Thurston column: A tough summer job, but somebody had to do it

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 5, 2012

Every summer at the US Coast Guard Air Station in Brooklyn, NY, we were subjected to one of the most insidious summer job tortures ever devised. We had to teach a lot of beautiful young women in skimpy bathing suits how to…but let me explain.
Back in the 50s, the overseas air carriers — Pan Am, TWA, Lufthansa, KLM, etc., had a requirement that their stewardesses get what was called “ditch drill training.” On a given weekday in the summer, a squadron of 20 or so of these girls would show up at our base with their little duffel bags. Most work on the flight line slowed to a crawl as they were escorted into the officers’ quarters. There were no facilities for female military personnel in those days, and God forbid they did their quick-change in the enlisted men’s barracks.
I am not a sexist man. I have a wife, daughter and four lovely granddaughters who can be appropriately strong willed — with my blessing — when the situation calls for it. On my plane trips, I am fine with a nice, gray-haired, motherly stewardess who helps me stow my overhead luggage, takes care of my drink order and otherwise makes the journey pleasant. The overseas airlines, however, didn’t think that way at that time. This was the era before U.S. airline regulation, you understand. Routes and fares were set and the airlines competed on other things — baggage handling, inflight meals, complimentary peanuts, and (I blush to say it) attractive young stewardesses. Watch the “Airport” series of films from the 70s, if you think I am pulling your leg.
These airlines also had a requirement that the “stews,” as we called them — and they called themselves — be bilingual. That eliminated most American girls in favor of European, since the latter learn English in school to complement their native lingo. That meant that most of these girls were Belgian, German, Dutch or Scandinavian. It was a largely blonde, blue-eyed contingent, with a few other exotic types thrown in for variety’s sake.
But this gets better. Up until relatively recent times, European beachwear was always a lot more daring than here in the land of the Puritans. Bob Hope once remarked that when summer finally arrived, he discovered what girls had been doing all winter: “Growing skin!” I know that I speak for myself — and probably for most of my shipmates — when I say that we had never seen displays such as this.
We parked a couple of 40 foot patrol boats a few hundred feet off the end of the seaplane ramp as an emergency standby, and to keep rubberneckers from sailing in too close — and into the water our girls went. Now this was not all fun and games. These gals were being shown how to handle things if they ever had to ditch at sea. They learned the best methods of getting people in life jackets, exiting their aircraft, inflating life rafts and then getting people in the water into the rafts. In rare cases, perhaps getting someone in the raft back in the water. They were introduced to the Very Pistol — a flare gun to summon the Coasties if the opportunity presented itself.
At the end of the day, the stews would march back into the officers’ quarters to get out of their wet scanties and into their street clothes — still visions to us, by the way. Their transportation would pull up; they would board and be off.
Life at the base would return to normal, and the men would go back to their work — perhaps with a fresh set of daydreams.
A little footnote: I met my wife-to-be as a consequence of one of these training sessions. But that is a whole other story.