August 17, 2013
IT’S BEEN A while since I’ve been on a plane — since December, I believe — and I didn’t realize how much I missed it. I’m on my way to Montreal aboard an Embrear 170, the larger of the jets made by the Brazilian company. This is the first time I’ve flown this type of small plane. Unlike the smaller version, the 170 has a first class, or business class, section, and that’s where I’m sitting, thanks to either United Airlines’ generosity or mistake.
It’s supposed to be a three hour-y-cacho flight but the captain said a while ago that because of strong tailwinds, we’ll be there about 40 minutes early, which means we’ll be in Montreal about 5:15 and I should be at my hotel by 6:30 or so. I’m eager to meet my friends, Rick and Zoe Cowan and their kids, Gabe and Sophie, for dinner. I haven’t seen them since I bid them a tearful goodbye in early January. They are staying in an apartment they found through AirB&B, but we’ll be staying in the same hotel in Quebec City.
I love flying. I have loved it since the first time I got on an American Airlines Boeing 707 from San Antonio to San Francisco back in the early 70s. I was teaching art at San Marcos High School and I guess I thought I was rich because I bought tickets for myself and my parents to fly to California to spend Christmas with my sisters, in Gilroy. I wore a tie on that first flight, as did my father. It was what men did back then when they flew.
We flew coach but the service we got was equivalent to what we get on first class these days (except that the booze wasn’t free). We got a full meal on real dishes and glasses and with metal silverware, and cloth napkins. I don’t remember what we were served, but it tasted heavenly. I chose the window seat because I wanted to see exactly where we were flying. By the time we got to San Francisco, my neck was hurting badly because I spent the entire three hours or so looking down at the earth below. The biggest thrill was being able to identify from 30,000 feet the roads we had driven over when we traveled to California over several summers to work in the food processing industry. The plane’s route pretty much followed I-10 to Los Angeles and then US 101 to San Francisco, so that I was able to identify the towns and cities I had driven through.
Before getting on the plane, my siblings and I had worried about how my parents would handle flying because they too had never flown before. My sister-in-law even gave my mother some sort of pill to take to calm her nerves should she need it. She never did. Both my father and mother acted as if they had flown all their lives. They traveled with dignity, authority and an almost-regal disposition. I was so in awe of them. They didn’t even flinch when, as we were approaching the San Francisco airport the plane started to shake and rattle. I looked out at the wings and they looked as if they were flapping, like a bird’s wings. I nearly shit in my pants for I was certain we were going to crash into the San Francisco Bay. Yet my parents set calmly, as if they were in front of their TV watching a telenovela.
THAT WAS THE beginning of my love affair with flying. Soon after that I discovered Braniff Airlines and its colors and vibrancy and air of excitement. I flew it to New York and Chicago and loved every minute of it, and I mourned mightily when it went under. I loved the 707s and hated it when the 737s began to replace them, but that didn’t keep me from flying. I was excited when the 747 was introduced and couldn’t wait to fly on it. I got my wish when I flew from JFK to LAX, with a stop in Phoenix, aboard one of those giant graceful birds.
In 1984, when I was assigned to work out of Barbados, I loved the idea that in order for me to get to Central America or much of the Caribbean from that island, I first had to fly to Miami, and I started racking up miles on the Eastern Airlines frequent flier program. The first password I ever had to memorize was for this program, and it is still a valid password for my United frequent flier program (Eastern was bought by Continental, which merged with United). I loved flying back to Barbados on the L1011 used on that route. There was a certain whir to that plane’s engines that I had not heard before and haven’t heard since that was just so soothing and reassuring. The flight took off in the late afternoon, which meant that if I sat on the right side, I could look out the window to witness some spectacular Caribbean sunsets. I made it a habit to play (on my Walkman) either Rimzky-Korzakov’s Scheherazade or The New World Symphony by Dvorak, both perfect soundtracks for that orgasmic visual feast.
In 1982, I was covering politics for The Houston Post and I got to travel a lot with candidates for statewide office. My favorite was Mark White, who was running for governor. He flew all over the state but he insisted on spending every night in Austin, and every day, after the last campaign stop when the plane’s nose was pointed towards the state capital, we knew it would be only a matter of minutes following takeoff before White would say, “It’s time for a drink.” The complete opposite was flying with dour, sour Jim Mattox, who was running for attorney general. He did not drink.
With White there also was the extra thrill of riding on a helicopter, LBJ-style, from campaign stop to campaign stop in the Rio Grande Valley.
In 1998 I got to travel with Michael Dukakis in the general election campaign. I flew in the press plane that followed the candidate’s plane. It was called the zoo plane, for good reason. On that plane, there were a number of flight attendants, but their jobs were not to tell you to sit down or to buckle your seat belts. Their job was to make sure you had all the food and drink you needed or wanted, when you wanted it. And if there was any booze left over at the end of the day, they would distribute those little liquor bottles to anyone who wanted them. I don’t think I bought any alcohol for several months after the election was over.
On the last Saturday of the campaign, we started in Milwaukee and made stops in Chicago and one other place before a giant rally in McAllen, from which we flew to Denver to spend the night. It was decided that this being our last Saturday together, we would have a margarita party, and the flight crew made it happen. As soon as we left the McAllen airport, the margaritas started flowing (we also had Tex-Mex food). It so happened that my seat was right across from the galley so I spent the entire couple of hours or so to Denver standing there, gulping down one margarita, placing my glass on the counter and picking up another one (luckily most of our stories had been filed for the day before we left Texas). By the time we got to Denver I was so drunk that I have no memory of getting to the hotel and to this day I am amazed that I didn’t lose my Trash 80 computer or any of my other stuff (one radio reporter did lose his equipment and I never found out if he ever located it).
Dukakis had an early morning rally in Colorado and so we all had very early wake-up calls. I woke up with the worst hangover I have ever had. The schedule called for rallies in Oregon, Seattle and San Francisco with an overnight stay in San Francisco. Sometime during the day, however, somebody in the campaign decided that Dukakis needed to travel to Ohio for a last-minute rally. I guess polling showed that an Ohio win was possible. Ha! We were told that we had an option: join Dukakis on a smaller plane from Seattle to Cleveland, where Dukakis would attend a breakfast rally, then fly back to San Francisco — or fly from Seattle to San Francisco. I called my editor, hoping he’d tell me to skip Cleveland but it was not to be.
So, still hung over, I flew halfway across the country (back then I couldn’t sleep on planes, so there was no hope of getting any sleep), covered the breakfast rally, got back on the plane and flew back halfway across the country to San Francisco. They took us to the hotel to join the rest of the press corps but we were only there long enough to take a shower before we were hustled back on the bus. That was probably the most expensive shower I’ve ever taken because the room cost something like $400 a night!
And there I was, still hung over and with almost no sleep, following the candidate as he made his final push in Southern California. After his last rally in San Diego that night we were supposed to fly straight back to Boston but another smart-ass in the campaign decided it would be a good idea to stop in Des Moines for a final, final rally — at 4 a.m.! We finally made it to Boston around 8 on Election Day, where I was at last able to get some sleep and get rid of the two-day hangover. (I really need to go back to look at my clips to read what I wrote on those last few campaign days!)
But of all my flying experiences, nothing beats flying aboard the Concorde. I was back in Houston, in 1984, when British Airways decided to join American Airlines in flying the Concorde from London to Dallas for the summer. They invited reporters for the inaugural flight but our aviation reporter wasn’t interested and I quickly said I would do it. We flew from Texas to London on a regular plane and spent the night there. The next day we got to go to the airport to look at the plane.
I have a photo of myself somewhere, kicking the tires of the Concorde. Then the next day we got aboard that beautiful bird and flew across the Atlantic to Washington Dulles then on to Dallas. The pilots allowed the reporters to fly in the cockpit for a while and it just so happened that my turn came when we were about to land in Dallas, and so I got to experience, first a flyover DFW, and then the actual landing, all while looking over the pilots’ shoulders. It was over way too soon, but it was an experience I will never forget.
While I doubt that any aviation experience can equal that one, other than maybe flying into space, which I have no desire of doing, I am still looking forward to new ones. I was really hoping, for instance, that this trip would involve a flight on the 787 Dreamliner, and I certainly would like to fly on the Airbus double decker plane.
THE ONE THING about flying that I’ve noticed is that it puts me in a reflective and writing mood. So, all those who have encouraged me to write more, maybe you might want to send a few bucks my way so I can afford to fly more and write more.