Do you remember your first time? I sure remember mine. And no, it’s not what you’re probably thinking right now. The year was 1955 when my Uncle Joe asked my parents if I could join him to visit my paternal grandparents in Pasadena California. For a 10-year-old fifth grader the notion of boarding a commercial airliner for the first time was an adventure of epic proportions. If you’re among the 90% of folks who don’t remember the 50s, let me just say that air travel back then was a bit different than it is today—it was actually a pleasurable experience.
I recall the episode well and in retrospect, it really didn’t make much difference if my uncle wanted to take me to California, Australia or Saturn for that matter, because they were all in pretty much the same category, i.e., places I knew existed but were so far away as to be somewhere between reality and the Twilight Zone.
Air travel in the 50s was exciting. Airports were upbeat, happy places, and for the most part, people were cheerful and the mood festive. It was common to see men wearing jackets, ties and sometimes even a fedora. Meanwhile, most women were dressed to the nines themselves. Cinched hourglass dresses were all the rage as were woolen suits with accompanying pillbox hats; meticulously applied makeup was standard fare and female apparel in general was that one might see when these ladies were dressed in their Sunday best.
There was no long-term and short-term parking; in fact, there was no parking hassle at all. And once inside the terminal there weren’t any lines cueing up for 20-minute waits going through the ever friendly and efficient TSA agents screening and pat downs for the simple reason that there weren’t any efficient TSA agents doing screenings or pat downs. No liquids in see-through bags and no removing belts or shoes; just friendly people excited about their upcoming travel
There were no jetways at Midway Airport (O’Hare wouldn’t become Chicago’s main airport for a few years yet) so when the boarding announcement came, we walked from the gate area across the tarmac to the airplane and then climbed the mobile stairway to board the aircraft.
I remember waiting my turn to climb up the movable stairway and being absolutely awed by the massiveness of the Douglas DC-4 that would whisk us non-stop to Los Angeles. (Flying non-stop was also a big deal in 1955.) Once inside the aircraft the “overhead” was a long open shelf—no compartments or latches, just a place to store soft items such as hats and coats. I think there were both smoking and non-smoking sections of the aircraft, although the non-smokers were limited to perhaps four rows in the back of the airplane. The 1950s meal service was akin to dining in a restaurant (albeit in a small space) versus the hog-feeder style of delivering meals that we see in the “Friendly Skies” today. Curiously, each dinner included a four-pack of Winston or Salem cigarettes, which of course my uncle quickly appropriated.
My most vivid memory of the flight occurred when we encountered turbulence about two hours out of Chicago. One of the stewardesses (yes, they were called stewardesses, not flight attendants) walked the aisle offering a reassuring smile to ease any fears the passengers may have. I recall asking her if she thought we would crash land—what the heck, I was 10 years old with a very active imagination. She smiled politely and demurred but suggested to my uncle that when the turbulence abated, she would take me to see the cockpit.
Meanwhile, my uncle had been reading a Vogue Magazine (don’t ask), as this was the era of, “Coffee, Tea or Me,” and a time when stewardesses patrolled the aisles asking if anyone wanted a magazine to read. And as we learned, our stewardess’ face graced the cover of that particular issue of Vogue. My uncle immediately struck up a conversation with her. In retrospect, I don’t think I had ever witnessed my uncle being so engaging with anyone; but this “stew” was a real looker, and even at 10-years old I recognized female pulchritude when I saw it.
After the turbulence subsided the stewardess walked me up to the cockpit, and words can’t describe how magical the moment was for me. I was spellbound flying at night and looking at the world 25,000 feet below, as what seemed like an endless array of dials, switches, and lighted instruments was mind-blowing to a 5th grader. And of course, being escorted to and from the cockpit by this spectacular looking stewardess was a memory not forgotten.
The balance of the flight was uneventful, except for my uncle glowing radioactive every time Miss Vogue Magazine walked by. But 50 plus years later the contrast between air travel then and now couldn’t be starker. So, for those too young to remember, it’s a shame you missed it because once upon a time air travel was actually an enjoyable experience and something to look forward to—my how things have changed.
Quote of the day: “Using an airport shuttle is the worst $20 you’ll ever save. It adds 90 minutes to whatever a Town Car or cab would have cost”—Adam Carolla