Last night I watched ABC’s new show “Pan Am” starring Christina Ricci, Margot Robbie and Kelli Garner. I don’t watch new programs too often. It’s like meeting new people and deciding whether to take them into your life. My only must-see show at the moment is “NCIS.”
But the trailers for “Pan Am,” which airs at 10 p.m. Sunday nights, brought me back to my ’60s-era youth when the role of women was about to change – and me with it.
When the main female characters, sisters Laura (Robbie) and Kate (Garner) were introduced as properly brought up Connecticut suburban girls – OMG! That was me! I recognized the clothes, hairstyles and make-up at the wedding reception. And it’s gutsy when beautiful Laura becomes a runaway bride and decides to become a Pan Am stewardess. Her sister Kate, who drives the getaway car, is already a Pan Am stewardess and a spy, but that’s another issue. The sight of their properly dressed mother screaming after them was symbolic. There was a life that was mapped out for us girls – college, marriage, children and suburban wifedom. Why would anyone want to throw all that away?
No, I didn’t run away from my wedding. But I will admit now, so many years later, I secretly always wanted to be a stewardess. I figured if I used my high school French I could fly Pan Am and go to Europe and see all those countries I had only read about. I read a book in high school about a girl who spent her junior year abroad and went to the Sorbonne – wow! But I never did it. I stayed in Connecticut.
But I really wanted to fly on Eastern Airlines. I would need my college Spanish, since back then they flew to Florida and South America. I imagined lots of beach time between flights. Actually, the reason I wanted Eastern was because their uniforms were cuter and shorter. It was a more politically incorrect time. National Airlines would use a picture of an attractive stewardess in an ad, and the tag line was, “I’m Cheryl, Fly Me.” The airlines were the hot corporate entities of that era, much like tech companies are today.
Being a stewardess was about looking cute, smiling and being a waitress. But it was also about going to other countries on your own, meeting new people and having a career.
I remember when I mentioned my stewardess dreams to my brother-in-law he was shocked.
“You’re in college, when you finish you could be a Vice President of an airline. Why do you want to be just a stewardess?” he cried.
Thinking back on that comment tells me two things. First, the women’s liberation movement was not far enough along for a man to think of me as the President of the airline. Also, many thought that passing out drinks and pillows was not considered a job for an educated woman.
On last night’s show it was clear the girls were smart and had to have language skills. But the requirements regarding their looks were severe. It is true Pan Am insisted their girls wear girdles and get weighed before a flight. I wouldn’t have minded wearing a girdle, which was common in those days. But I would dread the weigh-in! The show illustrated how women were judged on their looks. So, what else is new? Girls were suspended for uniform mistakes or being overweight.
I thought the ABC program did a credible job evoking the year 1963. Flying was exotic. Passengers got dressed up for each flight. If you look at how current passengers in coach or First Class dress you’ll see how drastically that changed. Today, everyone wears their most comfortable clothes and shoes.
For girls in 1963 being a stewardess represented a dream job. It was a chance to travel, wear cute outfits and meet handsome businessmen. Many stewardesses met their future husbands that way. However, as the episode portrayed, some were hurt by those handsome businessmen who neglected to mention their marital status.
I regret I didn’t become a stewardess, even if only for few years. It would have been fun. It seemed like fun until that beautiful Tuesday morning ten years ago.
It was perfect flying weather on Sept. 11, 2001. The sky was so blue. But now when we hear the voice of flight attendant Betty Ong on American Airlines Flight 11 it haunts us. I can’t help watching the 9/11 documentaries every year. It is bearing witness. She was so calm and professional trying to tell her American Airlines ground personnel what was happening on the hijacked plane. At one point the ground personnel keep calling her name and she doesn’t answer. They had no way of knowing that Flight 11 had slammed into the World Trade Center. Betty Ong was doing her job right up to the last moment.
Times have changed. Stewardesses are called Flight Attendants now. They are considered Safety Officers first, not waitresses. We have lost our innocence about flying. But “Pan Am” brings us back to 1963 for one hour at a time. It’s been revealed now that the State Department did use some Pan Am stewardesses as operatives. But believe me, at the time that was not the reason young girls wanted to fly.
It was for adventure, excitement and the idea of flying away from home and being free.