Ozark. TWA. BOAC. Pan Am.
At the age of 12, I could have told you most of the benefits and disadvantages of each of these airlines. After repatriating to Missouri a few months after my 10th birthday, my mom returned to the Bahamas in the fall. And I began the circle of life. I lived with my dad during the school year, having returned to the same elementary school with many of the same classmates I had left three years before. But for Christmas break and summer vacation, I flew alone to Nassau to be with my mom. I got all the little flight pins and mini travel bags. I remember being outraged at the one airline that gave BOYS a pin with TWO wings (pilot) and a pin with only ONE wing to GIRLS (stewardesses). But this was the 70s, when Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs had their infamous Battle of the Sexes to show that girls were as good as boys.
At first, each parent would take me to the airport and walk me to the gate. Nobody conducted searches or worried about terrorists back then. At the inevitable plane change in Atlanta, and sometimes Miami, an airline employee would escort me to the next flight, and I usually got to ride in one of the carts. Later, it was faster to just walk to the next gate myself, since I’d have to wait for someone to be free to escort me or for the cart to arrive. This gave me a chance to stop and browse the airport gift shops and look at all the trinkets or buy some gum to keep my ears from popping in the airplane.
Over the years, I got to see the Atlanta airport grow in size to the behemoth it has now become, with its own subway system. I remember seeing the ORIGINAL Cabbage Patch dolls on display – squishy handmade things with a big price tag. I also remember walking out on the tarmac to the plane and having to climb those stairs – they always seemed steep and shaky, especially when it was windy or rainy.
A lot of times the airline employees didn’t really know what to do with an unaccompanied minor (which is what they called me and other kids traveling alone). The stewardesses were fine with giving out the coloring book and crayons and the flight pins – until I got older and refused them. But really, the stupid stuff I had to put up with – being seated in the emergency row (the one with the escape hatch) and then having to be moved because an adult, preferably male, needed to sit there. Or being seated in the smoking section, surrounded by a thick cloud of tobacco smoke. If I complained, I was usually moved up to the row just ahead of the smoking area, which still got most of the smoke. And the one I really disliked: having to wait until everyone else was off the plane before they would let me off and take me to the next plane.
My new circle of life is going to the airport to pick up my mom when she comes to visit me here in St. Louis. Just like my childhood, the visits are twice a year – in the spring for Mother’s Day, and again in the fall to view the leaves. With all the security rules because of terrorists, I can’t go to the gate and I can’t linger outside the arrivals area. So I sit outside in my car, driving around in circles until I go through the pick-up area for the fourth time and she has emerged from baggage claim with her big wheeled suitcase, made of lightweight material – nothing like the heavy luggage I used in my commute each year. At my house, we look at old photos of me in my school uniform and remember our old lives. We eat some Bahamian food to reminisce, and try something new on Mother’s Day (which may become a new favorite). And before we know it, two weeks have passed. And I take her back to the airport.
The circle continues.