Friday, June 6, 2014

The Stew: My Story

CJ and Roommate, Chris
by CJ Heck

Saying goodbye to the last of the first class passengers as they deplaned had become methodical.

It was the middle of the night, my feet hurt, I was tired and trying my best not to sound sing-song with my goodbyes. Keeping focused was difficult. My thoughts were wandering elsewhere.

It was the last night of my nonstop coast-to-coast run for the month. This flight had been long and difficult. For one thing, the passengers had had way too much to drink and they'd become overly rowdy.

We'd been forced to take a two-hour layover at O’Hare so the ground crew could repair an engine problem. As an apology for the delay (and with the best of intentions), the captain instructed us to open the bar, once we were back in the air.

I was really looking forward to my four days off, before the next cycle, when it would begin again for another month. One good thing, the next month my flights would get me home at a decent hour -- no more 2:00 a.m. arrivals, feeling totally used up and washed out.

I had made plans the day before to join my three roommates for a bicycle ride on Angel Island on my first day off. We had done this several times before and it was one of our favorite weekend haunts ... oh, I just remembered, I have to buy the sourdough bread. The other girls were bringing the wine, cheese, and a blanket to sit on.

How I loved San Francisco. It was beginning of the 70's and hippies were still hanging out on downtown corners with their beads and music, wearing bright flower garlands in their hair.

I loved the quaint cable cars that clacked up and down the busy, steeply-angled streets. It was local custom that each conductor composed a special beat, which he always played on the bell of his cable car. Each became known by his own unique beat, and the more complicated it was, the better -- my favorite was the cable car that went to The Cannery and Ghirradelli Square. That conductor rang an awesome mean beat on his bell and his cable car was always packed with regulars and tourists.

Half Moon Bay
On Sunday, we were going to Half Moon Bay to soak up some rays on the warm sand. There was never a lack of things to do in San Francisco, only a lack of time in which to do them.

I remember thinking, "Finally, the coach section and then we’re through."

More smiles, more good-byes, although I was acutely aware I had lost the battle to sing-song halfway through first class. My smile felt as though it was bordering on an all out grimace, but I was almost done and then I would head for home.

The fear in icy tendrils prickled the nape of my neck as I walked through the all but deserted parking lot. I chose to ignore the feeling, chalking it up to the hour and being drag-my-butt tired from the long flight. The engine problem at O'Hare had added two hours and it was now 4:30 in the morning -- no wonder I was dragging and feeling hinky.

As always, walking through the lot, I marveled at how the dew crystallized on the hoods of the few remaining cars, creating a twinkling diamond field under the bright lights of the parking lot.

Odd, I thought, this feeling. That night was no different from any other late night flight. I was always tired after, but I usually felt almost rejuvenated by being earthbound and heading home -- and my four days off.

To speed the mindless walk to my car, I thought about the goings on of yet another red eye special, although special was way too nice a word. The work was grueling and the hours long that a flight attendant spent on her feet babysitting jet loads of bored passengers who were anxious, themselves to be home.

Trans World Airlines Logo
I really loved my job with Trans World Airlines, aka TWA. It’s what I had wanted to do for as long as I could remember. Oh, there were parts of it that rankled, the wandering hands of the crew for instance, but easy enough to fend off, if you knew how.

I grinned as I thought about their almost universal arrogance and well-used line, “So, sweetie, what did YOU do before joining us in the air?”

With smug satisfaction, I recalled my latest comeback, just that evening, “I was a stock car driver, sir. A damned good one, too.” Another favorite I often used, "I was a lady wrestler, sir, usually in mud or jello."

Usually, a knife-sharp comment, a demure smile and the ever popular batted eyelashes were all that was needed to deflate even the most amorous jerk, mid-grope.

Yet passengers could be even worse. I wish I had a dollar for every time I asked, “And you, sir? What can I get you?  Coffee, tea, milk, a cocktail?” only to hear the way-too-familiar response:

“I’ll take you, little lady! Har de har har.” Then he would give a “see-what-a-big-man-I-am” nod to his seatmates. I tried never to dignify the remarks with an answer and, instead, gave them a well-practiced smile which said, ”Oh, you clever man, you.”

After flying for awhile, you discovered there were ways of getting even, with even the biggest big-shot. Devious? Maybe. Necessary? Abso-friggin-lutely.

“Oops! Oh my! I’m so sorry, sir! It must have been the turbulence. Let me get you a few napkins so you can wipe that wine (cola, tomato juice, hot coffee) off of your nice trousers.”

Or that night, I had picked up a dinner tray from a playboy type and found a room key to the Fairmont Hotel and a one-hundred dollar bill tucked under his used napkin. DUH. As if I would ever be so stupid. For the most part though, those kinds of passengers were the exception, rather than the rule.

To me, the irony was obvious, at least back in those days when hijackings to Cuba were always in the news. At the very first sign of a problem, the bad apples were always the first, and loudest, to bombard the flight attendants with pleas for help in getting off the plane. We were suddenly promoted to angels of the skies,where only moments before, we had been treated like flying call girls. Ah, yes, the glamorous life of a flight attendant ...

It sure was different from the Brady Bunch family in which I was raised. San Francisco seemed like the perfect place to be back then. It also seemed like the perfect place to heal, after I buried my new husband -- and my rose-colored glasses -- the year before. Doug had been an army combat medic and one of the casualties of war in Vietnam. I had been only twenty then, and devastated.

After nearly a year, with love and the best of intentions, my family told me they believed the best thing for me was to get back into some semblance of life.

So, with my family's encouragement, I wrote a letter to TWA and then flew to Kansas City for interviews. I was accepted.  Two weeks later, I boarded another plane, this time to their training academy for six weeks in Kansas City. After graduation, I found myself in the most sought after domicile in the whole TWA family.

Walking through the lot, I shivered. Strange that I should again feel ice-cold terror prickling, interrupting the after-flight mind ramblings that were the norm.

"Jeez oh man, this is nuts," I thought, as the razor sharp panic again snaked up my spine and sunk its teeth in. Again I ignored the inner voice. It was more than a whisper, but it wasn’t yet at Defcon One.

CJ and "Alfie"
I couldn’t have seen from that distance the broken glass twinkling on the pavement below the driver’s window of my car.

I would have been horrified to see the long thin slice cut through the rag top of my most prized possession, a little red Alpha Romeo. "Alfie" was an older model, but it had been a present to myself, and I treated that car like it was a long awaited child.

I also couldn’t have sensed HIM from that distance, but the little voice down inside me had, and it had at once spoken. Then a second time, and then again, but I still failed to listen.

But he was there, all right. He was hidey-holed and waiting like a creepy spider ready to bite. His mind was filled with who knows what feral thoughts and his crotch was bulging with a sick anticipation.

The comings and goings in the lot had been followed under the comforting cover of night, his trusted friend. He had watched my routine and he knew it well. He watched, planned, and waited. He really didn’t care who’s thighs he got to part. He had merely learned my routine. His mind erupted like a boil as he sat and waited for the red eye special that night, while a sick smile played across his face.

Suddenly, the fear was overwhelming, like the static in the air when lightning is about to strike. This time, just as I opened the car door, I heard my little voice inside booming like God’s own thunder.

He came at me then with a punch to the face. He held a knife between us in his other hand like an amulet for good luck. His rage for all women let loose and he demanded “Put out, stew, you fuckin' bitch!” There were more punches, more yelling. "Shuddup, bitch! I'm gonna fuck you up good!"

I never really heard the rest of his words. I never actually felt the punches, because that’s when my mind took flight. Mind curdling screams rang out into the night, one scream on top of another, and another. I didn’t realize, but they were mine.

”The screaming is what saved her ass”, the officer said later down at the station. The screaming, and that elderly couple who found her walking, still screaming, right down the center of a busy two-lane with cars whizzing by in both directions."

Thank God, they stopped and convinced me to get in their car for a ride to the police station. The couple was still there, too. I could see them sitting on a bench by the wall in the long hallway, wringing their hands, waiting to see if there was anything else they could do. I remember hugging them as I was leaving, wishing my mom and dad were there.

As for me, when anyone asked, all I could remember was having feet like lead and being unable to move, completely frozen to the twinkling pavement. Imagine that. Even through it all, I remember seeing the twinkling glass on the pavement.

Now, in looking back, it had been like some bizarre one-act comedy. One actor screaming like a lovesick concert fan, the other, a boxer punching a dummy in the ring, like some eerie, Mexican standoff. Which one would break first and run?

Thank God, it was the sinister star of the play. He had lost all interest in the crazed screaming woman. He ran, his legs like pistons pumping, propelling him towards whatever hell hole he called home that night.

They never did catch him -- oh, I really didn’t think they would. I wasn’t able to tell the authorities much. I walked into the airline terminal the next day, though, and quit on the spot, wearing my cuts and bruises like my husband’s medals from Nam.

I did feel the punches that day, and somehow, I knew it would never be the same again. The girl-next-door flight attendant bubble I had strived so hard for had burst out there in that nearly deserted parking lot, amidst the dewy diamond fields and the twinkles on the pavement.

“A writer soon learns that easy to read is hard to write.” ~CJ Heck


Melanie said...

Your writing is exceptional. I would have been terrified beyond belief. Why is it that we so often push away that inner voice?

CJ Heck said...

This comment is from a group at LinkedIn:

"I love your "you are there" writing style.

I was right there with you during your on-flight experiences as well as in loving the city and cable cars in San Francisco.

You gave just enough detail to paint a vivid mental picture of the settings and interactions. This engagement made your omninous premonition all the more frightening.

At no point did I think about putting down the story - although I am so sorry that you had this horrible experience. Thanks for sharing.

By Mary Ann Bella

Unknown said...

What a dreadful experience. I'm not surprised it put you off your job. You wrote your story well.

Micki Peluso is the author of "And the Whippoorwill Sang" said...

CJ, Thisis a great story with a phenomenal writng style that moves the story forward making the reader almost hold their breath.

I wrote a similar one based ona true story of my daughter's near miss, like yours.

You are not just a natural writer but an excellent storyteller as well. Thanks for letting me have the pleasure of reading


Peggi Tustan said...

This is my worst nightmare. I'm so sorry it happened to you. You write with such strength and clarity -- it is clear that you've long since healed.

Thank you for writing and reminding us to listen to those premonitions. And, especially for helping us see there is light on the other side of such horrible darkness.