First in Flight

As the summer travel season begins, our favorite funny girl remembers her first adventure in the air

By Celia Rivenbark   •   Photographs by Ned Leary

I’m the anti-hoarder, incapable of holding onto anything that’s not completely useful in the here-and-now. Which is why it was a little shocking to discover an old United Airlines flight bag recently in a trunk in my attic. An otherwise empty trunk, it should be noted.

Beige vinyl, embossed with the United logo circa 1967 and once capable of holding a change of clothes — if properly rolled — the bag triggered memories of what leisurely air travel used to be.

That bag was free merch, swag, a gimme, for having been inconvenienced as a tot of age 10 while flying for the very first time across the country.

My mama and daddy were odd because they valued trips to places where we didn’t even have any relatives. The question we got over and over again after announcing a weeklong vacation trip to Los Angeles from our little 900-square-foot home in Duplin County was, “Who y’all visiting?”

“Nobody. We just want to go,” was met with uncomprehending stares and some suspicion. I imagined allegations of uppity behavior would be leveled upon our return, but it didn’t matter. We were going to see Universal Studios, Disneyland, maybe even the real Clampett mansion set. Whee doggies!

Reservations were made, a flight was booked and then, well, something went wrong but was righted in the most wonderful way. Which is to say coach had been overbooked, so we were quickly and efficiently upgraded to empty seats in first class from Atlanta to L.A. Four glorious hours of pampering unfolded before us like a map to the movie stars’ homes.

Having never flown before, my sister, my parents and I didn’t appreciate how very special this was at first, but we acclimated pretty quickly once the steamed hand towels and warmed terrycloth booties showed up. My sister and I felt momentarily sorry for the coach class passengers who shuffled by us as we dipped sugar cookies into cut-glass goblets of milk. Pity. By the time my smoking mother was presented with personalized matches (yes, embossed with the original occupant’s name but such a nice gesture!), we were only too happy to sink into the commodious seats, stretch our legs like Gumby without hitting anything else, and accept our perfectly medium-rare lamb chops wearing paper frills (!) and accompanied by a foreign condiment called “mint jelly.” (I may have been only 10 but I never forget a meal. Ask anyone.)

After lunch, we were swaddled in blankets that smelled of lavender and served softened ice cream studded with buttery macadamia nuts just because. My mother, dressed for air travel in a wool boucle suit and high heels, struck a match that had been personalized for a rich person, lit her Bel-Air and reclined her seat, closing her eyes and smiling softly as if this was the life she had expected all along.

Not a single policeman ripped us from our seats and dragged us flailing and bloodied down the aisle to make room for incoming crew.

Oh, what a difference five decades makes!

Compare and contrast with my most recent vacation air travel experience. And the one before that. And, yes, the one before that. In each case, flights were (in order) postponed, delayed by 10 hours or outright canceled.

There is always trouble with “weather” despite sunny skies or “inbound equipment,” which is airlinespeak for “broken airplane,” and we have responded as a nation by giving up wool boucle suits in favor of yoga pants with “Juicy” in script across the butt (ladies) and T-shirts that say “My other ride’s your mama” (gents). Yes, well.

Now it must be noted that despite TSA screens that have been so invasive as to make me feel the agent and I would be considered married in certain counties in South Carolina, I have an unnatural obsession with our lovely ILM airport. So much so that when those commercials come on with Wilson Center director Shane Fernando, local chef Keith Rhodes and economic development guru Jenni Harris crowing “We are ILM,” I am overcome with jealousy. You see, I am ILM. I am the ambassadress of our little airport, constantly telling people how adorably user-friendly, clean and well-staffed it is and how (fun fact) you can get the best Bloody Mary in Wilmington at the airport’s tiny bar. (Not those idiotic versions with shrimp and bacon and fried grits cakes hanging off ’em; I’m talking about a normal person’s Bloody Mary with just the right amount of heat and maybe a celery rib garnish.)

I love everything about our small airport and bristle when newcomers, as they always do, ask: “How will I ever find the right baggage carousel?” Yes, yes. Very funny.

There have been marvelous moments in the in-between years from that momentous first flight to my most recent a few weeks ago. And here’s where I must tell you that not only was the flight home from New York canceled, we had to fly to Raleigh and then the airline paid $536 for a taxi to take us to Wilmington, where our car had spent an uneventful four days. One wonders about this business model.

The truth is I love air travel, even when it goes wrong, which is just about all the time lately. The exhilaration of being 40,000 feet up in the sky trumps every ounce of frustration and anxiety that may have led to this moment. From my window seat, a glorious view ensures that any lingering bad feelings dissipate as quickly as a contrail. Poof.

Back here on Earth, when I’m outside hanging the wash on my clothesline (I’m country, remember?), I never fail to look up longingly when a plane noisily climbs overhead from ILM, just 2 miles away. Sheets puddling at my feet, I offer a quick prayer for traveling mercies for the passengers until the plane disappears from sight.

Best-selling humorist Celia Rivenbark is well grounded in the Port City — but ready to fly at the drop of a hat.

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