Wounded but Resilient

The impact of trauma

The Aloha Reunion: Celebrating the Undying Spirit of Pan Am

A former flight attendant turned psychotherapist revisits her old life.

On April 2 – 5, 2014, former Pan Am employees from all over the world are converging on Honolulu, Hawaii, to enjoy the Pan Am Aloha Celebration. It will be a week of seeing old friends and making new ones, sharing memories and stories, and interestingly, celebrating our experience, while at the same time mourning our loss of Pan Am together.

 The day that Pan American World Airways ceased operations, December 4, 1991, Newsweek ran an article about the airline’s history, beginning with the statement, “This is not a story about planes. It’s about romance….It may be hard for today’s all-too-frequent flyers to remember that once, air travel was an adventure; that airlines once had a soul. Pan Am certainly did.”

 As a veteran Pan Am flight attendant for 20 years (1965 – 1986), and now as a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist for 27 years, I have studied and written about the unique relationship between Pan Am and its employees, and about the airline’s triumphs and traumas, in order to help those people who were still suffering from the loss of their beloved company.

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Pan Am. No other airline in history ever evoked such images of glamour and adventure, because it was the airline that practically invented aviation. Known as the “Queen of the Skies,” it was the benchmark by which all other airlines were judged.

 And for good reason. Pan Am was the first airline to fly to Latin America, the carrier whose famed Clipper flights to Europe and the Pacific were the stuff of romance. It was also the first airline to circle the globe. Its round-the-world Flight 1 (westbound) and Flight 2 (eastbound) were inaugurated just after World War II. Then, at the dawn of the jet age, Pan Am flew the first Boeing 707 in 1958. Then came the 747. Pan Am was the airline of the “stars,” and to the moon (2001: A Space Odyssey).

But none of these innovations, as impressive as they were, was what made Pan Am different from other companies. It was the feeling of “family” and adventure and loyalty that Pan Am inspired from its very beginning. Its rich history, almost unbelievable events, and stories of our legendary “characters” were passed down through the generations, filtering – as family legends do - into each new-hire group.

 Indeed, no other airline had more intensely loyal employees, who continue even now to keep alive the spirit of a company that went out of business so many years ago. From the beginning, we were introduced into Pan Am as “family,” strongly bonded and loyal to each other. We became deeply interested in helping our company be the best, and while some people outside our “family” saw that as arrogance, we saw it as striving for excellence.

 But what did that mean? It wasn’t just about the glamour of far-off places, 7-course meals served on fine china, or how proud we were wearing the Pan Am uniform. It’s about something called “The Pan Am World.”

 One of Pan Am’s jingles was, “Pan Am has a place of its own. You call it ‘the world.’ We call it ‘home.’” In my view, there are two very different meanings of the word “world.” One pertains to geography, and, of course, this was very significant to our peripatetic lives. Globetrotting was our lifestyle, but very few of us ever got over the thrill of taking off on a brand-new adventure.

 However, “world” has another very important meaning, and that has to do with the way in which people make sense of their lives. Many Pan Am employees have described their relationship to the company as “a love story.” Pan Am felt to us as if it had a living, breathing soul (as Newsweek described), and so the company’s essence was much more than a merely practical world.

 Indeed, it was a very emotional world, and Pan Am was much more than a mere company. A job with Pan Am was a passport to the world with unlimited horizons, and its employees shaped their lives around the framework of the Pan Am culture. In other words, every trip was a meaningful event, which makes the upcoming Aloha Celebration an even more meaningful event.

On a personal level, I’ll have the opportunity to share with other Pan Am family members about our relationship to Pan Am. I’d like to extend the invitation to my fellow attendees who’d be interested in being interviewed about their Pan Am experience.

And we’ll have plenty of opportunities to chat. Several cocktail receptions and dinner at the Pacific Aviation Museum, as well as a special tour of the historic sights used by Pan Am during Pan Am’s China Clipper era, have been planned. And a “Clipper Club” (Captain’s room) will be available each day for us to find our friends and circulate.

 On Thursday, April 3, from 9:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M., the public is invited free of charge to share in an exciting day of legendary “family” memories. This forum will be held in the Prince Hotel in the Mauna Kea Ballroom. One of the featured speakers will be Ed Dover (author of The Long Way Home), who extensively interviewed the crew that flew a B-314 flying boat all the way around the world the other way, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was an unanticipated first circumnavigation of the globe by a commercial airline. They flew in total secrecy and radio blackout for six weeks. It’s a great story.

 Author Jon Krupnick, author of Pan Am Pacific Pioneers, will be discussing his wildly successful book about Pan Am’s “boat days.” Our own Captain Don Cooper (the man largely responsible for organizing many of our most spectacular reunions) will set the historical and political scene in the Pacific before 1935, which led to Pan Am’s subsequent hegemony in the area. There will be other speakers as well, all passing along our Pan Am family stories.

Fittingly, the world “aloha” means both hello and goodbye, and it is with a tinge of sadness that we know that Captain Don Cooper will no longer be doing this. At 82, Captain Cooper feels that this reunion will be his swan song, reminding all of us that many of our “Skygods” are now in their 80’s and 90’s. Our “hellos” are joyous, but as is reflected in the closeness of our Pan Am family, we don’t like saying “goodbye.”

But just as I was thinking this might be the last big all-inclusive Pan Am reunion, up pops the news of a Pan Am Worldwide Family Reunion on Long Island, New York on July 31 – August 3, 2014. It is being sponsored by Pan Amigo News (Miami), a newsletter for former employees for the purpose of keeping in touch, and sharing news of reunions, travel discounts, and finding friends we’ve lost track of.

But it doesn’t stop there. We also have philanthropic organizations with their own newsletters, such as World Wings International (retired flight attendants), Clipper Pioneers (retired pilots), The Retirees Club (retired ground staff), and the Pan Am Historical Foundation (open to all including non employees). Many Pan Am websites can be found on the Internet, such as everythingpanam.org, and various closed groups just for Panamer’s. Meanwhile, the Pan Am AWARE store in Miami is busily supplying Pan Am memorabilia to those people who are nostalgic for “the Queen of the Skies.”

Pan Am, as the slogan goes, is “Gone But Not Forgotten.” The company as parent has died, but the family endures; the siblings continue to forge meaningful connections with each other all over the world – finding creative ways, as families do, to project themselves unendingly into the future. As long as the airlines employees and their children (known affectionately as Pan Am “brats”, who grew up flying around the world with us) are still alive, the deep affection for Pan Am will endure.

And like all families, we’ve had our share of tragedy. Most former Pan Am employees can tell you where we were when we heard about the sale of the Pacific routes to United, the Lockerbie tragedy, and the demise of Pan Am. We share common trauma, as well as phenomenal experiences: the high life and slow death of Pan Am is seared into our collective memory, but nobody can take away our love for our company.

For those who are interested, I am including a link to a video about our Pan Am world, put together by Captain Tommy Carroll for the last big reunion, which was held in Monaco in 2012. It provides a glimpse of just some of our layovers in 86 countries and every continent, except Antarctica. Click on the following link, (747skygod.com) , and then click on the video “Pan Am Gone But Not Forgotten.”

 Then, sit back, relax, and prepare yourself for a nostalgic journey back to the “good old days” – a time when America itself was at its zenith, and working for Pan Am felt like the best job in the world.

 

Postscript: This article is also respectfully dedicated to all aviation employees who have lost their companies – our “Kissin’ Cousins” at TWA, the former employees of Eastern, Braniff, Western, PSA, Piedmont, and Republic Airlines – just to mention a few.

Helen Davey, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in West Los Angeles. She writes for Huffington Post.

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