Saturday, December 18, 2010


Four hours into the wait at the airport, we stand in line, unmoving.  SNA in Orange County has a departure curfew of 10PM.  We’re instructed to get ready to rapidly board the plane, since we only have minutes to make the take-off deadline.

At the moment, we’re static.  Or nearly so, fidgeting with our boarding passes.  Occasionally stamping a foot or swinging round to survey the terminal.  Snorting, frustrated at our lack of motion.  But the ground beneath us spins rapidly eastward.  At this latitude, the Earth itself rotates at almost 800 miles per hour.  A dizzying speed that we wished we were feeling, imagining ourselves winging home.  Come on, everyone.  The curfew is only 12 minutes away.

The gangway opens.  We move down the jetway, faster than I’ve ever boarded a plane before.  People are anxious.  Will we make it?  Suddenly, we halt mid-way to the plane.  What’s the hold-up?  A motorized wheelchair that didn’t clear the previous flight whirrs up the jetway.  Perhaps 10 feet per second.  Molasses.

The rock that is our home hurtles around the sun.  Earth is a projectile, zipping along its orbit two miles every second.  Only astronauts have ever traveled that fast.  At the same time, it is the speed every person that has ever existed has moved all their lives.  Add the rotation of the Earth, and we make a wobbly sine centered on the sun.  We’re etching a solar Spirograph, absent-mindedly.

Barking into the PA, the flight crew instructs us to move again.  People are fairly running down the jetway now, around the sharp corner just inside the 737, marching down the aisle.  Minutes remain.  The jet has to be able to reach the Pacific shore by 10:20PM, or the noise abatement rules in Orange County, CA, will prevent us from taking off.  Seated, we’re fidgeting again.  Our heads swiveling as if the limited movements we can make with body parts that are not directly seat-belted down could somehow urge the plane up into the air.

Our arm of our galaxy, the Milky Way, rotates on its axis, sweeping our sun, our planet, and the passengers on SWA642 along at 50 miles per second.  100 millions stars executing their stately, quarter billion year long galactic pirouette.  An invisible spray of particles from distant suns blasts through our heads and hearts at a million miles an hour, a different wind than the one we imagine rushing past the wings of our still-taxiing jet.

Hopes rise as we trundle down the tarmac at maybe 20 miles per hour.  During the safety announcements, the flight attendants stop mid-instruction.  We’re too late.  Can’t make the curfew.  It’s back to the terminal and a slow slog to find a place to spend the night, rebook and fly out the next morning.

Now shambling through the terminal, some are angry, most are dejected.  We no longer care about speed.

The Milky Way, Sol, Earth, the edge of the North American tectonic plate, the sheetrock and concrete of the terminal, the linoleum under my feet.  Everything I’ve ever known or will ever know, hurtles away from most every other part of the Universe at nearly the speed of light.  Every single point moving close to the maximum relative speed that the Laws of Nature allow.  But at the same time, each and every point in the Universe, like each brooding former passenger of SWA642, is unmoving, stilled.

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