Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Time Travel and Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA)

I graduated high school in 1957, age seventeen.

From 1957 to 1960, I was in the Air Force, in Korea. I finished before my twenty-first birthday (on September 11, 1960).

Beginning in the new decade, I lived in San Francisco, held odd jobs, and wrote for the men's adventure magazines. They were pulps with names like Stag, Male and Argosy.

In 1963, with little money and no job, I traveled in Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong trying to get down to South Vietnam to write about the small and romantic war flickering there. But I ran out of money and had only a return ticket.

I stepped off the plane in San Francisco in March 1963 to be greeted by Bill R., who'd been in Korea with me and was now a station agent for Pacific Southwest Airlines, or PSA.

Bill was one of my half-dozen best friends throughout my life. With his help, I was hired as a station agent with PSA. I wore their heavy gabardine uniform replete with half-wings for non-flying employees, and mostly worked the ticket counter. Salary was $360 per month.

In those days, every departure was announced throughout the airport. At 8:45 a.m., the stern-voiced woman on SFO's public address system said, "Pan American World Airways Flight One for 'around the world' is departing from Gate 17. Passengers should be at the gate." I'd taken the iconic Flight One going out and Flight Two coming back from Hong Kong. In that British colony, I never found Suzie Wong but I talked about a job with the producers of "The Seventh Dawn," then filming in Malaya with William Holden and Susannah York.

Oh, those glory days. People dressed to the nines to fly on the seven-oh-seven. Less than ten percent of adult Americans had seen the inside of an airplane but passengers on Pan Am, PSA and other carriers were pampered to the hilt. It was a grand time when the nation had heavy industry, exported petroleum, had 98% literacy and enjoyed respect around the world. Even our enemies wanted to send their children to our universities even if I never found my way to one.

We had a vigorous young president. We'd stood up to the Soviet Union. We were at our height of prosperity and confidence. It was the period James Lee Burke calls the heyday of the Great American Empire.

If I had a time machine like the one in my new alternate history novel—see my book here—I would like to go back. For most of us but not all of us, it was the best time to be on this planet. More station agents were needed and a smartly-attired, very presentable young man appeared at the counter to fill out an employment application. While the applicant was walking away but still within eyesight, our boss Don B. ripped his application to shreds because the prospective employee was black. The airlines did not welcome Negroes, to use a word from that era, but were a haven to Americans who lived on the wrong side of a taboo: the word was not yet part of the lexicon but among men employed by PSA it seemed only Bill and I were straight. PSA was widely known to have the best-looking stewardesses in the industry and they were, indeed, walking wet dreams, but they must not have owned wristwatches. A few consorted with pilots. There were rumors of steamy "R.O.N. Parties" because aircrews often had to remain-over-night. But none of the stews would give us station agents the time of day.

Forty years later, Bill told me he had amyotropic lateral sclerosis. Of my half-dozen best friends, all but one are gone now, gone along with the Great American Empire, the factories, the literacy (fallen, now, to 76%), a society where people wore clothing to go out-of-doors and fine clothing as a requisite for an airline seat. Not long ago, actor Val Kilmer seated himself next to me in first-class bulkhead on United, slipped off his flip-flops, and placed his bare feet up in front of my face. By then, not even first class was first class.

Give me my time machine—more details here—and let me return to that grand period.

With tax, air fare between SFO and Los Angeles was $14.18. The plane was the Lockheed 188 Electra turboprop. Flying was a luxury. Credit cards were a new concept and in the airlines' climate of elitism, you knew you had arrived if you had an Air Travel Card. The red Air Travel Card for domestic travel was a sign you were in the top tier of society. The green Air Travel Card for international travel put you at the very top in a very class conscious world. One day, elbows on ticket counter, I looked up at an argumentative passenger and told him to shove his green Air Travel Card up his ass and, then and there, in September 1963, my career in the airlines ended.

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