by Jill Savino Nieglos
Leaving Vietnam, the soldiers entered our plane quietly, their clothing sweat-stained from the moist heat of Vietnam. We cheerily welcomed them aboard, but some were anything but cheery. When I first started flying these R & R flights, I had expected 100% happy faces to be boarding my plane…after all, they were all going on R & R. I was surprised, though, to find many emotionless faces. The transition from foxhole to Pan Am plane might have been more than they could process so quickly. Most called me Ma’am, which I thought strange, since I was only three or four years older than they. Military protocol, I suspected. To help get them out of this funk, the experienced stewardesses had learned to make our safety announcements with a lot of humor – not our standard procedure, but very effective. What a great idea that was! We loved to hear them laugh, since we suspected it might have been a while since they had anything to laugh about.
We knew that we stewardesses were giving them a little reminder of home. They wanted to hear English being spoken by a “round eye.” Soldier after soldier asked me, “Where are you from in the world?” “California, a little town near the coast called Paso Robles.” Only one guy ever knew where that was; he was actually from the same area, a pleasant, but very young fella, and we had a nice chat. I thought about him often and always said a quick prayer that he would make it home.
It never failed…on every trip, the guys would ask if they could serve the meals for us. Maybe it gave them something to do – it did give us more time for chatting with them. That’s what they wanted most right then, even more than food; they just wanted to drink in our looks, our accents, and our chatter. Every trip we laid blankets on the floor across from the galleys and played cards. Oh my, how they loved to play cards! We traded jokes with them as they slowly loosened up. We ask them about their hometowns and their families. They showed us pictures of their moms, dads, dogs, little sisters and brothers, and girlfriends. Most just wanted to talk, to have some “normal” time with “normal” American girls with “normal” accents. We spent the entire flight, every flight, keeping them engaged and lightening. their mood. We knew we had an important part to play in preparing them for their adventure to come. But some were still a bit withdrawn, and for them I had a little surprise.
Remember the days when we actually served meals onboard and you were asked chicken or beef?” If the quiet one (or anybody in that row) asked for chicken, he got the surprise. I kept my special surprise back in the galley – a standard issue rubber chicken. I substituted my rubber chicken for his entrée and delivered his meal tray with a flourish. It never failed to elicit roars of laughter from everyone who saw it.
Leaving Sydney, the guys seemed normal, and the conversations flowed easier than they had on the way to Sydney. They had a lot of fun in Sydney, a beautiful city with lots of pretty girls, and related their adventures to us with great animation. On the Sydney – Darwin leg they were always happy and excited. Our crew deplaned in Darwin for our layover, and the next crew took over. Every time the crew flying the Darwin – Vietnam leg made the destination announcement to the guys, the excitement disappeared. The mood on the airplane changed to one of dread and worry. The silence became deafening.