I had two pretty boring grandmas. As far as I know, anyway; it’s not like I ever made much of an effort to get to know them as anything other than a great fan of the bargain basement and the Lawrence Welk Show (my dad’s mom) and the chain-smokingest, best meatball maker ever to come out of Potter, Nebraska (my mom’s). They both lived through the Depression and watched their husbands march off to war and raised reasonably well-adjusted families (we’ll say, for the sake of keeping this post moving…); my dad has four brothers and four sisters — maybe that was quite enough excitement for my Grandma Mil.
But, try as we might, we never unearthed much in the way of a secret past for either one of them. Mil wasn’t a riveter or a welder or a test pilot during World War II; Edie didn’t spy on Hitler or seduce Picasso or play professional baseball. They were housewives in sensible shoes (Edie did sport the occasional spectator pump in her day, but Mil was Keds all the way) who cracked the very occasional joke and day-to-day did the best they could, and who wants to watch a movie about that?
I began my flying career at a particularly senior West Coast base, loaded with 1962 hires who used to be required to wear false eyelashes and a gang of former Pan Am stewardesses who trained on the DC-6. And to me they were just another bunch of boring old ladies. I was young, I was single, I was based in freakin’ San Francisco — I wanted swishy young twinks and plenty of ’em, and I wanted them to want me. Yeah, I love the Golden Girls — but as brilliant TV, please, not as co-workers.
Of course, then you start flying with them. And they start telling stories. Stories about the parties at the Waldorf-Astoria, and about the celebrities in Las Vegas, and about what used to go on — pretty much anything, other than anybody’s clothes — in the lower-lobe galleys. And you begin to wonder if perhaps not everybody’s grandma is as boring as yours. And then you see them riding trams and changing wigs and bartering in Korean on layovers; they show you the good hiking and the fresh fish and the best cheap eyeglasses; you watch a white-haired old grandma you’d swear was Julie Andrews on the PA launch a flying tackle and bring down a twenty-something troublemaker trying to storm the cockpit, and you eventually realize: not everybody’s grandma is defined by what she used to be. Our stories shape us, of course, and Sexy Sixties Stewardess is almost as good a secret past as super spy or pro ball player, but at what point do we go sit in a corner and stop making new stories? When do we call our past a Done Deal and head to the street corner to wait for The End the way we used to wait for the bus? Never, is when — certainly not if we don’t want to. My grandmas didn’t do a great job of teaching us that — they each called for the check when my grandpa died, although it took a while to come — but it’s a point the grandmas I work with drive home every day. Every time they make me laugh, certainly every time they make me blush; every time they remind me that in fifteen years of flying and forty (+) years of running around, I ain’t seen shit compared to what some people have been through. Lessons I’m humbled and grateful to learn, I might add. Because they’re lessons that I can’t wait to foist upon the first unsuspecting young whippersnapper who asks me what I used to be.
This story is true. It was a Top Ten Finalist in a travel writing competition last Fall. It did not go on to win, and so I’m sharing it here. I was well past the point of underestimating my senior flying partners by this time, but “Millie” had a thing or two up her sleeve. She was not the only grandma on this trip, and not even the most surprising as this incident unfolded, but there was no question: she was the boss of her crew and the star of the show.
It’s the middle of the night over the middle of the Pacific. Thousands of miles from even Hawaii, which is thousands of miles from everywhere else. We’re twelve hours from home, barely finished with the meal service, when she realizes They’re after her. Whoever They are, she wants no part of them; she needs out of the airplane, and she needs out now. Desperate for a route of escape and finding none, she sets about putting a hole in the side of the fuselage. At least, this is how her son explains her violent and insistent ramming of the window next to her seat with her head, though she frantically denies not only what he says but the very fact of him. “I have no son!” She will not be calmed until we remove him from her sight, and then only fractionally.
She will not be deterred from her midair mission to abandon ship, and lashes out at anyone who intercedes. One flight attendant is pushed to the floor and another takes an elbow right in the eye while a third calls for backup. What he gets is Millie, the Chief Flight Attendant, charging to the back from First Class. It’s something of a hike for a woman of seventy, but Millie doesn’t take kindly to disruption on her airplane, and intends to make this clear. The younger crewmembers roll their eyes. Millie reminds most of them of their grandmothers; some help she’ll be.
But this is not Millie’s first day at this job. She asserts immediate control, directing two male flight attendants to take hold of the passenger, another to call for a doctor. In the middle of the aisle, she yanks her own dress up around her waist and shimmies out of her stockings. With nothing more than a look, albeit an unambiguous one, she instructs the other women on the crew to follow suit. She invites no argument, and in short order, the passenger is lashed to the last row of seats with pantyhose, the better for the doctor who answered the call to ask her questions while he pumps her full of Valium.
Whether she is answering his questions or not is unclear; she has reverted to a language that no one on the crew can identify or understand, and every attempt by her son to calm and comfort her in this or any other language is met with the only English she’s willing to use: “Get him away from me. I have no son!”
She rails and rants on until her son is whisked forward to another cabin, in need now of no small amount of comforting himself. The doctor assesses her vital signs and persists with his unanswered questions until eventually, at a loss, he turns to Millie. “There’s not much else we can do for her at the moment except keep an eye on her,” he says. “If I give her any more Valium, it will kill her.”
Millie nods her understanding. On her knees in the aisle, still in full battle mode, she looks from the doctor to the passenger, who continues to howl and thrash, inconsolable, while the doctor does what amounts to nothing but look on. Seeing that he has not extracted a new vial of Valium from the onboard emergency kit, Millie looks back to him. “Well,” she says. “What are you waiting for?”