My most mortifying plane flight ever
Long long ago, when the first Star Wars movie was released, Jay and I went to see it in New York City. What made this memorable is that back then I was stationed far, far away in Astoria, Oregon. US Coast Guard Air station Warrenton, to be exact. But on the 4th of July weekend we were given five days off, and I wanted to spend them with my honey, not moping alone in my quarters running up a phone bill to NYC. (That’s another relic of days past – any time you talked to somebody who was more than 10 miles away, you had to shell out money to the company euphemistically called ‘Ma’ Bell.)
I had just found out about a military benefit that even we under-resourced Coasties could enjoy: Military Air Command. The way it worked was that when the military was shuffling planes and cargo around, any qualifying person could catch a ride on one, free of charge, first-come, first served – in order of precedence: active military first, then cadets at any military academy, and then military dependents, if there was room.
That Friday a transport plane was scheduled to be moved from McCord AFB, Washington, easy driving distance from Astoria, to Dover AFB, Delaware, easy driving distance from New York. So I drove up to McCord to get in line. I was the last one accepted, which earned me the ire of a group of cadets traveling together, as my coming meant that the last one of their group got bumped. They were pretty angry about it and complained loudly about rules being broken. I couldn’t blame them; they thought I was a military dependent because I was wearing civilian clothing.
When you flew MAC, active military were supposed to be in dress uniform. The Coast Guard had only begun letting women in two years before, and they were late getting a uniform designed for them. So we were issued WAVE uniforms left over from WWII. (These seem very classy now, but in the ‘70’s they looked bizarre.) But I wasn’t wearing mine, because I was seven months pregnant.
I would have explained the situation to the young men, but they quickly ushered us up the ramp and into the plane. It was a huge empty cargo space, no seats, nothing. Along both walls was a bar, which made it look like a ballet studio, except for the loop of olive-drab canvas that hung down from it. While I was still wondering where we would sit, two crew members started unclipping the bar from the bulkhead (That’s ship-talk for a wall) and fastening it to seat-height stanchions spaced every ten feet of so along the deck (that’s ship-talk for a floor).
I eyed the resulting seat-row, consisting of a canvas sling hung between the knee-height bar and the wall, with dismay. It might have been acceptable when it was new, but the canvas had seen many years of service and it sagged like a basset-hound’s jowls. When four of us put our weight on the one sling, it stretched even further. My butt was less than a foot off the floor, and my knees were far too close to my chin. It was bad enough for the men on either side, but I was curled around a watermelon-sized belly. One seat belt was supposed to cover the four of us, run through loops between each person I took up more than my share of the belt.
The crew then came down the row, handing everybody a cardboard box. I opened mine and saw it contained food—the flight was five hours long. Everybody else was examining their rations, too. They had given us a sandwich, two bottled drinks, a bag of chips, an apple, and tucked in the bottom were two little pink squares of Bazooka bubble gum.
Across from me, where the grumpy group of cadets were seated, I saw everyone pulling the gum out of the boxes and unwrapping them. I looked baffled. The guy next to me leaned over. “For your ears,” he volunteered.
Of course—chewing gum helps with air pressure changes when flying. I opened one of mine a popped it in my mouth. It was horrible tasting gum, but at least they supplied it.
They guy next to me was giving me a strange look. “I just soften mine up in my hand, but I guess that would work,” he said.
I was going to ask him to clarify, when they started the engines, first a moderate ‘chuck-chuck-chuck’. Everybody hastily crammed the pink stuff in their ears while the jets crescendoed up to an ear-shattering roar. With dawning comprehension, I removed the square from my mouth and followed suit.
There would be no conversation for five hours. I sat there, ears filled with waxy spit, and my son (who had no earplugs) started to kick my liver in violent protest.
It was going to be a long flight.
But it was going to get worse.