Boomers Fly the Friendly Skies

While on vacation, Mister Boomer missed posting last week because Hurricane Irene disrupted air travel for a good portion of the East Coast. Over 11,000 flights were cancelled as several airports shut down altogether. As a result, Mister B’s vacation was extended days beyond the usual posting time. That got Mister B thinking, not of boomers and natural disasters, but about boomers and air travel.

Air travel became possible for civilians in the 1930s, but the prohibitive cost prevented middle class families from jumping on this modern form of transportation in any great numbers. It wasn’t until the introduction of reliable jet planes in the 1950s — boomer time — that airlines improved efficiency and profitability, especially on shorter-distance routes, to the point where flights became more affordable for the average family. Even still, air travel was considered adventurous. It wasn’t until 1958, when travel costs went down due to faster jet engines and airline efficiencies, that air travel first became more popular than ships for transatlantic crossings. More than one million passengers flew to Europe that year. By 1968, that number had grown to six million.

Many sources refer to flying in the 1950s and 60s as the Golden Age of Flying. Spacious seating areas, white-glove service, full meals — served on tablecloths with real silverware by beautiful, young “stewardesses” to attend to your in-flight comfort (long before “flight attendant” became politically correct) showed the airlines’ intent to emulate ship and train travel in the air.

Flying was an experience in and of itself. As such, people wore dress clothes when boarding a plane. Men wore suits and ties, while women donned dresses and jewelry. Even children were encouraged to wear their “Sunday best.” The idea was to allow daily functions to occur in the air as much as possible, with a luxe feel. That included smoking. Coming back home after World War II, the majority of American men smoked. Air travel had no restrictions on the activity until 1973 when the U.S. Congress passed legislation requiring all airlines to create non-smoking areas. Smoking was banned completely on flights less than six hours in 1990.

Some say there never really was a Golden Age of Flying. They point to the higher relative cost and slower travel times by today’s standards, meals that didn’t live up to the hype, and the inconvenience of sitting in a steel tube for several hours to get to your destination. By the time Mister Boomer took his first flight in 1971, air travel was changing: Airlines were buying larger planes that transported more people per flight. The spacious seating areas of the early days had given way to more seats installed per plane. They bought new aircraft like the DC-9, Boeing 707 and ultimately, the granddaddy of people movers at the time, the 747.

Many men still wore suits on board, but they were usually business men. People on regular vacation flights began embracing the more casual dress mode of the decade, tailored to their destination. In Mister B’s early experience, at that point air travel was moving more toward emulating bus service rather than that of a passenger ship.

One thing that has greatly improved the experience today, though, is the smoking ban. Mister B recalls those early flights — where the back half of the plane was earmarked for smokers — as nothing more than hurling through the air for a specified number of hours inside an enclosed ashtray. Second-hand smoke was a phrase that no one uttered. It made that first step off the plane all the more special as you could leave the stale air of the plane behind.

For the most part, plane travel got people to exotic destinations they did not have the time to get to by car, within a limited vacation schedule (like Hawaii, California or Dubuque). For that, it was an efficient method of travel. For Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, though, “See the USA in Your Chevrolet” was more common than flying the friendly skies.

What first memories of air travel do you recall, boomers?


Boomers Tossed the Party Line

In telephone parlance, a party line was one phone line shared by two or more households. According to Bell Telephone history, the practice of sharing a line started in the late 19th century. At that point, the telephone was not yet in every home, and a party line was an economical way to introduce new users to phone service. It became the predominant package for home use. Into the early twentieth century, the telephone was thought of primarily as a tool for emergencies and the spread of pertinent family information (which usually meant bad news). Consequently, each phone call lasted no more than a few minutes.

As early as 1899, Ma Bell sought to make the party line undesirable so people would opt for the more expensive single, or “private,” line. Bell would place up to 20 houses on a single line to purposely complicate a consumer’s use of the phone. By the 1920s, people were moving off the party line, but the Depression put a crimp in Bell’s big picture. By the time the country’s economy was recovering, World War II came along. Many people, whether through tradition, inertia or family economics, kept their party line — much to the chagrin of Bell Telephone.

After the war and into the early boomer years, the use of the phone grew from an emergency tool to one of increasing social communication. Women were required to return to their homes after “manning” the factories while the men were at war, and now, at home and having babies, they used the phone to “reach out and touch” family and friends. As phone call times increased in duration, the frustration factor grew for party line users. It would seem that no matter when you wanted to use the phone, another person on the party line had beat you to it. Some neighbors used the direct link as an opportunity to eavesdrop on another neighbor’s conversation, while others were flummoxed by its inconvenience.

The 1959 Rock Hudson/Doris Day movie, Pillow Talk, portrayed scenes of a one-on-one confrontation between neighbors in New York City who were sharing a party line. Of course, the party line in the movie was used as a plot vehicle to get the two characters together. In real life, party lines in New York had all but disappeared after 1930.

The Rock Hudson character in Pillow Talk was a real ladies’ man, while Doris Day’s character was more of a homebody, career woman.

In the Midwest of Mister Boomer’s youth, party lines comprised about half of all telephone lines until the mid-60s. Mister B’s family had a party line connected to at least three or more other households. Often times, merely picking up the phone meant you were in the middle of someone else’s conversation. By picking up your receiver, a click could be heard by the actively speaking parties. That would prompt a terse, “We’re on the phone!” comment that would require you to instantly hang up for the sake of phone etiquette.

Mister B’s mother was constantly exasperated by the perpetual chatter on the phone every time she wanted to make a call. He recalls his mother yelling into the phone, “You’ve been on the phone over fifteen minutes! Give someone else a chance!” or, in periods of extreme frustration, “This is an emergency! Will you please get off the phone!”

Around 1962, she had had enough, and petitioned Mister B’s father to get a private line. That time period coincided with Bell moving people away from the two-letter phone number prefix to one of all numbers. Mister B’s household received their private line and new phone number that enabled direct dialing to and from anywhere in the world. It consisted of a three-digit area code and three-digit exchange, followed by an addition four-digit personal number (see Boomers Dial Up Some History).

As the Bell System introduced push-button phones around 1963, touch-tone dialing was replacing the older pulse dialing of a rotary dial phone. This technology conveniently required a private line, so it became another way Bell could move people off the party line and into a higher monthly payment bracket. Most households had dropped the party line option by the 1970s.

Do you have family memories of a party line, boomers?