On October 19, 1927, a tiny seaplane flew mail for the U.S. Postal Service a quick 90 miles, from Key West to Havana, in a little over an hour. Within the next few decades, the company that sent that air mail to Cuba would be the first to launch commercial airline service across the Pacific Ocean, the first American carrier to fly jet aircraft, the first airline to use a custom-built computerized reservation system, and the first airline to fly the Boeing 747. This company founded the internationally renowned InterContinental hotel chain, built the world’s largest commercial office building when it opened in 1963, and connected 86 countries on 6 continents by 1968. This company transported Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor and Sean Connery and The Beatles. Towards the end of its life, this company facilitated economical air travel for the common man. But for the first half of its life, this company—Pan American World Airways—ushered in the Jet Age, created the Jet Set, and epitomized the glamour, sophistication, and absolute magic of intercontinental air travel.
Pan Am, sadly, ceased operations in 1991, after 64 years. And like a screen legend from the Golden Age of Hollywood, all we have left to remember her by are a few well-preserved artifacts, fading memories from previous generations who experienced her at her most vivacious, and flickering images that captured her at her peak—bittersweet reminders that the Golden Age of Travel, or at least the one we choose to imagine, is an era long passed.
For more colorful history, read about Pan Am’s first black pilot, Marvin Jones, and one of Pan Am’s “Black Birds,” Dr. Sheila Nutt, both part of a select group of black flight crew members hired after 1965. And if you’ve got an hour, take a gander at this phenomenal BBC documentary about Pan Am, which tells the story of the company’s rise and fall, the stringent physical standards for stewardesses, salacious tales of flight crew sex lives, and includes commentary by the pilot impostor who wrote Catch Me If You Can:
Since July, I’ve been to nine countries on five continents, and I don’t think I’ve spent more than five nights in any one location, with the exception of a 7-day cruise with my family where my movement was essentially limited to the Lido Deck.
During these past two months, I’ve had immovable work deadlines and perilously-late paychecks, last-minute press trips and schmooze-soaked travel conferences, a sobering near-breakup and a sobering death in the family. I’ve juggled professional, personal, and social spheres, seeing friends and family whenever I could and taking on writing assignments as frequently as possible. I have pressures to maintain a positive cash flow, maintain a long-distance relationship, maintain personal relationships, maintain professional growth, maintain a blog and a social media presence, maintain my physical health, maintain my sanity. My fingernails are bitten down to the bloody cuticle. ‘Taint no vacation we’re talking about here.
Life on the road is still life—uncut and unadulterated life, with bills, headaches, disappointments, and unrealized goals. At the end of the day, uncompleted items remain on each to-do list, and at the end of the month, a few days on the bank statement inevitably glow red (for now). But it’s the hope for a fulfilling life that keeps me advancing through air and uncertainty instead of coasting on autopilot through a manufactured existence in service to someone who isn’t me but who profits from my talents and resources. It’s the hope that I’ll eventually get as close to “figuring it all out” as I can, that the effort and striving and leaps of faith will turn into something materially-tangible, yes, but more than that—something soul-calming. Something fulfilling. With as few regrets as possible.
Because there’s nowhere any of us can go to escape uncut and unadulterated life, no country or continent where real life won’t intrude suddenly and without warning. The key to hope—and fulfillment—is to embrace, then face the challenges, tackling each one like a wave on the ocean of adventure.
The recent, tragic death of cultural steward and soul master Don Cornelius got me thinking heavily about inspiration, so when I ran across this photograph of the unadulterated musical genius Prince as a young man, I knew I had to pay homage to one of the very first popular proponents of out-of-the-box thinking that I ever encountered.
Not only was his music daring, provocative, and unlike anything else played on urban contemporary radio in the ’80s and ’90s, Prince pushed the boundaries of identity and cultural expectation in a way that I could relate to even before realizing it. I was ten years old when Under the Cherry Moon first came on cable TV. Ridiculous script and laughable acting aside (though the “Wrecka Stow” scene is hilarious), it’s the brilliant cinematography, exotic setting (Nice, n’est-ce pas?), and lush, phenomenal score that still makes me want to―just for a moment―run off and be a gigolo on the Riviera.
Let Prince take you on a trip to the Moon:
Black Americans have actively participated in every war and military skirmish since the United States was first conceived, even as a colony. But it was during the Spanish-American War in 1898 that black soldiers first had the opportunity to leave their own reluctant country for another – in this case, Cuba.
Until that time, scant few black Americans who didn’t have international family ties, work for someone who traveled abroad, or have the independent means to do so themselves, actually left the United States. The military – while segregated and just as unwelcoming as society at large – afforded young black men (and later women) the opportunity to visit other places, interact with other societies, and even become more cognizant of their worth as citizens. True, militaristic forays into foreign lands could hardly be considered pleasure cruises, but it was a chance to go, to see, to explore.
Estimates suggest over 350,000 black Americans served in Belgium and France during World War I, and films such as The Tuskegee Airmen, Miracle at St. Anna, and Red Tails (SEE IT NOW!) depict African-American experiences abroad during World War II. For the first time, black American men and women were getting to see the world in large numbers – at least on leave – thanks to Uncle Sam, and lots of folk stayed abroad, a prospect that seemed a helluva lot more appealing for some than heading “home” to Dixie.
Even today, the armed forces provides an opportunity for thousands of young people to experience the world (just ask Fidel), and despite my personal feelings about war and military intervention, I recognize the military’s importance in broadening the horizons of many fly brothers and sisters who came before me.
Sometimes, no matter how badly you wish you were doing it right now, you just don’t have the conditions necessary to take flight. The work hours are long, the money just isn’t right, you have to take care of your ailing grandfather – there’s always something, and there will always be something. Though I’ve thrown caution to the wind countless times (and sometimes paid the price on the back-end), it’s not always possible to just pick up and go.
That’s why you need a virtual escape hatch. Your escape hatch can be anything – a postcard of Rio, a movie set in India, an oil or lotion whose fragrance reminds you of the Orient. My hatch is built from a combination of specific things: the song “Adore” from I:Cube or anything by Audio Lotion, a vintage travel poster, the picture of an airplane wing mid-flight. These are things that rescue me from the mundane and transport me into travel itself, since for me, the sensation of being propelled through time and space to another reality is the most exhilarating part of travel. It’s in the getting there that excitement and expectation peak.
So when workaday blues start to get you, access your escape hatch and get away, if only for an instant.
What’s your virtual escape hatch?
Everyday this week, when I log into Facebook, I’ve been seeing a little reminder that “on this day, two years ago,” I was hitting up the Notting Hill Carnival or being wowed by the freakish ability of Swedes to dance damn well to hip-hop. And while I don’t believe that living in the past is all that emotionally healthy, sometimes you gotta give big-ups for past blessings you’ve received; my round-the-world trip in 2009 was one of the biggest blessings in life. In life.
After wrapping up a four-year stint as a teacher in Colombia, I booked and took off on a whirlwind tour taking me to six continents for US$3,300 (which could have been done more cheaply through a service like AirTreks, but I was satisfied with the price) – including an LA-Sydney roundtrip for $650 and a NYC-Dublin one-way for $230. I CouchSurfed or stayed with friends, only having to spend money on accommodations two nights out of my entire three months on the road. In the end, a family emergency caused the Australia portion of the trip to be canceled, and I ended up moving to Brazil instead of just hanging out as originally planned, but then, surprises and plan changes are all a part of the game. Still, the ride ended way too soon and I was ready to go again as soon as I’d landed back on US soil.
And I will do it again; there’s no reason not too. And yes, you can do it, too. It is that easy, if you want it to be.
Check out this short video of the friends – old and new – I encountered in ’09, and, if your interest is piqued, check out my blog posts from that era, including reports from the road, starting in August 2009.