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?


When Boomers Welcomed New States

One historical event that occurred during the boomer years made us the last generation to witness this event up to now: that is, the addition of a new state to the Union, and it happened twice in the same year. No state had been added since our grandparents’ generation, when New Mexico and Arizona were added in 1912 to make the country the contiguous 48 states.

Alaska was the first state to be added; it was admitted on January 3, 1959, in the middle of the prime boomer years. Three months later, on March 18, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Hawaii Admission Act that paved the way for statehood. A few months later, Hawaiians voted overwhelmingly, at 93%, to join the Union. On August 21, 52 years ago this week, Hawaii became the 50th state.

Like Alaska, Hawaii was not connected to another state by a common border. In fact, they were quite a distance from what became known as the Continental United States. But unlike Alaska, Hawaii could not be reached by land at all. It sat 2,390 miles from the coast of California, its nearest state neighbor. This distance, mixed with visions of an island paradise portrayed in the tales of servicemen coming home from World War II, would spark the imagination of the country and ultimately the new boomer generation. With the increased capabilities of air travel in the 1950s, the state of Hawaii was within reach for some boomer families. For others, a visit to this mysterious, far-off destination could only be a dream that would take a lifetime to fulfill.

The earliest memories of Hawaii for most boomers came from school. Teachers could latch on to information on pineapple farming, coupled with the same images of girls in grass skirts, dancing the Hula and wearing flower leis, that servicemen made famous in lamps and bobble doll souvenirs, and present them to students as the quintessential intro into the newest state. Such was the case for Mister B. No one he knew had ever been to Hawaii, or was going there any time soon. The closest he and his classmates could get were the Pan Am ads in Life and Look magazines.

One of the souvenirs brought back by servicemen lodged itself into the national psyche: the Aloha (or Hawaiian) shirt. Uniquely Hawaiian, the most prized were manufactured on the islands between the 1930s and the 1950s. Many noted celebrities from the era were fans of the garment. Elvis Presley wore vintage Hawaiian shirts in his 1961 movie, Blue Hawaii. Even John Wayne and President Harry Truman enjoyed wearing the shirts regularly.

Landing first in California along with the surfboard, the shirt was quickly adopted by the burgeoning West Coast surf culture. As the trend moved eastward across the contiguous 48 states in the 50s and 60s, imitations were made on the mainland for boomer boys and their fathers. Mister Boomer recalls his first imitation Hawaiian shirt: it was a muted yellow with island scenes of palm trees and coconuts drawn at seemingly random intervals. Brother Boomer had one too, but his was light blue and had a different pattern. Mister B’s father, however, didn’t join in.

Mister Boomer was able to see his early dreams of Hawaii come to life when he and the missus visited the islands to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. He found it to be every bit an island paradise as was described when he was a wee boomer. Ever since that time, he’s dreamed of returning to our 50th state.

What early memories of our Hawaii do you have, boomers?