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Helen Davey

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Pan Am: A Dream Job

Posted: 08/19/11 01:18 PM ET

On September 25 at 10:00 P.M., ABC unveils a new television series, Pan Am, which is meant to depict the lives of Pan Am stewardesses in the 1960s. I can assure the network that former Pan Am'ers will be watching en masse in hopes that the writers will be able to capture even a little bit of the spirit of glamour and adventure that our company represented for all of our Pan Am family. We will be a discerning audience.

From the time I was a little girl, my thoughts were often in the clouds, dreaming of foreign lands -- and there's a good reason for this. My father, who was 30 years older than my mother, was the son of John Davey, who at the turn of the twentieth century developed the science of tree surgery. Following in his father's footsteps, my father and his brothers built the Davey Tree Expert Company, the first of its kind, and my father and his first wife traveled the entire globe in the first third of the century, researching trees. This was before the advent of the airplane, and my father was the foremost authority on the world's trees.

My father's true life bedtime stories enthralled my brother, sister, and me; they were stories of safaris in Africa -- he called it "big tree hunting" -- from Capetown to Cairo, and about such diverse countries as India, Japan, and New Zealand. Even then, the Davey family was intensely concerned about the destruction of the environment all over the world.

When my father died when I was eight, our family life was completely shattered, and none of us, including my mother, had any idea how to mourn. We bottled up our feelings and rarely talked about him, concentrating instead on somehow surviving the loss of this man who was the idealized center of our world.

Reading was important to me, and Pollyanna: The Glad Book was my favorite inspirational book after my father died. Pollyanna is the story of a little girl whose father taught her a game about always finding at least one thing to be glad for, even in the worst of times. When her father dies, Pollyanna is forced into situations in which she has to be courageous and positive, but her ability to "look on the bright side" (as many of our parents have said), allows her to triumph and to bring love and hope into the lives of those around her.

Heavily identified with the heroine, I too, especially in the wake of the trauma of the death of my father, wanted to deny all gloom, sorrow, and hostility by radiating a serene, optimistic, pleasant, and cheerful countenance to one and all. Without knowing it, this was excellent training for my future career with Pan Am, because for a flight attendant to show feelings of fear, anger, or sadness is inappropriate and can frighten nervous travelers.

Career choices at this time for young girls to contemplate consisted of three occupations: nurse, teacher, or secretary. It was hard to find role models that I wanted to follow. So, from the moment I read my first Nancy Drew mystery, I knew that I wanted to be like her. First published in 1930, the stories of Nancy Drew had a timeless quality. More than just pretty and blonde, Nancy was the embodiment for me of a feminine character who also possessed the more traditional "masculine" qualities of the time: she was bold, independent, adventurous, fearless and extremely smart. As someone too young to drive yet, I was thrilled with the image of Nancy speeding around in her blue coupe (I didn't know what a "coupe" was, but if Nancy had one, I knew I wanted one, too). She spent her time solving mysteries to help others -- particularly the disadvantaged -- and portrayed a vivid image of freedom and empowerment.

Nancy Drew's mother had died when she was three, but luckily, she was adored by her father, Carson Drew, an attorney. He was at all times approving of his daughter, and completely believed in her competence and her abilities -- a dream father!

Now, from my vantage point as a psychoanalyst, I can see why girls all over the world longed to be Nancy. She was a liberated and independent "Daddy's girl," which is often an oxymoron. How was I going to have a life of adventure and travel like my father, keep my feminine identity, and experience the joyful sense of freedom that Nancy had? It was as though Pan Am read my mind.

Here is an advertisement in the 1960s for stewardesses:

YOUR CAREER IN PAN AM BLUE


Wherever in the world you go, people know that as a girl in the tailored blue uniform of a Pan Am Stewardess, you lead an exciting life. Your heart is in the clouds...your chosen career is stimulating - free from work-a-day monotony and far, far more than "just a job." You wear your blue and gold Pan Am Stewardess wings with pride. The whole wide, wonderful world is your "place of business," and your days are filled with the romance of far-away, exotic lands...the adventure of our ever-changing world...the warmth of human contact with the peoples of all nations.

You'll fly to Africa, Europe, and Asia - from Johannesburg to Helsinki to Hong Kong! Or to the glamorous cities of Latin America. The capitals of the world soon become as familiar as your own home town.

You'll enjoy the prestige of a profession that is widely - and deservedly - acclaimed as glamorous. You meet the most fascinating international celebrities. You can take keen satisfaction from knowing that when you fly with Pan American you're flying with the "World's Most Experienced Airline"...and you know, too, that a large measure of Pan American's leadership can be traced to the world-famous hospitality of cabin attendants like yourself.


Upon graduation from college, I, like many other modern-day "Pollyannas" and "want-to-be Nancy Drews," found a job that I couldn't have improved upon even in my most grandiose childhood fantasies. To be a stewardess for Pan American World Airways in 1965 meant that I had access to the entire world. From the moment I landed on Pan Am turf for training school in Miami, I found that it was everything and so much more than I could have possibly imagined. After all, I was the little girl who had gone to sleep at night listening to her father's glorious travel stories, with visions of foreign places dancing in my head. The company's atmosphere of expansive optimism and bold self-confidence reminded me of my early years when my father was alive.

Even now, I, like many former Pan Am employees, struggle to find accurate words to describe our life. I'm always concerned that the listener/reader will think I'm (1) exaggerating (2) bragging because it sounds too good to be true, or (3) just downright lying. Because of these same feelings, often we Pan Am'ers discuss our memories only with each other.

In training school I learned quickly that Pan Am was a no-nonsense company. Juan Trippe ruled the company with a patriarchal attitude and his power seemed limitless, just as I had viewed my father. The employees blossomed in Trippe's reflected radiance, in his power, boldness and expansiveness, and most of us felt like we had lucked into one of the best jobs in the world. This attitude created a strong feeling of loyalty that exists even now, twenty years after Pan Am's demise.

We learned from the beginning that Pan Am was a "family" with a strong sense of historical significance and patriotism. Pan Am felt to me like the proud father who provides stability and at the same time has confidence in the child's resourcefulness and independence -- just as it felt in my own family and as described in the Nancy Drew books.

We stewardesses felt valued, respected, admired, and protected -- the opposite of feeling sexualized. Each one of us was chosen from thousands of other people seeking this job. Our goal was to do the best job we could -- with integrity -- and to remember that we were America's ambassadors to the world, both on and off the airplane. At this time, the world had not yet become homogenized as it is today, and I was often the first American that people had ever met, much less talked to. I took that responsibility seriously.

Wide-eyed and more excited than I can possibly describe, I boarded my airplane in New York en route to Paris as a trainee. The First Class purser introduced me to the pilots in the cockpit, who were all very friendly. The distinguished-looking twinkly-eyed Captain was old enough to be my father. "Could you do us a favor," he said, "and help us out by looking for oncoming airplanes?" "Of course!" I said. So there I was on take-off, scanning for "oncoming airplanes," until the purser finally told me that the pilots had that covered already. It was the beginning of many pranks the pilots love to play.

My entire crew was flying on to Rome, but not before they had thoroughly briefed me on what to do in Paris. Being the only crew member who was disembarking in Paris, I was wondering just what I was supposed to do. As the door swung open, the Pan Am ground person asked for me by name. After shepherding me through my first encounter with Customs, he escorted me to a waiting pre-paid limousine all for me. It was my first experience with that warm and protective "Pan Am family" feeling.

As I rode through the dark streets of Paris, I thought to myself: I might not have been driving my own blue "coupe," but move over, Nancy Drew, I'm in Paris! Arriving at our hotel, the Terrass Hotel of Montmartre, right around the corner from the Sacre-Coeur Basilica and the Moulin Rouge, I was handed a little packet of French francs for my expenses. As I walked to my room down a long hall full of shoes outside of everyone's doors waiting to be polished, I wondered what would happen if they did this in New York. My room overlooked a very old but beautiful cemetery, and I stood there transfixed with a feeling that I experienced many times for the next 20 years: Is this really me? Am I really here?

So much about the magic of Pan Am was about the employees who belonged to the Pan Am "family." My fellow stewards and stewardesses were an amazing group, college educated and many were not only bi-lingual, but also multi-lingual. We had to meet stringent requirements about height, weight, grooming, and ability to relate to the public. Never mind that we had to be weighed before each flight. Plus, in those days before pantyhose, we were required to wear girdles and stockings and were subject to "girdle checks" if it looked like anybody was jiggling too much. After all, this was 1965, and before the women's lib movement arrived.

Our crews were made up of people from all over the world, and there was a delicious cultural diversity, made even better by an attitude of appreciation of difference, whether it was about religion, politics, or the way one looks. Our goal of working together to develop a cohesive team allowed us to study cultural differences in a dynamic, on-the-job way. We all felt that we grew past our own individual nationalities, and truly felt part of Pan Am's global world. Perhaps our strong bond also came about because Pan Am crews, consisting of pilots and flight attendants, were expected -- and trusted -- to make our own decisions, and there was very little supervision. Each Pan Am crew became a "family within the family."

I felt at that time that I was being treated like a little princess, generously paid for working sometimes only 9 or 10 days a month. Upon arrival at our elegant hotels, we were given per diem in the currency of the country, which to me felt like receiving an allowance from Daddy. Our time off often found us going to vacation spots previously reserved for the very wealthy. Yet, even on vacation, I knew if I got into trouble I could always go to Pan Am anywhere in the world. And what a world it was!

We were all very proud of our legendary seven course meals in First Class: starched linens, china, silver, crystal and beautiful flowers adorned our service catered by Maxim's of Paris. The caviar, the wine, the cheese -- all of it was the best quality. The food in Economy was also delicious, cooked and dished up onto plates. Making a profit was less emphasized than the quality of the product, and we all felt it was important that we work hard to make Pan Am the best airline.

When we had "sensitivity classes" in 1968, the psychologist remarked that he had never seen such "exquisite teamwork" in any other company in the world. Maybe because we were all enjoying our jobs, but also because we weren't working together 9 to 5, five days a week, we seemed to bring out the best in each other. I'm, of course, not saying that there were never any disputes, but there was a feeling of "all being in this together" and having each other's backs. I've never experienced this anywhere else.

For example, when we started to fly to Moscow, on one trip my fellow flight attendants and I wanted to go to the Russian Circus, which was a long cab ride from the hotel. The Pan Am station manger in Moscow explained to us in great detail how to get there and back to the hotel. However, following the performance, as we stepped out into the freezing December night air, there on the steps stood the station manager, all decked out in his fur coat and big Russian fur hat. "I couldn't sleep," he said, "because I had to know that you got home safely." That was the Pan Am family.

We stayed at the world's most elegant hotels, often at the Intercontinental Hotels, which were owned by Pan Am. In remote outposts, we sometimes stayed in barracks-like accommodations, which was all part of the sense of adventure. Returning to places many times in different seasons, political climates, and with different companions, meant that we never had to feel like tourists. It was true that the "whole wide world was our place of business," and we felt at home in that world.

The astonishing assortment of trips available to me was a deeply satisfying luxury. Would I like to take a long, leisurely Africa trip, or would I rather go on a camping trip to the South Island of New Zealand after spending a long layover in Tahiti as well? Maybe a round-the-world trip would be best because I'd get a taste of everything that way. Was it time yet for Carnival in Rio? I could not believe I was being paid to live this life, and I couldn't imagine ever weaning myself from this job. Perhaps, knowing a little bit about my background, you can understand the perfect fit that this company represented for me. I could be adventurous like my father, nurturing like my mother, and no matter where I was in the world, I could feel protected by this powerful, gratifying parent/company.

The company's stature ensured that whatever was happening in the world, Pan Am was there. Because of this, working for Pan Am was a bit like living in two worlds: one world was glamorous and exciting and filled with a feeling of magical unreality, while the other was all about the reality of human suffering and trauma. We saw the poverty, the tragedy, and the hunger. These realities brought depth to our experience and understanding of the world. Our jobs weren't all about glamour; some of it was terrifying and dangerous, but that only bonded us more tightly.

For example, we flew the majority of the flights in and out of Vietnam, taking the soldiers to R&R's in places like Hong Kong and Australia. Whenever there was a revolution in a foreign country, Pan Am was there, rescuing the Americans. We were there when the Shah of Iran fell, flew Vietnamese orphans out of a soon-to-be-defeated South Vietnam, brought Cambodian refugees out of the Killing Fields, and dodged countless South American coups. We were caught in the middle of the conflicts between India and Pakistan, and flew many missions of mercy because of our special status with the State Department. We never knew what new opportunities would suddenly pop up. (And by the way, the theme of a flight attendant working for the CIA in the new Pan Am series is not far-fetched. Since Pan Am went out of business, many of these stories have circulated. After all, what better cover than to work for Pan Am?)

For 10 years, my experience with Pan Am continued in a wonderful way. Slowly, sadly, everything began to change within the airline industry, and most especially with Pan Am. However, the one thing that's never changed, even to this day, is the undying love, loyalty, and gratitude that Pan Am employees feel toward "the world's most experienced airline." It was, and always will be for all of us, our dream job.