I was rearranging my closet shelves last week, making way for my winter sweaters when I spied Bernie’s Pan Am white hat in a plastic bag, on the top shelf. I used a broom handle to gently coax the hat down—my reminder of our Halcyon Days of Yore.
I buffed the black brim with oil, and straightened the Pan Am world globe insignia. The worn gold braid was still stretched around the black brim and attached by two gold, Pan Am little worlds the size of pennies. Bernie put on his white hat for the first time, 55 years ago. It’s hard to believe, but true.
In 1967, in airports around the world, travelers knew and respected the Pan Am logo. I imagine they thought those pilots who wore the uniform were handsome, lucky fellows. I thought so, too.
Whenever I’m in an airport, I’m caught off guard when I cross paths with a pilot wearing standard airline attire: white shirt, black tie and trousers, shiny dress shoes, and shoulder chevrons to denote rank: four stripes for Captain, and three for First Officer, the same as Bernie once wore.
It’s like a wake-up-call as I turn to watch the young man walk on, as Bernie did at 30, carrying his Pan Am flight bag with aplomb, walking on the balls of his feet, as he did on the day we met, when he looked as if he were moving to some jazzy internal tune.
Bernie was glad to be aboard a major airline after he returned from Vietnam. He was accepted by five airlines and decided to sign on with Pan Am, the company he jokingly referred to as, “The World’s Most Experienced”.
I often think of the drama of Vietnam and what episodes came before the hat. My history professor once said, War is the only chance a man has, to do something redeeming. I used to think Bernie’s war experiences defined him, but I see now that Vietnam wasn’t his only chance to prove himself; he had many chances after that, and Pan Am was chance number two.
I picked up a crew tag that drifted to the closet floor. It reads: Giere, May 16, destination #1057, Flight A310 F/O; home base JFK, employee number: 12421. I finger it gently and wonder why he saved this tag out of all the others. He’d been furloughed, or laid off, two times in his Pan Am career, and during those times he worked for the New York Air National Guard, never expecting Pan Am to recall again. But they did; it seemed too good to be true.
My Pilot flew for Pan Am again, as well as the Guard, during his days off. I think Bernie saved that little worn out tag because of what it meant to him: after two long furloughs it said: Welcome Back Bernie, We’ve Not Forgotten You, Here’s Another Chance with the World’s Most Experienced.
The third call back was not a charm. It lasted less than a year. Pan Am went bankrupt, selling their international airplanes and crews to Delta Airlines. Bernie used to say, “I just took off my white hat and put on my black one.” Six years after that, Bernie retired from Delta.
Although carving out a new career in the Air National Guard was satisfying to him–something he was very proud of–Bernie always quipped, when asked about his Pan Am days, “It sure beat working for a living.”