and said, "Up you go, onto the stairs." He was blocking me from turning around, and for the next 30 minutes, I despised him for that.

John asked the flight attendant if I could sit beside him. Again, I felt like a child. All of this probably seems silly to someone who isn't afraid to fly.

But if you think about facing your greatest fear -- standing on the ledge of a tall building, being in the middle of the ocean, riding a roller coaster, speaking in front of an audience -- maybe you can understand the complete terror I felt as I pulled my seatbelt tighter and silently cursed at John for making me board.

I cried (yes, more crying) for the first 30 minutes of the 90-minute flight. John spoke evenly and calmly. He asked me about my family, but I didn't want to think about them yet. I was focused on surviving, like I had any control. John asked me about my work, and I answered in quick, nervous one-word replies. I was stiff with fear. But John kept talking.

The flight attendant asked me if I wanted a drink, but she didn't mean water. "Yes, please," I said eagerly, hoping for something -- anything -- to make me relax.

John interrupted. "Alcohol might make you more emotional," he said. Now he looked scared, too. He was already dealing with a white-knuckle flier; he didn't need me telling him all my troubles -- in that I-love-you-man sort of way -- too.

I opted for water.

An hour later, I started to relax when I heard the landing gear come down. By then, I knew I was going to be OK. I finally sat back in the seat and felt like myself. I fluffed up my hair and wiped at the mascara sliding down my cheeks. I was aware of my surroundings again.

"So, I wrote a book," I told John, as if the past hour hadn't happened, and I started to tell him about it.

"Wait a minute," he said, "I read about you! You're the dinner girl."

Then, for the first time, I felt embarrassed. Before, I was a nameless, ridiculous person crying on an airplane. Now I was the "dinner girl."

After we landed, John helped me find my baggage and made sure I got to the taxi stand. When he said goodbye, he told me his last name for the first time. It rang a bell, so I Googled it.

Turns out, John is a pretty important person in our nation's government. I'm glad I didn't know this before. For 90 minutes, we were just two people on a plane -- one scared, one not.

I looked up from my phone just as John's taxi was pulling away. And the next thoughts I had came quickly in this order:

1. Thank goodness for people like John.

2. I'm so embarrassed.

3. I wish we could have had him to Dinner with the Smileys.

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Family and Spouse Sarah Smiley

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Navy wife Sarah Smiley is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of Going Overboard: The Misadventures of a Military Wife (2005) and I'm Just Saying (2008). She has been featured in the New York Times and Newsweek, and on Nightline, The Early Show, CNN, Fox News and other local and national news outlets. Her liferights were optioned by Kelsey Grammer's company, Grammnet, and Paramount Television to be made into a half-hour sitcom. Visit for more details. To contact Sarah, you can also visit her Facebook page.

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