Japan: In The Footsteps Of My Father (1965-1986)

My father's incredible adventures foreshadowed my own wanderlust and the meaning that Pan Am came to have for me. As a child, I always had the impression that my father was at the center of so many things that were happening in the world in the first half of the Twentieth Century. In fact, my earliest memories are of the fantasies I had about traveling the world like he did. I didn't know how I was going to do it, but I knew I wanted to feel like I was out in the world, in the middle of everything. So naturally Pan Am was my dream-come-true. Can you imagine how excited I was when I started hearing about Pan Am and their famous round-the-world flights?

From the moment I began my career as a stewardess/flight attendant, I felt that more things happened to me in one month than in my entire life before this. Perhaps its because either we or someone we knew was involved in almost everything that was happening on the world stage and in the newspapers. Then, very quickly we would be on to the next adventure. That's why so many of us are writing books now, because we've had time to reflect on so many things. My sister often asks me, "Why didn't you ever tell me this story?" It's a strange phenomenon, but I think for most of us that so much was happening all the time that we mostly kept the stories within the Pan Am family - because we knew we understood each other.

Almost 45 years after my father's first big round-the-world journey (and not the last), I began my own adventures in Japan with my Pan Am family. Although my travels there were more extensive then my father's, and took place over most of my twenty years with the company, I was always aware that he had been there before me. I was following in his footsteps. He had seen Japan before World War II, observing a country that had greatly changed by the time I got there. However, he too liked the Japanese people very much and observed their incredible work ethic, as well as the aesthetic sensibility they brought to all they created.

Having been raised in a family that was all about the environment and the beauty of nature, I felt very much at home in the Japanese culture. Their beautiful gardens and parks reminded me so much of the atmosphere that my grandfather and father cultivated. Also, having been raised in the South, I was appreciative of their gracious manners. As a result, I felt very comfortable and safe.

Transferring from my original Miami Pan Am base to San Francisco in 1968, I was immediately immersed in a whole new world. Tokyo was a major stop-over on Pan Am's famous Round-the-World Flights One and Two (East and West) as well as a layover point for crews from New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle. The San Francisco base did the majority of the flying in and out of Vietnam to take the U.S. soldiers on their "R & R" (Rest and Recreation) flights, and all of us carried the paper that awarded Pan Am stewardesses Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force status. This meant that under Geneva Convention rules we would be treated as officers in the event of capture. (But that is a whole other story.)

I remember my first layover in Tokyo. My fellow crew members, of course, introduced me to restaurants, places to see, and shopping. At that time we were staying at the historic Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, right next to the Ginza and a mile from the Imperial Gardens. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to reflect the luxurious taste of old Japan, this world-famous hotel exuded an intoxicating ambience. The original Imperial Hotel was opened in 1890, but was destroyed by fire. Interestingly, Frank Lloyd Wright's new version of the Imperial Hotel was completed in 1923, the year my father visited Japan.

My first Japanese meal began with steaming soup with a bevy of tiny fish still swimming in it. I stared at it, and then looked up to find the rest of my crew members smirking at me. I gingerly tried to slurp around the edges, but finally, just ate them. As part of the Pan Am family, we learned quickly to just "jump into the deep end of the pool" and to truly experience cultural differences. I quickly realized that Japanese food might look funny, but it tastes really good.

My first foray into Japanese department stores in the Ginza was a similarly dizzying experience. I was amazed that ordinary and utilitarian items could be turned into such objects of beauty and ingenuity. I remember spending hours on the first floor of the very first department store I visited -- in the notions department - and that was only the first floor! And, by the way, the exchange rate at that time was 350 yen to the dollar!

Flying with Pan Am, I came to realize that the world at large was not used to seeing many Americans, and often those of us in the Pan Am family were the first Americans people had ever had contact with. This is why, as the unofficial flag carrier of the United States, Pan Am always emphasized to its crews that we were ambassadors to the world. We took this very seriously, and tried to observe all the customs of each county.

The most popular hairstyle at this time was long straight hair, and Pan Am was very particular about hair length being just below the chin. Many of us took to wearing quite uncomfortable and hot wigs on the airplane, in order to enjoy growing our hair long. Mine was long and blonde, and I remember how Japanese women would come up to me on the street to feel it. They were not at all used to seeing blonde hair, much less long hair, and would exclaim in amazement. By the mid-1970's, my feeling of standing out as so different in Japan changed as they became much more used to world travelers. The world seemed to be opening at breakneck speed.

One long-ago memory from the late 1960's illustrates how different the security measures were in those days compared to the present. It was when my Pan Am crew and I decided to check out the Aeroflot airplane that was parked right next to us on the tarmac at Haneda airport. We bounded up the stairs, only to find the very stern-looking Aeroflot flight attendants chopping lettuce in their galley. We only stayed a few minutes, not feeling very welcome, but we were all in agreement that we didn't have it so bad with Pan Am! No matter how crazy things could get sometimes and what we were called upon to do, none of us could ever remember having to chop lettuce!

I was very interested in observing Japanese culture, and tried hard to understand it, particularly as to how they felt about Americans. I remember going to the movies in Tokyo with my crew in 1970 to see the brand new smash hit "Mash," with English subtitles. I was fascinated to see how much the Japanese audience loved that movie. But what really struck me was how hard and loud they laughed and applauded. I was thinking that the Japanese women especially might not like the bawdy parts of the movie, and feel offended, but apparently they didn't feel that way. Or perhaps they were embarrassed and giggling. Or perhaps being part of a large audience gave them permission to access an aspect of themselves that they traditionally had to suppress.

In the early 1970's, Pan Am crews changed their accommodations to a brand new high-rise hotel - the first one in all of Japan - the luxurious Keio Plaza Hotel in the Shinjuku District of Tokyo. I remember it being the only large building in that relatively undeveloped area. However, within a few years' time, it was completely surrounded by other large modern buildings. All of our Pan Am crews will remember how the building would sway with the constant earthquake activity, and that we could judge how strong the tremors were by how much water splashed out of the complimentary water jugs placed in each room. Later, in 1980, another tower was added, and the two towers were featured in the 1984 film The Return of Godzilla , where they were damaged by the beloved monster.

I loved the Keio Plaza Hotel. Like JFK, Pan Am's main base, it seemed to me to be at the center of the heartbeat of Pan Am's universe. Crews coming and going from many Pan Am bases all over the world would meet up there, and you never knew whom you'd run into! The hotel allowed us to keep extra suitcases, sports equipment - even a party trunk -in their storage area and to leave letters or goodies that we had bought and exchanged with incoming crews. It felt like a home away from home, and greatly enhanced our ability to "shop 'til we dropped" all over the world. Especially since one of our incredible perks was that there was hardly any limitation on what we could buy and bring back in the belly of our airplanes.

Pan Am was more democratic than other airlines in that we all had to share the responsibility of being "in the pool" (on reserve), no matter how senior we were. This meant that our new-hires didn't have to spend years on reserve without a schedule. It also afforded me the incredible opportunity of being able to spend my month in Tokyo rather than in Los Angeles, ready to fill in flights whenever needed. As you can imagine, I took advantage of this quite a few times.

To be honest, I felt like a princess, living in a luxury hotel with my room freshened every day. I rarely was called for a flight, so I spent my time meeting friends who were flying in from all over the world, going to dinner with crews, shopping and sight-seeing. Best of all, I was able to see more of my brother who was in the Navy based at Yokosku Naval Base. My mother, as well, was able to take great advantage of my brother being in Japan. A first-class round trip ticket from Los Angeles to Tokyo and back for employees and their families was only thirty-five dollars!

Of course, along with all the excitement and adventure of our jobs, there was always a dark side. The daunting specter of terrorism had followed Pan Am and our crews since the late 1960's. Many people, however, don't associate terrorist activity with Japan.

The conflict began in the mid-1960's as a farmer's protest against Government confiscation of their land to build a $2.9 billion airport in Narita. Haneda, the airport in Tokyo, couldn't handle any more traffic, and another airport was needed. However, officials had violated a cardinal Japanese rule that all parties must first be consulted in any important undertaking to reach a consensus before taking action. The belief that the Government had behaved highhandedly was widely held. It led to violent struggles that ignited in a politically charged atmosphere that enveloped Japan in the 1960's, much as it did the United States. Thousands were hurt in protest-related violence, and people were killed. So the airport construction inevitably became a metaphor of Government oppression.

Narita Airport had been scheduled to open in 1971, but, throughout the years, protesters had been able to take control of the tower, and destroy structures. One time they were almost able to destroy an airplane. Finally, in May of 1978, the airport opened, but it was surrounded by and swarming with armed guards. Huge barbed-wire fences ringed the perimeter, and endless security checks were required to get into the airport area, as well as inside. It felt like being in the middle of a war, and we'd all seen plenty of war around the world.

My first flight into Narita airport was June 12, 1978. Once again, thanks to the magic of the Internet, I could track the exact day and time (17:14 local time) that I was there. My crew members and I were all feeling anxious about flying into this hotbed of potential violence, but we were accustomed to doing what was expected of us.

We bade our passengers farewell, and disembarked into the unfamiliar customs and baggage area at Narita. It was all underground, and not at all like our accustomed Haneda Airport facilities.

Suddenly, as we were waiting to claim our baggage, there was a very loud noise and the building began to shake violently. At first we all assumed that the airport had been bombed. I felt dizzy and confused because - since we were underground - we couldn't see outside to get our bearings straight.

Momentarily, people started yelling "Earthquake!" and we were all relieved that this was only an earthquake! It turned out to be the infamous 1978 Miyagi earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.7, that caused many injuries and some deaths. The epicenter was in Sendai, not close enough to us to cause much damage, but still it felt very intense. We were all laughing nervously, resorting to gallows humor to hide our fear. But after all, we were Pan Am flight attendants in uniform, and it was our job to be calm and unflappable.

It was just another day in the life of a Pan Am flight attendant.

To be continued...