LBCF, No. 8: Do Panic

LBCF, No. 8: Do Panic January 5, 2024

(Originally posted November 3, 2003.)

Left Behind, pp. 15-19

So, anyway, back to Rayford Steele. You remember Rayford. He’s the kinky, control-freak, middle-aged pilot so obsessed with his lust for a young, subservient flight attendant that he seems not to have noticed a nuclear war.

LaHaye and Jenkins strayed from Rayford for a few pages there in order to introduce us to Buck Williams, and to provide a little more background. Through Buck’s eyes, we learn that this story takes place in the proverbial “not-so-distant future,” in a world very much like our own. Only a few, minor details have been fictionalized for the sake of the novel. I’ve noticed four so far in the book:

1. In Left Behind, our Newsweek magazine is replaced with its fictional counterpart, Global Weekly.

2. Rayford and Hattie work for a fictionalized American-based airline, called “Pan-Continental.”

3. While in our world the Concorde has ceased making commercial flights, it’s still flying in the pages of Left Behind.

4. There’s a miracle formula that turns desert sand into fertile soil; the world’s economy has been transformed so that agriculture is more lucrative than high-tech industry; Israel has made peace and lasting friendship with the Palestinians and all her Arab neighbors, who have happily ceded their territory and sovereignty; Russia has formed an alliance with Ethiopia — now a feared nuclear power — and launched tens of thousands of warheads at otherwise tranquil, peaceful Israel, but all of the missiles are destroyed harmlessly in a blatant act of divine intervention, providing such overwhelming, incontrovertible evidence of God’s existence that everyone is forced to ignore it.

But, you know, except for little details like that, this world is exactly like our own. It’s uncanny.

So again, back to Rayford:

Not sure whether he’d follow through with anything overt, Captain Rayford Steele felt an irresistible urge to see Hattie Durham right then. He unstrapped himself and squeezed … [oh, good God no!] … his first officer’s shoulder on the way out of the cockpit. [whew!] “We’re still on auto, Christopher,” he said as the younger man roused and straightened his headphones. “I’m gonna make the sunup stroll.”

Christopher squinted and licked his lips. “Doesn’t look like sunup to me, Cap.”

“Probably another hour or two. I’ll see if anybody’s stirring anyway.”

“Roger. If they are, tell ’em Chris says, ‘Hey.’”

Rayford snorted and nodded. As he opened the cockpit door …

On the other side of that door, Rayford runs into Hattie Durham. She’s still “drop dead gorgeous,” but in a hysterically crying, stark-raving panic kind of way. It seems that the most significant and interesting event of the entire story has already occurred and we, the readers, were left behind. Or at least left out. (L&J rarely miss an opportunity to replace action with exposition.) But at least we get to hear about it second hand from Hattie:

… Her knees buckled as she tried to speak, and her voice came in a whiny squeal.

“People are missing,” she managed in a whisper, burying her head in his chest.

He took her shoulders and tried to push her back, but she fought to stay close. “What do you m– ?”

“She was sobbing now, her body out of control. “A whole bunch of people, just gone!”

“Hattie, this is a big plane. They’ve wandered to the lavs or –”

She pulled his head down so she could speak directly into his ear. Despite her weeping, she was plainly fighting to make herself understood. “I’ve been everywhere. I’m telling you, dozens of people are missing.”

“Hattie, it’s still dark. We’ll find –”

“I’m not crazy! See for yourself! All over the plane, people have disappeared.”

“It’s a joke. They’re hiding, trying to –”

“Ray! Their shoes, their socks, their clothes, everything was left behind. These people are gone!”

Here I would like you to do something that L&J do not. I’d like you to try to imagine that you’re actually on that airplane.

Imagine you’re the pilot and you step out of the cockpit and the first thing you see is a hysterical flight attendant who tells you, between sobs, that dozens of people on the jumbo jet have mysteriously vanished without a trace.

It might occur to you that your flight attendant is having a breakdown. In the book, Rayford believes Hattie because she seems sincere and genuinely frightened. He interprets this as evidence that she’s not going crazy. Of course, if she were, how would she act? That’s right — sincerely and genuinely frightened.

(Steele also seems to take Hattie’s word for what has happened because she keeps interrupting him and shouting. He is apparently a fan of Bill O’Reilly, and has come to believe that if someone shouts a lot and doesn’t let you finish a sentence, then they must be telling you the truth.)

It might occur to you to investigate Hattie’s claim. Certainly you might want to look around a little more thoroughly than this:

Rayford scanned the rest of first class. Most passengers were still asleep … But indeed several seats were empty.

That’s it. He finds Hattie hysterical. She tells him people are missing. He glances around the unlit, first-class cabin, sees some empty seats and decides she’s right! Yes, he then decides to walk through the plane, but only after — based on this initial cursory glance — he has accepted Hattie’s raging panic as fully justified and that dozens of people have, indeed, vanished without a trace. In Steele’s mind, there can be no other explanation for several empty seats in first class.

Think about that phrase “without a trace.” These people didn’t actually vanish without a trace — they left their clothes, their luggage, their seatmates and traveling companions. Perhaps someone might like to examine these more closely? Maybe try to figure out what all the missing have in common? Carefully preserve their abandoned clothing so as not to destroy potential evidence?

Nah. Let’s just panic:

Rayford wanted to be strong, to have answers, to be an example to his crew, to Hattie. But when he reached the lower level he knew the rest of the flight would be chaotic. He was as scared as anyone on board. As he scanned the seats, he nearly panicked. He backed into a secluded spot behind the bulkhead and slapped himself hard on the cheek.

That’s at the bottom of a page that begins with this sentence: “He bit his lip hard and winced at the pain.”

Rayford Steele is a very odd man.

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