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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

My First Plane Flight

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 6/20/2024
Occurred: 9/19/1969
Posted: 7/25/2007
Page Views: 5365
Topics: #Florida #Humor #Travel #Autobiography
My first flight was rougher than I had expected.

How in 1969, I managed to embarrass myself and disgrace my family name for generations to come…all during a 20-minute jet flight from Jacksonville to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

In 1968 a "new kid" showed up to join our class. His name was John Palmes; he had moved to St. Augustine from a small town in the Lakeland area. We became friends, even though he was a jock, because his widowed mother couldn't afford to outfit him for the football team.

We hung out during the year, even on weekends. I liked his family, too. It was when I had scrambled eggs his mother made that I learned for the first time that some people add milk to them before cooking—something that (in my opinion) improves the taste immensely.

After graduation in 1969, when his family moved to Hollywood, Florida, I made a trip to visit them there. That was my first plane flight.

The carrier was Delta, and my ticket was expensive—over $50. Hollywood is in south Florida and St. Augustine in the north; I had never driven that far and didn't yet own a car, anyway; so flying seemed a reasonable way to get there. (On the other hand, even with my summer lifeguard job, I couldn't afford to fly both ways; so I bought a $25 Greyhound Bus ticket for the return.)

Mine would be a late flight, arriving at Fort Lauderdale airport after midnight. That meant it left Jacksonville late, as well. I convinced my mom to drive me there—40 miles north to go 300 miles south. The airport itself is some 20 miles north of the city of Jacksonville proper. When we arrived, Mom parked in a parking lot—there were no parking garages there, then.

There was, of course, no "security" either—no X-rays, no guards; just pleasant, helpful people (mostly cleaning people, at that hour). We both walked directly to the gate and sat to wait for the flight to board.

I was very excited. In 1969, before the first moon landing, jet travel was the very latest thing and the upscale way to travel. Stewardesses (not ""flight attendants") wore ultra-chic outfits and not a single strand of hair was out of place. Even the lady at the flight check-in counter was perfectly coifed and attired, as she accepted my ticket and assigned my seat. She treated me in the most business-like manner, although I was almost the only other person there. Very few passengers would be joining the flight at this point.

Right on time, the plane arrived and disgorged passengers from Up North who would be going no further. In exactly 20 minutes, we were permitted to board—all twelve of us.

Waving goodbye to Mom, I walked down the jetway and into my first jet plane—indeed, my first aircraft of any type. There were already passengers aboard, most of them sleeping, leftovers from the first leg of the jet's journey from New York. Even so, the flight was not crowded. The door through which we entered opened into a small section; but beyond that was a much larger one. In fact, the aisle that stretched ahead of me was so long I was overcome with the need to say something about it. There was a guy, maybe a little older than me, wearing a sailor's uniform, sitting in the smaller (first class) cabin, who was awake; so I remarked to him, "I went to a small, Catholic high school, and I have to tell you, this plane is about as big as it was."

The sailor regarded me with some derision and replied, without missing a beat, "It probably has more to offer, too."

The interior of the jet was sleek and compact, just as I expected. I found the seat labels and located mine. On this uncrowded flight I wouldn't have any seat-mates.

The stewardess closed the heavy aircraft door, then, as we taxied to the runway, she demonstrated how to use the seatbelt. I paid close attention. Few cars had seatbelts in those days, and the ones that did each featured unique fastening devices. So it was helpful to learn how to use these properly.

Finally, the jet came to a brief stop and the stewardess, after warning us to put up our tray tables and place our seats in an "upright and locked position," belted herself into her special stewardess seat (which looked very uncomfortable). I could hardly breathe, so great was my anticipation. Suddenly, the engines roared behind me and the seat seemed to shove me forward. The airport lights whizzed past my window. Then, almost when it seemed like nothing else would happen, the front of the jet tilted upward, I sank into my seat, and we were airborne!

The Gulf Tower at nightJacksonville in the 1960s was not what you'd call an attractive city. There was only one really tall building, the 27-storey Gulf Life tower (these days known as Riverplace Tower); the other structures were squat and old. But at night, from the air—it was like a fairy village, with thousands of lights twinkling. I was surprised to discover that, with even a little altitude, scale seems to shift; even the Gulf Life tower seemed to be a model just a few feet tall.

And then the massive sprawl of what was, even then, one of the world's largest cities, rotated and tilted beneath us as we banked sharply and rose to our cruising altitude.

…Which wasn't to be very high. Jets fly around 300 miles an hour at their fastest; but we were only going 340 miles and would never be able to climb very high or get up much speed. The entire trip, which would have taken five hours to drive, would be over in 20 minutes.

Without much time in which to be hospitable, the stewardess came around rather quickly to take my drink order. I was unprepared for this, and wasn't sure I had the money to spare for a drink. The stewardess assured me it was free; so I then made her recite all the choices, before finally settling on a Coke (which, of course, was the first flavor she'd mentioned). She went away and returned shortly with a can of Coke and a plastic cup filled with ice. She opened the can and filled the cup herself, as a wine steward in a fancy restaurant might do, then kept the can and left me with the plastic cup and a napkin.

Intent on making the most of my 20 minutes, I put down the tray table, cleverly embedded in the back of the seat in front of me, and placed the cup on it, using the napkin as a coaster.

Suddenly, the jet tilted to the right for a moment, then to the left. The voice of the stewardess came over the intercom: "As you may have noticed, we've hit some turbulence. The captain asks that you please be sure your seat belts are fastened, and to remain in your seats for the remainder of your flight."

I had just been about to get up to use the restroom! It wasn't an emergency; this was only a twenty minute flight. But I had wanted the experience of peeing in a flying aircraft…preferably over the hamlet of Bayard, where my sister's boyfriend lived. Surely, the injunction against getting out of my seat didn't apply to a person who needed to use the restroom! Still, I wasn't sure and in 1960 I was very hesitant to defy authority. Besides, the jet continued to rock back and forth with moderate violence as we ripped through the Florida thunderclouds.

There was a button above my seat with an ideogram of a stewardess on it. I pressed it. There was a soft "ding" and, in a moment, my stewardess appeared. "Am I allowed to use the bathroom?" I asked, trying to put some desperation into my voice.

"Not until after we land, I'm afraid," she apologized. "The captain has put up the Fasten Seat Belts Light. But we'll be on the ground in less than ten minutes."

I sat back, resigned to missing the flying bathroom experience I'd hoped to have. In truth, the jet was bucking from side to side, reminding me of the interior of Lost In Space's "Jupiter II" during a meteor storm. I thought it was very cool. Outside my window, lightning lit up the clouds from beneath and occasionally passed from one cloud to another as great, jagged, sun-bright knives. I sipped at my Coke and enjoyed the show.

Soon I had finished the drink, leaving a cup containing slowly melting ice. I put it on the tray table, expecting the stewardess to come get it. But apparently this flight was too short to pass out drinks and pick up empty cups. I would have thrown it away, myself; but we weren't allowed to get up. There was a pocket in the back of the seat in front of me, below the indentation for the tray table; but it was too small to fit the cup into without breaking the plastic. Besides, the cup still contained a fair amount of ice and water.

Then it was time to land. The cabin lights came on and the stewardess, over the intercom, ordered us to put up our seats and our tray tables. I put mine up, but that left me holding the plastic cup with its ice. I looked around, but there was still no sign of anyone to whom I could turn over custody of the cup. Somewhat at a loss, I set it carefully on the cushion of the unoccupied seat next to mine.

To say that the landing was rough would be an understatement. Still, not knowing any better, I assumed we had landed well and, in any case, was only sorry the flight had been so short. I wasn't even off the plane, yet, and already couldn't wait for my next flight, whenever that might be and wherever I might go.

We pulled up to the gate. The hatchway was opened, and passengers lined up to disembark. I didn't. I was far too jazzed to end the experience any sooner than necessary. Soon, however, the stewardess, having herded all the other passengers ahead of her, stood waiting for me to leave.

I reached into the overhead compartment for my carry-on—my guitar—and pulled it down, then faced the stewardess. "I just wanted to tell you," I said, my voice nearly trembling with emotion, "that this was my first plane flight and it really was the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me!"

The woman looked past me at my seat and frowned, saying, "Well, I can see you were excited."

I followed her gaze and, to my horror, saw that the forgotten cup of ice water had flipped during the rough landing, leaving a big wet spot on the cushion. Worse, the cup itself must have rolled onto the floor and under the seat, because it was nowhere in sight.

"It w-was that cup of Coke," I stammered, trying to explain.

"It was only a twenty minute flight!" she countered.

There was nothing I could say, I realized, that wouldn't make things worse. It was best that I just disembark and never fly Delta again; or, at least, any flight she might be on.

John met me at the airport, and we had a great visit for the next few days, during which we planned another, major trip for the two of us—one to Vermont! But then the visit was over, and it was time for me to return home via Greyhound. John took me there and I turned over my suitcase to them. The ride took all night, and wasn't nearly as much fun as the jet had been—I had to buy snacks when we stopped; and the bathroom was smelly. And when I arrived back home, I found that somehow they had sent my luggage to San Francisco. Three days passed before finally I got it back.

Still, and in spite of my reluctance to ever fly with that same stewardess again, I knew that, someday, my perfect job would require me to fly somewhere new at least once a week. I couldn't imagine ever getting tired of that!