11/30/2010 01:50 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Tales of Pan Am: Living in Two Worlds

When I think about my 20 years as a flight attendant for Pan Am, I struggle to put into words the universal feeling of love that the employees felt for our company. Our Pan Am world was vast and expansive, and we all felt at home in it, greatly enjoying the intense feeling of "family" bonding.

Pan Am was esteemed for many years as the world's premier airline, and we employees took our jobs seriously as ambassadors to that world. Our feeling of pride could easily have been interpreted as snobbery, but most of us were dedicated to doing our job well and, indeed, making Pan Am the "best" airline.

For example, our stature ensured that whatever was happening in the world, Pan Am was there. We flew many missions of mercy because of our status with the State Department. 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 braved flying into the new airport at Narita in Japan, which was for years under severe terrorist threat from the rice farmers whose lands had been confiscated. Unfortunately, during that same period, Pan Am also became the favorite target of Palestinian terrorists, and we were subjected to their attacks years before most Americans had even heard of terrorism.

My feeling is one of having lived in two worlds with Pan Am: 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. As an example of these two worlds that I'm describing, one glamorous and one deeply serious, I'll tell you the story of the first time I became aware of the disparate elements involved in working for Pan Am.

As a girl growing up in the 1950s -- a time when women became nurses, teachers or secretaries -- 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's mother had died when she was three, but luckily she was adored by her father, Carson Drew, an attorney. Listening to him describe what was going on in town, Nancy often got ideas about mysteries to solve. Carson Drew was at all times approving of his daughter, and completely believed in her competence and her abilities -- a dream father! Where else were girls my age going to look for a heroic role model that represented freedom and independence, while at the same time being taken care of by a doting 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. I was reading recently about other women who idealized Nancy Drew, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush. Because my father, who died when I was eight, had traveled the entire world long before it was common to do so, I used to fall asleep at night with visions of the foreign places he'd told me about dancing in my head. How was I going to have a life of adventure and travel like my father, at the same time experiencing Nancy-Drew-type exploration?

From the time I first heard about Pan American World Airways stewardesses, I knew I had found my passport to the life I had dreamt about. An advertisement at the time said, "Our stewardesses know their way around the world better than most people know their way around the block." I thought, "I can do that!" I found that when I arrived on Pan Am turf, it was everything and much more than I had ever imagined. I could live this "Nancy Drew life," being completely independent and free, while at the same time feeling protected and valued by this patriarchal company. 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.

When I first started flying, I was based in Miami, and after several months, I had my first assignment to be on standby in the dreaded "pool." Being in the pool meant we could be called on a moment's notice and were required to be on the airplane within one and a half hours. What made this first assignment even more exciting was that I was told this was an emergency mission of mercy. A cruise ship had just sunk off the coast of Cuba, and the surviving passengers were waiting for us to pick them up at Guantanamo Bay. For me, this felt very Nancy-Drew-like, and I arrived at the airport within 30 minutes, albeit in a taxi, and not a blue coupe.

When I boarded the airplane, I was struck by the baritone sound of a man's voice that was extremely familiar. Where had I heard that voice before? As I glanced into the cockpit, there was "the voice" chatting with the pilots. He stuck out his hand and introduced himself; "I'm Herb Kaplow with NBC News." That explained it. He was an NBC radio and television reporter at that time, and although he wasn't as familiar as Walter Cronkite, he was still a fixture in broadcasting. Herb and his crew were there to see us off, and to gather whatever information they could from the pilots.

One of Herb's cronies took me aside and whispered that he would like me to do them a favor. Could I please bring back a news tape that someone in Guantanamo would give me and then hand it over to someone who would ask me for it when we arrived back in Miami? Wow! Would I? Nancy Drew, eat your heart out -- and I was not supposed to tell anybody about it. "Okay," I thought, "I can do that!"

So off we went for the very short flight to Guantanamo Bay. From the air, it looked like a forlorn and barren patch of brown on the tip of the otherwise green island of Cuba. On approach to the airport, I could see the barbed wire and formidable warning signs everywhere cautioning people to "Keep Out." It all felt disquieting and surreal, and of course, I was preoccupied with my mission to smuggle in the tape. I felt very important, but I asked myself, how was the man supposed to recognize me or even contact me? Remember, these were the days before cell phones and computers.

As it turned out, there was nothing to worry about. The first man to come bounding up the stairs seemed to know that I was the one on a secret mission to smuggle in the tape. He took me aside, asked me where my purse was, and handed me the tape. Heart pounding, I surreptitiously stowed it in my purse -- a big black shoulder bag that could carry a lot.

And then my attention became riveted on the passengers, who were boarding the plane. Most of them were elderly and seemed extremely fragile. As I watched them silently taking their seats, a pall seemed to settle over the airplane. I had never seen or felt anything like it. Now, as an analyst over 40 years later, I realize that I was looking at the faces of trauma. One woman sobbed to me that her husband's body was being put in the belly of the airplane, while one of the widowers sat unmoving, eyes vacant, seemingly unable to speak. As I walked up and down the aisle, some of them wanted to hold my hand and tell me their story. The sense of heartbreak and loss were palpable in the cabin. One wife said, "I wish I'd died with my husband." I wanted so much to help them. This was my first introduction to that world of reality that most of us at Pan Am would come to know well.

But then I remembered my very important mission of delivering the tape. As soon as we landed, a man came bounding up the stairs, walked right to me, and said, "Do you have a tape for me?" I could barely answer because standing there right in front of me was the most handsome man I had ever seen in my life, hands down. Towering over me, he gave me a huge smile, and I don't even remember retrieving the tape from my purse and handing it to him.

My attention turned back to the passengers, who were suffering from great shock. Some of them hugged us and thanked us for saving them. They looked upon us as rescuers, and there was a heartwarming gratitude on the part of the passengers toward Pan Am and the pilots and flight attendants. This was only the first of many rescue missions that I flew over the years, as did many of us who flew with Pan Am, and always, always, there was this feeling of being involved in something heroic.

And then it happened. Another man came up the stairs, walked right over to me, and said, "Do you have the tape for me?" The tape? The handsome guy had disappeared from view, and this new guy was obviously upset that somebody else had stolen the prized tape. He muttered some choice epithets, asked me who I'd given it to, and what he looked like. When I stammered, "I don't know, but he was really good-looking," he rolled his eyes -- he obviously knew from my description which arch-rival of his had absconded with the tape. Had I failed my first Nancy-Drew-like assignment? I felt disoriented, thrust in the middle of the high jinks of the press, which, after all, was part of that glamorous and sometimes silly world of unreality I mentioned, especially jarring when juxtaposed with the reality of the intense human suffering all around me.

I often had this feeling as the years passed with Pan Am; the glamorous, fun, Nancy-Drew-type life that never disappointed me, existing side by side with the more serious and sometimes grim situations that taught all of us profound life lessons that deepened our perceptions and understanding. Now, all these years later, even as I think about my Pan Am experience, it's difficult to adequately explain my gratitude for all the life lessons, both glamorous and sobering, that it taught me.