“Brace! Brace! Brace!” called the flight attendants, ordering me and the other 167 service members into the crash position on the flight bringing us home to American soil.
The chartered plane was making its second landing attempt in Baltimore.
During our first attempt, we were coming in for what seemed like a normal landing when our plane suddenly came down hard and skipped back into the air.
Passengers released audible sounds of surprise.
Plastic molding, speakers and a florescent bulb came out of the ceiling above me. We bounced again. More screams. More debris.
“Get a hold of it!” yelled a flight-suited passenger who likely wished he was at the controls. The jet engines screamed as the pilot pulled us back into the gathering clouds of a Baltimore thunderstorm. With a quick gain in altitude, the pilot announced he was declaring an emergency and was returning for a second attempt.
Passengers were visibly shaken, and several people were nursing bruises and bumps. Some cursed. Some looked at me to acknowledge our mutual prayers.
A young officer sat wiping her tears. I leaned forward to hold her hand and then joined her hand with the chaplain assistant sitting beside her.
The next few minutes were minutes few of us ever get in this lifetime. They were a gift in which I was able to genuinely contemplate my life.
I spent the time asking myself questions such as:
What legacy will you leave from this life? Will it be one of faith? Will it be one of compassion? What will it be like to die? Will this be a connecting flight to a celestial place? Will God meet me at the gate?
As flight attendants explained the crash position, I also saw it as the prayer position.
There have been many flights where I’ve rested my head on the seat in front of me while assuming something like the crash position. For my purposes, however, it was the prayer position. It was a time I would pray about the purpose of my flight, perhaps a family situation, a new job or a simple speaking engagement.
But on this flight, as I prayed to the accompaniment of a jet engine, I felt tested. What would I pray? For myself? For others?
I hoped this prayer test was only a quiz, not the cumulative final exam.
I bowed and felt a presence waiting for me to speak, a presence that I already knew in my heart.
“Thank you for this life,” I prayed. “Thank you for my wife and family.”
A moment spun through my head. I didn’t feel like I’d been a great dad. The times I’d been absent — physically and spiritually — went through my head. The lacking suddenly made me feel like I was being weighed on a scale in a spiritual assay office. The man in the one-piece eyeglass was squinting at the life I had put down.
I glanced up wondering whether my prayer was too selfish. “God, what about all these people?” A soldier was about to meet his new son for the first time. An airman was trying to make a marriage work again. They all wanted another chance today.
“They need a chance,” I told God. “Help them. Help us. Help me help them. Give us peace, God. Help us to know that we are yours and in your hands.”
“Brace! Brace! Brace!” continued the litany of the flight crew even as we glided toward the runway as smoothly as if attached to a cable.
The tires kissed the ground and then embraced it. The brakes pulled us up just short of the flotilla of emergency vehicles.
Slowly, people looked up from the prayer position.
They started clapping.
There would be no celestial connection that day.
We were home.