Earning My Wings


LOOKING OUT OF the small airplane window, I felt a shiver run through my whole body as the plane climbed out over the San Diego Bay. I would miss my beloved beaches, but not the bad recollections that I assumed were forever associated with California. At age nineteen, I believed that  distance  erased,  or  at the  very least diminished,  bad memories.

Smooth  as butter,  the plane landed in Miami. Stepping out of the plane into the summer of 1965, I was assaulted with what I would come to understand as humidity. I thought that I was literally being strangled by the wet, muggy air. I kept looking all around  me to see how other people  were  doing.  I actually thought that  something was terribly wrong.  Everyone  else seemed to be  breathing just fine,  which was somewhat reassuring.  I quickly and gratefully headed to the  hotel where I was being housed by the airlines pending a job interview in an airconditioned automobile.  I sighed with relief as my head rested against the backseat. It had been a long day of travel from coast to coast.

My emotions alternately ran from excited anticipation  to alarming dismay. Both feelings scared me.  I closed my eyes as my thoughts unwillingly drifted over the last few months.

With  newfound  fervor,  I had applied  to every airline  within  the United  States. I was turned down by most of them.  They said I was considered  “damaged  merchandise”  because I had been married.  It seemed only young, skinny, untarnished girls were in demand. Thank- fully, National  Airlines flew me from San Diego to Miami for an interview. Following an exhausting, two-day interrogation—and despite my trepidation about an impending polygraph test (fearing it would somehow uncover my tainted core)—I was provisionally hired. Not  considered a “real” stewardess until my divorce was finalized, I would remain on probation indefinitely.

Ever  since age sixteen, when  my beloved  high  school  counselor gently informed me about my borderline  retardation based on my I.Q. test  results,  I had felt as if I had a stamp  on my forehead  that  read “DUMB”—but I all but  flew through that airline cross-examination process, including the dreaded polygraph test, with flying colors.

Learning the airline language (like “Aft of the aft buffet”), the end- less flight regulations,  all major airport  codes, how to operate  emer- gency systems and safety equipment, water survival tactics, company rules, personal grooming  and, of course, airline appearance  standards, was all quite a challenge for me. Of the many girls at the beginning  of our training, two did not make it to graduation.  We  were all housed together  for the entire six weeks at a hotel in Miami. While  the other girls slumbered peacefully, I studied by flashlight under the covers late into the night, so great was my fear of failure and my determination to change my life.

Completing the rigorous six-week stewardess training program left me  feeling  smashingly proud of  myself.  The  day  I  graduated and received my wings, I knew I had made a giant step forward in my life. Finally, I had become somebody. Me! Imagine! And I had done it against all odds.

Acquiescent toward my new responsibilities—and, as was required, always smiling—I appeared  to be doing well. Inwardly,  I was reeling from  relocating  clear  across the  United States, my recent rape and attempted suicide, losing Joey, my uncontrolled drinking, and my bout with promiscuity.  In spite of my lovely new job, there was a place deep inside me that was emotionally and spiritually exhausted, and my heart still ached for Joey. Every time I heard the song “I Wish You Love,” I wept.

So many changes had happened within the past four months that I could hardly get oriented into a normal lifestyle. After flight training, I rented an apartment with three other stewardesses I had met during the training.  Adjusting to three  complete  strangers  was a mind-boggling experience. Miami itself was a culture shock to me. Adding to the mix was the steamy humidity. Every time I stepped out the front door, beads of sweat formed on my forehead. I felt suffocated by the density of the air, and my hair went limp.

Still on probation as a trainee, in addition to my provisional status as married,  I was nevertheless  allowed to fly. From  the  beginning, I loved every moment.  It turned  out that I was a great stewardess. Flying was still somewhat of a novelty for many people in the mid-sixties, and passengers were apprehensive about the whole experience. I loved caring for them  and helping  them  to feel safe and comfortable.  I truly adored waiting on people. I valued the opportunity to represent  the air- line that I now proudly worked for. I loved the adventurous  feeling of take-offs and landings. I treasured the hustle and bustle of the airports, hotels, new people, and new places. I loved it all.

Most of all, I loved my uniform. Every time I stepped into that lit- tle black dress, adorned with my white hat and white gloves, I hugged myself with glee. The uniform proved that  I had arrived—that  I was indeed as good as anyone else. This new badge of honor  bolstered my battered  psyche. Another triumph was my beautiful silver wing pin, something I could actually hold in my hand and wear on my clothes as visible proof of my worthiness.

My only  apprehensions were those concerning the pilots—who many of us revered like fathers, the ultimate authority figures (or even gods)—and the dreaded, mandatory weight checks. In order  to meet the company’s standards, our matching bubble hairdos, permitted shade of lipsticks, regulation Timex watches, and weigh-ins were all inspected by a supervisor prior to each flight.

Supervisor Stevens said, “Step on the scale, Dawn.”

Shaking with fear, I stood on the large, hospital-like  scale. “I was careful with my food this week, Mrs. Stevens.”

“Not  that  careful—you still weigh 125 pounds, Miss DiMaggio.” Through her lips, tight  like a prune,  she said, “Do you see this chart posted  right  here?  It  clearly states that at 5 feet 4 inches  a woman should weigh 115 pounds. So, once again, I’ll have to place you on probation.” I held my breath as she began poking my sides, my arms, and my stomach. “Well, at least you’re solid.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Stevens, I really am trying.” Waving me through the door toward the plane, she said, “Trying will not cut it. Now, go!

Those nerve-racking  episodes reminded me of my old high school shower days. I hated the feeling that someone had power over my body. Breathing in a sigh of relief that I got through the unpleasant ordeal once again, I began thinking of lunch.

After a small breakfast  earlier  that  morning,  for the  first time,  I stuck my finger down my throat  and threw up, hoping to weigh less. I had never seen or heard of anyone doing such a thing, but throwing up after eating occurred  to me as the most logical way to pass my weight inspection. I wondered if my mother had been right all along, developing from a graceful racehorse to looking like a goddamn plow horse. Overcome with a sense of weariness as I headed for the plane, I forgot where it was that we were headed today. Not  that it really mattered;  I always felt lost.

Pulling  my small suitcase behind  me, I wondered if today’s crew would be  nice or  indifferent.  Some of the  more experienced stewardesses seemed resentful at having to train us. I could understand that, since we trainees were often slow and clumsy. Just yesterday, when the plane  hit  an air pocket,  I was not  carrying  the  tray  properly  and  I dumped twelve small plastic glasses of lemonade on a passenger’s head while he was sleeping.  Mortified,  I scrambled  to clean him off. The man goodd-naturedly said, “Don’t  worry, Honey;  as long as it wasn’t booze, I have no problem.” Boy, would my old gym teacher have a field day seeing me now. I thought how perfectly her favorite nickname, Grace, fit me.

The  pilots scared the daylights out of me  because  they  held so much power over the flight attendants  in those  days. I was told that pilots could have you fired without  any real cause if they became dis- satisfied with your work. Ostensibly,  their power to have a stewardess fired was strictly work-related, but we all knew that it could be something as petty as a pilot having his advances rejected. Perceiving potential danger, I tried to stay clear and not make any mistakes while tending to them during flights.

I also tried hard not to do or say stupid things, but sometimes the most unconscious  questions would tumble out of my mouth.  On  my first trip to New York, I was riding in a van with the flight crew on our way to the hotel, bubbling over with excitement.  I was beside myself seeing the tall skyscrapers for the first time. I spied some horse-drawn carriages driven by men wearing top hats, tuxedos, and white gloves while navigating through traffic with their huge  horses. I had never seen the likes of animals so grand, or men dressed so dashingly.

Excitedly, I asked, “Wow, are those real horses?”

Captain Dave looked at me with an expression somewhere between disgust and disbelief, and replied in a voice sopping with sarcasm, “No, Dawn, those are fake horses who eat synthetic oats.”

I was so embarrassed I bit my lip to keep from crying. I knew right away that I had said yet another stupid thing. I was always saying stupid things or asking stupid questions. I had not yet learned how to bring forth questions  in a logical, sequential  manner.  Words,  thoughts, and questions ran around in my head at lightning speed. I merely blurted out the first vision that showed up on my thought-screen.



 Painfully self-conscious about my mistakes, I often wondered  how similar embarrassing  moments  of inappropriate blurting  and mispro- nounced  words affected  Marilyn  Monroe’s presence  in her  world.  I remember when, after I had said some ignorant thing or other, Joey said to me (in a rare, tender voice that was uncommon when he was giving me a reprimand),  “God,  you are so like Marilyn.”  When  I asked him  what he meant,  he responded,  “Oh,  kind of dumb  and kind of smart.” Not wanting to know if this was a good thing or a bad thing, I let it drop.

In After the Fall, a thinly  disguised portrayal  of Marilyn, Arthur Miller repeatedly describes the dialogue of Maggie (Marilyn) speaking while using incorrect sentence structure.  It was painful to see myself reflected in her inept, unaware, uneducated  forms of communication. As grown  women, when feeling scared, criticized, or demeaned, the realization and pressure of our  inadequacies would  exacerbate both Marilyn’s and my stuttering problems.

How  does one bear such self-incriminations? I will tell you how: alcohol! Alcohol made me feel pretty, competent, and smart. I wonder if it worked the same way for Marilyn. She certainly soared before her final crash-landing.  For me, crash-landings  came before soaring. Terrifying touchdowns and burning crash-landings were customary in my life before and during the coming years.


51NVdAmazon pic of RD

Be Sociable, Share!

Speak Your Mind


“With a Name Like DiMaggio”
Finding Out What “Real” Women Know