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Omaha Magazine

Flights of Fancy: A Nostalgic Look at the Friendly Skies

Aug 31, 2020 08:32AM ● By James Vnuk
red/pink illustration, old-school airline hostess

Illustration by Derek Joy

When it comes to traveling these days, it’s a wonder anybody can tolerate flying. Between the endless delays, transfers, itineraries that range from unbearably long layovers to impossibly short windows to change gates, and spending hours navigating security, flying has become as exciting as a root canal for most people.  How did such a miracle like this, the ability to soar through the air to anywhere in the world, become so dull and burdensome?

There was a time when flying still carried a luster that befitted the experience. The “golden age” of commercial flight between the 1950s and 1960s, though still largely the domain of the elite and privileged, opened to the average person and offered them a taste of glamour and luxury. However, the memory of that time has begun to fade, and knowledge that survives often comes from film, television, and literature of dubious accuracy. Flight in the golden age was exquisite, exclusive, and expensive. 

To me, the appeal is strong, and when I think about the ordeal of flying today, starting with flight attendants funneling passengers through the jetway like a hose of sardines fired into a tin can, my imagination abounds: can I blunt the vagaries of modern flight with a daydream back to the golden age? Could we, just today, imagine it’s 1960 again? Let’s take a step into the past and the air. 

I envision leaving the jetway into a vintage Boeing 707. I pass rows of gentlemen in smart, starched suits and ties (just a single Windsor; we’re flying casual, after all). A whole rainbow of gray patterns: herringbone, madras, pinstripe, and more. Right away I regret my choice of ratty sweatpants and a cheap T-shirt. Nobody else seems to mind, though, and once I’m situated deep into coach I do my best to ignore the punches to the back of my seat reclined back a full inch.

We begin to taxi. There’s no announcement to put away our cell phones and set them to airplane mode, because in the 1960s nobody’s heard of either. A stewardess in a pink lemonade skirt and blazer, sporting a smashing beehive updo, addresses the cabin. In the event of cabin depressurization, the liquor cart will arrive promptly for another round.

The plane lifts off and, I imagine, the lighters come out. For a moment, the spell is broken, and I think about rummaging through my carry-on bag for some kind of diversion. I resist their temptations, and pull myself back to the mystique of the golden age, trying my best to envision a cabin hazy with cigarette smoke (I was also never a smoker, so it’s an approximation somewhere between being back at parties in college and hanging out after rock concerts). I decide to blame it for the mild headache I’ve started to run.

Nonetheless, the atmosphere feels glamourous. The attendants move elegantly through the spacious cabin passing out heated towels and crystal snifters, bantering with passengers and wearing coquettish smirks. The PA announces that the in-flight meal will include sous vide prime rib with your choice of Burgundy or Moselle. Momentarily I feel like a spy in the house of the idle rich, rubbing shoulders with men of mystery, wandering dowagers, captains of industry, and the intelligentsia of days gone by. The tinkle of ice on glass flits through the hazy air.

“Do you want pretzels or trail mix?” The daydream bursts. I clumsily choose the pretzels, and briefly consider if a dram of tomato juice tossed with bottom shelf vodka is worth the $15 the airline is asking for it. I settle on a ginger ale. The attendant tries to get the attention of the man sitting next to me, passed out against the window, and decides not to interrupt his snoring. The pretzels are a disappointment, and I debate flagging the attendant back down for the overpriced bloody Mary. 

I take a moment to consider the ethics of this imaginative exercise and the merits of the present. Flying in the 1950s and 1960s was considerably more dangerous than today—a bit of turbulence could cause whiplash or worse. Travelers were probably smarter to avoid using the lavatories mid-flight. And, the excesses and exclusivity of travel-by-air had a dark side, too—one which reflected the prejudices of the era. Further, while I lamented the need to bake an extra hour into my trip to deal with the vagaries of security, I was grateful they existed and that I was asked to present an ID at all. At this point I observe the tiniest hint of drool emerging from my slumbering neighbor’s lip, and I immediately put my imagination to work creating an era-appropriate alternative scenario. 

Instead, he’s puffing away at a pipe carved from fine mahogany, with the Saturday Evening Post in the other hand. “Hell of a way the nation’s going,” he says to me world-wearily. He puts down the paper to take a swig of neat bourbon. We talk, and he makes conspiratorial remarks about communists in the government and plots abroad, as if he has encountered them all firsthand. I consider making an airline food joke but pull back, reminding myself we’re supposed to be in a pre-Seinfeld world. After a bit, he orders a second drink for me, and we toast to nothing in particular. I can sense the cabin beginning to spin when the stewardess from before approaches us with a rotary phone on a silver, glimmering platter. “Sir, it’s urgent,” she says, and I mistakenly assume she means me while he reaches across and picks up the receiver. He nods and says yes, Mr. Kennedy, he’ll meet him at the terminal. He passes the receiver to me, asks if I want to say hello to Mr. Kennedy. I take the receiver. I have no idea what to say.

The seatbelt sign flashes, and the tone for a PA announcement snaps me out of the haze. We’re landing. It’s a rainy, dreary day when we hit the strip. 

This article first appeared in the 60 Plus section of the September 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.