Usually when I’m in flight I read or let my mind drift, stare out the window at clouds or the lighted dots of cities in the dark. If I fly JetBlue, I watch Channel 13 – a little cartoon plane flies across a map on the mini screen embedded in the back of the chair ahead of me. I can see the route the plane takes, and the speed and altitude.
Recently I attended AWP in Chicago, which is a high volume conference – meaning a high volume of writers and editors gather once a year to schmooze, read, take seminars, sell books and journals. I was on my way home from this event, on that JetBlue plane, watching Channel 13, and seeing the night sparkle of Boston come into view through the plane window. As the plane made its descent, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” played through my ear buds. Songs bring me to places, my past and my present and sometimes fantasies of my future. I watched the map on Channel 13 and looked out the plane window, as we drifted down from 35,000 feet to 21,000 to 10,000, and as “Free Bird” rocked me back and forth through the decades of my life.
The song is one of the anthems of my youth – it represents both the joys and pain of my adolescence – the time before the panic disorder, and the time after it, the time before my best friend dumped me and the time after she dumped me. That kind of thing. Ronnie Van Zant’s voice remains relentless and hard-edged into the 21st century, although his body left the earth decades ago. He had his time in the 1970s, as did I, before he crashed in a plane and before I crashed in a panic.
Not long after “Free Bird” became a hit in the 1970s, I locked myself in my house for a year, as I succumbed to panic attacks. I became a recluse, a full-fledged agoraphobic. I couldn’t go anywhere. I mean, not anywhere. I quit high school. I quit my part-time job at Roxies Supermarket. I quit going out with friends. I quit riding bicycles or taking walks. I sat in my apartment, the one I shared with my mother. And I lost my mind.
I’m writing a book about that time in my life, trying to figure out the design of the story, trying to remember all that happened in the year 1979 particularly, the worst year of my life.
Today I can jet to a city like Chicago where in 1979 I couldn’t sit on the stoop of the apartment building where I lived. In the past year I’ve traveled as far as Seattle and Colorado, I’ve braved the big cities of New York and Chicago, and if I get into a writing conference for summer, I plan to go to Los Angeles. In 1979, I couldn’t sit in a high school classroom without panic assaulting my body and mind. And so I quit school.
But things are not the same. I am not the same.
I must be traveling on now, because there’s too many places I gotta see. Bye, bye babe, it’s been a sweet love, but… If I stay here with you now, things just couldn’t be the same. Because I’m as free as a bird now, and this bird you cannot change. – Ronnie Van Zant
When I was 17 I prayed for overnight miracles; more than 30 years later, I’ve learned miracles don’t happen overnight but over a lifetime.
On October 20, 1977, just three days after the release of Street Survivors, and five shows into their most successful headlining tour to date, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s chartered Convair CV-300 ran out of fuel near the end of their flight from Greenville, South Carolina, where they had just performed at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium, to LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Though the pilots attempted an emergency landing on a small airstrip, the plane crashed in a forest in Gillsburg, Mississippi. Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray were killed on impact; the other band members (Collins, Rossington, Wilkeson, Powell, Pyle, and Hawkins) and road crew suffered serious injuries. – Via Wikapedia.