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June 13th 2015 print

Roger Underwood

An Intimation of Mortality in the Air

The shrieking announcement that our plane was about to fall from the sky did not inspire fear, just a sense of dismay. I never did write a novel, score a century, master the piano, teach my grandchildren to play a topspin backhand down the line or visit New Zealand. So many boxes left un-ticked....

pearly gatesThere is nothing like the death of a dear friend, or a real or imagined brush with disaster, to remind you of how narrow is that path we tread along the razor-back ridge of life. On either side the chasm yawns. One false step, a momentary lapse of judgement or a stroke of misfortune, and you will be granted an immediate passport to that “undiscovered country”, as Hamlet called it, “from whose bourn no traveller returns”.

I have just had such a reminder. I was travelling on a Boeing 737 from Perth to Darwin. This is one of those 4-hour flights in which the first half an hour or so (crossing the Perth hills and the north-eastern agricultural country) is interesting, and the last half hour or so (over the spectacular ranges of the east Kimberley and the gulf country around Darwin) is fascinating. But in between, it is basically nothing. Thousands of square kilometres of the Great Sandy Desert, an empty wilderness of parallel sand dunes stretching to the four horizons. This is “GABA country” as one of my mates once called it: the Great Australian Bugger-All.

Overflying this relentlessly boring landscape, I had been reading an excellent book (Peter Fleming’s To Peking: A Forgotten Journey from Moscow to Manchuria), but having checked the Qantas magazine, I plugged in to ‘Radio Q’ and located the classical music channel. The program guide promised me a rendition of Mozart’s Horn Quintet, one of my favourites. While waiting for this to come on I was amused by a short skit in which Guy Noble imagined how difficult it would have been for Johann Sebastian Bach to have composed had he lived today. In the skit, Bach is busy scratching on the manuscript with his quill and tinkling an idea for a Prelude and Fugue on the harpsichord, when suddenly the telephone rings. It is a salesman from Telstra, asking “Jo Batch” if he is satisfied with his internet supplier and blinding the old musician with incomprehensible technology and jargon. Bach has no idea what he is talking about, and loses the thread of his composition …. OK, it’s not all that funny, but it was well done and I was smiling gently to myself. Then, suddenly …

A huge voice broke in! It echoed around the aircraft cabin! “EMERGENCY! EMERGENCY!” it bellowed in stern and stentorian tones. “RETURN TO YOUR SEATS IMMEDIATELY, FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS! PREPARE TO ADOPT THE EMERGENCY BRACE POSITION! EMERGENCY! EMERGENCY! THE PLANE IS ABOUT TO GO INTO A RAPID DESCENT! FASTEN YOUR OXYGEN MASK! EMERGENCY!

All of this was repeated over and again.

As the message sank in, my heart gave a lurch, and my stomach and buttocks clenched. I looked out the window and could see nothing but countless miles of parallel sand dunes – you could not land a Cessna 120 there, let alone a giant airliner with hundreds of people on board.

I looked up for my oxygen mask, grateful for all those times I had half-paid attention to the demonstration by a stewardess. No oxygen mask appeared. “Jeepers creepers, I am in real trouble now” I thought, “starved of oxygen as well as being about to plunge into a remote desert from 35,000 feet!”

The cabin crew were scuttling about, clearly not knowing what was going on. I had an empty seat next to me and could not confer with anyone. The elderly couple across the aisle appeared to be frozen – staring straight ahead sightlessly. Perhaps their whole lives were flashing before their eyes. There was no panic that I could see or hear. Perhaps the screaming starts when the plane actually begins its plummet to the earth, I thought.

All this time the massive and fearsome voice was continuing, repeating the same message: “EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY! THE AIRCRAFT IS ABOUT TO MAKE A SUDDEN DESCENT. ADOPT THE EMERGENCY BRACE POSTION etc etc”

The funny thing was that I did not feel fear, just a growing sense of dismay. “What a bugger.” I actually said out loud to myself. I never did write a novel, score a century, learn to play the piano, map the stone walls at Karonie, teach my grandchildren to play a topspin backhand down the line, or visit New Zealand in the company of my ever-loving ….

Just then, after maybe half a minute of all this, during which the plane continued to drone unwaveringly on its way, another voice broke in, over-riding the emergency message, very calm and matter-of-a-fact. “The Captain here, folks. Disregard all that. There is no emergency. Everything is completely normal and under control. It appears that there has been a computer malfunction in the Public Address System and this triggered the recorded emergency warning message. Sorry about that. I repeat, no emergency, everything is fully under control”.

Phew! Nothing to worry about, eh? Thanks, Skipper. But, by the Jesus you better get that PA system and its computer looked at, and while you are making a note to that effect, how about a complimentary brandy or two, just to settle the heartbeat?

There was no brandy, and five minutes later it was as if nothing had ever happened. Guy Noble was in my earphones again introducing the Horn Quintet, and once again I marvelled at its vitality, humour and harmonies, especially that playful little fugue right at the end. Mozart makes me feel better at the best of times, but here he was, right on the job, applying balm to a troubled spirit at precisely the moment he was most needed.

The whole affair gave me pause. As we flew on I reflected on the pointlessness of regrets, re-lived memorable times of love and laughter, and marvelled afresh at the world around me … even the outstanding beauty and intense interest of the Great Sandy Desert below.

The poet William Wordsworth (the “old sheep of the Cotswolds” as Horace Rumpole always called him) once recalled the world of his youth and the way it then appeared to him:

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream …

This, it seems to me, is the great advantage of a near-death experience, even a phoney one as I had just experienced. Things are put into perspective, and “every common sight” is indeed refreshed. It’s surely not a bad thing to be reminded, from time to time, of our mortality, and of all there is to enjoy on solid earth.

Roger Underwood, a retired forester, is Chairman of The Bushfire Front, a volunteer organisation dedicated to improving the standard of bushfire management in WA