My first flight on Pan Am to the States was mixed with intense fear and excitement. I had never really been abroad other than to Jersey (still the UK?), Austria with mum by coach and a school trip (hovercraft) to France before, so another continent really was a whole world away. I had told myself several years earlier that I would get there, and proved my point by arriving in JFK airport with a huge suitcase full of food items mum had packed for me, in case of emergencies. It was of course ripped apart at immigration, and they had little or no sympathy for me as a vulnerable seventeen year old kid who clearly had no idea whatsoever. After opening several small cereal packets, slicing open my bunch of banana’s and confiscating ALL of my chocolate I walked away in tears, clutching at several paper carrier bags they had given me for my clothes toiletries and hair dryer. I really did wonder what on earth I was going to do.
Then came Valerie.
She was the chief purser on my plane and had spoken to me a few times during the flight. Had she shown her face a few minutes earlier, I thought, I might not have had to endure such an interrogation by those vile overweight Americans at immigration. It has to be said, for all the times I eventually traveled to the U.S. I always found their customs and immigration folk to be harsh and downright rude. Apart from one very fine man whom I saw a few times at Newark, nodding and winking as I cockily sauntered through, my rucksack filled with leather belts, jeans, harness and waistcoat.
Valerie saved my bacon, basically. We traveled on the bus from the airport to her apartment and she literally took me under her wing until I was ready to travel south towards Atlantic City. Everyone thought I was mad, of course, but I cared not. I knew what my plans were. Valerie was a mid forties Yorkshire lady who had worked for Pan Am since the late 1960’s. Writing about her now is quite sad in a way, as for the first night or two I really thought she was going to be the end of me. Any other (straight) lad of my age would have been in his element, she was attractive, smart, had a cool apartment and wanted to do anything she could to please me. When she herself stressed the word ‘anything’ I became terrified. I thought she was going to try and have her wicked way with me, which of course is ridiculous as looking back she must have known only too well that I was a naive young gay boy seeking the American dream. After taking me to her local Italian restaurant for a pizza, which I clearly remember being fabulous ( I thought i’d walked into a scene from the Godfather) we went home and she made me comfy for the night’s sleep. Like I was going to fall asleep . . . yeah right . . . what if she tried to seduce me, or, worse still, kill me? No one knew I was there, not a soul, and I had NEVER been in a situation like that before. Little did I know that a few months later I would be in a much worse situation with a stranger, but that’s another story for later.
So, Valerie walked into the living room (where she’d made up a spare bed for me) in her flowing silk dressing gown and I really thought ‘Oh fuck, what am I gonna do now’ . . But all she did was hand me a cup of hot chocolate. I dared not drink it, even though I REALLY wanted it, it smelled delicious. But I thought she was going to drug me and I wanted to remain focused. Like I was remotely focussed! As I saw her light go out from under her bedroom door I poured the hot chocolate into a pot plant on her coffee table and went to sleep. Waking the next morning bleary eyed with the smell of bacon wafting in from the tiny kitchen, it dawned on me that I had totally misunderstood her and in doing so had killed her lovely plant. I then had the worry that she might have thought i’d pissed in it, knowing how nervous I was. Poor Valerie, she was a sweetheart, and all she wanted to do was treat me like a son. We did keep in touch, at least, and for many years.
The Pan Am flight I took was on the ‘Maid Of The Seas’ plane, which eventually came down over Lockerbie at the end of the decade after a bomb explosion on board. I remember the name clearly as a sweet American lady took my picture as I climbed on board, with the name and logo just behind me in the background.