The First on Our Block to Fly
Writer / Dan Wakefield
When I was a kid growing up at 6129 Winthrop and going to School #80, a favorite pastime was to go out to the airport and “watch the planes come in.” We would sit for hours, entranced at the sight of the big passenger planes landing. Somehow, taking off didn’t seem quite as dramatic since it was assumed they knew how to get up into the air, but setting down such a huge piece of flying machinery on a narrow strip of land seemed more of a challenge.
There was always the tense moment as they drew lower and closer, perhaps tilting a little in the wind, then settling the front wheels on the runway and the tail touching down, which we greeted with a sigh of relief and sometimes applause. It never occurred to us – either kids or adults – that someday we would take off and land in one of those planes ourselves, rising above Broad Ripple and all of Indianapolis, onto some exotic far off land within our own country, like, say, Pittsburgh or even New York.
It’s hard to remember now how new this whole thing was – the first revolution of passenger planes took off in 1936 with the Douglas DC 3, pioneered by American Airlines. Three years later, when I was in the first grade, my “rich Uncle Crawford” and his Southern belle wife Aunt Susie flew (“took an airplane” as we said back then) to Mexico!
Uncle Crawford, one of the owners of the four Harbison Drugstores in Indianapolis at the time (my father was pharmacist at their store at 16th and Central), was a strange combination of the past and the future – he was the only man I knew who still wore high button shoes, which had gone out of style circa WWI, but this same old-fashioned man took Aunt Susie on that flight to Mexico in 1939.
What tales they returned with! My favorite was Aunt Susie in a Mexican café with a mariachi band as she stood up and sang – in her molasses’ slow South Carolina accent – a hit tune of the time, “South of the Border, down Mexico way…“
Just being related to such people made me feel like royalty, but Uncle Crawford topped it the following year (1940). He gave tickets to my father, my mother and me to fly to New York to see The World’s Fair! The most exciting thing wasn’t that we were going to The World’s Fair but that we were flying to New York!
All the neighbors came to the airport to see us off. This was the event of the year for our block – or maybe of all the 12 years I lived there. To make things more awesome, the plane we would be boarding was “an American Airlines Flagship.” (I didn’t know until I did some research on the subject that all American Airlines planes were called “flagships” back then. The marketing department knew what they were doing! You weren’t just flying on any old run-of-the-mill airplane; you were going on a flagship. It brought to mind the great ocean liners of the time that were the standard means of trans-Atlantic transportation.)
My parents and I were dressed for the big event as if we were going to a wedding. My mother was wearing a new dress, high heels and a wide-brimmed hat. Miss Leah Justice, a “practical nurse” who lived across the street, asked my mother what seemed at the time a “practical” question: “Miz Wakefield, you’re not going to wear that hat when you get on that airplane, are you?”
My mother hadn’t really thought about it but said she supposed that she would. “But Miz Wakefield,” Miss Justice exclaimed, “it’ll blow right off up there!”
A few neighbors giggled, but a few looked concerned. My mother bravely kept the hat on as we boarded, just as if she were going to church.
Our flight landed in Washington, D.C., and then proceeded to LaGuardia. The stewardess (as they were then called) gave us gum to help relieve our ears popping when we landed. She was an attractive young blonde woman, and my father was so entranced by her, his eyes instead of his ears were popping. My mother never tired of reminding him about the stewardess for years afterward.
When he could focus his attention elsewhere, my father took photos of the sky (blue with white clouds) out the window of the plane with his new home movie camera (another first on our block!). He also took pictures of the stewardess.
When we got to The World’s Fair, we saw the famous “trylon and perisphere” that were symbols of the fair – a large needle-like thing and a huge ball-shaped thing beside it. (I still don’t “get it.”) More dramatic was the synchronized diving and swimming of the beautiful young women in “Billy Rose’s Acquacade.”
My father took movies of the “Acquacade,” starring Johnny Weismuller (the first “Tarzan” of the movies), and Eleanor Holm, who finished fifth in the 1932 Olympics but was thrown off the 1936 Olympics team when the team doctor found her in a coma induced by alcohol after partying on the ship going to Europe. Impresario Billy Rose made her the star of his “Acquacade,” married and divorced her; she got a handsome settlement and a movie role as “Jane” in the movie “Tarzan’s Revenge.” (Maybe it should have been called “Jane’s Revenge.”)
For me, the big moment of The World’s Fair was going to see “Elsie, The Borden Cow.” She was famous in Borden’s ads throughout my childhood, and as far as I was concerned, she was a far bigger star than Eleanor Holm. (My father did not agree, though even Eleanor Holm played second fiddle to the stewardess.)
One brief piece of that home movie survives, thanks to Betsy Blankenbaker, who managed to take from it a shot of my mother and I waving goodbye as we left the house en route to the airport, and included it in her documentary film of my memoir, “New York in the Fifties.” If I can find that home movie again, I will send it to The Smithsonian, or better still, my “archive” at The Lilly Library at Indiana University. It is surely historic for the fact that my mother is wearing her wide-brimmed hat, which despite Miss Justice’s fears, did not “blow off up there.”
We continued to “dress up” in our finest new clothes (bought for the occasion) the whole time we were in New York. Courtesy of Uncle Crawford, we stayed at The New Yorker Hotel. Every day when we came out to go to The Fair or to see other sights in New York, we were immediately surrounded by people offering us “Tour of Chinatown,” “Boat Trip Around Manhattan,” “Tour of Rockefeller Center” and every other tourist attraction in the city.
“How do they know we’re from out of town?” my father wondered, and so did my mother and I. We blithely walked on, resplendent in our white summer outfits, the latest finery from Blocks, Ayres, Wassons and L. Strauss and Company. All the New Yorkers seemed to be wearing black or other dark clothes.
Were they all going to funerals? (It was early May and chilly.)
My only other memories of that trip to New York include going out to dinner at a restaurant that looked from the outside as if it were within our price range. After being seated and given our menus, my father whispered that we must all order the ham with potato and vegetable. It was the only thing we could afford, and even at that, from the strained look on my father’s face, I think we just barely got out of there without having to wash dishes. I distinctly remember the bare look of that thin slice of ham with the lonely boiled potato beside it.
My father had looked forward to hearing Cab Calloway at The Cotton Club (he loved Cab’s “Hi De Hi De Hi De Ho’s.”). My father and my mother had decided that I would be safe enough in the hotel room for a few hours (a bold move), but perhaps out of my fear of the big city, I got a terrible stomachache, and they had to cancel their great adventure. What a wimp I was! Still, the whole trip was a great success, and we had the home movie to show to our friends and neighbors for years to come. We each had our golden memory: my mother’s hat did not blow off, my father had film of the “flagship” stewardess and I had met Elsie, the Borden Cow.
Afterward, I have a distinct memory of lying around on the floor of my Greenwich Village apartment reading The New York Times one Sunday 17 years after my trip to The World’s Fair. I came across an article with a prediction that seemed so impossible, I read it aloud to my roommate. “Can you believe this? The Times says that someday, more people will go to Europe by plane than take the boat!” We both laughed. It was another 15 years before I flew to London.
On a magazine assignment in 1995, I again flew to London but this time on The Concorde. It seemed rather plain inside, but the lunch was elaborate: first a salad, then wine, then an entrée, then dessert, followed by an aperitif, then coffee. As I finished my coffee, we were descending into Heathrow Airport. The flight had taken three and a half hours. Sadly, the Concorde was sidelined due to the cost of the gas it took to fly faster than the sound barrier. Now it takes a little more than twice that long to fly to London. It still beats the five days it takes to cross The Atlantic on The Queen Mary, the fastest of the great ocean liners.