How Alcohol Saved My Life

Wholesome, rosebud-lipped 22-year olds are sniffling and wiping tears off their cheeks. Our flight attendant training class has just received our base assignments—where we will start out our “exciting new careers!” Most of the Southern belles are being sent to New York. Many of the innocent Midwestern girls will live in Miami. No one is starting their new career anywhere near home. But this is what we signed up for. We loved people and we loved to travel.

Ironically, or maybe purposefully,  the song, “I’ll be home for Christmas” is playing throughout the Un-American Airlines Training and Conference Center, the finishing school in which we are learning how to gracefully serve caviar, successfully evacuate airplanes, and wear our hair and make-up like Dallas princesses—perfectly polished red nails, heavily made up faces, and perfectly lacquered hair. (The Training and Conference Center’s salon sold out of hair spray every week.)

Not only did we just find out we’d begin our new lives far away from home, but it was Thanksgiving. We knew getting into this glamorous, exciting career that we’d be away from home for every holiday to come. (There are no holidays in the airline business). But the timing of receiving our base assignments on Thanksgiving yielded a lot of tears, at a place where we were supposed to be smiling all the time.

Our training started October 23rd; we were 4 1/2 weeks into our 6 ½ weeks of Barbie Boot Camp. Today was Thursday, November 23, 1995, and we were learning about how to serve food off a mobile cart from the forward of the airplane to the back (aft), while gracefully converging with the beverage cart, off of which we were to serve beverages moving aft-forward.

We were to be tested on this stuff the following day, and anything below a 90% on a test was considered failing. We’d get a second attempt at a failed test, and if we failed the re-take, we’d be sent home. Flight attendant trainees were sent home for a variety of other reasons: frowning, wearing our hair and make-up “non-regulation” (see above), insubordination (questioning our instructors’ authority in any way, which included talking about them when they weren’t around. Actually, they were present more than we knew—the dining room, study lounges, and other common areas were bugged, we learned later).

So the 22-year olds curbed their sniffling, and I remained dry-eyed, imagining all the excitement I’d have once I graduated from this place. People would admire me in my sleek navy uniform, I’d meet men all over the country, I’d make lots of friends.

I knew I was lying to myself, though. As our instructors yelled, “Y’all have to pay attention to this information, because our families are waitin’ for us and we want to go home and watch ‘Friends’ before our Thanksgivin’ feasts,” I felt a lump in my throat thinking about my family, knowing I wouldn’t see them for a long time. Also depressing was the fact that I’d be spending the rest of Thanksgiving studying with my roommate in our home away from home–a hotel room at the Lexington Suites in Arlington, Texas.

It was quiet on the bus ride from the Training and Conference Center back to the hotel.  I rushed ahead of my roommate so I could call my mom and tell her how miserable I was. But my mom was unsympathetic: “Suck it up; you knew what you were getting into. You never liked turkey anyhow.”

I studied every night. But tonight the thought of memorizing where all the fire extinguishers were on each aircraft, made me want to commit harry carry.

A group of not-so-studious fellow trainees went to the hotel bar every night after class. They always passed their tests.

Knowing I was close to a breakdown, I wandered downstairs and decided to join them.  The hotel had a ‘free’ happy hour, where Shiner Bock (a Texas beer) was $1 from 5-7pm. The drinkers welcomed me, as drunks love company. After downing five Shiners and a bowl of pretzels, I had a new family on Thanksgiving: The Drinkers.

Who needs to be home with loved ones on Thanksgiving when you have a good buzz and a group of people whom you love through a magical friend called alcohol?