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I Finally Caved and Flew on the 'Worst Airline in America'
I Finally Caved and Flew on the 'Worst Airline in America'
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22 secret codes of travel insiders
VOL 006: Tunisian tortures and a Pan Am paradise
The magic of Disney dissolved during the following weeks into two distinct circles of hell. Obie was now functionally out of the picture, no longer living with us. A couple months remained till the end of the school year and plans were being put in place for Megan to head to San Diego, specifically the University of California, San Diego, with Dora and me to follow. Patrick and Sandy had become engaged to marry. As the weather warmed from winter to spring, my world blossomed, too. I enjoyed a novel, new sort of domestic calm, eagerly anticipating a bright California future, so relieved not to worry about any confrontations with my father.
Before he departed, I worried plenty. It was in this house, this year after Paris, where he and I had our largest blowup, actually.
HE AND I HAD OUR LARGEST BLOWUP
He ordered that the family would convene to watch Alfred Hithcock’s Family Plot, his final movie, as it made its broadcast debut some Saturday night. I had other plans. I’d been waiting all week for Love Boat. Gary Burghoff – Radar from M*A*S*H– was guest-starring as a passenger stuck in his cabin with a pregnant German shepherd. Radar! Puppies! This would be a Love Boat for the ages. (Or, at least, age appropriate for 8-year-olds.)
“Fine! But you won’t ever watch TV again!” my drunken father screamed at me as he gave me permission – under these supposedly absolute terms – to watch Love Boat on the tiny black-and-white TV in the kitchen. I was willing to accept whatever terms he set down, in that I could not willingly miss this episode. That simply was not an option. Granted, Pacific Princess sunsets lost something in the gray monochrome of the old TV, but they didn’t lose much, and I was confident that I’d chosen wisely.
It was this sometimes explosive variable, Obie, who’d been removed from my day-to-day equations. This tyrant. Every day of this winding-down spring calendar was peaceful. The rest of my life would be much the same, I reckoned, counting down to our return to San Diego’s bosom. I didn’t know exactly what sort of timetable we were on, but that was for Mom to worry over. When it came to moving west, I did wonder if we might fly, though. The Orlando roundtrip whet my appetite for the glamorous life, a life in flight.
Turned out we wouldn’t be flying. Or driving. Or that Dora was scratching off the days till our westward exodus in some well-organized calendar in some bureaucratic manila folder. Cue the first hellish circle.
Patrick and Sandy were at the house, up from Georgia Tech. This must’ve been that little warm window between the end of the collegiate spring semester and the end of the high school fourth quarter. May? Maybe they’d come up for Megan’s graduation from West Springfield High School. I recall her 1978 graduation song being the theme from Mahogany. This should’ve been a pleasant time, but Dora had to come clean. Back to the kitchen, the arena of all our family dramas. There she laid it out: She’d met a man. With her new job, the one she needed if she was going to support us as a single mom, she’d met Ed while commuting on the bus. Come again? They’d actually seen enough of each other that Ed asked my mother not to move. If possible, please put California on hold and let’s see if we might just have a future together. From a rom-com point of view, this was a blessed turn of events. A door had closed for my mother, but an even better window flew open on her future.
I GRIEVED FOR MY LOST FUTURE
WITH HEAVING, PRIMAL SOBS
Of course, that’s not how I saw it.
To me, my glorious return had just been sabotaged by a man (of course) whom I’d not even met. How could I compete? I closed my eyes and all I could see was my future being destroyed by this “Ed” man. This is where my childhood died. I fled. I bolted downstairs to the suburban “rec room.” There was a sleeping bag laid out in the middle of the room, though I can’t remember why. Maybe I was having a week’s fascination with camping. Who knows? For whatever reason, it was there and I knew I wanted in. Into that bag I buried myself, zippers zipped just as far as they might go. Inside this poly-blend, downy cocoon, I screamed and I cried and I damned this interloping Ed and my mother’s acquiescence to his wish. Inside this synthetic cocoon I grieved for my lost future with heaving, primal sobs. Didn’t Dora realize how wonderful life could be again? Could this Obie encore possibly be better than Sea World and Pacific Beach and Aunt Betsy? Inside this cocoon, I transformed. My first stage of childhood ended. Coaxing from Sandy – the one furthest removed from the betrayal, and thus the one with the best chance of being trusted – eventually got me out of the bag. She promised I could join her and Patrick on their planned honeymoon to Hawaii. It was a lie, but that was OK. That was part of my new reality. I’d gone into that sleeping-bag cocoon a little boy. I emerged not as an adult, but no longer quite a child. I emerged with my first hint of cynicism. When wielded properly, this new tool could protect my evolved iteration better than any sleeping bag. And just in time for the second circle of hell.
It started off well enough. The “broken” family’s traditional summer means time with Dad. Being new to this, it seemed traditional was best. We needed our footing before we ventured too far afield from what had been. With Dad’s new posting, this meant a summer in Tunisia. Megan was old enough to refuse. But the government would pay for her roundtrip, so why not? For me, the trip was mandatory. I don’t know what visitation was included in the divorce settlement, if any. I’m sure my father would’ve wanted his fair share, as a matter of pride if nothing else. I certainly can’t imagine him tearfully pounding his fist on some law firm’s table demanding more time with his boy. With the finances somehow settled, for better or worse, other details would be superfluous. So, bound by convention, Megan and I were off to Tunis.
It was back to National for our departure, though my recollection of this trip doesn’t really kick in till the Saarinen TWA Flight Center at JFK. With Saarinen’s Dulles already imprinted on me, there was a familiarity to this modern space. Using the D.C. National original terminal conjured images of World War II, as I knew it, meaning Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, aka Army nurse Diana Prince, fighting Nazis in the 1940s, as presented on 1970s TV. These Saarinen terminals, on the other hand, were youthful. DCA’s classic beauty gave way to something more dynamic and fluid. This was the world I was born into, not a leftover from my elders’. These terminals were built for jets and for my generation. This was modern, and it moved me. Saarinen’s lines were not there to convey a message of firmness or nobility. Simply, these buildings existed to serve. Their message was no message at all. I am here to help you move, to traverse the world for business or pleasure, in form that supports you without outshining you. The magic of my design is that in looking good, I make you look even better.
We were flying to Tunis via Paris, and I was excited about the trip. For the first time, I’d even packed my only little carry-on accoutrements, mostly Richie Rich comic books. Richie was my role model for my new contempo lifestyle. My family’s hip, because we’re divorced. We may not be heading off to Southern California, but I’m flying to Africa! Through New York! And Paris! Take that, Family Affair. You rich Manhattanites may have your uncle’s penthouse and a manservant, but I’m going to the Mediterranean and my parents – sophisticated divorcees – are alive! Better still, I spotted something on this trip that had escaped my attention previously: UM’s. Unaccompanied Minors have always existed, surely. On steamships, railroads, stagecoaches – you name it. But the cultural shift to divorce clearly upped the numbers of kids like me, boarded onto planes by Mom, picked up at arrivals by Dad for the summer. I began to notice these children – some frightened, some aloof, none seemingly excited or happy – and felt an additional bucket of gratitude that Megan was with me on this trip. Nine years older, she was already a sort of “fun mom” or unpaid nanny. With her as my escort, I would not have to wear the hideous brand of the Unaccompanied Minor, the large laminated card with the giant “UM” hanging from a lanyard around the neck. Not at all my idea of jet-set glamour. It was a label more befitting of cargo.
So, in my tasteful Garanimals wardrobe, off to Tunis we went. In Paris, we connected to a Tunisair 727 for the relatively short flight to Tunis-Carthage International Airport, my first time aboard a non-U.S. airline. I wondered why – after the French and Arabic – announcements were still made in English, grateful for the privilege of the world accommodating American me. At 8, nearly 9, it was not, however, a life of ease. As National Airlines schooled me in the stress of running for a plane, some airline along this journey was responsible for teaching me that luggage sometimes goes missing, and that perhaps a carryon should hold more than Richie Rich comic books, colored pens, and drawing paper.
Arriving in exotic 1978 North Africa, groggy from the jet lag, wondering if my newly divorced dad might behave differently, perhaps more pleasantly in that he was no longer burdened with family, through the chaos of a loud airport and my muddled thoughts, it was discovered that my little light-blue Samsonite had gone missing.
As with the consequences of missed flights, I was not warned of this possibility. Missing? Where would it go? This is how tenuously civilization runs? Dear God, if a passenger’s luggage could go missing in this industry of gate agents, pilots, baggage handlers, mechanics, international treaties, radar stations, and schedules, then the world the adults were running was far, far less sturdy than I’d inferred. No wonder the Cold War had everyone so freaked out. If this was how civilization (barely) operated, these adults might rightly think the bombs could blow us all up accidentally. We were lucky our plane didn’t fall out of the sky.
Obie, however, knew just how to lighten the mood and ease my prepubescent anxieties. “The law’s different here,” he began explaining on the ride to his house in black town car, a Tunisian chauffer from the embassy at the wheel. “So you’re going to stay here until you’re 18.”
MY SUITCASE HAD DISAPPEARED AND I WAS BEING KIDNAPPED
Even he wouldn’t be in Tunisia till I was 18. It was a four-year assignment. Of course, I didn’t know that. All I knew was that my suitcase had disappeared and I was being kidnapped. “But I’m supposed to go back to school in…,” I started. Tears began to well. I was on the verge of a complete freak-out, and not a sleeping bag in sight.
“Dad,” my sister tried to speak up, sheepishly. We’d all been trained for so many years to try to avoid direct confrontation. She knew he was full of shit, but she couldn’t advise me of that in front of him.
“There’s a school here,” my father countered. “Just get used to it.”
I began to cry, which added to my stress in that he might call me a “candyass” if my crying irritated him. I did my best to cry silently. When my frailties were exposed, “candyass” was he preferred term for me. I didn’t want him to pull it out, because that would make everything so much worse. He employed a very peculiar parenting psychology. It was the same with tasks beyond my capacity. If there was some chore I couldn’t master, some directive beyond my reasoning, I could count on his ready chestnut: “Godammit, Billy, a dog with a hammer up its ass could figure that out.” Such a vivid picture that painted, the phrase served only to distract me further. Which end? Is this something that’s ever happened? Was this a glimpse into his psychology, or maybe something his father had yelled at him when he was a child? What an odd, absurd metaphor.
For the short ride to Dad’s temporary house, I meekly wept. My sister rolled her eyes at Dad’s sadism. He didn’t really talk much. He just sat in the seat, eyes forward, as we drove to his residential Tunis neighborhood. Obie’s predecessor, Col. Cox, was still in the defense attaché’s house, leaving us in another embassy-owned home for a couple weeks.
In we went to this dusty, shuttered house on a dusty street. It was roomy, certainly, though relatively threadbare. It was not a lived-in home, save for the fantastically large, lumbering orange cockroaches Megan and I would hunt with bug spray some afternoons to allay our boredom. We settled in. Megan told me, privately, that Dad’s dictate that I’d spend the next decade in Tunisia, no visitation with Dora whatsoever, was a “joke.” She even promised me that she wouldn’t leave the country without me. Wonderful. We’d both have the next decade of our lives ruined by our stubborn father. I appreciated the gesture. That she wouldn’t make that sort of commitment if she actually thought she might have to honor it helped convince me that Obie’s threat was a paper tiger.
My fears diminished. We could go about simply having a summer, though the boredom was sometimes torturous. Obie would be gone during daytime, working at the embassy. Megan would read, or tan. I’d tried to find paperback novels I might understand a bit among my father’s or of those merely abandoned by unkown predecessors in that transient house.
Despite its psychologically abusive start, that Tunisian summer was a wondrous couple months. Moving into Dad’s permanent residence after Col. Cox’s departure (It took me weeks to figure out why Obie would tease “Don’t say dirty words” every time I mentioned Col. Cox’s name.), we had a pool to walk to at the Hilton atop the hill on which the house sat. One of the kids I hung out with, when the opportunity arose, was Joe, another divorce-summer kid. His dad worked in oil, and he’d come over from Texas. Being the same age and in roughly the same circumstance, we fit together. I even went away with him, his dad, sister, and a couple of her friends for a golfing weekend at one of the coastal resorts. Jack the dad would play golf, and we’d hang out by the massive pool. That’s where I learned it was possible to place a lunch order and sign a room number that was not your own. It was a one-time crime of privilege, as none of us needed to steal bread to feed our children. I still feel guilty. Through diversions like these, I was distracted from being kidnapped and became hopeful that at the end of the summer I would be rightfully returned to my mother.
Yolanda, a woman from the embassy, was often at the house and helped to soothe the savage beast. Robin wasn’t due to arrive till autumn, and Obie couldn’t last long without the company of women. I was so grateful for her. Evenings might be Yolanda, Megan, Obie, and me playing hearts, Yolanda sipping her vodka on the rocks. Dad, Megan, and I even toured the country for a few days, apparently so Dad could photograph a Soviet freighter in Sfax. That also meant an idyllic day on the island of Djerba and a night under a burlap blanket and couscous with goat herders in the desert holes of Matmata, made famous a year earlier as Chez Skywalker on Tatooine. It was there that Megan and I rode a camel.
That day, riding the camel, Megan taught me that the single-humped iteration is a dromedary. Two humps is a Bactrian camel. Now you know. Photo by Obie.
The highlight of these weeks, which were scented with jasmine and serenaded by Barry Manilow – “Copa Cabana” was red hot that summer, and we’d drop anything when it came on in the radio in the kitchen, a little taste of home – was the arrival of Patrick and Sandy. They joined us for the tail end of the visit. Surely the combined might of Patrick, Sandy, and Megan could wrest me free of my father, should he attempt to make good on his threat, I rationalized. Come summer’s end, he did not.
WEEKS SCENTED WITH JASMINE AND SERENADED BY BARRY MANILOW
Obie did, however, go at least a little bit nuts. Just a couple days before our departure, drinking heavily after dinner, he decided that some twine – remnant of some package mailed to him – should come in handy for me to scale the side of the house. It shouldn’t be too difficult, he coached. I could use the metal grate fronting the first-floor windows as footholds. Patrick tried to suggest this was not a good idea, making his counter-argument from the second-floor balcony as he tied the twine to the railing. But, again, over the course of so many years of poor parenting, Patrick and Megan learned not to confront Obie directly. This was his court and his rule should not be challenged. I stood there, anxiously, wondering if the fall onto the stone terrace that would surely follow would kill me. Would I land on my head? Perhaps if I fell intentionally before I’d gotten too far, I’d be excused. Then again, if I didn’t injure myself substantially, perhaps my bruises and I would simply be ordered to make another go of it. But Yolanda was not one of Obie’s subjects. She had an authority – as a non-familial witness – to put a stop to this particular entertainment. Whether he didn’t want his buffoonery getting back to the embassy, or whether the sober part of his brain simply trusted Yolanda’s judgment, I don’t know. Whatever it was, she got me off that hook.
Come the day of our departure, Dad’s behavior made it obvious that he was acting out because of separation anxiety. At least, that’s how it looks in retrospect.
In the den, where we had played hearts so many balmy evenings during the summer, he sat listening to Chinese communist opera, the minutes to our flight ticking down. Sandy began with comments like, “Uhm, we should probably think about getting to the airport,” a bit of tension in her voice. “Plenty of time!” my father would respond. I had no idea when the first leg of the trip home, Tunisair to Rome, was due to leave, but thanks to National Airlines, I knew there were consequences for missed flights. Perhaps I’d be doomed to spend the rest of my youth in Tunisia after all.
That wasn’t my primary anxiety, though. I was confident Sandy would guarantee a timely arrival to the airport, even if it meant walking. She was clearly eager to get back home. No, I worried about seating. There were four of us. How would this work? Sandy, the alpha of our group of four, would not be left alone. She would have Patrick adjacent. But would Megan be willing to sit with me? Surely by late August she’d had her fill of kiddie company. She might be desperate to spend her airborne hours with her own peer group. Let the flight attendants babysit me, she’d done her duty. Would I sit with some stranger? Maybe in a middle seat? However I worked the variables, I knew seats went three and three. I might not be alone, but we four would not all be together. I did not panic, but I did obsess.
So did Sandy. Megan and Patrick probably did, too, but it was Sandy who pushed Obie. At one of her promptings, he asked for the time, then feigned alarm. “We’ve got to go!” It was the same sort of humor that welcomed me to Tunis. He savored Sandy’s tension as long as he could, knowing full well he’d wait till the last minute to get us to the airport, also knowing full well he’d have us there in time. He made me suffer at the beginning of the summer, taking some sort of pleasure in my stress. It seemed to soothe that sad part of him that mourned the end of his first family. Now, Sandy’s stress comforted him as he braced himself for a large, empty house. Sadism wasn’t my father’s hallmark, but there were undeniable traces.
In minutes, we’d gone from characters in a peculiar, mildly exotic family drama set in the patriarch’s castle, to the byzantine riddles of departing from Carthage-Tunis International. The large hall was all noise. I was encumbered by my new carryon, this time a Tunisian birdcage. About a foot tall and a foot wide, made of wire and little support structure, round edges, toting this thing through the airport, particularly as a pint-size 9-year-old, was akin to carrying papier-mâché sculpture. It was firm enough to annoyingly bump into my legs, lightly bouncing if we had to hurry, yet delicate enough that I had to worry about it at all times. “Ah! It’s going through the x-ray machine – it will be crushed!” Family-planning classes should force horny teens to carry a Tunisian birdcage around for a week if they really want to put a dent in unplanned pregnancies.
SHOULD FORCE HORNY TEENS
TO CARRY AROUND A TUNISIAN BIRDCAGE FOR A WEEK
Aside from the standard x-rays, Tunisians had layers of security unmatched back in the states. While terrorism was rampant seemingly worldwide in the 1970s, it was only in Tunis that I had to identify my luggage from the assorted pieces sitting by the 727 on the tarmac. “Aha! The Tunisians have figured out a way to prevent lost luggage,” I surmised. “What a clever people.”
On board, I was relieved to be sitting with Megan, across the aisle from Patrick and Sandy for the hour-long flight to Rome. On the flight, I shared with Megan how impressed I was with the Tunisian system for eradicating lost luggage. Surely she recalled how I’d suffered such a fate at the beginning of our trip. “It’s for bombs,” she explained flatly, with the sophisticated disinterest of an adolescent on the verge of adulthood, the trip marking the end of her last summer before college. It took me a few minutes to work out how this system might work. Once the proper synapses connected, I wondered if anyone on our flight appeared crazed enough to allow his own bomb-filled bag to join him on a one-way trip. Though the truth was far more cynical than my childish imaginings, the important truth remained: My little blue Samsonite loaner might not make it home, but it sure as fuck was going to make it to Rome. (Between the sleeping-bag incident and the realization that adults intentionally blow up themselves and others, it was understandable that I’d begun peppering my thoughts with profanity.)
Rome was a scary airport. For two reasons. First, the baggage procedure in Tunis was quaint compared to Rome. Guards with machine guns paced the catwalks above us. Being Romans, their little metal perches high above us could’ve just as easily have been Fashion Week catwalks. These guys with the iron jaw lines – noticeable from far below – and dark uniforms owned the place. Their guns, while aggressively stylish accessories, gave me the willies. I had once seen my father’s shotgun, and thought it rustic. So very out of character, my upstate New York, Francophile pop enjoyed Hee-Haw – presumably for the same reason he would watch episodes of Benny Hill dubbed in languages he couldn’t comprehend: tits and ass – so the shotgun didn’t seem deadly to anything more than ducks and assorted varmints. The Rome weaponry, by comparison, was something to take very seriously. Difficult-to-ignore, handheld flesh-shredders occupied the space above my head. In my child’s mind of banana-peel mishaps and Flinstones buffoonery, anything could happen. Maybe it wouldn’t even be an accidental massacre. I never saw security like this at Dulles; there must be a reason for their presence. This wasn’t Leonardo da Vinci – Fiumicino Airport – it was Dodge City. It was a good thing I did not know that five years earlier Palestinian terrorists executed an operation both in the terminal and aboard a Pan Am 707 on the tarmac, resulting in 30 deaths. Preparing for my first Pan Am flight that late-August afternoon, I would’ve just been too unnerved.
While the guns were plenty, the second Rome fright came as my older traveling companions scrutinized our itinerary. In Rome, they’d received more information about our Pan Am Flight 111 to JFK, and they could not escape the truth: The travel agent at the embassy had miscalculated, and we would have no connecting flight to Washington.
It’s not that there were delays of any sort, merely that our itinerary had us arriving in New York well after our flight to Washington had already departed. In that world without Internet, of paper tickets that often included much of their cryptic, coded language printed by hand; in a world where flight schedules were regularly published in heavy, encyclopedic volumes of more abbreviated language and numbers; there wasn’t much to be done. It would all be sorted out in New York hours later. My imagination could toy with that for eight hours across the Atlantic. Where will I sit? Will I be shot? Will we be mugged as we troll New York in search of help? Travel was becoming so, so stressful.
But not without its rewards, and here came mine.
I WAS SURE IT WAS AN AIRPLANE,
BUT NOT LIKE ANY PLANE I’D EVER SEEN
At boarding, I got my first glimpse of that beautiful winged beast. Just a tiny glance through a bit of terminal window as moved through the gate to the jetway. What had I just spied? I was sure it was an airplane, but not like any plane I’d ever seen.
The Boeing 747 had been flying for a decade, but I obviously hadn’t gotten the news. Stepping aboard into the coach cabin, my heart skipped a beat. Two aisles? Oh. My. God. I’ve flown across the Atlantic seven times, and I’ve missed this?? This is not a plane. This is a city. And miracle of miracles, in this dual-aisle Valhalla, there are four middle seats together.
The thrill of this amazing introduction washed over me, popping my anxieties like harmless bubbles. The cheeriness of the cabin’s colors was heightened by the Roman sun streaming through the windows. At 9, likely still shorter than 5 feet, this was a cavernous wonderland. I had found my promised land. And it only improved from there. Lunch was topped off with my very first Peach Melba. Ice cream being among the hardiest offerings in the fight against cabin pressure dulling one’s sense of taste, I couldn’t believe my sweet, creamy and cold good luck. It took a heated turn when we dimmed the lights for the movie. Terence Hill starred in Mr. Billion. Sure, Valerie Perrine and Jackie Gleason filled some screen, but I only had eyes for the smokin’ hot Hill. Don’t let the name fool you – Terence was a slender Italian, real name Mario Girotti. “I have no father, Mr. Billion. Adopt me! I’m a free agent,” I pleaded in my most personal thoughts. The dimpled chin, the ice-blue eyes, those tight, tight jeans…. Could he be any hotter? No, he could not. Terence Hill was my first notion of male perfection. How sad I was to later learn this movie was not critically acclaimed. Not in the slightest. The Captain & Tennille performing “Muskrat Love” on the inflight audio clinched that this flight was so far beyond any Elysium I could’ve possibly imagined.
All things – good, bad, or neither – come to an end, and so did my trip to paradise. Terence Hill was my forbidden fruit, and there’s no doubting I would’ve bitten if given the chance. We had landed in New York and it was time for my expulsion from Eden. What a full eight hours it had been. My first man crush. My first Peach Melba. My first Pan Am flight. And, most importantly, my first 747, never to be forgotten.
Now all the tension could return. Oh, that’s right – stuck in New York. Patrick, Sandy, and Megan were all older than I, but I sort of knew they were still kids. Patrick, by merit of being ROTC, was best trained for our predicament, I reasoned. Sandy was strong, but Patrick had training. I didn’t know what kind of training, but I’d been raised to trust the military and I did. Those Marines at the embassies, soldiers at Fort Belvoir, sailors of the USS Yarnell I toured when it docked in Tunis all gave me a sense of confidence. But we needed a solid directive, needed to call HQ. “Hi, Mom?” Dora may not have had all the answers, but she needed to be advised why we were AWOL. I hate to think she might’ve wondered if Obie had, after all, found a way to kidnap us, Sandy and all. With Dora apprised of the situation, it was up to us to get ourselves to Washington, which – in keeping with the day’s theme of firsts – allowed me my first glimpse of New York City. Circumstances forced us to take a taxi to LaGuardia and fly this last leg on the Eastern shuttle. I couldn’t see much of the city, but grainy images did find a way into my psyche, images that would resurface when I watched the early seasons openings of Saturday Night Live.
Finally, those many hours after abandoning poor old Obie in Tunis, we were exiting at National. Dora, however, was not there to meet us. There just wouldn’t have been enough room. Ed’s Oldsmobile was roomier than her Datsun station wagon, possibly. More likely, it was a stroke of social engineering to have Dan, Ed’s college-age son, home for summer, pick us up as a way of introducing him to us. It was time to forge our new post-divorce families. Sorry, Mr. Billion. I am not a free agent. My dad may be an ocean away, but I’ve got new family obligations to manage. It’s time to meet Ed.
UP NEXT, VOL 007: FOURTH GRADE, FAT, AND FLYING HIGH