Flying may seem about as attractive as a colonoscopy these days, but things were different not so long ago. To evoke those bygone days, you have only to see "Catch Me if You Can," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, or "View From the Top," with Gwyneth Paltrow, two recent movies set in the glory days of airline travel.
Before the threat of terrorism, air rage, flights without meal service and bankrupt airlines, boarding a plane was almost as exciting as getting wherever you were going. Passengers dressed up for flights, pilots were demigods and stewardesses were independent, glamorous role models for American girls.
Members of the L.A. chapter of Clipped Wings, a group of 90 retired or current United Airlines stewardesses, or flight attendants, remember these more civilized times well, as I discovered at a recent Clipped Wings luncheon.
Those in the group who still work for the airline are called flight attendants. Others whose tenure predates the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which opened the door more widely to men in the traditionally female job, are happy to be called stewardesses, or "stews" in airline lingo.
Getting acquainted with the Clipped Wings group helped me recall better times in airline travel and the reasons I still love to fly.
I got hit with a tailwind of nostalgia as soon as I arrived at the Proud Bird, the restaurant on Aviation Boulevard near LAX where the group gathered on a Saturday in March. Besides being the rare good place to eat near the airport, it is a museum of flight, opened in 1962 by aviation buff and former Army pilot David Tallichet. He still owns the place and has surrounded it with fiberglass reproductions of vintage planes.
The inside walls are covered with photo exhibits on subjects as diverse as 1991's Operation Desert Storm in Iraq and Hollywood movies about flying, such as "Top Gun."
A big bank of windows in the private room where the meeting was held provided close-up views of jets landing, reminding me that parents used to take their kids to the airport just so they could watch planes land and take off.
I met one stew after another with marvelous stories to tell. Marjorie Sinclair, the founder of the L.A. Clipped Wings chapter, started as a United stewardess in 1946 on flights from San Francisco to Salt Lake City.
The flight between the two cities, which are about 600 miles apart, made five stops and took 5 1/2 hours.
Ethel Pattison met her husband of 50 years, Sydney, while attending United's training program in Cheyenne, Wyo.
When they married, she had to give up flying, as was then required by the airline. She found a new job in the community relations department at LAX, which she has held for 47 years, watching such celebs as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and the Beatles pass through the airport and soldiering through such airline disasters as the crashes of two LAX flights in a week in 1969.
Julie Paige, a current flight attendant, recently volunteered to work a special United charter taking a wing support squadron of Marines from Tucson to Frankfurt, Germany, the first leg of their trip to the battlefields of Iraq. The group lacked a chaplain, so Paige said the prayer before landing.
And then there was Lillian Keil, the luncheon's main honoree. She joined United in 1938 and, in the air, met Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh and Cary Grant, who asked her out on a date.
Keil left the airline to serve as a flight nurse during World War II and the Korean War, for which she was awarded the World War II Victory Medal, among many others. At the end of the program a segment from a 1961 episode of "This Is Your Life" was shown, featuring a surprised but perfectly poised Keil.
Many of these former stews remember when it was a joy to put on their designer uniforms: a white crepe dress and parasol in 1939, the fitted "skipper" blue suits of the early '50s and classic wool A-lines with a stripe down the front introduced in 1968. In the days when only the rich and famous flew and planes rarely held more than 50 passengers, stewardesses served food prepared by renowned restaurants (such as stuffed Rocky Mountain trout from Denver's Brown Palace Hotel), poured free champagne, knew their charges by name and had time to sit and play cards with them.
It was still hard work. A stew's duties in the 1930s included sweeping the cabin, cleaning passengers' shoes, weighing luggage and swatting flies, according to "Legacy of the Friendly Skies: A Pictorial History of United Airlines Stewardesses and Flight Attendants," by Gwen Mahler.
At the same time, stewardesses couldn't weigh more than 125 pounds and had to retire when they turned 26. Above all, they weren't allowed to be married. Most of the women I met at the luncheon retired from the airline when they wed, but none harbored any bitterness about the regulation, ultimately swept away by litigation. Stews knew the rules when they signed on, they said.
Given the requirements -- and some of the more immodest uniforms worn by attendants on other lines, such as hot pants and go-go boots -- it isn't hard to understand why stewardesses eventually became sex symbols. Linda Mitchell, who worked for United in the 1960s, recalled that male passengers sometimes asked her to get items from the overhead bin just so they could look at her legs.
But according to my Clipped Wings friends, the stories of wild times in the sky are mostly just fantasy. "We were all in our 20s when we started, but much different than today's 20-year-olds," says Barbara Wanbaugh, who became a stew in 1954 when it was still a glamorous, adventurous career for a young woman.
Many of the women of Clipped Wings are grandmothers now. The friendships they made while stewardessing remain dear to them, and the joy of flying still shines in their eyes.