Flight, Fear, and the Surety of Imminent Death:
Awaiting California Bar Exam Results

David A. Cain, JD. California Western School of Law ’13

The nightmares started the week before bar results posted.

The California bar exam is notoriously difficult and my subconscious started sending up nightly reminders how slim my chances were, how many eggs I had loaded into this basket, and how easily I could lose my grip on it.

Each morning started at around 5 AM when my eyes would shoot open …

my conscious brain would reckon with my again unfamiliar surroundings, make sense of the dark room and alarm clock glow, and start racing through the good, the bad, and the ugly of what it would mean to fail.

The first dream was your standard, run-of-the-mill anxiety dream. Something about time. Not enough of it. Some monumental task to complete. Some order misstated or misperceived. The impossibility of the Light Brigade. No specifics, just anxiety.

The second dream was the most vivid, terrifying, and literal dream I have ever had. At 45 years old (“half right” as my geometry nerd children like to say), I have had a good number of dreams. None have been as real as this. For the first time in my life, I woke up absolutely sure that I was dead.

It was dusk. Seattle area. A large, four-engine cargo aircraft had just begun its takeoff role. And I was at a dead sprint behind it, running like Tom Cruise runs in every movie I have ever seen him in: fully committed.

I would catch this plane.

And I did. I leapt and grabbed hold of the flap and flap runner just inboard of the number two pusher prop. I swung my legs up and clinched down around the flap. I was now horizontal, head to the right, feet to the left, with my left leg and arm over the top of the wing, my right arm and leg below the wing, my face pressed against the top to the trailing edge of the flap as the aircraft accelerated toward the ocean.

As I looked back and down at the runway stripes appearing below the aft fuselage, I remember doing the calculations.

If I let go now, I will survive the fall.

I might break a leg.

I might even do some serious damage, but I will survive the fall.

I can hit with my feet, roll to my ankles, knees, and hip, tuck my shoulder and spread out the G-spike with a good parachute landing fall.

I have been trained for this.

The Army had taught me how to fall off the back of something big moving fast. I would survive.

And I remember making the reasoned decision to hold on. At that moment, the aircraft rotated and lifted off. And along with it me, a 45 year-old furry koala pencil clip clinging desperately the the inboard flap.

As the aircraft climbed away from the runway over the tall firs and cut back north of the runway, I realized what a stupid decision I had made.

As the sweat from the run evaporated on my skin, and the aircraft climbed into the ocean air, I realized that I was going to die. This was not a question of if, but when. The cause would be a horse race between freezing to death, running out of air, or falling off and plummeting to my death as the aircraft continued to climb and arced south toward San Diego. As we rounded the first turn and my body started to shake, it was Freezing to Death by a full length, largely because I was buck naked.

But there was hope.

Even though this was a cargo aircraft, there were people. Fortunate for me, the cargo was a standard shipping container carrying a Mad Men Sixties Art Deco apartment in which a Gatsby-esque party was in full swing.

The engine noise was deafening.

Because the left panel of the container was solid glass, and I could see the dance floor and golden glint from the orchestra instruments, I could see that there was music. But I couldn’t hear it.

And no one could hear me.

The champagne corks flew, fine crystal flutes clinked over white tablecloths and exotic centerpieces, the band played on, and I could see the sound, but all I could hear was engine noise and the slipstream rush of air.

I had to get someone’s attention, anyone’s attention. With all limbs fully engaged down to the last philange, I could only shake my head to call attention to myself and finally, I did.

A woman in a gold dress with golden hair and long white gloves spotted me, walked over to the window, and drew a drag from her cigarette at the end of its long black holder. She was surveying me and mouthed something. I was yelling, shaking my head wildly, trying to communicate something that should have been so obvious to her.

If she did not let me in, I was going to die.

As our impossible conversation continued others started to gather behind her. Now, I was a spectacle. The men with slick hair and tuxedos shrugged and held out their hands. The women in gold and white laughed and compared gloves.

What could the silly man on the wing possibly want?

And then I heard the bird.

A bird with a call exactly like my alarm clock shows up outside my window every morning and attempts to make contact with my alarm clock for the express purpose of mating with it.

Manti Teo is a small bird that has found its one true love in my alarm clock. Unfortunately for my wife and me, Manti believes that if he shows up early he will win my alarm clock’s heart. He is so invested in this idea that he has taken to showing up earlier and earlier.

This morning, he showed up at 4:22.

And my eyes shot open. And I was sure I was dead.

One beat is a long time in the afterworld. I clocked three full beats before I convinced myself that I was not dead, that I was not fighting for my life to break into a party where I was not wanted, that I was not falling to my death off in the Pacific off the Washington coast.

I was just waiting for bar results …

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