VOL 001: taking flight
It’s not as though it was difficult to find an airline to carry you across the Atlantic in 1970. European flag carriers were still stumbling over one another, no country wanting to miss the prestige. Fly BOAC, aka the British Overseas Airways Corporation, precursor to 1974’s British Airways. Fly Belgium’s Sabena. Fly Swissair or KLM’s Flying Dutchman.
My Baltimore-born mother had difficulties, nonetheless. Although a veteran traveler – having crossed on the SS America just after World War II, returning with her family to Swiss roots almost entirely alien to her, then off to Brazil for her high school years – circumstances had changed. For one thing, she’d given birth to me about six months prior. Dora the veteran traveler was also an experienced mother. Preceded by two others, Patrick and Megan, I wasn’t a novelty. What was new was that she was separated. My Francophile father, career Army and stationed at the U.S. embassy in Paris, had gotten a little too immersed in the culture, right down to the illicit affair with a coworker.
...RIGHT DOWN TO THE ILLICIT AFFAIR
WITH A COWORKER
More than 40 years later, I’m surprised that my mother remembers the woman’s name, though I suppose I would, too, if I’d been in her position. And that position was absolute chaos. She had no suspicions. She was oblivious. Or, at least, not paying quite so much attention to my dad, considering she had an infant to care for, along with the two elementary-school-aged kids. So, rather than sleuthing on Obie’s – the nickname he carried from college, presumably the bastardization of our last name – sexing, Dora had the rug pulled out from under her when he delivered the news, quixotically.
“I’ve lost my white plume.”
As with my mother, the reference would’ve been lost on me. Neither of us has read Cyrano de Bergerac. Perhaps Obie hadn’t either, but he had seen the 1950 movie starring José Ferrer in the title role. It was an awfully lofty way of confessing the infidelity. But he was a theatrical – and horny – guy. I’m told he excelled, by some measure, in high school and college theater. I think he had a hearty enthusiasm for Gene Kelley. Among the oldest photographs I have of him is onstage, gesticulating while wearing a get-up that had him looking like Col. Sanders. I’ve no idea the title of the play, but I’m pretty sure it was during his Herkimer, N.Y., high school career.
Dora, on the other hand, never expressed much theatricality. In fact, I learned about 70 years after the fact that she was paralyzed by stage fright during a childhood piano recital, fleeing the spotlight before she’d barely begun. The experience left Dora with a knot of stress near her right shoulder blade, a constant dull pain unaddressed till sometime in the 21st century, thanks to a wise acupuncturist. “Do you have any ongoing aches? For how long? Since 1945?” Although Dora’s nature is to avoid drama, to avoid conflict, who knows what sorts of hormones, what possible hints of postpartum depression, she may have already been juggling. And then this cryptic confession. She remembers first blaming herself for my father’s womanizing, but then letting the anger flow. It was the anger that fueled her exodus to Switzerland, where her parents were conveniently retired. I’m not sure what succor she got there.
IT WAS THE ANGER THAT FUELED
HER EXODUS TO SWITZERLAND
When I first learned of the visit, I thought I recognized the photos, summertime in Comano, in the pleasantly Italian chunk of the chocolaty, Alpine motherland. I’m being held by my grandmother, Ella. Swissly stoic Grandfather Paul sits at the periphery. My brother and sister played. My father even came down from Paris for a visit. The Swiss being masters of the cold shoulder, I guessed my mother and her parents simply ignored him for the most part and spoke German to leave him alienated.
Those were the wrong photos.
Dora later corrected me, pointing to the dreary black-and-white bunch of her, Ella, and Megan walking along snowy fields. My Swiss engineer grandfather, stiff as an evergreen, was a shutterbug with a good eye for composition. I grew up thinking this set was his effort at artistic expression. Maybe it was. But now I know that what he was capturing was the bleakness in my mother’s psyche. Upon getting the “white plume” pronouncement, delivered not in sunny summer, but in dreary, darker months, Dora grabbed Megan and fled across the border. My father and the very capable “B.C.,” who was sort of a housekeeper/nanny, had to care for Patrick and me. How long Dora exiled herself, I don’t know. Considering Megan couldn’t be gone too long from school, it couldn’t have been more than a week or so.
The snowy Swiss exile from Dora’s albums. Grandma Ella, Megan, and Dora.
Somewhere during this period, late 1969 to early 1970, Dora managed to officially separate from Obie and wrangle from the Department of Defense plane tickets to California. My first flight. This was a feat, my mother boasts, in that she didn’t tick the right boxes. The government pays to relocate an Army family to a new assignment. It pays to repatriate an ex-spouse and the kids in the case of a divorce. But a nebulous separation? That was tricky. But if Swiss roots don’t come in handy in a bureaucratic battle, what good are they? Her tenacity, letter-writing and typing skills, carbon-paper copies, etc., won they day. We were off!
My mother can’t remember the airline, but she does remember some details. First of all, since we were flying courtesy of the U.S. government, the carrier had to be American. That likely narrows it to Pan Am or TWA. I’m guessing TWA. Second, we were flying from Paris to Los Angeles.
In my initial queries, Dora couldn’t remember any layover. Then it came to her: London. Inconsequential, as far as she’s concerned. It would’ve meant the world to me! The time and place marked a milestone, with the world’s first scheduled 747 flight, Pan Am from New York to London, arriving just a couple days prior, Jan. 22, 1970. Clipper Victor’s arrival into London was as wonky as ours, if technical rather than emotional. CV was actually a replacement 747, rather than the one first lady Pat Nixon had christened mid-month at Dulles. An engine issue prompted the swap, leading to a seven-hour delay. History was made, but the milestone was lost on Dora. Her non-confrontational demeanor may have flowed into me, but my love of commercial aviation did not flow back. (Enjoy British Pathé's fun newsreel of the London arrival here!)
As for our less-noteworthy trek to L.A., Dora picked the destination to be closer to Betsy, her older sister. In San Diego, Betsy had established a sort of wonderful matriarchy. Aunt Betsy kept the family lore. She hosted all sorts of far-flung relations who landed on her Southern California doorstep. Wisely, she secured her position by marrying a man slightly shorter than herself and possibly not too much smarter, and conceiving four daughters to outweigh the one son. That son may have rebelled, thought not potently enough to upset the balance. His most notable protest was growing to be the tallest of them all – though not enough to crack Betsy’s benevolent rule.
Back onboard my aerial debut, Dora was seated at the economy bulkhead with Patrick, Megan, and me. I alternated between her lap and a bassinette on the floor. I theorize that lying on the cabin floor infused my sinuses with some distinct odor of airplane carpet. It’s likely on all the cabin fabrics, but all rolled up on the floor I’m betting I inhaled a really powerful dose of it. Those industrial cabin scents are heavy, certain to pool on the floor, whether a toxic fluid used to protect the upholstery or the thick whiff of gravy off the economy-class chicken. Considering the era, cigarette smoke would also be a pungent flavor in the mix. I enjoy those scents the way some enjoy new-car smell. The pleasure is not dissimilar to what I feel when I catch a hint of diesel exhaust, which reminds me of amusement-park motors powering roller coasters and go-carts. I love the smell of airplanes, inside and out.
DORA REMEMBERS THE FLIGHT BEING UNEVENTFUL,
SAVE FOR SNAPPING AT A FLIGHT ATTENDANT
Dora remembers the flight being uneventful, save for snapping at a flight attendant. She can’t recall the reason she let her claws out, even if she still remembers that she did. It simply confirms, however, that her nerves were raw. Dora’s crankiness is only expressed when she’s under extreme pressure or pain. Her modus operandi is to bury her raw emotions – hence the 70-year-old stage-fright shoulder knot.
The other element of the trip my mother remembers is the fog. Landing in Los Angeles in late January – based on archival reports of severe fog – Aunt Betsy and Uncle Bob were there to meet us. I doubt there was much joy in the reunion, Dora running halfway around the world to her older sister, possibly embarrassed by her husband’s cheating, envious of Betsy’s solid marriage. (Note: Dora doesn’t quite agree with this characterization, but I argue that everyone should be envious of Betsy and Bob’s marriage. It’s that good.) But Dora’s self-respect gave her few, if any, other options. Adding to the nauseating loss of footing, Dora remembers the weather with a hint of fear in the retelling. The nighttime drive from LAX to San Diego was buried in mist. A carful of children and misery, wrapped in nighttime fog, as Bob piloted the car south to San Diego, guided only by the brake lights in front of him. Frustration on top of sorrow, numbed by exhaustion. Not much of a celebration for her 38th birthday at January's end.
We arrived in San Diego at the dawn of the 1970s, a busy decade for my family. Dora tells me that it began not only with the separation and move back the U.S., but with her scorned scheming to end my father’s affair. It was a mistake for him to allow Dora to learn that when he was on an assignment in Vietnam, he and his coquettish (I’m guessing) Paris companion enjoyed a Hong Kong rendezvous. Dora can strategize masterfully when motivated, and took a taxpayer’s tack. She penned a letter to the Department of Defense, advising that government employees should not be jetting off to exotic locales for illicit encounters on Uncle Sam’s dime. Was the Pentagon aware that her husband and this single civil servant were arranging their work itineraries to accommodate such scandalous sojourns? That letter, addressed to whom it may concern, was sealed and placed inside another envelope on which she wrote a warning that her enclosed message was intended solely for someone with authority in private personnel matters. That outer envelope she then placed into a third – her nesting dolls of adultery – and mailed to a generic Pentagon address.
Though she has no definitive proof, she is satisfied her letter hit its target. A couple years later, marriage intact, in Springfield, Va., to where we’d relocated for Obie’s Pentagon/South Asian assignments, Dad attempted a booze-fueled interrogation. He took Dora to a suburban fondue place. Early 1970s fashionable, yes, but, Dad, French? Seriously? The dinner conversation focused on whether Dora had made some mention of the affair to his Pentagon superiors. Obie succeeded in getting Dora drunk, but not in shaking her down. His assignments in Southeast Asia continued, and so did their marriage.