Im Not Getting Better . . . I’m Getting Older

Horsey: T S A ©2010 Hearst Newspapers

There are so many slings and arrows we become inured to as we age. Being shoved aside by youngsters bent on getting a subway seat. Receiving condescending rejection letters from potential employers under forty. Being addressed, like a hard-of-hearing toddler, in loud monosyllabic words. It sucks to grow old. But because the alternative is far worse, we simply tolerate the little insults and abuses.

Most of them.

I still get flustered when a TSA agent tells me, “I’ll have to pat you down.”

A pat-down is unnatural. Disconcerting. I try to make light – the way I do when the dentist is extracting yet another of my teeth – but a typical TSA agent has less sense of humor than any dentist. To make fun could land me in jail because to a TSA agent, I am a threat to national security.

All because of my titanium hip. Which I chose to have placed in me.

One bitterly cold February morning in 2006, I was out for a run in Fort Tryon Park. Looking upward, dazzled by the brilliantly cerulean sky, I failed to see the sharply pointed rock jutting out if the earth just in front of my toe. I tripped and flew a bit upward before falling down. My right hip landed squarely on that rock.

“It’s definitely fractured,” my surgeon affirmed, looking at my x-rays. “You must have fallen just right.”

“I know,” I sighed. “I was running faster than I’d run in weeks. I just got over bronchitis and. . . “

“You’ve got options,” he mumbled impatiently. “I could fix it. But you’ll have pain, and you’ll limp. Or I can replace it. Then it won’t bother you at all. Except when you fly.”

He was half right. It only presents a problem when I fly out of an American city. I’ve flown out of cities in Israel, Taiwan, Thailand, Italy, UK, Hong Kong, Turks & Caicos, among others, and I have never been subjected to so much as a second look. In fact, in most places, because of my age, I don’t have to wait on lines, and people go out of their way to be helpful. A body scanner readily picks up the hot spot near my groin, and other countries’ agents recognize the piece of metal that is my bionic hip. No problem. Off I go. But in the US, I’m treated with the care and respect reserved for foreign terrorists.

To be fair, some TSA agents are nicer about it than others. Some are even downright kind. At LaGuardia last month, the woman who responded to the request for a “Female Assist” was personable, friendly. She apologized and did her business quickly. It’s never fun, but in that case, the experience was not humiliating. I flew to Chicago without a single case of the willies.

The agent in Chicago at my return flight made up for the deficit by providing me with a full dose of creepiness.

It began with a bit of drama back at my hotel.

My room’s safe, where I had put my wallet for security’s sake while I attended a wedding on the South Side the night before, was so secure that it refused to open for me. The hotel had only one person with the key to open it, and he did not arrive to liberate my valuables until ten minutes after I should have headed to the airport. By the time I reached the airport, it was nearly time to board. Flights to NY that day were overbooked, and I wanted to get home. I knew, however, that if I gave the TSA people any inkling that I was in a hurry, I would irritate them.

“I need the body scanner – prosthetic hip,” I announced in the practiced, sing-song voice I’ve developed for the statement.

“Female Assist,” the cry went up.

A formidable woman appeared from somewhere else. Imposingly muscular, at least three inches taller than I, she sauntered toward me in her best John Wayne posture and looked down at me with disdain. I’ve come to the conclusion that the TSA HR looks for candidates with resting bitch faces and eyes that shout “NOTERRORISTWILLFOOLME.”

“Feet on the yellow,” she growled. “I said ON the yellow. Hands up. Higher. Hold still. Stand still.”

I emerged from the cell and waited. It took her at least a minute to get back to me. The picture in the scanner was exactly as I expected. Even though I was wearing no jewelry, no braces, no underwear, there was a dark spot on my collarbone and a large one in my hip and groin area. I have no idea what that is at my collarbone. It’s always there. The hip is self-explanatory.

“You’ll have to be patted down,” she growled again. This time she was clearly annoyed. It was my fault.

“I’m gonna have to pat you down on your breasts, your buttocks, your waist, your groin, your . . . “

“Could you just do it please?”

“Not till I’ve said what I need to say.” She started over, droning on about where she would be putting her hands. I think I groaned. She stopped and stared at me with an unmistakable death threat. “I can have you taken into a private room for this if you don’t like it here.”

“It’s okay,” I shuddered. “I was just thinking my plane is going to leave without me.

“We gotta do our job.”

“I understand.” She stood staring at me. I must have sounded sarcastic. No wonder. I should have just held my breath. Instead I said, “I never have this trouble anywhere but in America. Everywhere else, they. . . “

“Well maybe you should ’a’ stayed somewhere else then. You put our country in danger, we don’t want you here.”

I shut up.

She patted me down not once but twice in each of the specified areas. The second time she even pushed her gloved hand roughly down my pants. I closed my eyes so I could not see the other passengers, hurrying by on their way to their flights, stop to stare at the menacing old woman being detained at the TSA station.

When she was finally done, the agent made me endure a hand check. More waiting. Finally, she scowled at me and said, “You can go now. But next time? Maybe you should just stay home.”

 

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Dancing in Lunacy — Bali Part I

“The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description.”

Tales of the South Pacific, by James Michener

How can I possibly be in the South Pacific and not think of James Michener?

I first read his Tales as a freshman in high school, and when Hawaii came out that year, my mother was called into the principal’s office for allowing me to read such racy literature.  Michener remains with me, especially when I travel (he’s written about so many of my favorite places), but here in Bali, an island that is still confused for the island paradise immortalized by Bloody Mary’s nearly eponymous song in the Rogers and Hammerstein adaptation of Michener’s work, he looms.

Obviously, my expectations were high as we flew from Don Muang Airport in Bangkok to Bali’s Ngurah Rai.  Which is to say that there is no way I would not be disappointed.

Even the physical image of my imaginary Bali, reinforced by the film version of Eat, Pray, Love, which featured gentle marketplaces, smiling people with no desire to rush anyone and a pristine, sparsely populated seaside, was immediately tainted.  There was, from day one, nothing Edenic about what I found there.

I won’t claim to be an expert on anything Balinese.  I was there for five days, a prisoner of my own inadequacies.  To begin with, I was impaired my choice of reading companionship.

For some reason I am unable to decipher as yet, I chose, as my airplane entertainment, 1493, by Charles C. Mann.  It’s a great book; don’t get me wrong.  But it’s very affecting.  As I deplaned at the Bali airport, I had only just read about the spread of Malaria, one of the many results of the Columbian Exchange.

Apparently, and this is a truly reduced explanation, because of the voyages of Cristobal Colon, which created a network of trade routes around the globe, all sorts of agriculture and its concomitant insects, germs and diseases, were able to migrate easily worldwide, and one of the most adaptable migrators is the mosquito with its uncanny ability to infuse malaria into the blood of its host.

Mann’s writing is most engaging, and his descriptions leave little to the imagination, including his descriptions of the way the disease infiltrates the body, what it does to the blood, how it spreads from one host to another and how it creates epidemics that make the flu pandemic of 1918 look downright contained.

So there I was, arriving in Bali, armed with just enough knowledge about malaria to know I didn’t want to get it and knowing that I had ignored CDC recommendations.  Anti-malarial shots can be pretty invasive and destructive, so, since there has been no major outbreak in the Bali city areas, the CDC doctor in NY suggested I just plan to “Use Deet; sleep in Deet, cover yourself in Deet.”  I figured that if it were that important, Deet would have to be readily available in Bali, and, not wanting to carry any more liquid than I had to, I planned to buy it there.

Well, I was wrong.  No Deet presented itself in any form in any of the multi-varied stores we found once we got settled.  But far more worrisome was that in the book, Mann had clearly said that malaria outbreaks are worst in areas such as rice paddies, which are notorious for their standing water, especially when the rice paddies are in areas of extreme moisture and even more so in areas where the rice paddies were not native but had been transported to that region in the Columbian Exchange.

You guessed it.  Bali’s rice was introduced by visitors — Bali is situated, after all,  right along the main trade route, whose center was just up the ocean at Manila –after the 16th Century.  And the rice paddies, built into the sides of the sloping jungle, are awash with tourist resorts for every breed of mosquito.  When we’d found our way to our accommodations, I asked our host about malaria, and he said, “No worry.  Only in rainy season.”  When is rainy season, I wondered and looked it up: all year.

So I began with ill ease, and then communication difficulties intensified discomfiture.

We had planned to stay for the entire five days of our visit in a house that, according to the pictures we had seen online, was a clean, quaint, lovely house, perfect for quiet meditation, in the area known as Ubud.  We expected a few days of retreat, time to read and write and cogitate and perhaps explore the charmingly offbeat town and its environs.  The owner of the house had honestly disclaimed, “If you are looking for five-star accommodations, this is not your place, but it is infinitely comfortable and immaculately clean.”  An unfortunate miscommunication.

The house, first of all, is two hours from the airport. I knew I was in trouble about ten minutes into our trip out there, when I saw a billboard that said, “Visit Ubud.  Enjoy the beauty of the rice paddies in the splendor of the jungle.”

That sign preceded two hours of standstill or crawling traffic.  Nothing moves easily in the congestion of trucks and motorbikes, and we were later informed that this is a condition that is Bali-wide.  Nothing controls the traffic here  — like much of Asia, Bali lacks streetlights, street signs, traffic police, speed limits, pedestrian crossings, road regulation of any kind.  When we arrived at our destination, the driver stopped at the top of a hill, and he indicated that we should walk down.

He took one of our bags, and we handled the rest, descending a very steep hill, on an alleyway sidewalk barely wide enough for one average-sized person.  An overweight ten-year-old would be challenged trying to navigate the walkway.  On our way down, we were surprised — more like mortified, shocked, amazed, terrified — by an oncoming motorbike.  It sped up the hill, assuming we would find a way to stand aside, and as the menacing bug whizzed by, I felt his tire slide over my toe (luckily, this was before I became a converted flip-flops wearer, so I was still sporting my Nikes) and his handlebar graze my arm.

The house is cradled in the spectacle of a greenness I could never have imagined.  Numerous waterfalls drop off the sides of the rice terraces, and the giant palms rustle gently, sparkling in the brilliant sunshine.  A choir of floral hues echo from every bush, every clump of glass.  Where the airport area had been unbearably hot, here on our mountain, it was considerably cooler, and, as the sun began to set it got downright comfortable.  I even considered donning a sweater.

So much for the positives.  The house was dirty.  Not in a neglected or abused kind of way, but in a way that figures you won’t find sleeping on others’ sheets, using others’ towels, walking on wet floors objectionable.  I might have found a way to deal with that, despite the high price (yes, the price per night was verging on 5 star cost) of the accommodation, but there were worse aspects.

For one thing, there was no mosquito netting.  And the local store had no Deet.  But worse than that, the bedrooms — more like monks’ cells, actually — were on opposite sides of the house, with no way to navigate one from another without walking thru the darkness of the jungle.  Is my western-ness showing?  I cannot deny it!  In any case, these little rooms were in a state of perpetual air-conditioning, but they were not screened, so doors had to be firmly shut, yet the bathrooms, which are outside the bedrooms, accessed through unscreened doors, are the domain of marauding hordes of ants and spiders. Of course, the sound of mosquito song fills the air, even drowning out the shrill calls of the jungle nightlife.  Going to the bathroom allows the little visitors in and invites them to hitch a ride atop one’s skin.  We had no control of the a/c, and we had no blankets, which made for a cold night, but it didn’t deter our blood-sucking intruders from feasting on us.

While the open, airy kitchen area was esthetically pleasing by day, at night it became nightmarish.  All kinds of creatures shared the space, including, of course, those mosquitos.  There was a kind of sitting room on the second story, very quaint and something I’d probably love in an upstate NY summertime (after black fly season), but kind of formidable in its dirty unprotectedness.

The grounds were pristine, thanks to the next-door neighbor, who tended them.  The pool, however, clearly presented him a challenge, and there were innumerable dead things both botanical and zoological floating in it.  Not inviting.

But the worst part about the house was something we came to realize is implicit in the Bali tourism trade: the ubiquitous, over-fussy, cloyingly attentive staff employed to meet our needs.

I feel terrible sharing this observation because, especially in the case of the team that cared for this house, the people can be really sweet and genuinely concerned.  But you can’t sit without someone grabbing the chair. You can’t get yourself a glass of water or personally open a mangosteen; they will wrest whatever you are holding from your hand and do it for you, whether you like it or not. Our caretaker made himself responsible for everything from carrying our luggage to hiring a car (his relative) to trying to accompany us wherever we might want to go.  And his wife did everything else.  When I awoke at 5 a.m. and stumbled in the half-light to the kitchen, she was standing there, in the eerie jungle crepuscule, (I had to wonder how she knew I was up  – she and her husband live next door, up a hill), armed and ready with her pancake makings, which I had to ask her — and this seemed to offend her — not to employ.

Ubud is congested.  In the evening, dreading the presence of our serving staff, we emphatically declined the escort service and walked to the village.  Well, walked is a misnomer.  We crept along the sides of the road.  There are no pedestrian spaces, so we basically stuck to the gullies, kind of clinging to the vegetation to keep from falling down.  Nonetheless, we did manage to get a feel for the lay and texture of the town: very late ’60’s atmosphere, hippies in abundance from all over the world (those we talked to were mostly from Australia and Europe, but there were plenty of Americans around too) with backpacks and naked children and presumably nothing to do but hang out in the local vegetarian restaurants by day and then in the abundant bars by night.  By the time we had spent one night in Ubud, we knew we HAD to leave.  So we did.

But before we left, we were really interested in seeing the area; it had been raved about in every publication we had perused.  So we asked our grounds man to engage his cousin-the-driver to take us on a tour and then to deliver us to another section of Bali, where we had booked a hotel room. Cousin brought the car around, and we were off.
We stopped in Ubud for lunch in a hippie restaurant — I saw some people I know from New York, which didn’t wholly surprise me, as there are scores of what some might call “yoga tourists” milling about– and walked around the shops for an hour, and then the driver hunted us down to ask imploringly if we were ready to go to the hotel.  He seemed anxious to get us there. “We asked for a day,” I said incredulously.  He didn’t understand me and answered me something I couldn’t make out except that I got the word “far,” so I knew he was speaking a kind of pidgin.  I asked him to show us what he loves in the area.  He didn’t understand.  He asked if we wanted to go to the Monkey preserve?  No, thanks.  The zoo?  Absolutely not.  Finally, he had a stroke of genius and wordlessly took us to a coffee plantation.

The coffee “plantation” was small, just a little farm, really, where the family raises luwaks (weasel-ish animals, civets — and the coffee raised with their assistance is called luwak coffee, or luwak kopi, every expensive) and monkeys and other animals with rich detritus.  They harvest their captives’ feces for fertilizer, and plant their coffee in its warmth. In the case of the luwaks, they feed the beans to the animals; it is defecated and harvested. Then members of the family process the locally refined strain of coffee.
As we toured the farm, the owner/workers seemed to be on a break, congregating wherever we were, under no pressure to perform any pressing tasks.  After they ascertained that we were English-speaking, they summoned a young woman, who later explained that she knows “some little” English because she is in her third year of a course to become an English instructor at the local university.

Her father — that’s who he appeared to be — had lived, he said, in Los Angeles; his English was much better.  And when he joined us, we actually had a lively conversation and got the lowdown on how the beans are sterilized, roasted, peeled, prepared for consumption; and I was convinced to spend $30 on a very small bag of coffee, one of the some thirteen varieties we had been encouraged to sample, and which I found delicious.

There were a few men around, who seemed to be hired help.  Absent any cognates, I could not identify any languages except that the one the father spoke was laced with Dutch sounding words.  I did clearly observe that when he talked to these guys, who appeared to be locals, he had to repeat himself.  Curious about this, I later looked up the language of Bali and learned that there are many.

Bali, it turns out, not unlike NY, was colonized by the Dutch, who encouraged immigration from all over.  Indigenous people from nearby islands, as well as people from the Philippines, China and Malaya, moved in.  There is no island that has a single language because even those people who are native to an island speak a variety of tribal tongues; there are actually 637 known languages spoken in Bali.  Communication is difficult at best.  Bahasa Indonesia, the official language of Indonesia, was chosen rather arbitrarily to represent all the people of Indonesia in the 1960’s, when the myriad islands of the area were incorporated to form the country.  So the majority of Balinese learn one language at home and then have to learn another to communicate with compatriots and still another to navigate the tourism world that dominates their economics.

And to reconnect to James Michener, I also learned that Indonesia, Polynesia, Micronesia — the many little island nations created out of disparate tribal nations — are all related in that their people have been often irrationally nationalized and come from similarly diversified roots.

No wonder we were unable to have a fruitful conversation with anyone except Dad of the Coffee Farm.

Carla and the King of Siam

 

 

When I stepped off the plane in Bangkok, after 28 hours of transit time, I felt as though I’d stepped back in time. Placing my feet on the tarmac transported me, in a way, back to a simpler era, at least where travel is concerned. As I descended walked into the steamy evening and waked across the tarmac to the bus that would take us passengers to the terminal, I was reminded of arriving in Albuquerque in 1957, after a nearly-as-long flight from NYC. Then something thoroughly unexpected happened; I reverted to my then age.

Travel, especially over long distances through various time zones, can be like a drug. Sights, sounds, the very touchstones of reality can be altered so that the traveler walks in a kind of quasi-hallucinatory state, seeing, smelling, hearing, touching, tasting what may or may not be present. Entering the terminal, in my mind’s ear, a philharmonic orchestration of the Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I Overture rolled over me in flowing and ebbing waves emanating from the loudspeakers. Everywhere I looked were the multitudinous children of wise King Mongkut, and just to confirm that I had entered the realm of the play, I was sure that, right in front of me, standing next to the lifesize poster of Mongkut’s descendent, the current King of Siam, stood a prim but visibly amused woman, pursing her terribly British mouth and trying not to laugh at the antics of the children.

I hadn’t thought about the King and I — or even of the lovely pre-musical version Anna and the King of Siam — in many years, although as a youngster, I was moved to desire the life of a musical actress because of it. But I realized, once I had had a bit of sleep and had recovered some of my senses, that there was a logical reason why the images had so starkly assaulted me upon my arrival.

Like so many people in my generation, my first impression of the people of Thailand, formerly Siam, was created in the lush panorama of the movies. I took in the king’s exhortation to Anna that she learn to kowtow, in order to be a proper woman, and I believed that, however toothsome these people — of course, played in 1956 by beautiful but decidedly un-Thai actors — might be, theirs was a sycophantic, toady society, and they lived to serve their betters; women, moreover, were an underclass in a society of repressed people.

Further, like so many girls in the 1950’s, I believed that Lady Thiang’s plea to Anna to give in to the King, to beg for his approval, was exactly as Anna saw it, a paen to a kind of obeisance that a self-respecting Western woman must eschew. Boy was I wrong about the Thai. In its Western bias, the film actually fails to capture the spirit of the people in some extraordinarily insensitive ways.

From the moment I entered Bangkok, I was aware aware of the presence of lovely young models, male and female, wearing their prim, closely-tailored, white-gloved suits — costumes that misleadingly evoke a sense of a colonial Siam — posed welcomingly around the city. There is an ambience here that suggests the gentle sweetness of the people that both films were able to capture, and at every opportunity, they display a somehow disarming array of deference that belies the resolutely independent spirit of the Thai people.

Thai deference should never be confused with obsequiousness. Neither its women nor its well-oiled tourism machine and its well-trained personnel are in any way obsequious. I will talk more about the women in a later entry, but for now suffice it to say that whatever preconception I brought with me was shattered very quickly. There is a genuine respect underlying the deep nods that accompany the multi-meaninged prayer-hand greeting (called a wai) and the warm word of welcome, “Sawatdee-ka.”

These are a people who, unlike some of their more agoraphobic neighbors, take pride in sharing their culture with outsiders. They have nurtured and perfected a tourism industry that caters to pampering their visitors. In this endeavor, they know they’re good, and they don’t seem under any pressure to prove it to anyone.  They simply acknowledge that their guests are worthy of respect, as they themselves are. But they are not needy, not cloying, and they are unlikely to compromise their sense of propriety in the pursuit of pleasing their customers.

Surrounded by countries that have desired to dominate them — to greater and lesser degrees of success — and thereby to subvert the local character, Thailand has managed to ward off all conquerors. They alone among their immediate neighbors have never been colonies of European conquerors, have never been subservient to a western master. Except perhaps to the Western ideals of Capitalism. But who in the world is not?

The spirit of the local service staff can be seen in the style of their deference. They do not kowtow, they do not hesitate to look a stranger in the eye. They never hover, seeking to catch whatever crumbs of gratitude might fall from their guest’s wallet; they simply stand at the ready, willing to meet their customers’ needs but finding no necessity to go any further than requested. Among the myriad service industry folk who populate Bangkok, good morning or Sawatdee-ka and the joining of hands is not a display of supplication to the person being addressed; it is the simply a point of view. The hosts genuinely want their guests to know that their presence is appreciated. The visitor will never feel unfulfilled, but nor will the willing servant ever accept any level of deprecation. It’s a fine balance, intricate in its execution.

The second day I was in the city, at the Paragon Shopping Mall, was again reminded of King Mongkut and his progeny. Touring the river earlier that day, we had passed the King’s nephew’s palace — the king’s home was closed off for a celebration and procession, so we didn’t get to see it — a domicile that could have been the prototype for both films’ sets. Opulent, colorful, heavily guarded by sunny-dispositioned, smiling soldiers wearing their terribly British-affected uniforms, the palace stands colorfully among a varying population of river-front properties. It would be easy to assume, in the bias of a Western-trained eye , that all of this disparity is yet another example of the 99% being exploited and abused by the 1%. There is, obviously, plenty of that in every country, but along the river, people live in a manner they choose, a manner they have struggled to maintain, a manner they support would never willingly forfeit. And to even consider that every owner of a Riverside shack is too poor and too complacent to replace is an injustice to the people.

Later, when at an IMAX movie theater before a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, I was fortunate enough to witness the people’s devotion to their monarch first hand. Before the previews began, the houselights came up. An introductory strain of music played over the loudspeaker, and everyone stood, proudly, at attention. No one was monitoring the actions of the audience, and no one looked around to see if s/he was being watched. They simply, naturally stood in unison. The National Anthem played, and some of the people there sang. A pair of Russian tourists in the back of the house giggled nervously, not sure what to make of any of it. But the locals simply, gratefully, matter-of-factly sang a pledge of allegiance to their king. As soon as the music stopped, everyone sat down as a single entity and went back to munching on popcorn or twizzlers, but the moment was no less moving than the hats-off-no-kidding-around show of allegiance that precedes the beer drinking extravaganza at a football game.

It was all I could do to sit back down.  I felt like someone had just invited me to dance.

A Trifle of a Trip

I am about to embark on an adventure.  Thanks to thoughtful planning and uncommon generosity on the part of my youngest child, I will soon fly to Thailand by way of Tokyo and then home by way of Seoul three weeks later.  Each way I’ll be in transit for over 24 hours, and I will cover nearly 9,000 miles. I’ve never been to Asia before, but I have been on an air trip that took nearly that long, and I realized as I awoke this morning that I feel something like the same sense of awkward anticipation, nervous tension and absolute thrill of adventure I felt in that long-ago moment, as I was about to embark on that first trek.

It was 1957, and I was a miserable child, more than generous with my pain. My mother hoped that spending the summer away from home might make me lose some weight and gain an appreciation for my parents.  Since my half-sister, who lived in Los Alamos,  was expecting her fourth child — her oldest was just 4 — and since I was already a skilled mother’s helper, being the first of (so far) five, Mom decided that the perfect solution for everyone’s ills was for me to travel to New Mexico and spend the summer there.

You don’t think about it nowadays.  Flying cross-country is so matter-of-fact and takes so little time. But I am talking about an era when air travel was still a novelty, and my sister’s home seemed like a very long way away from mine.  We had driven there a few times in my life, and I remembered the long days in the car, the endless sky and cloud formations, the bottomless font of hymns my father could sing to keep us from going absolutely stir crazy.  It took five days to get there .  And now they were telling me I would reach my destination in only one!

My mother bought me a brand new, pink dress from JC Penney, a matching pink sweater, pink socks and white patent-leather shoes and for my flight.  I felt downright regal when I tried it all on, though my bright red glasses kept sliding down my nose.

We drove to my grandmother’s in Queens, an 8-hour journey that was rendered delicious by my father’s recent discovery that the best way to travel by car with children was to do so at night, so we dreamed soundly all the way in the moving vehicle and arrived in the morning, giving me plenty of time and vigor with which to engage with my cousins, who were veteran flyers, having been already to Europe.  They filled me with stories about the terrible things that could happen, and I felt a growing dread that only made my excitement more thrilling.

Since they lived in Bayside, LaGuardia was near by.  The airline of choice — we didn’t have a lot of them — was TWA, whose hub was there.  We parked right by the airfield and went into a small waiting room, which was on ground level and had a wall of window that looked out onto the landing field.   When the plane was ready to board, the stewardess — sorry, that’s what we called them then — came into the room and took me by the hand.  “Are you ready to fly with me?” She fairly sang, as I put my gloved hand into hers.

My mother took a photograph of me walking out to the airplane, and I remember seeing it years later, long after I’d made transatlantic flights and become something of a seasoned flyer.  The plane looked so small, so fragile, and I looked so relieved to be climbing aboard; I do remember feeling like I had to duck to avoid hitting my head on the wing as we approached.  I also remember my heart was thumping, and I was wondering what I would possibly do with myself for 21 hours while we flew.  I had two books to read and stationery on which to write my thoughts for reporting back to Mommy, but 21 hours just seemed such a long time to just sit.

I needn’t have worried.  The flight crew was aware of me, and they entertained me lavishly.  There was the obligatory visit to the cockpit, I got to “help” with the food and beverage, which meant that I served the boxed lunches to each passenger, and I visited the lav pretty frequently.  At one point, like a scene out of Volunteers, one of the Stewards pulled out a guitar and began to sing folk songs to the section of the aircraft where I was seated; in those days, passengers sat facing one another like they might on a train today.

Besides, the flying time was not all that protracted.  We stopped in Chicago, Kansas, St. Louis, Oklahoma City and Amarillo, sitting on the ground long enough to refuel, load in more box lunches and board new passengers, before we got to Albuquerque.

I was sleepy but unable to sleep, and when we reached Amarillo, I thought I heard the pilot tell us we were in Albuquerque, so I deplaned. For a terrible few minutes, I was horrified to see no familiar faces in the assembled greeters at the runway.  Expecting, at very least, the tall, looming presence of my sister’s husband, I was dissolved to tears when no one in sight looked remotely related. But before I could lose myself in despair, my guardian angel stewardess had grabbed my shoulders and was steering me back on board. We landed in Albuquerque a very short time later, and all the family members were there to meet me.

It was an elegant beginning to a glorious summer.  My sister, resplendent with the empathy of young motherhood and free of the burden of shaping my womanhood, encouraged me to play.  So I did, cavorting gleefully with my niece and nephews.  She sent me to a summer program where, as happens in a summer camp setting, I made brief but brilliant friendships.  I ate ice cream without remorse, and I did lose some weight.  I read, I wrote, I even watched some television.  And when I returned home, I was no longer miserable.  I felt soothed, renewed.

What a lovely memory to find as I prepare for my Journey to the East.  No misery to lose, no pounds to shed, I am ready, simply,  to be filled with the wonder of it all.