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.


About Cine

Real Estate Developer Author
This entry was posted in Independent women, Romance and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Never Ordinary Miss Earns Her Wings

  1. Sharon Thompson says:

    How fun to read your comments. I was in the summer 1968 Pan Am class. It has been in the back of my mind for over 40 years. Due to the upcoming show, I am doing alot of reflecting. Do you belong to World Wings?
    Sharon Thompson

    • Hello Sharon,
      Yes I was President of Miami Chapter until August 1, 2011, and handed the position over to a wonderful person to complete my term as I moved out of state. My book Hot Wings, with the tagline: The flying was great. The layovers were delicious is for sale. I will contact you by email. You should enjoy it immensely if you enjoyed this blog. Happy flying.
      Francine McGinnis

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