Howard, the "first born of a first born," and the oldest of 5 children, was a Pan Am pilot, a Skygod. His early history reveals that he was often embarrassed about the meager living his father made, and was always striving to become the best at everything he attempted. He remembers being embarrassed that he had holes in the soles of his shoes. His mother was known as a "beauty," but she was often ill and depressed, and he seems to have had a great need to take care of her and make her proud. Howard was awarded an athletic and academic scholarship to college, where he was accepted into the "best" fraternity, and then was accepted into the Navy where he flew the "best" airplanes, and, of course, became a pilot for the "best" airline.
Howard describes his attachment to Pan Am as part of a grandiose group: "I just wanted to be part of the best. I never did have a negative emotion about Pan Am until we went out of business, the day we shut down. I think it's impossible for anybody to understand it unless they were there. I felt very close to everybody I flew with, like family. And in talking to contemporaries in the military, Pan American was looked upon as, and, for what I experienced, that the people just had more class."
Howard illustrates the feeling of expansiveness and adventurous spirit that everyone at Pan Am describes: "It was so much more than I ever expected; the people I flew with, the sights I saw, the places I saw. I've been in almost every major city in the world, and it was a great experience. I felt like I was a part of history!"
Like Elizabeth, Howard idealized Pan Am: "My image of Pan Am was of a worldwide carrier that served the world, and had a history of always being there whenever anybody in the United States needed them outside of the United States. It seemed that any time there was an international crisis, Pan American was always there to get the people out of there."
Soon after Howard began working for Pan Am, he went home from his first trip and his wife told him she wanted a divorce: "I had no idea that was coming at all. It just about destroyed me. I'd never really lost anything before. I just wasn't good enough for her, in her mind. Socially, you know, she was from a different background from me."
His next loss was in 1987 when his father died. "My father dying was as bad to me as my marriage to Linda breaking up, and of those three traumas, Pan Am going out of business was the worst, believe it or not."
He describes the emotional impact of the fall, and the trauma to his idealization of Pan Am and his own sense of being protected by it: "Through the years, I just tried to put it out of my thoughts and ignore it and just go on like I knew what I was doing! There's no other way you can do it. You can't quit. You can't just give up....At the end, when I found out about it, I just felt like a part of my body had been ripped off. When I say 'ripped off,' I don't mean 'stolen.' I mean pulled off my body, like an arm or a shoulder or something...It was a total sense of loss, like a ship with no rudder, no direction. Here you've been safely ensconced in the corporate womb all these years and all the sudden you've got to start thinking for yourself! And your whole foundation has just been ripped out from underneath you."
The deflation of grandiosity may have had a greater impact on the Skygods than any other employees. Howard's own grandiosity mirrored that of the company, with the shared sense of need for excellence. This is a hero who identifies with all the "firsts": "Pan Am had a bit of a heroic image, and I guess that's been my problem all my life! I always wanted to be the hero! I've done a lot of reading and studying about that, and being the first born of a first born is a double responsibility, and you feel like you're responsible for the world....My hero was John Steers, a boat captain who was an All American football player at Stanford before he went to work for Pan Am. He was part of the crew that took the flying boat from Hawaii back to the U.S. the long way around when Pearl Harbor was attacked....He was really my hero...the kind of guy I aspired to be. A John Wayne type of guy! Doesn't put up with anything!....We'd be out in these places all over the world, and you would think, 'Hey, we're all out to dinner here, and all of these flight attendants that are out with us, these stewardesses are absolutely gorgeous and intelligent, and every man in the world is after 'em, and it's my job, if they want me to, to protect them!'"
The hardest part of the fall of Pan Am was the shattering of his own sense of heroism. Howard describes a kind of cumulative trauma of his childhood that led him to feel that he had to be a hero. He had nothing and was nothing. To combat this, he admits to a heroic grandiosity, and the requirement (and burden) of responsibility. One senses that he needed to make the family proud of him, and that his striving was caused by the trauma of having to do more because he had less. With the loss of his wife Linda, and the travails of his company weighing on him, he began to feel powerless.
When the hero, due to circumstances beyond his control, loses, it affects him more deeply. Howard had a feeling of "If I follow my star, everything will turn out all right," but it didn't turn out all right with Linda, nor with Pan Am. The hero who loses what he is striving for is more affected than the person who has not put as much effort into it and who does not have as much need to be Number One. Thus, every loss is experienced as a shattering of grandiosity. He was thrown back into the beliefs of his childhood that he's nothing if he's not a hero.
Howard, as was typical of many Pan Am employees, idealized the company, and couldn't imagine its fall from grace. He needed to interpret its fall as deliberate malfeasance; in other words, it had to be something other than Pan Am's fault: "It was almost like there was a plan to put us out of business. They kept hiring these people who had no previous background in the industry. Why is this continuing to happen? It didn't change my feelings about being part of Pan Am, because I reached the point where I realized they keep bringing in these people, and they're not the real Pan Am. The real Pan Am is the people we've been working with all these years...and so I did not associate our management with the real Pan Am."
Pan Am pilots were not able to collect their full retirement, and in fact, were paid pennies on the dollar. Howard continues to worry about having "enough money." Unquestionably, he's still haunted by his childhood poverty. After Pan Am went out of business, Howard was lucky enough to get a job with United.
Having known Howard for years, I was concerned to hear the lack of vitality and aliveness that used to be characteristic of him. He said, "I wonder sometimes, if Pan Am had been as devoted to working out the problems that it did have manage-wise, the way United did, we'd probably still be alive." His aliveness depended upon being a hero, and he can't be a hero with United. His basis for vitality was taken away when he could no longer be a Skygod hero.
When I asked him if he has hopes and dreams for the future, he said quietly, "No. All the floundering around you do! So many losses and heartbreaks, and none of us had any control. I look at Pan Am going out of business as something over which I had no control. If I continue to be bitter about it, it's going to rip me apart."
However, Howard, in true hero fashion, is proud that he decided to go down with the ship. "It may be stupidity on my part, but the fact that I was able to stay with Pan Am until the end gives me a sense of accomplishment. There's a lot of people that say they wish they had stayed." He talks about the bitterness he hears from other pilots that were hired by United, and says:"I can't look at it that way. I'm just thankful to have a job. But it's just a job. No mistaking it."
It's plain that, for Howard, there's nothing heroic or expansive or exciting about it. It's not a life experience. It's just a job, leaving him feeling empty and worthless and convinced that his days of glory are ended.
As I conclude this four part series, former Pan Am employees have had to endure their feelings about the release of the Lockerbie bomber, who arrived home in his native Libya to the ecstatic cheers of the adoring crowds. It's just one more turn of the knife in the hearts of all Pan Amers and the families of the unfortunate victims.
When I hear the Qantas ads on television describing themself as "The World's Most Experienced Airline," I feel so outraged I want to throw something at the TV. They can't think up an identity of their own without stealing ours?
And, of course, newscasts today are full of sad news about the closing of well-known, venerable old companies, and I wish I could reach out to all of those people who are suffering. Pan Am people can understand their grief - we've been there for almost twenty years now. Ironically, most Americans don't even know our story because it largely took place on the world stage instead of within our country.
As for my life, I am happily at work in my second career. When I begin treatment with a new person, I feel privileged to begin our journey together; I fasten my imaginary seatbelt and look forward to a new adventure.
Pan Am, as the slogan goes, is "Gone But Not Forgotten." The company as parent died, but the family endures; the siblings continue to forge meaningful connections with each other all over the world -- finding creative ways, as families do, to project themselves unendingly into the future. Pan Amers are keeping alive the group memories through books and publications like Pan Amigo News and Jet Wings, and philanthropic organizations such as World Wings International( retired flight attendants), Clipper Pioneers (retired pilots), The Retirees Club (retired ground staff), and the Pan Am Historical Foundation (open to all including non employees). Each of the philanthropic organizations publish quarterly newsletters, and many blogs have been posted to keep groups informed about activities; for example, a website for mechanics who were based at JFK. The Pan Am AWARE store in Miami is busily supplying Pan Am memorabilia to those people who are nostalgic for "the Queen of the Skies." Most important of all, there are constant reunions, cruises, and travel opportunities, which serve to keep the family united, and doing what they do best: exploring the world together.
This is an illustration of another aspect of trauma, one that sounds a hopeful note: because death and loss are fundamental to us all, there is the possibility of forming bonds of deep emotional connection as "we meet each other as brothers and sisters in the same darkness" (Stolorow, p. 49). All of the former employees can tell you where we were when we heard about the sale of the Pacific routes, the Lockerbie tragedy, and the demise of Pan Am. We share common trauma, as well as phenomenal experiences: nobody can take our memories away. And if you ever have a chance to talk to a former Pan Am employee, prepare yourself for a nostalgic journey back to the "good old days," a time when America itself was at its zenith, and working for Pan Am felt like the best job in the world.
Postscript: This series of articles is dedicated to the Pan Am family, as well as our "Kissin' Cousins" at TWA, and the former employees of Eastern, Braniff, Western, PSA, Piedmont, and Republic Airlines -- just to mention a few.