Gran, me & the USA Part 2: In Transit

Flying with Pan Am we made our way across the Atlantic at the start of our adventure.  Image:

Flying with Pan Am we made our way across the Atlantic at the start of our adventure.


Part 2: In Transit

I love being “In Transit” it means I’m heading somewhere different where new adventures await, and in April 1980 I really was going into the unknown. Sat next to my grandmother, facing backwards, we were gliding through Heathrow Airport on a special assistance electric cart. Not sure how we ended up being driven to the departure gate, although I suspect we’d cut it fine checking in, and the nice staff realised there was only way we’d make it to our flight. I must admit it was a nice treat, as even on the cart it seemed a very long way from check-in to the plane.

Wow its big inside, we’d been greeted onto our Pan Am transatlantic flight and there in front of me were all these seats. A row of three, an aisle, a row of four, the aisle we were stood in and another row of three seats. This really didn’t make sense, airplanes always looked long and thin to me, and now inside it seemed so wide, at this point I realised why our tickets were printed with seat rows and numbers. Thankfully, gran already knew this and she quickly found our seats, and oh yes- I had a window seat, this was such a big deal to an eleven year old. First flight, a window seat, and even better it was over the wing, I could see the actual wing from my seat. This was all the in-flight entertainment I was ever going to need.

At this point gran leant over, looked out of the window, turned to me and told me about her first flight. This was a flight to Jersey with her husband, and like me she had a window seat over the wing. Gran explained that shortly after takeoff she looked out of the window and panic set in, grabbing her husband’s arm she made him look out of the window and said, “We’ve got to tell the pilot, look the wing hasn’t come in, it’s still there.” Gran explained that she always thought that once planes were in the air their wings retracted into the plane, and you flew a bit like a rocket. On that occasion, her husband helpfully pointed out that the wings were meant to stay there, and if they didn’t they’d fall out of the sky - maybe not the most reassuring thing to say to someone mid-flight, but it put her mind at rest, and of course they arrived safely.

As that flight would have been some twenty five to thirty years earlier when flying wasn’t commonplace I can fully understand why gran had this misconception. It was a time when the world was looking to the future and there were plenty of images of rockets flying around as part of that vision. I have since wondered if, as gran knew this was my first flight, she told me this story just in case I was thinking the same. I wasn’t, but we both giggled about it as our flight taxied to the runway.

A sharp turn, a short pause and then we really did start moving, belting down the runway the plane was shaking, all these rattles were rattling my nerves. Thankfully I was holding my travelling companion’s hand, and as nobody else was panicking I decided this was perfectly normal. Then suddenly and unannounced we were in the air - I was flying! I could see the front of the cabin lifting and we quickly climbed into the clouds, to me it felt like a funfair ride.

Shortly after the plane leveled off a trolley arrived at our seats. First came the coaster - complete with the Pan Am logo, then the plastic glass - complete with the Pan Am logo etched into it, and it came complete with ice cubes. Ice was a rarity at home, our freezer was always full of food. Only in a heatwave would we hunt out the ice cube tray, that for most of the year lived in the kitchen cupboard reserved for all those rarely used utensils. It would usually be found next to a weird device that you clamped onto the worktop, shoved meat in and twirled a handle to make mince appear. This was never, ever used! So to have my own ice was a bit special, as was the miniature can of Coke. I truly thought it was amazing they had child sized cans on the plane, it was perfectly proportioned to my the size of my hand, little did I know!

Gran, meanwhile was enjoying a G&T, there may have been a couple more during the flight and why not we were on holiday. Our drinks were accompanied by small packets of peanuts, this really was living the high life, and of course in 1980 much less was known in terms of peanut and other food allergies, everyone got their bag of nuts, it was all part of the service.

We were fed too, although for me it was the organised nature of the items on the tray that captivated me. Everything was presented in its appropriate section of the tray, and you got to open and unwrap stuff, this was like turning eating into a Fisher Price activity center. I don’t have a clue what I ate, but I enjoyed the experience. Of course there was coffee to finish the meal, which gave the perfect opportunity to use my Pan Am branded stirrer.

At this point in the flight I was very content. My expectations of flying had been exceeded and we’d not even watched the film. Headphones on, eyes forward to the big screen on the cabin bulkhead and it was movie time. There wasn’t a choice of film, instead we were treated to Kramer vs Kramer. This blockbuster starring Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman wasn’t my usual choice of viewing, however it was set in New York. So instead of following the storyline, I sat and absorbed the details, from the outdoor shots of Manhattan right down to the different electric sockets in the interior shots. Yes I was that obsessed, but I’ll always maintain that details are important!

After the film, things became very official as we were presented with customs forms. This paperwork needed to be completed and it seemed to be asking lots of questions and telling you lots of things you needed to know about entering America. Thankfully we had the time to make sure we were fully compliant, and I was confident there was no fruit in my luggage as you couldn’t take it into the country.

To be honest I’ve never felt the need to pack a “just in case” banana into my hand luggage. A “just in case” shoehorn yes - that didn’t go down well with security at Schiphol when I was in transit to Copenhagen in 2014. Pulled aside, the offending item was held in front of me and a perplexed guard asked “What’s this?” Not knowing the Dutch for shoehorn, thankfully I could pull out the “just in case” shoes from my hand luggage and perform a demonstration of its functionality. This must have worked as I was allowed to carry on my journey complete with said shoehorn.

After we landed, my first New York experience was truly terrifying. It was the baggage reclaim hall at JFK. I would have been tired by now, and from the calm of the flight all of a sudden I was surrounded by people, noises and flashing lights. It seemed chaotic, and there were these conveyor belt things with bags on. None of this made any sense to me, not that I’d given a thought as to how you got your suitcases back when we were checking them in at Heathrow. Maybe some nice person was going to hand it to you as you left the plane - if only.

Gran had travelled more, and holding my hand she guided us to the belt we needed to be at, and I quickly assumed position ready to retrieve. At this point I realised that learning to play rugby really does provide you with practical life skills, and I expertly tackled our cases off that belt. There was no way they were getting past me.

Complete with our luggage, there we were in America, in New York, in the dark and in the rain. I was totally disorientated, it was light and sunny when we took off, what’s happening I thought? I quickly realised that time doesn’t standstill when you’re flying across the Atlantic.

Being on a package holiday, the next task was to find the coach. Not having to think about such practicalities has to be the greatest luxury of childhood, and having a savvy grandmother ensured that before I knew it we were sat on the coach.

However, we weren’t on route to a hotel, instead we were heading to La Guardia airport for our next flight along the East Coast to Miami.

As I boarded our next flight I was presented with an Eastern Airlines badge, this made me feel very special. These golden plastic flight wings, fashioned into a badge with the Airline’s logo in the middle, would sit proudly at the base the “V” of my navy blue V Neck jumper for the duration of the holiday. This plane was smaller, virtually devoid of passengers and it was dimly lit. It made for a very relaxing flight, and I must have nodded off because the next thing I remember is seeing the lights of Miami as we prepared to land. The City itself was less relaxed, we were landing in a storm and there were reports of riots taking place. Maybe I was too young, or maybe it was my grandmother’s reassuring presence, but I wasn’t worried about what we may face when we landed, this was an adventure and I knew it was going to be a good one.

We’d been travelling for a long time, and I know we were both relieved to have made it to the door of our hotel bedroom. Our room had two of the biggest beds I’d ever seen, and their Candlewick bedspreads immediately reminded me of home. My mother loved a Candlewick bedspread, and here in Miami it felt comforting to see them. The room also had a corner window. I’d never been in a room with a corner window before, and this excited me as I was passionate about architecture, and had seen many buildings with corner windows. They fascinated me as I couldn’t understand how the masonry above the window stayed in place, and this architectural feature made me like this room a lot.

I noticed one of the window panes had been replaced with an air conditioning unit. It was a rectangular box, exactly like the ones I’d seen in countless American TV programmes. At that moment I knew we’d truly arrived, as this was an iconic piece of American design if ever there was one. Whilst this impressed me in 1980, it didn’t take too long for me to truly dislike air conditioning in particular for environmental reasons, but also because I really don’t like being rooms where you’re sealed off from the outside world and have to breathe processed air.

Although we were both exhausted, we had one final thing to do and that was to unpack our cases. At this point I could tell my case hadn’t been designed to withstand a Miami storm, it must have been stood in the rain at the airport when it was offloaded from our flight as most of my clothes were wet. Supergran to the rescue, and in a matter of minutes she’d transformed our bathroom into a makeshift laundry hanging everything out to dry. It added a homely touch to our room. By now we really needed to sleep. I dived into a marshmallow soft bed where exhaustion beat excitement and I was asleep in an instant.

The following day was going to be our first full day in America, and in the next installment I’ll share with you our adventures in Miami Beach.