Must Be A Daydream.

1968

I have a few jitters.  This senior assignment falling to junior me is just too good, a real dreamy dream come true, a trip to Belize.  With a cup of fresh brewed coffee, I sit down to read the Miami Herald.  The newsprint becomes a blur as my mind drifts away on fragrant whiffs of coffee.  Newsprint transforms into little people; the people beckon me.  I want to follow.  I think about my flight to Belize this morning.

 

The little people are smiling and inviting me…so irresistible.  Mmm, I get lost on page two.  I find myself wandering with my new friends through jungles abundant with orchid blossoms, palm fronds, and lush ferns, and alive with swinging, flying crawling creatures.

My friends move with the grace of a summer breeze.  They are pointing something out to me; what, I can’t be sure.  It looks like a pyramid.  Music drifts on the balmy breeze from drums and flutes.  The music is so sweet, so melodic, so soothing.  I’m being presented to a beautiful tan prince clad in pounded gold necklaces and a silken skirt.  He is offering me a steamy brew.  Enraptured by the aroma, surrounded by it, drawn by it, I step forward reaching… reaching… and find… my cup is empty.  Oh!  I finished my coffee.  I’m running late.  The paper will have to wait.  I’m off to another place in another time.

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Never Ordinary Miss Earns Her Wings

Memoirs of a Pan Am Stewardess
The flying was great. The layovers were delicious.

In The Beginning

In the 1950s and 60s there were not many professions that offered women freedom for creative expression or stimulation for intellectual development.  A woman could be a secretary or assistant.  In 1968 a “ground job” was a passport to boredom.

Feminism began in the early 1960s in the United States first and spread around the world.  In theU.S., a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women found discrimination against women in the workplace and every other aspect of life, a revelation which launched two decades of prominent women-centered legal reforms (i.e. the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title IX, etc.) which broke down the last remaining legal barriers to women’s personal freedom and professional success.  Feminists took to the streets, marching and protesting, writing books and debating to change social views that limited women.

In 1963, Betty Freidan’s revolutionary book, The Feminine Mystique questioned the role of women in society, and in public and private life.  By 1966, the movement grew in size and power and women’s groups spread across the country and Friedan, along with other feminists, founded the National Organization for Women.  In 1968, “Women’s Liberation” became a household term.  For the first time, the new women’s movement eclipsed black civil rights movement.  This was the world I grew up in.  As my breasts developed and the coming of age event of getting one’s first bra came and went, I watched my developed, female, role models burn their bras.

60’ youth created a counter-culture that eventually turned into a social revolution as a reaction against the conservative social norms and stasis of the 1950s, the political conservatism (and social repression) of the Cold War period, and the US government’s extensive military intervention in Vietnam, women bolted.  The more social-cultural youth from the movement were called hippies. They created a new liberated stance for society, including the sexual revolution, questioning authority and government, and demanding more freedoms and rights for women, homosexuals, and minorities.  The door was open.  The adventurous among us chose to fly.

Up and Down

On my second trip, the thrust of the DC8 engines lift me off the earthly crust satisfying a life-long desire to fly.  My first flight gave me white knuckles and an upset stomach.  That first flight delivered me from the suburban humdrum of my Los Angeles neighborhood.  Goodbye silent sentinels of mature elms towering over perfect grids of neat, ranch style homes.  Hello humid, mysterious tropics.  Hello, swaying palms on meandering streets and winding canals.  Hello stewardess interview.

As a child those elms saved my life, providing escape from my parents’ world to my own fantasy world.  Leaving friend and foe below as I shinnied up the long trunk, I only looked down once upon breaching the lowest branches.  Through a dense web of ever narrowing branches I climbed higher and higher competing only with the birds for the most delicate limbs.  I won, but I envied those birds.  They could fly, and I could not.

In my elm I slip toward a daunting brown winger.  He waits, he waits, then a nanosecond before contact, he lifts off.  I track his flight.  His sleek body and wings form a vacuum against the gold halo of fiery sunset.  I promise myself one day I will fly.

From my perch I see my cozy family through bay front windows eating dinner.  I remain ensconced in my elm sky house.  I’m getting hungry, but it’s nearly heaven up here.  I watch the sun slide through its daily round, sinking first below the outlying foothills where a black bull roams, then below the irregular line of nearby rooftops.  I don’t notice my mother coming out of the house until she is standing below me, hands on hips.  She orders me, “Come down.”

Mom’s foreshortened body looks squashed, like a lady bug.  I say, “No,” rather too defiantly.  I add, “Get me down.”  She says, “You got yourself up there, now get yourself down.”  I tell her smugly, “I’m going to fly someday,” but she’s already halfway back to the house.

The family oral history retold many times by my twenty aunts and uncles, inform and remind me that my twin and I climbed to the hospital rooftop while our Mom was laboring to bring my little sister into this world.  They love to retail my most notorious escapade, climbing Uncle Al’s truck to dance on top in the rain.  Scaring them was quite a feat.  I sensed their fear.  I held their complete and undistracted attention.  This felt good.  I knew I was sure-footed.  They had no faith in me.  I had to prove to them I was capable.  All their coaxing did not bring me down.  I brought me down when tired of performing.  This ended as usual with a spanking.

I Can Fly

It’s December of 1967.  I’ve just turned twenty-one and completed two and a half years of college.  I draft, that is draw blue prints, part-time for my city’s civil engineer while attending college.  This is one of my dreams come true, designing welcoming, viable neighborhoods.  In 1967 a woman draftsman is still a rarity.  The reality is my boss sits down low at a desk, and I sit up high on a stool at my drawing board.  He looks up my skirt and has the audacity to joke about it.  I nurse daydreams of flying, flying the coop, flying high.  My

much a part of me as my freckles.  “Hi, I’m Francine, 5’5”, blonde, and dream of flying.”

I secretly mail out fourteen applications to airlines for interviews.  Only two of these airlines have a Los Angeles base.  I pray and wait.  I don’t have to wait long.  Interview dates pour in.  Within three months, I take the job with National Airlines, because on my first visit to Miami, I know this is paradise.

During my third week of an accelerated five-week training program, Pan Am invites me to its flight training school.  I waive the invitation.  A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, a lesson I learned long ago.

National wins the London route a few months after I start my flying.  I’m on my way -Tower of London, Harrods, Hyde Park, andLondon’s full nudity version of “Hair” onRussell Square, “glorious hair…”  My first flight took me to a successful interview with the airlines.  This second flight is an observation flight.  I don’t want to ask my superiors, “Is this for real?”  It’s better than my fantasy.  I’m getting paid to live a dream, getting paid for it.  I can fly.

The High

In January 1968, I began my professional career as a stewardess.  During training the senior instructor delved into the psychology of a stewardess.  She suggested we pursued more escape activity than an average person.  She said we probably fantasized and dreamed more.  She informed us we fulfilled this need for escape by the mere act of getting on a plane bound for faraway places.  She called it the Alice-in-Wonderland Syndrome.

Escape was the keyword.  Some have likened stewardesses to a modern-day breed of gypsies; they seek to wander; they seek to find adventure and romance.  I think we were trying to escape the daily routine and ennui that marked the life of 60s women.  We wanted life in potent doses.  We wanted wings.  Pan Am was the cure.  Flying was figuratively our opiate, literally our high.

Back up Loretta

In 1969 the Beatles’ hit “Get Back” said it all about a fictitious character they called Loretta who, “thought she was a woman, but she was another man” to get back to where she belonged.  Fete au complet.  Hippies didn’t have to take baths.  Men could be women.  Women could be whatever they wanted.

Taming of the Stew

In stewardess academy, we studied first aid, anti-terrorism techniques, how to deliver a baby.  We practiced evacuating planes.  We learned how to direct you out of the aircraft in an emergency, in several languages.  We learned how to fold napkins seventeen different ways, how to chill champagne properly.  We learned how to style our hair and navigate the narrow aisles in heels.  The airline, operated in paramilitary style, had codes of stewardess conduct which looked a million times stricter than anything I experienced in subsequent work places.

Only on their wedding day were most stewardesses as excited as on their graduation day from Pan Am Stewardess Training.  Within two days of graduation their greatest adventure began.  In my case, nine years after I became a stewardess for National Airlines, Pan Am and National merged.  I’m Pan Am.

High Flying

Here we are from props to jets, seven miles high, responsible for your comfort and safety, travelers of the world.  We demonstrate how to evacuate the aircraft in a mishap.  We fire up fresh coffee.  We cook.  We serve.  We turn down the lights.  We turn up the heat.  We tuck you in under those little blue blankets.

We have five hours before landing, three hours before the next meal service.  While our passengers dream peacefully, we swap stories.  The center of these swap sessions is the galley, the airplane kitchen.  Senior stewardesses dish out advice to juniors like, “Fly London during the yearly Harrods sale,” and fly “Maracaibo for the best grilled giant shrimp in Caribbean open air dinning.

Anything goes in mid-flight, mid-sky, mid-night sessions – destinations, men, and hot dates, the latest night clubs, restaurants, and bistros.  We wove daring and romantic tales entertaining ourselves.  Our spirits deviated on flights of fancy.  Our enthusiasm soared, hot, always red-hot.

Ce la vie, Nice

Ce la vie, Nice

And Now

My cohorts gave me large helpings of kindness and larger helpings of encouragement to explore awesome destinations.  They gave me a treasure of precious memories.

Most of our flights were at night, appropriately, like a dream world or Alice in Wonderland going down a chute and coming out the other end in a different world.  Not unlike the younger me climbing up a tree to touch sun rays and climbing down when the sun set, it was magic in the celestial hours of meridian crossings.

In the gracious tradition of Pan Am, I serve you a pastiche of high-flying romances, exotic adventures, and vintage recipes.  Now, sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight.

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La Dolce Vita – Pan Am Stewardess en stile Italiana

1968 From Zuppa to Nuts

In mod skirts hemmed somewhere above the knee and below the panty line, we sashay around the most magnificent shopping street in the world, Via Veneto in the heart of the Eternal City Rome.  Life is sweet for this fresh-faced threesome of world travellers, redhead Texas Patty, blonde New York Susie, and brunette California me.  Effortlessly Rome steals our breath and trounces our Vogue-mentored young-sophisticate air.  We stand awed and agog, living the dream, La Dolce Vita.

These are the not-so-serious-days before scheduled rounds of 26K marathons’ young women clad in jogging stretchies, contouring every gorgeous lean muscle, an intoxicating expose of femininity barely under wraps, a subterfuge, a quiet scream to, “Look at me; I’m beautiful.”  These are the days Vogue ruled, queen dictate of fashion.  These are the days none but a scant few privileged achieved a dreamy Italian vacation, an Italian leather designer handbag, a movie idol Italian guy, tall, dark, and handsome.  Heretofore, only movie stars and Red Cross nurses got these work privileges belonging to the aristocracy and gentry classes.  This was the beginning of a new class – a privileged American girl’s working class.  Someone had to explore the fantasies and taboos of adventure land.  We Pan Am stewardesses, the chosen few, did.

Eight months into my career as Pan Am stewardess, I earned free time to explore new worlds in-depth.  Shopping, always a good way to get your feet wet in the depths of a new country, gets first billing on our list of things to do today.  We shopped till we had tried on every dress, shirt and shoe on the Veneto, surrounded by beautiful people with uber chic coifs, professional makeup, chic skirts, and sandals – head to toe pricey.

Next depth to explore, cuisine.  The bewitching scents of a bistro draw us in, a coffee shop really, surprisingly serving not much but sandwich fare and coffee.  We ordered cheese sandwiches which came with freshly baked crusty little buttered rolls and rustic shaved slices of cheese, no exclusions, no exceptions, and a small cup of Zuppa di Pomodoro.  Famished, we quickly eat and drink, until our hunger’s appeased.  The cheese had layers of flavor, nutty, buttery, satisfying, and the soup, heavenly red velvet and spring all at once with earthy basil undertones.  I’ll never eat canned tomato soup again.  I look up for a nanosecond and notice people are eating almost in slow motion.  Strange, Italians drive like they are negotiating a raceway while in reality gridlocked, and eat slowly, lingering over the tastes, rolling them over the tongue, sipping, smacking their lips, savoring like it’s the last meal, even when famished.  Had we American’s gotten our behaviors all wrong?

Sated from our brief repast, we head for Borghese Gardens, which, how can I describe them – romantic, peaceful, classical?  Wished I had strolled with a lover and not two girlfriends who were losing interest in ancient sites.  Patty wanted to skip the touring and go to the next depth of exploration – men.  I wanted to miss nothing.  Susie wants to go home, not the hotel, but to America!  Navigating the unending, unwieldy serpentine of Fiat 500’s (look like comic book cars) traffic with its choking fumes could have been distracting to a few, but not me.  I’m living, and breathing, touching, seeing, smelling, eating my dream, caught up in an opera of horn honking, Italian patois shouting, fountain splashing, shopping bag shuffling, newspaper crunching, foot traffic scuffling milieu, against a back drop of ancient structures each telling its long story, like a wrinkled grandparent.

Obviously we three were not sharing the same dream.  All Susie could see was dirt and noise.  I suggested the ancient beauty of the buildings was in its patina, the varying shades of zucchini greens and sunset oranges.  She said, “I cannot stand the filthy buildings and the filth everywhere.  I want to go home.”  Alas, not even in 1968 were all young women restless adventurers.  What else can I say?  We talked Suzie into staying for a second day, but more persuasively there was not a flight out for another day.  While Suzie returned to our hotel, Patty and I, relieved to cut loose a downer, searched out a club.  We had heard all about the fun of Italian clubs.  Texas Patty could drink anyone anywhere under the table, was alternately thirsty, or looking for a restroom to pee.  I’ve been lectured about using the expression to pee, but if you knew Patty, she would tell you I got it right.

We walk to a section of Rome hosting great night clubs.  On the way, some Italian guys, notorious for eyeing the skirted pedestrian tourists, like a jeweler eyes a gem for perfection are doing just that.  They stop and ask us if we are Red Cross nurses.  I laugh.  No, Pan Am.  (One looked like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, even before there was a Rocky.  This is 1968 and Rocky was the hit rags to riches hunky movie of 1976.  Who wouldn’t trust Rocky Balboa?)  His smile and those devilish eyes are game.  We play Italian polo with these guys for a while.  We say no, they say yes, we say no.  Basta, enough.  They talk us into going to club Bibliotheca, which translates to The Library…but not directly.  We climb into their mini car.  It reminds me of how many people can you stuff in a phone booth.  Yes, I’m a phone booth generation.  Don’t see those any more.  I would like to buy a European phone booth and place it in front of my bathroom door, so you have to pass through it on the way to doing your business, but I digress.

Patty and I trust these strange Italians.  They are part of our dream wish-fulfillment.  We drive for quite a while.  I say it looks like we are leaving the city, and I want to go back.  One in the back seat says he’s taking us on a tour first.  We drive up an unlit hill.  They tell us to get out.  I don’t feel like these clowns are going to rape or kill or rape and kill.  So what are we doing here?

I don’t have to wait long to find out.  We are in the largest cemetary of Rome.  Not on the tourist map.  The taller of the guys says we are naughty girls, and Italians know that only hookers, Red Cross nurses, and Pan Am stewardesses walk un-chaperoned on the streets alone and go to clubs alone to be picked up.  Wow, that’s a mouthful!  He says this is our punishment for being out after dark unchaperoned.  I tell him in the USA we are nice girls, and he would be called a jerk.  I tell Patty this is some weird Italian joke, as they drive away leaving us in the graveyard.  Patty starts whining.  I tell her to shut up and immediately start down the hill.  We run down the hill as if the dead will rise and give chase when we see the little car backing up the hill.  The driver stops and  says we learned our lesson and get in.  We get in the car again.

These guys drop us off at the club, but leave saying they have to go home to have dinner with the parents.  I translate this to dinner with mommy.  What hypocrites.  So, Patty and I are happy in a rocking disco, dancing and drinking fancy no-name party drinks, and these guys show up again about an hour later.  They sit with us, dance with us, and they pay the bill like gentlemen.  They drive us back to our pensione with the warning that the mama will be angry with us and drive away not before giving us a sweet innocent kiss.

Now I know all I need to know about Italian men.  They are kids at heart, playing life’s game for fun.  They just happened to be handsome.  I wonder at the time what Susie will think.  The pensione mama yells at us, gives us the evil eye shaking her finger.  I’m not sure who was scarier, the guys leaving us in the graveyard or this mad mama.  I quickly decide it’s mad mama.  Surprisingly, one thing saves us.  We made friends with another young woman, an ebony beauty who knows the rules, on the flight over who is staying here.  She knows the mama, speaks Italian, and intervenes on our behalf.  Lady Luck,   lesson learned.  All cultures are different, so adjust.  Mad mama, graveyard, Borghese Gardens, Zuppa Pomodoro, oh my, and we’re just getting started.  We have another day in Rome before Spain and England.  Our friend says it’s stricter in Spain.  Forewarned is forearmed.   I’d say it’s a sweet life, la dolce vita.

Here is my recipe for tomato soup concocted with my taste buds directing.

                                                                             Buon appetito

  • Zuppa di Pomodoro
  • 2½ pounds fresh ripe solid tomatoes, parboiled, peeled, seeded, chopped to ¼-inch dice
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 12 leaves of fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 2 T fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 T tomato paste
  • 3 T olive oil
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1 Recipe Tostato Parmigiano
  • Cut a little X in the tomato skin.  Parboil tomatoes for one minute.  Remove tomatoes from boiling water with slotted spoon.  Dunk in ice water so skins can be removed easily.  When chopping tomatoes, most seeds will fall loose; those that cling can be included with tomatoes.
  •  Sauté garlic in olive oil in a large pan for 5 minutes, then discard garlic.  Add basil, let it sauté for one minute until wilted.  This releases more of the flavor.  Add tomatoes, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and tomato paste.  Stir paste into tomato mix until dissolved.  Add broth.  Cover the pan and bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, taste for seasoning.  This makes a clear but textured soup.  If a non-textured soup is preferred, cool the soup and puree it in blender.  Serve with Toast.
  • One recipe produces 4 main course servings or 8 side servings.
Posted in Adventure, Coming of age in a time of changes with the Beatles, Pan Am, Romance, Travel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

So, who is that Pan Am stewardess?

“Who do your passengers think you are” asked one of my co-workers.  It was my first working flight to Santiago, Chile.  The working crew consisted of a Santiagan, a Southern belle, a Texas jock, a New Yorker, a German, and several Cubanistas gently dubbed the Cuban Mafia.  Working together like a well constructed corset, the senior ladies prodding the newbie, the public never got a wiff of my newness.  By the end of the flight I had earned the respect of my co-workers.  My Italian surname qualified me, according to the mafia, to join.  They made me an honorary member of the Cuban mafia.  To seal the deal, they henceforth called me by my surname, Restivo.

Home training got me to flight school.  My mother did the trench work, grooming me to become a polite team worker without surfieting the ability to think on my feet while my head was in the clouds.  Training school taught me to maneuver in small compact galleys and narrow isles aloft while soothing and serving passengers needs and whims, and never ever taking a watchful eye off the safety conditions of the cabin.  The senior stews taught me usefull tricks like placing a pillow pack of coffee inside the coffee pot in addition to one pillow pack in the coffee maker itself on the South American routes for real coffee.  South Americans appreciate a full bodied coffee, not the watered down American version.  The pretty Latina stewardesses also taught me how to walk with a little swivel in my hips.  These important subtleties guided my new life. I took them seriously.

Crew enjoying a three-day layover in Nice.                                          Crew enjoying a three-day layover in Nice, France

Now that you are clear on who our passengers think we are, let me guide you through an alternate consciousness.  A voice from the hither region of my soul rises up to inform me.  Outwardly I knew my place and was that person all my passengers wanted me to be.    Secretly, I had a couple goals of my own.  I wanted to be a jet setter even before that term existed and to snag a loving husband.  Our training stuck; we kept our  lipstick fresh,  seams straight, and the coffee hot.

That is what I was trained to do at the academy.  Everything else came from “work experience.”  I wish someone had warned me to never leave my uniform jacket in sight of passengers in the cabin while working in my navy blue service apron.  Certain Brazilian, stylish women love military-style insignias, especially Pan Am jackets with insignias and wings.  I did see a couple women admiring my jacket on a nice hanger behind my jumpseat where it would not get wrinkles.  Well, it disappeared before my preparation for landing, when the crew changed back into a full suit. Yes, the jacket had disappeared into thin air, or a stylish woman’s handbag.

So who do our passengers think we are?  Pretty.  Smart.  Nice.  I can tell you my co-workers were focused, gave the best service in first class and coach, played hard on exotic layovers, and caught the best husbands.  Today, many participate in philanthropic societies, serving the needs of humanity.  I visit these former stewsardesses, still gracious, beautiful and giving, in their mansions and homes, still aware of the world out there, the world Pan Am introduced us to.

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A Big Fish Tale – Even a Pan Am Stewardess takes a day off.

 1967

My dream to fly came true many years ago.  I interviewed with 14 airlines, but my heart was with one, Pan Am, and I know it gets no better than that.

1982

Tonight, while passengers sleep somewhere between Greenland and London, 7 miles high, we stewardesses entertain ourselves swapping stories fireside style, except we’re in the coach galley with the curtains closed.  Instead of pulling up logs, we pull out tray containers and sit down.  Sometimes we’ve bogarted little blue blankets at the beginning of the flight to use now.  The stories begin.  Usually a senior stew shares a tale of boldness, breaking out as it were, from her 1950’s straight laced upbringing.  While she’s at it, she throws in some travel and shopping tips, like when Harrod’s summer sales starts, an event not to be passed by.  There are mundane notices like how to wrap a bottle of champange to pack in your overnight bag for a layover hotel crew party.  There are exciting notices like where and when to meet for crew outings.  As we galley talk our circle includes a wild fish tale, true, of course.  Thus is the nature of midnight, mid-Atlantic entertainment in a atime before inflight movies.

1983

Here’s my fish tale.

It’s mid 1980s, a lazy June day in Miami.  These are the good old days when Miami is a quiet fishing village for the wealthy, northern industrialists.  This is before Miami develops her world-class, tropical Riviera, South Beach.  These are the days before partying jet setters and dubious celebs flaunt their booties and samba all night in the clubs stretching from 1st to 14th along Ocean Blvd.

My husband Austin is invited to go scuba diving with “the boys” out near Fowey Rock’s Lighthouse in Biscayne National Park, informally called Fowey Light.  The lighthouse is interesting, akin to the Eiffel Tower, a skeletal, iron structure.  The park is a marine expanse of aqua bays extending from Key Biscayne on the north to Key Largo on the south where it flows into John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.  It encompasses the third longest coral reef in the world.  It is paradise with water temperatures never dropping below sixty-three degrees, and the depths never dropping below 200 feet.

The plan is Sam, a client/friend of Austin’s for the last three years, is coming by after lunch with his boat, his long time, loyal friend and company officer, his teenage son and his son’s friend, to pick up Austin.  The boys are aiming for anchoring off a buoy near Fowey Rocks, called Fowey Rocks Lighthouse for some good spear fishing.  Here, lazy sea lions nap on the supports of the light while porpoise play games breaking water and crashing through again.  Reef snapper are the prime catch here.  It’s all about sun, water, sport, and relaxing.

It looks like I’m going to be a weekend widow, again.  Half of me is jealous that the boys are going, and I’m not.  The other half of me is glad to get hubby off my hands for a few hours.  I’m feeling a little queasy.  I missed my period.  I may be pregnant.  It’s too early to know.  If I am, it will be our first.  I say nothing of this to Austin.  I want to be sure.  Just to cover all my bases I ask Austin, “Is Ann going?”  Ann is Sam’s wife.  He answers, “No.”  But he knows me well, and I see he takes my question for the hint it is.  We only swim a mile every night together, snorkel, scuba, water ski, and sail.  Of course I want to come along.  He says nothing.

Sam and friends arrive with boat in tow.  Austin asks Sam if there is room for one more.  Sam looks at me, says, “Yes.”  Smooth, Austin.  I change into my bathing suit and cover up with shorts.  I jump into the car with five guys.  I don’t have time to feel odd being the only female.

We drop the boat into the water at the Matheson Hammock docks and ease out of the channel.  As soon as we clear the last marker Sam shoves the throttle full speed.  These guys are in a hurry to get on their spot near the lighthouse which means they have to pass through the cut at Soldiers Key on a high tide.  The salty spray hits me in the face, hard.  It’s like being blasted with a fire hose.  Sam tells me to sit in the back.  The back is not much better.  The side spray from the boat inundates me.  I have to gulp for air.  I don’t complain.  I’m one of the guys.

At Sam’s favorite buoy we throw the anchor over.  While the guys don their gear, Sam informs me there are five air tanks.  I sit out while the boys drop over the side into the watery paradise.  Abandoned again, I stare at the gorgeous water trying to spot dolphins known to cavort around here.  A few sluggish sea lions nap on the buoy, nothing else.

The boys have enough air for an hour, and I get bored with the sea lions.  The water picks up a little chop, just enough to make me uncomfortable.  The sun blasts down.  I left in such a hurry, I forgot sun screen.  Forty minutes pass with me getting direct and reflective sunlight.  I’m sunburned, queasy, and need to pee badly.  I have a stomach ache.  I talk to myself.  I sing to myself.  A sea-lion lifts his big head and eyes me for a listless minute.  I stop and he drops his head down.  “I’m angry, too,” I tell Mr. Sea Lion.  Five more minutes tick off in slow motion.  I close my eyes.  When I open them, the bright sun halos a many-tentacled silhouette.  Either the boys returned, maybe I dozed off, or this is a sea apparition.  I shade my eyes.  It’s the boys.  They are all happy and grab beers, offering me one.  Yuk.  I don’t need a beer.  I need to pee.

Sam tells me there are still 15 minutes left in his tank; why don’t I take a turn.  Austin concurs.  Gee, thanks, guys.  “No thank you,” I politely refuse.  I see Austin’s face and know that look means take the hospitality offered from his friend/big client.  I say, “You know, Sam, on second thought that sounds like a great idea.”  I don flippers.  I ask hubby if he wants to join me.  He gives me his Texas, “Uhn-uh.”  He can’t swim for another 15 minutes?

I’ll show the boys.  I’ll turn 15 minutes of air into a half hour of diving.  I’ll stay down until I run out of oxygen.  I can surface on an empty tank from 30 feet, no problemo.  Austin and Sam’s friend help me on with the tank, and I plop backwards overboard into the pure, soothing, aqua water.  Funny thing, probably a primordial affect, the water always calms me.  I immediately and greatly feel better.  One, I relieve myself.  Two, I don’t suffer the rocking motion of the boat.  Now I change my strategy to just enjoy.

I’m down about 20 feet.  In the first 10 minutes I spot funnel sponges, round sponges, parrot fish, snapper, and an eel.  It’s so peaceful down here.  I look for lobsters in the rock crannies, and scan the bottom for movement indicating manta rays.  The rippled sandy bottom is rhythmic and calms me further.  Meditative state arrives quicker than a two-syllable mantra.  I head toward deeper water.  The current is weak, so swimming is easy.  I see something move out of the corner of my eye.  My adrenalin shoots into overdrive.  I scan 360º.  Nothing.  Perhaps a quick-moving cumulus cast a dark shadow over the water.

I resume swimming and sight-seeing.  Sightseeing, I chase a school of parrot fish.  In their rainbow skins, they are either a thing of beauty or a gaggle of clowns.  Either way, they are bad eating.  No one catches them.  There’s another cumulus shadow, I think, a vision like when a wisp of hair blows into your peripheral vision.  Water can bend light rays and distort size and shape.  I look around again.  If it’s a vision, it’s 3-D.  About 40 yards southeast of my position and moving southwest is a black behemoth.  I do not believe this.

I know nothing about whales.  I didn’t know they came to Florida.  I know about sharks.  If a shark is passing, remain still.  The shark just wants to get from point A to point B.  I try my shark survival strategy on the whale.  I tread minimally.  I’ve done some crazy animal things in my life and never thought for my safety.  When I was seven, my friends dared me to touch the bull grazing in the pasture.  I climbed through the fence and crept toward the bull.  I thought I could get about a quarter of the way to the bull and still outrun him back to the fence and safety if I had to and still win the dare.  Then there was the camel in Israel-yes, I rode a camel on a dare.  I almost fell off as he was heaving his weight up off his knees.  The whale is slow and graceful.  She’s like a train, just keeps coming, and I’m waiting for the end.

My heart pounds like a pow wow drum announcing war.  I think she’s drawn to the sound of my heartbeat.  I’m scared.  I need to get out of here.  I swim as fast as I can, away, away from my whale, huh, my whale, like my puppy, dogging me.  I have many medals from my swim team days, medals I won for beating women my size, my age.  I realize I can’t out swim this gigantic whale in her ocean.  I keep swimming in the opposite direction of her course.  I go up toward the surface and east toward the boat while glancing around and behind.

She’s back and swimming toward me.  I freeze.  Although she doesn’t look fierce, what do I know of fierce?  I’m thinking she’s coming from out at sea, a sea monster, toward me.  What to do, what to do.  I’m thinking about the depth below me, maybe 15 feet?  I wonder if she can squeeze through the shallows.  I keep swimming to shallower water hoping she’ll get stuck.  This can’t be happening.  I don’t want to hurt animals.  I don’t want animals to eat me.

I look around.  She’s slow, smooth, face on, ten feet away and steady on her course.  I suck in a gulp of tank air, maybe my last.  I hope she doesn’t suck in a gulp–of me.  I look her in the eye.  I’m thinking her eye is as big as me.  She’s 5 feet away.  She makes a left turn, smooth, like the curve of a scoop of chocolate ice cream.  She’s back on her southwesterly course.  I swim for the boat.  This time, I don’t look and I don’t stop until I’m at the boat.

I break water screaming, “Get me out.  There’s a whale!”  Sam’s son and his friend yank me out of the water with such force that I clear the edge by a foot.  I am freckled, sunburned, wet with wild hair, and shaking.  The guys stare at me disbelieving.  Beyond the boat, the water is fairly calm, no churning, no sea monsters, just sea lions napping comfortably to the bob and sway of the buoy, like children tucked safely in their cradle.

The guys give my husband sympathy glances.  There are whole conversations in those glances.  Finally, Sam tellsAustinhesitantly, “Well, I’ve always known your wife to be level headed.” Austin asks me, “What color is the whale?”  I look at my husband like, you too, and answer, “Black.”  Sam says it’s too shallow for whales.  I tell him I know.  He offers me another 15 minute tank.  I tell him no thanks.

Guys…tell so many fish stories, they think they’ve heard another one-one told by, a woman, a hell hath no furry woman, even worse, a novice storyteller.  Where’s the struggle?  Where’s the fight?  Where’s the danger?  I fume.  This is real.

I am scared.  No way I’m going back in the water.  What does fear look like to five big fat lying guys, with beers?

On our return, I endure the boys’ harsh scrutiny, even more pitiful than the misery of hard hitting, stinging, saltwater spray, like on the trip over, only worse.  I have chills from the sunburn.  The boys explain me away as crazy from dehydration.

TWO DAYS LATER

I’m cooking dinner.  Sam calls and asks if we have the news on.  He tells Austin a reporter is standing on a beach due north of our anchorage at Fowey Light.  Next to him is a sixty-foot, black right whale.  She beached herself to die.  I have no satisfaction in being right.  I looked into the eye of a whale and survived.  I wonder if now is a good time to tell Austin he’s going to be a daddy.

By my calculations, the baby will be a Pisces.

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Hello world!

2011

The world has changed, offering a wealth of opportunities for young women with aspirations and dreams.  Travel isn’t a question of “Can I?” or “Will I?” but how often and how far?  The next great leap is outer space.  I hope I’m around for passenger passport to the yet uncharted galaxies.

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