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Tales of Pan Am: "The Pool"

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In my previous blogs (here) I have attempted to both describe and explain why our Pan Am "family" has such devotion to our company and why many employees experienced such feelings of traumatic loss when Pan Am went out of business. Often in my twenty-year career as a flight attendant for Pan Am, especially in the 1960's and first half of the 1970's, I had a feeling of awe and wonder at the experiences that were mine for the asking. Not only was our regular route structure an adventurer's dream, but Pan Am was often called upon to participate in countless evacuations and missions of mercy, which added to our sense of excitement and expansiveness. We all felt at home in the world.

Not that there weren't downsides -- in particular "the pool" -- which I'm sorry to say had nothing to do with swimming! For one month every year or so, our flight crews all had to face a very challenging and stressful duty. In fact, many of the pilots and stewardesses felt this month was the bane of our existence. Why? Because we had no regular schedule during that time in the pool and had to spend our days "on standby," much like a doctor on call. At the mercy of the scheduling department, we could literally be sent anywhere in the world on a moment's notice, which, as you might imagine, was a recipe for stress. I suspected that this was the penance we had to pay for the otherwise charmed existence we lived within our Pan Am world.

The rules for being "on standby" with Pan Am were extremely strict. When we were called, we were expected to be on an airplane within an hour and a half if necessary, ready to be gone for as long as we were needed. We couldn't pack ahead of time because we would have no idea whether we'd need clothes for summer, winter, or both. And just add to the stress the fact that we couldn't be even one minute late -- there were no excuses. I didn't even dare to wash my hair because I might not be able to dry it in time.

I hated being in the pool. Never the best sleeper, I would lie awake, sleepless, waiting for the dreaded phone call. What I disliked the most, and what seemed to happen often, was that just as I was finally slipping into sleep as the sun came up, I'd be startled awake by the ominous ring of my telephone. The scheduler's assignment would send me into a frenzy of activity: I'd throw clothes into a suitcase, try to remember all the essentials, hurriedly put on my uniform and makeup, and jump into my car hoping for no traffic. The flights I was called for would usually be at least 20 hours from the beginning of our day to the time when I could crawl, exhausted, into bed at my hotel somewhere out there in the world. I'd count up the hours I'd have to go without any real sleep, seriously wondering how in the world I was going to make it.

Now as a psychoanalyst, I smile when I think of how I attempted to have some say-so in what was going to happen to me. Because of my childhood trauma that I've written about, from which at a very young age I learned that life can be devastatingly unpredictable, I had a need to feel that I could have some sort of control over my destiny. These were the days before cell phones, answering machines, and beepers, which meant we were forced to become chained to our telephones. In my case, I had a square, black, old fashioned telephone that sat menacingly beside my bed. I would sit across from my nemesis that was reminiscent to me of HAL, the evil computer in 2001, A Space Odyssey, staring at it, willing it to either ring or not ring. This meant that I had a lot of time to think. I had a theory, which of course I couldn't prove, that there was some unwritten law of the universe that if I tried to make a plan with someone, begin a project that needed completion, or had some other reason why my heart was set on staying home, the phone would ring -- loud, jarring and insistent. I could swear that it smiled at me as it did so.

Over time, I developed little superstitious rituals -- "magical thinking" -- to achieve a sense of control. For example, during my first month in the pool, I tried to pack ahead of time but was always called out early in the morning. I decided that by not putting anything at all in my suitcase until I was called I could somehow influence the "scheduling gods" to assign me a later and better trip. Then I started sending up little prayers, like "Please God, don't let the telephone ring." Or "Please God, go ahead and give me a trip." I would even wear certain clothes that I wanted to believe would keep me from getting bad trips. It got to the point where I would concoct complicated counting rituals that I hoped would bring me good luck. Needless to say, this didn't work. These counting rituals were reminiscent of how, as a little girl, I stood in my crib and counted my people after my father had a massive heart attack (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/helen-davey/counting-my-people-an-aut_b_354491.html).

As a Pan Am employee, I often felt like I was in a kind of space/time continuum machine. I was suddenly plucked up from my home, hurled across continents in a metal tube, and plopped down in a place where everything felt, sounded, tasted, smelled and looked entirely different from home -- a whirlwind for the senses. In the pool this feeling was more striking, and so were some of the experiences.

One of my trips from the pool in 1969 stands out in my memory because it was unlike any I had ever had, and it was never repeated. Pan Am did most of the training for airlines around the world, and when Air Vietnam suffered a mid-air crash, Pan Am offered to send them an airplane and two complete crews until Air Vietnam could make other arrangements for an airplane. The scheduler called me (very early in the morning, of course!) and told me that I would essentially be flying for Air Vietnam for awhile, and that because Saigon was now too dangerous to have crew layovers, we were going to be based in Bangkok. When I asked the scheduler how long we'd be away, he said, "You're going to be gone for awhile."

So off I went to work for Air Vietnam, wondering what in the world that meant! Our crew flew as passengers (deadheaded) all the way to Bangkok in first class, luxuriating in being pampered and catered to by our friends. As usual, we stayed at Pan Am's beautiful Siam Intercontinental Hotel, a hotel that was much loved by Pan Am crews. We were given larger rooms than usual because we'd be living there for a while, with views that looked out onto what seemed like a fairytale land -- it contained its own zoo! Among the beautiful foliage, flowers, and lily ponds, were beautifully ornate cages scattered around the gardens. They contained exotic animals and birds, but mostly I remember the gibbon monkeys, who loved to interact with humans. There was one in particular with whom I fell in love, and if I could have smuggled him home in my suitcase, I would have. I visited him after every flight and could swear that he was waiting for me. The atmosphere seemed magical and dreamlike, and I felt like Deborah Kerr in the middle of The King and I. I named the monkey "Yul."

When we reported to work, we were introduced to two Air Vietnam flight attendants who would be working with us on the flight. We were taking over Air Vietnam's regular flights, which meant that we would be puddle jumping all around South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, landing in small regional airports and getting a taste of the rural parts of these countries. These passengers would never normally have flown on Pan Am, and didn't speak English. We served Vietnamese food and drinks, none of which felt familiar at all. Each new day we worked with two new stewardesses.

The biggest surprise to us Pan Am stewardesses was that the Air Vietnam stewardesses, who were very beautiful, wore very feminine Vietnamese clothes, and were bedecked in huge diamond rings as well as other precious gems. Not only that, each one wore the most beautiful and expensive Piaget watch of that era, as if it were a standard issue uniform item. I hope that we, the "rich Americans," didn't stare too obviously! We were told that this job as stewardess in Vietnam was the most coveted job of all for women, and that the stewardesses all came from families in the highest echelon of the South Vietnamese government and the military. Just as we Pan Amers felt special and privileged, so did they. And we all felt a bit sad when it was time after three weeks to take our leave of Air Vietnam.

Now, over 40 years later, when I have a sleepless night, I'll glance over at my phone, remembering similar nights waiting for the phone to ring, while at the same time willing it not to. I continue to have dreams that I'm trying to get to the airport -- not one minute late -- and I just can't get there. Some feelings never go away. And I suspect that somewhere out there, on some dusty warehouse shelf, lurks my old square black telephone. It sits there waiting to be sold as an antique, with a smile on its face, dreaming of the day it will be reconnected so that it can once again control people's lives.