02/28/2011 04:03 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Tales of Pan Am: A 'Forrest Gump' Life

As I watch the news about the erupting chaos in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain on television, my present life as a psychoanalyst fades into the background, and my past life comes to the fore. Every part of me feels like I should be on a Pan Am plane in my stewardess uniform, flying to rescue the stranded Americans, reminding me of a recurring humorous fantasy that I have about myself: If someone is in need, I should duck into a phone booth, change into my uniform (cape optional) and zoom to the rescue!

Seriously, for 20 years as a Pan Am flight attendant, a crucial part of the job -- one that my fellow employees and I took very seriously -- was to volunteer for sometimes dangerous assignments. Whatever headline event or revolution was happening out in the world until 1991, when it went out of business, Pan Am was usually there.

From its earliest beginnings, not only was Pan Am a national treasure, but it was the unofficial arm of the U.S. State Department. It's hard to imagine that there is no longer a Pan Am to carry out these important missions. That there are no airplanes with the familiar blue ball logo at the airports of these troubled countries is just another painful reminder to all former employees that our airline no longer exists.

I came to my interest in global travel naturally. My father was a world explorer during the first third of the 20th century -- a time when such extensive world travel was rare. He traveled almost the entire world by ship, studying trees for the family business, the Davey Tree Expert Company, which was the first of its kind. He was often right smack in the middle of exciting world events. Our family scrapbooks are full of news clippings about his travels and adventures, and his bedtime stories were all about true adventures, such as safaris in Africa. As a child, I knew I wanted that kind of life too, but I wondered how. Working for Pan Am gave me exactly what I was looking for.

Pan Am became a new family for me, one in which we all felt a great deal of pride. One of the reasons that working for Pan Am inspired such loyalty was that the job allowed many of us to live a life that enabled us to experience firsthand many major world events. In fact, I've sometimes thought of our lifestyle as a "Forrest Gump" life.

Forrest Gump is the well-known character played by Tom Hanks in the movie version of "Forrest Gump." He is a loveable and surprisingly savvy character, who -- accidentally or coincidentally -- winds up in the middle of the major events of three decades of world history. Whether he's in the middle of the Vietnam war, hobnobbing with celebrities or politicians, or finding himself all over the globe, Forrest doesn't miss much.

The most ironic Forrest Gump situation of all, for me, is that the author of the book, Winston Groom, was (and still is) a friend of mine. We both attended the University of Alabama, and he married my best friend and college roommate. So naturally, I read the book when it came out, and saw the movie when it was released; I much prefer the book to the screenplay, which was not written by Winston. At the time that I read it, I identified with this character, who continually found himself in situations that sounded unbelievable and exaggerated. In a similar vein, many of us Pan Am employees hesitate to tell our stories because who will believe us? Most of us had the experience of popping up -- Forrest Gump-like -- where world news was happening, and I'll tell you a few random examples from my career.

For 11 of my 20 years with Pan Am, I regularly flew to Iran. Tehran was a frequently visited Pan Am destination because it was part of our famous round-the-world flights, both eastbound and westbound. Before my first trip, I eagerly consulted our Pan Am "bible" -- the New Horizons World Guide. To visit what used to be called the "Persian Empire" sounded so exotic and intriguing. The truth was more complicated. I found Iran to be a complex country with a great deal of national pride about modernization juxtaposed with an ancient culture that bred resentment of Western influence.

My Forrest Gump moment in Iran happened in 1979, as the country was becoming increasingly dangerous for Americans. The Shah had not yet left, nor had the 66 U.S. hostages been taken. When our Pan Am crew arrived in Tehran, the air itself felt thick with anger and hostility. It was suggested that we try not to be seen in the bus. So, I found myself sitting on the floor of a bus in the middle of a revolution. I sat there thinking, "I can't believe this is happening," and I could only imagine what a prize it would be to kidnap an entire Pan Am crew. We arrived at the hotel safely, and soon after, Pan Am began evacuating Americans. Iran, seemingly overnight, went from being America's steadfast ally to declaring themselves to be our mortal enemy.

Another indelible moment happened in the spring of 1968. Pan Am flew the majority of R and R (Rest and Rehabilitation) flights in and out of Vietnam, carrying soldiers to exotic locations for short vacations. My crew and I were awaiting the soldiers to board our airplane in either DaNang or Cam Rahn Bay -- I'm not sure which. What I do know is that the sizzling heat and the oppressive humidity made us want to get out of there as soon as possible. Suddenly, over a loudspeaker, came the serious and somewhat subdued voice of President Lyndon Johnson. The part that I remember clearly is when he said, "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president." I was stunned by this speech. I certainly wasn't expecting it. And here I was in Vietnam, watching the confused reactions of the soldiers, many of whom were still determined to win the war, hearing their President talking about stopping the bombing in North Vietnam and pursuing "peace with honor." Some of the men were crying.

In the early 1980s, Pan Am began flying Cambodian refugees from the "Killing Fields" out of camps in Thailand, where they had been sequestered since fleeing their country. Once again, I was there, witnessing an important part of history. I don't remember why the refugees had already boarded the airplane when our crew arrived for my first flight with them, but I can visualize the moment when I stepped into the 747 and saw the faces of the victims of the worst genocide of the Cold War era. Those faces -- those hollow looking eyes -- are indelibly seared into my brain. So this was what the media had been reporting. I couldn't help comparing it to the photographs of the victims of the Nazi holocaust.

These refugees were ill, emaciated and obviously extremely traumatized. They seemed dazed and unaware of their surroundings. I noticed that quite a few of the elderly passengers were blind, and being cared for by what I supposed were family members. I asked one of the few English-speaking passengers about that, and he said that many of the old people had simply seen too much. For many, their entire families had been murdered in front of them, and they had apparently developed "hysterical blindness" as a way to cope with the trauma of unbearable loss.

I have never been able to shake those images, so when I left my job I wrote an extensive paper on the fate of some of those refugees for my Master's program. I only had to make a few phone calls to find people eager to help me. Many Cambodians settled in Long Beach, Calif. I was able to interview some of them, usually with the help of interpreters, and found that their ability to work together as a tight knit community was holding them in very good stead. New families formed for those who had lost their own, and the Asian custom of putting the group first was sustaining them. Of course, the older people were having an extremely difficult time trying to adjust. Many remained unable to see. It warmed my heart when I would tell them I was a Pan Am flight attendant who brought some of them here. Their faces would light up, and they'd say "Pan Am!" and hug me as if I were a heroine. My experience with these lovely people was part of the reason that I was drawn to the study of trauma.

In 1968, I got my first up-close view of an iron-fisted South American dictator. Apparently, President Johnson issued a "Y'all Come" to many heads of state around the world, and El Presidente Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay replied that he'd be there. Stroessner chartered a Pan Am plane to fly him and his Cabinet for a State Visit to Washington and back.

I had never before seen what Pan Am could do when it was really putting on a show. The airplane was a 707, which meant that with no bulkhead in place between First Class and Economy, a flight attendant in the back could see all the way to the cockpit. Our usual silverware was gold, the china was extremely elegant, and the glassware had special emblems etched on them. From our cockpit streamed the flags of the United States and Paraguay. The linens and flowers were extraordinary, as was the food and wine.

When we arrived in Asunción, El Presidente Stroessner boarded the plane, followed by his all male Cabinet. Stroessner was a tall man with a commanding presence, whose parents had emigrated from Germany. All eyes were upon him. In fact, throughout the flight, whenever he got up, even just to go to the bathroom, his Cabinet broke out into applause. I had never witnessed this kind of "puppet" behavior before, and I found it astonishing. Stroessner was charming to the crew, and later sent each of us beautiful handmade Paraguayan cloth, with his personal card enclosed. I still have it.

When I later did some research about Stroessner, I found that while he was a strong anti-communist, he also had a particularly poor human rights record. Torture, kidnapping and corruption were the norm. In fact, it's documented that when an archenemy of Stroessner, the Secretary of the Paraguayan Communist Party, was being torn apart with a chainsaw, Stroessner was listening on the phone. I'm glad I didn't know that before our flight.

As I said, all of us former Pan Am'ers have similar stories to tell, which makes us very excited about a new upcoming television series on ABC called "Pan Am" that we hope will finally be able to tell some of these stories. It will be set in the 1960s, à la Mad Men, and the pilot is being filmed. We are hoping that they get it right about the unbelievable life that Pan Am afforded us. This reminds me of 1968 when the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" first came out. Pan Am employees flocked to the theaters, proud to see the space ship with our blue logo, and the crews with the Pan Am uniforms wearing grip shoes so that they could walk up, down and across the weightless cabin.

In the meantime, at the very end of Winston Groom's book, Forrest tries to tell a reporter his story. Forrest says, "But even before I got haf thru, he done walked off; say he can't print nothing like that cause nobody would'n ever believe it." However, Forrest concludes with a statement that all Pan Am people can relate to: "So whatever else has happened, I am figgerin this: I can always look back an say, at least I ain't led no hum-drum life. You know what I mean?"

We know what he means.