Swept up in the mad whirl of life, I did not see this coming.
It was Milo Bung who informed me.
He stood on my front stoop in casual clothes and formal mask. Even Milo has learned to mask up. He shivered in the pool of arctic air we have lately inherited from the Canadians. “Well? You just going to stand there and let me freeze to death?”
“Oops, sorry.” I opened the door and let him slip inside.
He stamped his feet and adjusted his mask. That is to say, he took it off. He’s been in a bubble for months and so have I. We’re both of an age where we’ll be next in line for the vaccine.
“What’s got into you?” Milo demanded. “Did you actually not know last night was New Year’s Eve?”
“I slept through it, like most other things. To tell you the truth, I was preparing to suck the remaining joy out of 2020, but now you tell me the chance is gone.”
“Wake up and smell the coffee, pardner.” That was a hint.
“Come on, I’ll make some.” I led him into the kitchen and sat him down. “The years go by too fast.Où, I ask you, sont les neiges d’antan?” This was a bit of Gallic ju-jitsu, intended to trap him into a long-winded discussion of an irrelevant subject.
Dear Reader, perhaps I’ve neglected to mention that after his unfortunate stint in the Marine Corps, Milo picked up a master’s degree in French Medieval Literature. So he would know I merely meant to ask, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” But he would not be able to resist a mini-lecture on François Villon. That was my theory, you see.
Milo surprised me. “Où? I’ll tell you où. They’ve been piling up around our ankles and knees for years. Now we’re up to our ribcages in them, and I can tell you, they’re going for the throat.” I had never seen such intensity from my old school chum. But I shared his concern.
Let me explain, Dear Reader, in case you, through no fault of your own, are among the metaphor-impaired. My old friend the French scholar was referring to years. The separate snowfalls are just harbingers of time. And indeed the years do pile up around one, just as successive snows will eventually swamp the hardiest mountain cabin.
I poured coffee and set it before him. “What do you propose we do about them, Milo—all these neiges?”
He took a sip, made a grateful face, and gave me a canny look. His eyes measured me, from the top of my snowy head to the gnarled hand resting on the curved handle of a cane, and on down to its rubber tip, planted on the linoleum near my questionable legs.
“You’ll be all right,” he said. “You’ve got baggage to throw overboard yet. Go up to the hospital in a couple of weeks, get that hip replaced, and by spring you’ll be good for another fifty thousand miles.”
I smiled. “It’s wonderful what they can do now, isn’t it?”
He frowned. “Me, I got nothing like that left to improve. I’ll just have to get by on sheer force of personality.”
“Gee, Milo, what if you run out?”
He scowled. “I’ll make up something else, you slippered old pantaloon.”
I stared at him through the spectacles on the end of my nose. He had assured me of fifty thousand more miles, but from where I tottered, fifty thousand didn’t seem like all that many.
Nonetheless, when he took his homeward way, I was cheered. After all, I had received encouragement from no less than Milo Bung, direct lineal descendant of Aethelred the Unready, and third cousin to Slats Grobnik.
Note: Last week I rashly promised that this week’s post would mention my Uncle Ed’s flight to Hawaii in the Anzac Clipper on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack. Oops! I was a week ahead of schedule. Please excuse the error, and enjoy Aunt Mary’s trip to South America instead. Next week: PEARL HARBOR. Really. For sure.
Juan Trippe’s upstart venture, Pan American Airways, was twelve years old when Uncle Ed joined the company as a pilot in 1939.
Pan Am’s Clippers were already changing the shape of the world. In those days of high international tension, Pan American’s interests were so closely identified with the official interests of the United States that flying for Pan Am was like flying for the Navy. In fact, Uncle Ed was a Naval Reserve officer, having received his college education and initial flight training through the Naval ROTC program.
Pan Am assigned him to South America, where the young airline’s routes were most fully developed. So on 20 September 1940, Ed flew with his wife, Mary, and their 3-year-old daughter, Elaine, from Miami to San Juan, Puerto Rico. They traveled there via Antilla, Cuba; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; and San Pedro de Macario, Dominican Republic. Their entire journey, from Miami to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, would take them a mere three days!
Mary sent a letter home—in pencil on both sides of four sheets of white typing paper— describing the adventure. In her letter she comments that little Elaine was “good as gold” throughout the trip. She complains of food prices—$3.50 for “very little,” she says, at the hotel in San Juan. However—
The trip was beautiful. At one place we landed on a river, and it was a thrill. I’ll always remember when we came down on that muddy water at about 100 mi. per hr. (Elaine and I had never rode in a seaplane before.)
The Capt. is a peach & both stewards were nice. Same Capt. goes tomorrow.
Who could resist the thrill of landing on water at a hundred miles per hour? Especially with such peachy flight and cabin crew. Pan Am, from the start, tried to provide the ultimate luxury experience for their passengers.
On the second night, they stayed in Belem, state of Pará, northern Brazil. Mary did not enjoy the town’s peculiar odor, “which they called distilled wood, but smelled like raw sewage to me.”
We got in late, waited for a long time to get through customs, then rode in a rackety bus for miles into the town.
It was a wild ride. The one who toots first has the right-of-way, so we went tooting madly while native children scampered in all directions.
On the third day, flying from Belem to Rio in a land-based Boeing 307 Stratoliner, they made a mid-day stop at Barreiras, an inland city in east-central Brazil.
That was surely interesting. There’s nothing but the landing field on a high plateau in the middle of the jungle. The natives swarmed out of their huts to stare at us, especially at Elaine and I, as we were the only females on the plane.
The airport manager carried an 8 in. knife, just in case, he said.
A native woman served good coffee in a thatched hut.
We were at 18,000 ft. in the strato-liner, it was very comfortable, but I think I enjoyed the first day in the Clipper most, & Elaine liked to watch the water landings too.
The Stratoliner, a sleek, cigar-shaped vessel that entered commercial service in 1938, was the first airliner to offer a pressurized cabin, allowing it to cruise at altitudes to 20,000 feet. It was basically a B-17 bomber with its fuselage expanded to accommodate 33 passengers and a crew of six, instead of bombs.
Once the young family arrived in Rio, it did not at first match expectations. For one thing, the weather was cold and clammy and remained so for a week or more after their arrival. “Most of our heavy clothes are in the trunk that is being shipped, & I sure wish we had them,” Mary writes. “I have never been so cold I think.”
And the local cuisine took some getting used to.
Food is good & plentiful here but different. Tea is served in the afternoon, but we are always so full that we don’t bother with it.
Coffee is so strong it looks thick, and is combined with hot milk, and is, surprisingly, very good. … Elaine drinks hot boiled milk and likes it too.
A typical lunch consists of hors d’oeuvres (celery, sardines, olives, etc.) chicken or veg. soup, cold veal covered with spiced mayonnaise, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, cottage pie (diced meat with mashed potato covering), rolls, molded pudding or ice cream, coffee.
Everything is served in separate courses. Salad is also available, but we skip it, or anything raw on account of dysentery.
After a week’s leave, Ed reported to Pan Am’s office and began preparing for his first flight from Rio, a four-day trip to Belem. Meanwhile, Mary grew concerned about housing. “The Co. pays expenses here for 7 days & after that we are on our own, so must find an apt. as soon as possible.” Yet, after the first week, they were still living in a beachfront hotel, and “[it] looks as if we will be here for some time.”
After all, it was 1940. There was a war on in Europe. “The place is full of French & Eng. refugees, many of them wealthy who either have, or are looking for Apts. & willing to pay well for them.”
Still, there were consolations to living the high life oin Rio.
We are on the 7th floor & scenery is very beautiful. Sugar [Loaf] Mountain & its cable car going up the side can be seen when it isn’t foggy. All the mts. are tall & narrow & green. …
There are a troupe of show people here, including two midgets that we saw in Long Beach, Cal. when we first went there.
They amuse Elaine as she is bigger than they.
They are friendly & fun to talk to. The woman is knitting herself a dress.
Elaine can count to 5 in Portuguese as well as Eng. & knows a few other words. At dinner she handed her napkin back to the waiter & told him holey & showed him the holes.
Weather has turned warm & we all like it here very well. Everyone is very nice.
I am tired of eating meat & fish. I’ve finally learned how to use a fish knife. The fish fork is held in the left hand, and knife in the right, and then go after it.
Street cars here have an open car as a trailer, marked “Secunda classe (second class)” which is half price. People hang on the sides, too.
Eventually they did find an apartment, for a longer-term stay. But, as is the fate of junior airline employees in every time and place, they did not stay put for long. Sometime between February and December, 1941, they moved back to the United States, settling in Oakland, California, just uphill from Alameda, where Ed began flying Pan Am’s famous “Clipper” flying boats across the Pacific.