My lifelong love affair with Pan Am began in 1959 when my family moved from a small town in Colorado to exotic Hawaii. Our flight from Los Angeles was aboard a new Pan Am 707 jet Clipper, where I immediately decided the stewardesses were the most glamorous ladies Iʼd ever imagined. A few years later, my father moved us to Pago Pago, American Samoa, where as fate would have it, the Pan Am crews laid over in the same apartment complex as ours. The love affair bloomed as I witnessed the glam girls and handsome pilots having more fun than was probably legal at crew “debriefings” or simply sun bathing in scant bikinis. In the mind of a sixteen year-old, they were Hollywood starlets and I was determined to join their ranks.
Pan Am required two years of college and a degree of fluency in a foreign language, not to mention a pleasing personality, plus numerous physical requirements. There was also a minimum age requirement of twenty-one. And so with my goal firmly set, after graduating high school in Hawaii, I studied in Peru and Spain for the next two years to hone my Spanish language skills.
Returning to Hawaii from Barcelona in 1968, my Spanish was fluent and I was itching to be hired by Pan Am. I could already visualize myself in that smart uniform with gold wings shining. Still, there was that pesky minimum age requirement and I was only nineteen.
Fate intervened once again when the father of a boy Iʼd dated in high school rang with interesting news about Pan Am. Mr Lindholm was a management executive with Pan Am at the time, knew my Pan Am passion and had recently learned the company wanted to open a small base in–of all places–Pago Pago. Problem was, they couldnʼt find any Samoan speakers to interview who weighed less than 200 pounds. Mr Lindholm suggested that even if I didnʼt speak Samoan (which I didnʼt except for a few words of rather unpleasant street jargon), Pan Am might hire me simply because Iʼd lived in Pago Pago and was familiar with the culture.
Sounded plausible to me, so wearing the only business-looking attire I owned, off I went to an interview in Honolulu. The waiting room was packed with other hopeful girls. They were all attractive and seemed far more sophisticated than I. Competition, I realized with a sinking heart, was stiff. Suddenly, the door to the interview room opened wide as a pretty girl exited and I was able to get a good look at the panel of interviewers. There wasnʼt a single south seas islander in the bunch. And in that moment, I decided to lie my way into Pan Am.
Quickly, I crossed “Spanish” off the application form and inserted “Samoan” on the line asking for foreign languages. When my name was finally called, I actually prayed a bolt of lightening wouldnʼt strike me dead for my deception.
“This is amazing.” one of the male interviewers said to me. “You speak Samoan?”
I gulped and nodded.
“To what degree?” he asked.
One more quick prayer to all the ancient gods of lightening and I replied, “Iʼm fluent”.
Glancing at the other panelists, as if to say “weʼll see”, he asked me to say a few words in Samoan.
Without a momentʼs hesitation or cognizant thought, a stream of words poured from my mouth. “Tasi lua tolo fah kisseh lo ### $$$$$ palagi”
I almost blushed, realizing what Iʼd just said to these esteemed people who would decide my destiny. Loosely translated I had just said, “One two three four kiss my rear end you dung-eating white man.”
I honestly believe I shut my eyes for a few seconds, expecting to fall dead to the floor, but to my utter astonishment, the entire panel was smiling happily.
“Very good, Miss Terrell. You have no idea how pleased we are to have found you.”
Was I dreaming?
“However, I see here on your application, youʼre not yet twenty years-old.”
My heart sunk.
“But, never mind. Pan Am is planning to lower the stewardess age requirement to twenty in the near future. Weʼll schedule your training to begin after your twentieth birthday. Perhaps in September of this year.”
* * *
Only a few hours after arriving at the Miami training school, I learned I would have to “qualify” in my language in a phone interview with Pan Amʼs language wizard, Dr. Batour.
Panic gripped me, but Iʼd come this far with a lie–why not just one more teeny, little fib?
The nonplussed Latina lady at the Administration Office, looked up from her desk. “How can I help you?”
When I explained thereʼd been a mistake–maybe just a typo–on my paperwork, she pulled my file. “I think it says I speak a language called Samoan, or something weird like that.” I said helplessly, shrugging my shoulders. “Actually, yo hablo espanol, casi perfectimente.”
She brightened immediately at the Spanish Iʼd just spoken with such ease. “Claro que si, Senorita.” she said. “No problema.”
And with that, into her typewriter she rolled the appropriate page from my file. Picking up a bottle of white-out, she stroked the brush over the word “Samoan”, blew on it, then typed in “Spanish”.
Passion, determination, American Samoa and two itty-bitty white lies gave me the world of Pan Am for which I am eternally grateful.