Travel by air should be a time of leisure; a chance to escape your humdrum worries.
—1950’s airline promotion, National Air Science Museum
When I was growing up a plane trip was a big deal. Our family went by car or train when we traveled. So my sister and I were over the moon when Mom told us we were going to fly to California for our vacation! Dad bought our tickets at Trans World Airlines. (They flew all over the world!) The tickets were booklets of carbon copies.
We were going to Hollywood! (I was named for a movie star, Barbara Stanwyck.) Newsreels at the movies showed famous stars putting their hand-prints in cement at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Roy Rogers’ horse, Trigger, put his footprints there. I couldn’t wait to see that. Uncle Barry promised a VIP tour of a movie studio (Mom said that meant Very Important People—exciting, right?), and a visit to Schwab’s Drugstore, too, because “that’s where the stars hang out.” Imagine: I could sit at the soda fountain sipping a milkshake right next to Doris Day or Gene Kelly!
We wore our Sunday best for the trip: matching white dresses with cherries all over, Peter Pan collars and circle skirts, plus red felt hats and black patent Mary Janes. (I remember that dress; when I outgrew mine I got Julie’s.) Mom wore a twirly navy dress, a hat with peacock blue feathers, nylon stockings and high-heeled shoes. The ladies (including me) wore white cotton gloves with pearl buttons. Dad wore his best suit and hat. Mom, Dad, my sister Julie (12) and me (8) packed two leather suitcases and a folding Val-Pak with clothes on hangers. Grandpa drove us to the airport in his wood-paneled station wagon. One man wearing a red cap opened our doors and took our luggage; another parked the car. We went through a revolving door (I went around twice). Then we walked over to a lounge just for TWA Ambassador Club members like Dad. We could have whatever food and drinks we wanted, and watch TV. Waiters in fancy uniforms asked if there was anything they could get for us. That was the Ritz! I had no idea how important Dad was until then.
Grandpa walked us to the gate. He stayed until we boarded the plane. He was proud of Dad for taking his family to California to see Uncle Barry, Aunt Blossom, and our cousins. (We’d heard they had orange trees in their yard; I wanted to pick one.) Grandpa had never seen Uncle Barry’s house. He and Grandma never left Chicago. Dad bought a movie camera so we could show them everything after the trip.
The airplane’s four engines had blades called propellers that could spin like fans. TWA was painted in huge red letters on the white plane, with matching red stripes on three parts they called tails. Dad splurged on first class so we climbed up the front staircase. Our row had four cushy armchairs, two on each side. Each seat had a TWA towel attached to the top and a button next to the ashtray to push if you needed anything. The lady who greeted us hung Dad’s jacket in the closet. She gave us kids silver wings pins like the one on her cap.
I got stuck sitting with Julie. Luckily the trip was fast: only seven hours from Midway Airport to Los Angeles Grand Central Airport! (Dad said the plane went over 300 miles per hour; he knew stuff like that.) If we’d taken the Santa Fe Super Chief, Julie and I would’ve had to share a bunk bed (the train trip took 40 hours). Those curtain-draped bunks may look like fun in the movies, but I wouldn’t have slept a wink. Julie’s a bed hog.
Sometimes the Captain made announcements, like when we were over the Grand Canyon. I actually saw it! I couldn’t wait to tell my teacher. He said there were 73 passengers. (There were 12 in our section. I couldn’t see the ones in back.) TWA flies a million people a year. Can you believe it?
The lady waitresses were called stewardesses and looked like beauty pageant winners wearing sky blue uniforms and big smiles. (I wondered about being a stewardess someday.) They brought the grown-ups cocktails in tiny bottles with little packs of Lucky Strikes. We pretended to smoke our chocolate cigarettes like fancy ladies. Our stewardess opened a little table at each seat and brought meals on trays with placemats, silverware and cloth napkins. Julie and I had fried chicken for dinner; Mom and Dad had steak. Kids got Dixie Cups of ice cream at lunch and dinner. Any time we got hungry or bored, lickety-split a stewardess brought snacks or decks of cards. Once when it got bumpy Julie tossed her cookies; there were bags at each place for that. A stewardess helped her like it was no bother (that job wasn’t for me).
I liked the cute little bars of soap in the bathroom, and snuck one out. Dad took a nap but I couldn’t. When I got tired of my Bobbsey Kids book and Archie comics, I made Julie play I Spy or the alphabet game. We played jacks between the rows but the ball kept rolling away.
When we were landing, I heard a loud scary noise. Dad said it was the wheels coming down. It got bumpy and noisy, then that was that: we were on the ground. The captain drove the plane like a car, stopping a short walk from the airport. I could see my cousins’ faces looking out the airport windows. Some men rolled a staircase up to the plane. Then presto! We walked down the steps and our family rushed out to hug us.
After that trip I wondered what airplanes would be like when I grew up. I thought they’d be superfast, and have big comfy seats that turned into beds.
In 2010, Barbara Rady Kazdan founded Achieving Change Together to advise and connect social entrepreneurs, tapping 30 years of non-profit leadership. In her "encore career," this SIlver Spring, Maryland, grandmother writes personal essays and memoir. Her work has appeared in Contagious Optimism,10 Habits of Truly Optimistic People, BetterAfter50.com, and NextAve.org.