I graduated as an American Airlines stewardess on Aug. 1, 1968.

We weren’t “flight attendants” then. It was stewardesses in 1968, without a hint of irony.

I wanted to become one even before I’d ever flown. My high school sweetheart’s sister flew for American and, to me, she and the profession epitomized glamour and adventure.

So, until I was old enough to apply, I focused on those things that would help me seem like a good candidate for the job. I knew a combination of education and work experience was preferred. I attended L.A. Harbor College and worked at both Sears and the Fox Theatre in the Peninsula Center. I also volunteered as a “candy-striper” in local hospitals, and completed a practical nursing course through El Camino College.

I later realized how I looked on paper wasn’t in any way as important as how I looked in person.

The airlines made no secret of using young, pretty women to draw male passengers to the skies.

We could be hired at 19 but no older than 27, as mandatory retirement age was 32 (there was a saying: “Thirty-two-skidoo”).

We all…

  • Needed to be unmarried and childless;
  • Couldn’t wear glasses or contacts;
  • Had to be between 5’2″ and  5’9′;
  • And we had to weigh no more than 140 lbs., in proportion to our height.

Focus on grooming

During the six-week, unpaid training at American Airlines’ stewardess college, we learned safety procedures, airline codes and craft configurations, and elaborate food and beverage services—it would have been unthinkable to simply throw a bag of peanuts at a passenger and call it a “meal!”

But a major focus was on grooming. Our hair was cut and styled in similar fashion, and the application of make-up became a science.

One of the most important aspects of grooming was to have perfectly manicured, color-polished nails. I’ll never forget sitting on the jump seat, landing at LAX after working a hectic non-stop from JFK, and applying fresh polish in case my supervisor greeted us upon arrival.

Nail polish was no longer mandatory when, after a few years of having flown, following a discrimination lawsuit, men could be hired and collectively we finally became “flight attendants.”

Test cases and celebrities

Beyond the emphasis on how we looked, incidents that stand out in my memory include being part of the crew to qualify the 747 with the FAA prior to its being put into service.

The first evacuation test failed, and I almost broke my leg going down an under-inflated slide. Injured, I was given the option of returning to base, or staying to watch the next day’s test, which involved acquiring 300 new “passengers” from the Tulsa community. I stayed, and felt tremendous pride when the 747 passed.

I was later chosen to take part in the 747 “walk-through” introducing the craft to the public. In a single day, we greeted about 10,000 people on the tarmac at Ontario, California.

The most traumatic experience of my flying days occurred when I attempted to resuscitate an elderly woman soon after takeoff. I knew she was dead, but had to go through the procedure of calling for any doctors, and getting the oxygen bottle. I doubt she would have survived even if we’d had an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) onboard.

The three doctors who responded all looked at me when mouth-to-mouth was needed.

One of the doctors went so far as to take a writing pen from his pocket and perform a tracheotomy. I was grateful for my previous nursing experience.

I had many celebrities and “important” people onboard.  Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, Charlton Heston, Diana Ross, Candice Bergen and Paul Newman stand out. Newman was especially kind, and had the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.

I only flew for four years, due mostly to the pressure of needing to look perfect, and the difficulty in adjusting to the irregular hours.

I’ll always be grateful to American Airlines.

My time as a stewardess/flight attendant introduced me to the world.

And it gave me the courage to venture into it.

Jeri Fonté is a longtime resident of the South Bay, in both Palos Verdes and Redondo Beach, and is the author of the novel “The Lure of the Lion.” 

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