The Lantern Books Blog: Butch O'Hare and the Nameless Chicken
March 18, 2008 2:58pm
Emily Pepe, winner of Lantern's 2007 Essay Contest
We have a winner! Congratulations to Emily Pepe
, writer of our #1 2007 essay, and recipient of the $1000 prize.
Butch O'Hare and the Nameless Chicken
by Emily Pepe
One of the Internet's quirkiest cultural phenomena is a website where travelers swap war stories about the best and worst places to sleep at airports worldwide. Some of the site's contributors are bargain hunters who save money on hotel accommodations by squatting at airport terminals, while others are cynical airline passengers in search of quiet places to nap during long layovers. In both camps, there are people who are so determined to avoid the waking boredom of the airport that they routinely stuff their carry-on bags with blankets, sleeping pills, and noise-reduction headphones.
It would be a dramatic understatement to say that many of these travelers are disgruntled. In fact, some of their anecdotes contain not only suppressed rage, but undercurrents of existential angst. The question is, why?
In "Logan International," poet Mary Oliver articulates the unpleasant truth that no one at www.sleepinginairports.net has ever had the courage and insight to admit—that the nameless dread of airport downtime is caused by an unconscious fear of self-examination, replete with literal and metaphorical baggage:
In the city called Wait,To be sure, hardly anyone regards airports as interesting destinations in their own right, and so the general tendency is to consider a long layover as a minor inconvenience at best and a cosmic tribulation at worst. But perhaps we should consider a layover to be a liminal and potentially sacred moment in time and space where absolutely anything can happen—even a life-changing epiphany—provided that travelers are willing to stay awake, alert, and open to the task of examining their lives, emotional baggage and all.
also known as the airport,
you might think about your life—
there is not much else to do.
For one thing,
there is too much luggage,
and you're truly lugging it—
you and, it seems, everyone.
My own airport epiphany occurred the day before Halloween, 2006. Traveling en route from Portland to San Juan to visit an old friend from college, I found myself landing at O'Hare at 4:30 a.m. with three-and-a-half hours to kill before my next flight. With no alarm clock to keep me from oversleeping, I had little choice but to stay awake by pacing the terminals.
As I trudged through the airport with my luggage in tow, I thought about the devastating series of losses and misfortunes that occurred in my life right after I moved to Oregon in 2001. Each event seemed to top the one that came before, and the cumulative effect was a severe bout with post-traumatic stress disorder that left me partially hospitalized for a week and unable to work for many months afterward.
Three things had made a significant difference in my journey to healing. The first was a website for trauma survivors. The second was acupuncture. The third was a self-taught yoga practice.
Now 33, I was grateful that my life was getting back on track. All the same, I felt old before my time, uncertain of my future, and unable to look forward to much of anything except for this vacation to Puerto Rico, where I hoped to reconnect with my college friend and thereby get back in touch with a younger, less damaged version of myself.
My musing was interrupted when I rounded a corner of Terminal 2 and saw a refurbished World War II fighter plane gleaming proudly atop a plinth that was covered on all sides with educational plaques. Fascinated, I came closer to read the story of the plane, which had been recovered from the bottom of Lake Michigan several decades after falling off an aircraft carrier in 1943. The plane, which had never seen combat, was being displayed in honor of Lieutenant Commander Edward Henry "Butch" O'Hare, the flying ace for whom the Chicago airport was named.
Although I had no particular interest in aviation or military history, the sight of this pristine aircraft resonated with me in the most unexpected way. When I envisioned the long-lost fighter plane being hauled to the surface after years of slumbering in the murky depths, I was reminded of the resilience of the human spirit. Even when the resilience appears to be depleted, I thought, perhaps it can survive in the watery depths of the unconscious, safely hidden until it is ready to be retrieved and restored to wholeness.
As I walked around the plane to admire it from other angles, I could feel my left thigh flaring up.
* * *
Three days earlier, I had injured my leg while trying to deepen the stretch of a difficult yoga pose. There had been a wrenching sensation and an audible snap that was so loud and startling that it echoed up my spine and into my head.
A day later, I heard that cringe-inducing sound again, only this time it came from someone else's dislocated thigh, not my own.
It happened in the kitchen as I tried to cut up a raw, whole fryer. Because my knife was too dull to cut cleanly through the joints attaching the drumsticks, I decided to use my bare hands to wrest the stubborn limbs free.
The chicken would not go down without a fight. I pulled and twisted, twisted and pulled, until finally the left leg tore off. Snap!
That visceral sound, so eerily familiar, sent a shooting pain through my body like another yoga pose gone terribly awry. After I regained my composure, I found myself feeling intensely curious about the dismembered bird on my cutting board. What sort of life did she lead before ending up in the refrigerated coffin at my local supermarket?
Later that evening, when my husband and I sat down to dine on coq au vin, I had the intuition that something was inherently wrong with our feast, even though the coq was cooked to perfection.
* * *
Limping around the fighter plane, I contemplated that chicken again—the sturdy femur, the gaping wound at the hip socket, and the delicate network of muscles, ligaments, and tendons that were not unlike my own.
That was when the epiphany struck. The plane, the chicken, and I had something in common: we had all been thwarted by circumstances beyond our control.
The plane was designed to fly, but it fell from an aircraft carrier and sank to the bottom of a lake. The chicken was meant to live out her days in a natural setting, but she was imprisoned on a factory farm, her life cut short. And I, through no fault of my own, lost several years of my life to trauma—years that I would never, ever get back.
With a lump in my throat, I shifted my attention back to the fighter plane and what it represented in my mind: a watery phoenix resurrected from the deep. As I studied the smooth contours of each wing, something wonderful happened: I understood that the plane's enduring resilience was within me too.
After all the time I had spent recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder, this was the moment when I was absolutely sure I could leave the past behind and devote my energy to something new. Of course, the exact shape of my future was still uncertain, but I strongly suspected that it was about to unfold from the synchronicities surrounding me here.
Three weeks later, I became a vegan and joined my local vegetarian society. Now, nearly fourteen months after that layover in Chicago, I have read twenty-three books about animal rights and veganism, and I devote much of my spare time to activism.
Some people gravitate toward ethical veganism because of an instinctive affinity for all creatures great and small. For me, the motivation comes from a commitment to oppose any dynamic in which someone is being abused. I have been on the receiving end of enough trauma to know that as much as I hate being the victim, I would also hate to be the perpetrator, the accomplice, or the apathetic bystander. The marvelous thing about veganism is that each and every meal is an edible meditation that aspires toward peace, personal accountability, and mindfulness. And as more people become vegan, that sacred space of meditative calm extends further into the universe.
I still experience an unwavering sense of self-awareness, anticipation, and joy amidst the hustle and bustle of airports. No matter how long the layover, I could never imagine sleeping through it, not when there are so many insights to be had.
This is, after all, the meaning of life: a perpetual journey, complete with baggage that we must claim as our own, handle with care, and occasionally release so that new and better concerns may take their place.
Thank you, Mr. O'Hare. May the chicken rest in peace.
Watch in coming days for more winning essays, as well as the stories of some of our contest participants.