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The Eyes of a Child at 10,000 Feet

I WAS on the runway at Cleveland's Hopkins International Airport, poised for takeoff in a 727 bound for New York. As the engines grumbled, one voice stood out above the mechanical melody. It was a mom letting the flight crew know it was her son Sam's first ride in an airplane.

I glanced over at the boy. He looked about 12 and was sporting the kind of smile that says something big's about to happen. An I-can't-wait-to-tell-my-friends-about-this smile.

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It was a revealing moment - as the first anything always is - because in this youngster I saw myself on the first flight I ever took, 20 years and 200,000 frequent-flyer miles ago.

That was before a trio of close calls turned aerial joy riding into rough riding.

On one Chicago-bound flight, my jet's engines stalled on takeoff. The pilot pulled the plane over to the side of the runway like a disabled car for a brief once-over by mechanics. Afterward, the pilot suggested to a less-than-confident passenger load, "Let's give it another try."

Another time, somewhere over Phoenix, a fire warning light in the cockpit forced us to dump our fuel and make an emergency landing.

The third incident was a stretch of turbulence over Denver that was so bad at mealtime, the cabin looked like a school cafeteria during a food fight.

These memories caused me to board the plane to New York with some trepidation. Once in my seat, I buckled up tight, took notice of each emergency exit, and read the evacuation card in the seat pocket. I listened to every spit and grind of the engines, seeking reassurance in something that sounded more reliable than the Chevy in my driveway. Instead, I found reassurance in Sam, my young travel mate. He reminded me of a time when flight was not the avenue to adventure but the adventure itself.

As we began to speed down the runway, I watched Sam's reaction. His mouth hung open and his eyes opened wide in blinkless amazement - the expression I must have had when my dad taught me to ride a two-wheeler. Dad would run alongside my bike until he gave a great heave and set me off in a gust.

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We, too, were off in a gust, suddenly airborne in a burst of energy. Sam's eyebrows seemed to rise higher with each mile we climbed. Minutes after takeoff, I watched him test out every empty windowseat for the best vantage point and, once accomplished, press his face up against the glass for an unobstructed view of a city he might as well be seeing for the first time.

Cleveland was infinitely more fascinating at 10,000 feet and climbing. I wondered what Sam was thinking. I was thinking how cars and crowds and clutter could look so calm from up here.

WITH the city behind us, a patchwork of clouds fanned out below. On my very first plane ride, I'd thought it possible to see the earth rotate, like a basketball spinning on a fingertip. That trip was from New York to Miami in 1971. I remember hoping clouds would break over the capital long enough for me to spot President Nixon at the White House.

That was when folding snack tables captured my fascination and the novelty of airline food outweighed its taste. Movie headphones were the ultimate in pre-Walkman decadence, and souvenirs like logo-emblazoned coffee stirrers were jammed in carry-on bags.

All my rambling thoughts and daydreams were spawned by this boy who never realized I took notice of him from two rows behind. And yet he showed me how to experience that stir of exhilaration again and see flying for the ultimate amusement-park ride it is.

As adults, we often allow ourselves to get saddled down with the everyday real and the everyday rational. It's the kind of thinking that would have us try to talk dreamers out of their dreams, the Wright brothers out of their vision, Charles Lindbergh out of his quest.

As we made our final approach into New York's LaGuardia Airport, I saw Sam pointing out Shea Stadium and the Unisphere from the old World's Fair to his mom. I was starting to come around. Shea did look pretty good from up here. I silently thanked him for sharing his gift of youthful wonder with me. Sam was shy of adulthood, but he was old enough to teach this overseasoned traveler to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

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