Air Over Hanoi

Soldiers are filing across the tarmac earlier than was scheduled. We just de-planed a load of them from Guam, and now we stews are tearing through the Boeing 707, cleaning up as best we can. Until a few bombs showed up on the planes, recently, Vietnamese ground service did the cleaning. Not anymore. In a moment soldiers will be boarding and we don’t have our hats on yet.

“Boarding!” comes over the intercom.

Lana is rummaging through the overhead rack. “Who put their damn crew kit on my hat! It’s all crushed!”

We’re proud of our hats with our wings pinned to them. Stiff blue pillbox hats a la Jackie Kennedy. It’s a reg to wear your hat during boarding and deplaning. Even in Vietnam. The bulkheads have been yanked out turning passenger planes into troop ships. A seemingly endless number of young boy-men to fill every seat.

I traded into this trip for the Honolulu layover. I don’t hold this line. Girls way more senior than I am hold this line; though I can’t imagine why. Despite the wet oppressive heat I still get a shiver down my spine as the first of the soldiers start climbing the metal stairs.

“Don’t forget to smile,” Margie is saying.

She’s twenty-seven and thinks she knows it all. I’m 19 and a half. The youngest you can be to work for this airline. I’ve been flying less than a year. Mostly Madrid and Lisbon, sometimes London and Paris. In London the hotel towel racks are heated.

I stand beside Margie at what is normally the first class cabin door; under normal circumstances. The first soldier steps into the plane. He looks old around his eyes. Margie and I smile saying, “Welcome Aboard.”

Some smile back, some do not. I start feeling terrible. I’m sweating from my armpits, across my top lip, my scalp, inside my shoes and underwear.

Last to board are the stretchers. Margie keeps smiling; I have to give her that. She smiles through the moaning behind barriers made from hung bed sheets, where the seats have been removed. Medics assist those men. I am told to keep out of their way.

I begin feeling wrecked. I didn’t feel wrecked when we came in for landing. I had looked down, saw the fires burning here and there, the expanse of green and the paddies.

For take-off I strap in next to Margie on the (usually) first class jump-seat. “How many times have you flown this rotation?” I say.

“A few years.”

“A few years!”

She scrutinizes my face. “Someone’s gotta do it.”

“I suppose.”

Finally the plane is beginning to cool off. The cockpit door swings open and the flight engineer sticks his head out. “Could one of you sweet things bring me a Coke.”

“Sure!” I unbuckle my shoulder harness, jumping up. The Coke can is barely cool; but there’s no time to start cracking ice.

He thanks me with a grin and a wink. “We’ll have some fun in Honolulu,” he says.

On the jump-seat Margie is having a last cigarette. “The no-smoking sign is lit,” I tell her.

“Hon, this is Nam not Dayton.”

I strap back in as music fills the plane: Up, Up, and Away. The same old tune always played on take-offs and landings. Everywhere. Here it sounds strange, unsettling.

Margie bumps the side of my leg with hers. “It’ll be fine.”

Suddenly I’m glad to have this senior girl beside me. Even though she’s a little odd. She carries her own ashtray in her purse, taken from an armrest. Behind her back the other girls laugh about it. She catches me looking at the ashtray in her lap.

“We all have our thing,” she says. “What’s your’s? Secretly married?” That, too, is strictly against regs.

I shake my head. “No. You?”

“Naw. I date a pilot who’s married.”

I turn my head toward the cockpit.

“Not them.” She smiles. “They’re good guys. Always with the jokes, keeping up morale for the men.” She takes a few quick puffs. “My guy has a Rome trip this month.”

“Why don’t you bid Rome? You have enough seniority.”

“His wife is on that trip.”

“You mean she’s working it?”

“Yep.” Then the plane begins to taxi and Margie grinds out the cigarette in her little personal ashtray. “How old are you?”

“Almost twenty.”

“You’ve got a lot to learn.”

The plane shudders down the runway, gains speed then lifts, music soaring on the choral part, when the pilot breaks in staticky over the intercom. “Welcome aboard ladies and gentlemen. We are in the air over Hanoi.”

A huge roar of laughter fills the cabin. And we lift higher into the sky.


Susan Isla Tepper is the author of 12 books of fiction and poetry and 2 stage plays.  Her newest play about artist Jackson Pollock in his later years, titled The Crooked Heart, premiered at the Irish Repertory Theatre, NYC, on Oct. 25, 2022.  In early December she had a satirical novel released titled OFFICE that takes place mostly in a NYC skyscraper during the pandemic (Wilderness House Press).  Tepper is fond of dogs and cats and nice weather.