Ah! When planes had legroom and allure
My first airplane ride was in 1954 on an Eastern Air Lines DC-3 -- a flying machine so sleek and celebrated that it made my heart pound the way it did when, on occasion, the Daily News ran cheesecake photos of burlesque queen Ann Corio in the center photo section.
The weekend trip to Washington, D.C., was sponsored by dear aunts, Rena and Dellie, as a means of toasting the entirely unexpected results of my high school entry exam to Brooklyn Tech: I got in! (Got in, yes, but owing to muddled teenage priorities and plane geometry, didn't remain. Rena and Dellie had high hopes, however, and off to the capital, we flew.)
A working-class kid from Brooklyn whose only trips aloft had been on the A&S elevator and parachute jump at Coney Island, I viewed the chance to sail through the skies no less phenomenal than the possibility that by shouting Shazam! I would assume neighborhood duties as Captain Marvel.
Breathlessly, I gazed at the aircraft. A version of the DC-3 had done heroic duty during World War II, but the plane before me did not look akin to G.I. Joe. To me, it was a rocket ship worthy of Buck Rogers, a shiny, silvery vehicle that might as easily whisk its passengers to outer space as a stop on the Eastern Seaboard. Awaiting its passengers, the beautiful airship looked restless, eager to shove off, to head for the clouds and wild blue yonder, where it belonged.
We boarded. The interior was swank and seats ample and comfy. Stewardesses were attentive and hospitable and, I thought, gorgeous as movie stars. Would I like a magazine? Was this my first flight? Have a wonderful time, dear. Holy cow, lady, will I ever! Flight time near, I settled into a window seat, Rena and Dellie nearby.
After racing so far down the runway that I thought perhaps the pilot had decided he would drive to Washington, the DC-3 was off the ground. Engines roared like Barnum & Bailey lions. Soon the skyscrapers of Manhattan were passing below, mighty stalagmites reaching toward our wingtips. The plane banked and, delirious, I pressed my nose to the pane. The world up here seemed limitless and, for a moment that I later learned would be rare, so did life's possibilities. "Ole Buttermilk Sky," I thought to myself, just like they sang on the radio.
We leveled off, the stewardess brought breakfast of some sort -- food at a few thousand feet was a grand idea, it seemed to me -- and I wondered if there would ever be another day like this. Seated around the cabin were men in business suits and women in stylish dresses. Whatta world! Landing in Washington was like coming out of a dream.
All this occurred to me recently after reading a newspaper story carrying the headline,"Oh, the humiliation of flying today."
It was familiar stuff reported by USA Today -- embarrassing security checks (an octogenarian traveler said she had to lower sweatpants to reveal her colostomy bag), off-color commentary by a screener who spotted someone carrying a sex toy and this assessment from a passenger advocate: "The entire travel process has become mean-spirited for the average unsuspecting air traveler -- whether it's having your genitals touched in a way meant only for your spouse or doctor or a surly flight attendant taking power and control issues to the next level."
Where did we go wrong?
What happened to the romance of flight, the armchair accommodations, the onboard breakfasts, the accommodating stewardesses, the passengers decked out as though attending a Broadway premiere?
Those looking for signs of a culture in decline can stop worrying about gay marriage, government overreach and the Chrysler bailout. When anthropologists look back at life in the early 21st century, they will say, aha, yes, just as we suspected, it all began to unravel when 80-year-old women had to show their surgical appliances and passengers were pressed into chairs the size of infant seats and airlines soaked customers for baggage, blankets and packages of processed cheese. No civilization can survive this sort of thing.
Oh, listen, I know -- terrorism, deregulation, tight operating margins, the airlines have their problems. But what once was a grand adventure has become a rush hour ride on the No. 3 train. The grandeur is gone -- way gone. Grandeur? Please. A stop-and-frisk would be more fun.
Yes, it's a grim business now. You can see it on the face of the traveling public. What used to be eagerness and anticipation -- let the voyage begin! -- has been replaced by the desperate hope that the airline hasn't double-booked your aisle seat and that one of the two tourist-class lavatories is in working order.
Nobody looks happy. Squeezed-in passengers are afraid to exhale and crew members seem to be thinking, why, why, why didn't I become an X-ray technician or an occupational therapist after all? Even first class may offer little relief. Quoted in The New York Times, Joe Brancatelli, editor of a business traveler website called JoeSentMe.com, declared: "You go into first class because it's less horrible than coach."
Coach was anything but horrible on my trip to Washington with Rena and Dellie aboard the glorious DC-3, but those days are over. Now I avoid flying whenever possible. My wife asks: What are you going to do, sit around the house for the rest of your life? What about Santa Fe? San Francisco? What about Prague, Berlin, Montevideo? Yes, I say, wonderful places all, no doubt.
Have you had a flying experience that's lasted a
lifetime? Good or bad, tell us about it. Email
email@example.com or write to Act 2 Editor, Newsday Newsroom, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11747-4250.