"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Monday, April 15, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 106: Flying

The next subject Bishop took up in her 3 January 1962 letter had occasionally come up before: flying. She did not like flying and the accounts she now gave her aunts explain in part the reason for her dislike and discomfort. Before her detailed story of how she and Lota travelled to NYC, she first noted, “I am so sorry Aunt Grace was afraid I was in that plane crash,” declaring that Grace should have known otherwise because, as she reiterated, “I did write, as I said, from N.Y.” The only crash in late 1961 that I found that could be the event to concern Grace was: “AerolíneasArgentinas Flight 322 … a scheduled Buenos Aires-São Paulo-Port ofSpain-New York City international passenger service, operated with a Comet 4 …crashed during climbout on the early stages of its second leg, when it collidedwith tree tops shortly after take off … on 23 November 1961. Therewere 52 fatalities, 40 of them passengers.” This flight, however, was going in the opposite direction, that is, towards NYC, and happened long before Bishop and Lota returned to Brazil.
Bishop had written her last 1961 letter to Grace on 12 December and reported earlier in this first 1962 letter that she and Lota left New York on 17 December, well after this crash happened. Just when these letters reached Grace is unknown, but she perhaps had heard about this crash before any of them arrived. One can understand her worry. Air travel in the 1960s was a risky business. Indeed, on 18 September 1961, a Douglas DC-6B, carrying Dag Hammarskjöld,second Secretary-General of the United Nations, crashed near Ndola. All on board died.

(How Bishop knew on 3 January that Grace had thought Bishop might be on this plane is explained later in this long January epistle.)

After this preliminary comment, Bishop noted that they travelled to NYC on “Pan-Am.” Perhaps to divert her aunts from further worry, she launched into a story about that journey northward, back in early November. She said they flew that particular airline “because of our friend the pilot, Page Smith.” I have tried to find such a person online, but have had no luck. Since they were friends of such an important person, Bishop noted that there was “a lot of fuss at the airport.” They got VIP treatment: “we were taken specially out to the plane in a car,” no plebian walking out “like everyone else.” Before boarding “we had our pictures taken several times — with Page in the middle with his arms around our necks.” In spite of what we might regard as a lot of aviation accidents, 22 in 1961, for example, flying was clearly an event with some glamour attached to it.*

The amusing aspect of all of this ado was, as Bishop described, that “the effect … was rather spoiled because we were carrying so many bundles and baskets, etc.” The friend who was “seeing us off said he was ashamed of us — we looked so countryified [sic] — as if we had taken along picnic lunches to eat on the plane.”

This “grand send-off” was short-lived because they “had an awful trip” — clearly, even knowing the pilot only went so far. But, as Bishop noted, “we never do seem to have much luck with planes” (perhaps the reason Grace jumped to her conclusion and worried). For starters, the trip was not direct, but included a first leg to Brasilia, “supposedly for fifteen minutes,” which turned into “six hours — something wrong with the brakes.”**

Because of Lota’s stature with her work on the park in Rio, they “were given a guided tour” of a city they both “hate[d] like poison.” They had “dinner at the hotel” and “waited and waited.”

All this unpleasant delay meant they “got to N.Y. in the middle of the night.” When they got to Perry St., they had to “wake up our friends who live across the street at 4:30 AM to get the keys.”

After such an experience, even their friendship with the pilot didn’t deter them from changing airlines for their return trip: “we decided to switch back to Varig.” It turned out one airline was as bad as the next in this instance, and “even worse.” Even before getting on the plane, “the flight had to be cancelled two or three times because of” Bishop’s work schedule and “because of sleet storms.” Of course, by the time they actually did leave in mid-December, “closer to Christmas, the planes got crowded.” In the end, the “Varig put us on the Argentine Airline — a smaller English Cometjet,” which was in fact the airline and type of plane that had crashed in November 1961!
All Bishop could say about the final return journey home was that “the trip was all right, but several hours late, the food lousy, etc.” It was an overnight flight and Bishop reported that “in the morning just before reaching Rio,” she “started to faint — I didn’t know one could faint, sitting down.” Without missing a beat, “the stewardess immediately hitched me up to an oxygen mask that all passengers seem to have — it cured me in no time.”*** One can only imagine what the cabin pressure and air quality was like then (we know what it is like now!), and Bishop concluded “the air must have been bad to begin with.” Indeed, on 8November 1961 … a Lockheed Constellation L-049, crashed on landing at ByrdField near Richmond, Virginia; all 74 passengers — mostly new US Army recruitsbeing flown to their base for training — died of carbon monoxide asphyxiation,along with three crew members; the captain and flight engineer survive byescaping the burning wreckage.”

No wonder Bishop didn’t like to fly.

Not only did the travellers have their issues, but also the person waiting for them to arrive, “our friend Mary [Morse],” who “had been waiting … at the Rio airport with her baby, Monica, for three hours or more, poor things.” To add insult to injury, Bishop left her “wristwatch on the plane and couldn’t get it back!” Bishop readily confessed all was made worse because “of course I’m always petrified, anyway.” To deal with what was a clear phobia, she resorted to being “heavily drugged … Well, I think flying is greatly over-rated!” I think so too.

The next chunk of this long letter returns to the trials and troubles of family and friends and will be taken up in the next post.

* Note: Even in my youth I remember taking my first flight from Halifax, N.S., to Sydney, Cape Breton, on a class trip. I was 12, so it was 1973. The whole class walked out to the plane and stood outside, some of us even on the steps going into the aircraft, and had our picture taken. I still have the newspaper clipping that covered our excursion.

** I remember in the late 1990s (before 9-11) being on a plane in the airport in Miami waiting to taxi out to the runway, but there was a delay that stretched out for some time: well over an hour and more. I had a window seat and I could see workmen trying to do something under a wing. Well, I began to get quite upset and the crowded plane was starting to get tense. In the end, they had to take us all off because the plane could not be fixed. I was flying from Cancun to Miami to NYC to Halifax. In the end I went from Miami to Toronto and the next morning to Halifax. I don’t fly a lot, so all this stuff was quite unsettling; but I suppose for seasoned travellers, it is par for the course.

*** I remember another trip back from Cancun with my sisters when I had serious issues with pain in my head (one of the reasons I don’t like to fly is because of the air pressure changes, which affect me greatly, even in a pressurized cabin). I, too, had a flight attendant who stepped right up (I could not lift my head off my lap, I was in such pain) and put moist, hot towelettes into two plastic cups and told me to hold them over my ears. It did the trick somehow. The pain quickly began to ease.

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