Saturday, March 3, 2012

Friendly Skies

I was once a stewardess with United Airlines, and you can thank Annette Funicello.

Well, not really, but I was a devotee of the Mickey Mouse Club, in fact I remember the very day it first aired in 1955, and Mouseketeer Annette did a segment where she visited an airline and learned what it took to become a stewardess. To us youngsters (I was about 10), it seemed a glamorous job—the perky uniform, the travel, the opportunity to greet and serve interesting passengers.

Fast forward to Chicago, August 1966, and find me enrolled in stewardess school at United’s campus in suburban Des Plaines, Illinois, studying the cabin configurations of various equipment: DC-6, Boeing 727, Caravelle, etc. Mockups of their galleys showed us where to “find coffee, tea, or milk.” We practiced CPR on rubber dummies. We learned how to evacuate passengers in case of an unanticipated landing (if they won’t leap onto the inflated slide, stick ‘em with your hat pin!). We rehearsed making opening speeches about the little face masks that would drop down in case of a sudden decompression. We went up in a training plane and experienced steep banking (like wearing a lead bodysuit) and zero gravity (all the ashes and cigarette butts in the armrest ashtrays rose skyward). We were shown video commercials that made our breasts swell with pride and company loyalty.

All that was just the technical preparation for stewhood. Paralleling the classroom instruction (which we all smoked our way through, including the instructors, cough, cough) was The Big Makeover. Consultants helped us personalize and apply a professional makeup. We were weighed and measured to be certain our bodies complied with regulations. We were professionally fitted for foundation garments and uniforms. The message: United wanted us to look professional.

The subtext: We were sex objects! In those days—it seems barbaric in retrospect—you could not be married and be a stewardess. We had to maintain an aura of availability around United customers. Girls with live-in boyfriends or, God forbid, husbands had to be careful lest they be outed when United phoned them at home and heard a male voice on the line. I spent a memorable layover in Portland with a dreamy-eyed girl anticipating her wedding the following week, which would have to remain a deep dark secret from her employer.

The way things worked, we stews bid on monthly schedules and were awarded flights based on seniority. A newbie flying out of Chicago, I got the milk runs all over the midwest: Grand Rapids, Akron/Canton, Moline/Rock Island/Davenport, Allentown/Bethlehem, to name a few. The most senior girls might fly to the coast and back twice a week and have the rest of the days off; I always thought it would be a great career for an artist or writer, keeping bread on the table but leaving time to create. Every third month, even we newbies had an opportunity to fly to the big cities: Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and Denver. For this month we would be “on standby,” waiting for the call to substitute for a stew whose flight was delayed, who came down sick, whose uniform did not make it back in time from the cleaners, and so forth. Sometimes this meant subbing for more senior stews on their choicer flights.

That’s how I came to be celebrating my 21st birthday at Disneyland all by my lonesome (discounting the mobs of families with little children and teen couples on dates). Taking over for somebody on a flight to the coast, I had a day’s layover in LA, and chose to spend it at the Magic Kingdom. Here I was, finally legal to drink, but just try to find a cocktail lounge at Disneyland—it wasn’t going to happen!

Life at the “stew zoo” on West Higgins Road was exciting, with nonstop partying around the apartment complex where many airline personnel and other singles resided. I remember ending several festive evenings with steak and eggs at 2:00 a.m. I shared a room with Phyllis, a stew from my class who had been a dancer and Las Vegas showgirl before taking on this gig. Neither of us owned a car and had to call taxis to take us to O’Hare. Returning to the apartment was always dicey—cab drivers hated us for being the short-trip fare in a line of travelers seeking rides all the way into downtown Chicago.

My most painful moment as a stewardess: The time I came down with strep throat mid-circuit and had to recuperate in an airport motel in Philadelphia, croaking my hot tea orders to room service. I remember a particular sandwich order vividly; they made it up on toasted bread—I saw stars when trying to swallow.

My most embarrassing moment: The time I received my hotel wakeup call and put my head back down on the pillow and completely missed my flight! I had to deadhead back to Chicago later that day, tail between my legs. Come to think of it, that happened in Philadelphia as well. Bad news, that Philadelphia!

In the seven months I flew for United, I did indeed greet and serve interesting passengers. Aretha Franklin and her band flew with us out of Detroit; she was tiny then, and the bass fiddle warranted a seat of its own. One time Jets quarterback Joe Namath, giant rings on his fingers, sat in first class with his personal assistant, looking over a Time magazine feature about himself, and invited me and my fellow stew to “come visit him any time” in his New York apartment. I held hands and prayed with a little old lady flying for the very first time. I accompanied a boisterous Little League team and their chaperones on a Christmas day jaunt to Florida; when the pilot got on the mic and announced “there’s Cape Canaveral on the left,” EVERYBODY got up out of their seats to peer out the lefthand windows, and I swear the plane tilted with the sudden weight change.

I gave up all this excitement to get married, which I did on March 25, 1967. Years later, I was invited to become a party to a class action suit lodged against United on behalf of all those stews who were terminated because they got married. I opted out, acknowledging the truth that I left of my own free will to move to another town and march down the aisle.

I had always known my path would lead, not to a career in the friendly skies, but to my chosen life role: the supportive woman behind the great man. My poor unsuspecting husband! 

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