Saturday, January 15, 2011

In a couple of weeks, I am headed to Savannah to spend the weekend with a group of women friends who get together each year in a different city. I will board a plane in Baltimore, change in Atlanta, and in a few short hours, I will be on the ground in Savannah.

Planning for this trip reminded me of my first trip to Savannah. It must have been in around 1953 and I was 7 years old. My grandmother and I boarded a Trailways bus in Birmingham and headed for Savannah. We were to spend a week with my uncle and his family. He was in the Air Force and stationed at Hunter Field. The trip took many hours, and we stopped at every small town along the way. I just remember the hot summer weather and how good a cold Coca-Cola tasted. I suppose one could call it a journey through the last days of the old South, but for me it was just a grand adventure with my grandmother and my first and last long trip on a regular commercial bus.

When I was kid growing up in Birmingham in the 1950s, going to Panama City, Florida was a summer ritual. We would rent a cottage or apartment on the beach. Each year, we seemed to move further away from Panama City Beach, out past Laguna, as far Mexico Beach. We always shopped at Hill’s Grocery store, not the Hill’s chain, but the beachfront store owned by Mr. and Mrs. Hill. One Halloween afternoon when I was in first grade, my mother picked me up early at school, saying my father had “sand in his shoes.” That was his way of saying we needed to go to the beach. I have a very fond memory of trick-or-treating at the grocery store – and of course they had PLENTY of candy. We always drove to Panama City, often stopping for a picnic lunch along the way. On the way back, it was very “in” to tie wet bathing suits to the antenna on the car and dry them off in the breeze. By the time we got to the Alabama line, our suits were dry.

When my parents made the requisite California trip in 1952, I had to stay home with my grandmother. They had a new black Chevrolet that they equipped with cup holders (my mother had to have a place for her Coca-Cola), and a two-way radio. My father was a HAM (Amateur Radio operator) and we always had a radio of some kind in the car. Each night they would call us using some sort of phone patch, and I was very jealous of their adventures with snow in the summertime in the Sierras.

When my father took on a leadership role in a national association (NCUR – National Committee for Utilities Radio), we started to travel all over the United States, including Boston, Denver, and San Francisco. We always traveled by car, and we saw a lot of the United States. My father liked to “make the miles” and it was not uncommon for us to go more than 600 miles in a day. Still, we managed to take in a few major attractions like the Grand Canyon and Disneyland.

My father traveled by airplane, often gone for a week at a time, and usually to Washington, DC. For his trips to Washington he used Capitol Airlines and the airplane was a turbo-prop model called a Viscount. In those days, you waited for planes to arrive and depart while seated outside on rows of park benches, weather permitting. There were some seats inside near the insurance dispensing machine, but it was more fun to be outside and watch the planes come and go. A major feature of the airport was their wonderful rack of travel brochures. I collected those brochures very earnestly and kept them all in a little blue doll clothes trunk. My favorite game was to play travel agent and to put together trips for people (a role I still confess I enjoy). I had brochures for hotels and cities all over the world, including Cuba. Sadly my mother threw them all away while I was off at college. Of course, if I had them now they would be just more stuff to store and leave for the next generation to puzzle over.

Despite all my time at the airport, my first airplane trip did not happen until I was dating my husband. I flew from Birmingham to New York City to meet his family. I felt so grown-up. It was 1968 and I was 22 years old and traveling alone on an airplane, at NIGHT. Wow! What a scary, but exhilarating experience! I remember asking the stewardess what that light was that kept following us. She said it was on the end of the wing – duh – why didn’t I think of that?

In the late 60s I made a few more plane trips – our honeymoon trip to Puerto Rico in 1969 and weeks later a job interview flight to Illinois. My husband was stationed outside of St. Louis and I managed to secure a job at a nearby college.
Airplane travel was, however, expensive, in the early years of our marriage, we traveled mostly by car. Steve was transferred to Norton AFB in San Bernardino, CA and we made several cross-country trips to New York and Alabama. We managed to hit a lot of states and attractions along the way and by the time we had finished, we had seen most of the country.

When our son, born in 1971, was an infant, my husband went TDY to Thailand, and the baby and I flew to Birmingham. Traveling on an airplane with an infant in your lap is not for the weak of heart, and something I vowed never to repeat.

When we moved to Maryland in 1976, my husband took a job with a company was, at that time, owned by an airline consortium. One amazing benefit that went with the job was the ability to use airplane passes on most of the major airlines. We could fly for the cost of a service fee. Travel was space available and you had to dress up – but it was worth it. With a pass, we could travel on any flight for the airline we purchased a pass on, going to our destination, provided there was space. You could call ahead and “check on availability.” We were called “non-rev” passengers and were easy to spot. The men always wore coats and ties and the women traveled in dresses or coordinated pant suits -- always with hose. The way it worked was that everyone else boarded the flight and we waited until called by name. We were sent on the plane in order of seniority and sometimes just told to take any available seat. When it came time for food, we were usually skipped. When all the other passengers were served, assuming there was anything left, we could have it – by then there was only one menu choice – the one nobody else wanted. But we never complained. In those amazing years up until around 1995, pass travel was a part of our lives. I learned to fly alone or with colleagues who also qualified for passes. I went to conferences and visited friends. Sometimes our family, including our son, went to the Caribbean or Europe. Uncertainty was our travel partner and we learned to accept the delays with good grace and figure out ways to enjoy the gift of time in a strange city. Once, when the air traffic controllers in Nice were on strike, my husband and I rented a car and drove the next leg of our trip to Frankfurt. We could have seen it as a disaster, but we saw it as a chance to tour more of France, drive through the Swiss Alps, and see parts of Germany we had not seen before.

Today, the passes are gone and we have Frequent Flyer miles instead. Sometimes my husband and I travel together, and sometimes separately. I routinely travel on business by myself. There was a time when I found traveling alone intimidating, but I did it anyway. Now I find it refreshing and exhilarating, though sometimes tiresome. My laptop and iphone are my constant companions and make the time go faster. I have access to some airport lounges and enjoy the peace and quiet they offer. I know what to do it they lose my luggage or if I miss my flight, or if my hotel or the rental car company loses my reservation. Those things happen – they are part of the adventure. Years of pass travel help make just having an assigned seat and getting on the plane along with everyone else seem like a blessing.

The last frontier, however, for me, was dining alone and taking tours alone. Both of those things used to make me a bit uncomfortable. I used to order a room service hamburger for dinner when arriving the night before my conference. Now I just seek out the restaurant in the hotel and buy myself a nice dinner, with a glass of wine. If I am going to a city I don’t know well, I will program in some time at the end of the trip for a tour. Why should I deprive myself of seeing a new city just because I am there on business or traveling alone?

I know my trip to Savannah in 2011 will be vastly different from my first trip there 58 years ago. But I know there is a side of me who will be just as excited as when I was a little kid boarding the bus with my grandmother. And the best part is that when I get there I will be spending time with dear friends from all over the country .