A wandering writer’s backward glance at a career of travel: 2 1/2 million miles of magic moments, fantasy and faraway places.
One gathers a bundle of dreams during 2 1/2 million miles of travel, memories that recall magic moments of fantasy and faraway places. Unless one is an astronaut, it can take years to clock that much travel. It figures out to a distance equal to 100 times around the world . . . or five trips to the moon and back. My reason for bringing this up is because my score card in this autumn of my life reads just over 2 1/2 million miles.
Often I’m asked, “Don’t you tire of it?” To which I reply that I suffer dreadfully from jet lag but never from travel itself.
I find it unnecessary for in-flight crews to flash movies on the screen or to play stereophonic melodies in order for time to pass more quickly. I prefer studying the world from up there--wondering about the cities I pass over and the people below. I’m curious about what they’re doing and wishing for. And if their dreams ever come true and what their lives are like.
I remember my first airplane ride. I was a young reporter and terribly naive, and I traveled around the world with a group of ex-fighter and bomber pilots who had returned from World War II and decided to continue flying. They formed their own airplane ferrying company, called Fleetway, and they volunteered to fly any airplane anywhere in the world--whether new or in need of overhaul--so long as they got paid.
Jack Ford, a former B-17 pilot, ferried hundreds of planes with his Fleetway fliers for the Air Force and for foreign governments. On our flight around the world we delivered a Navy PBY to the Indonesian Air Force. It was a World War II-vintage airplane that at full throttle did about 130 m.p.h. From Burbank it took 18 hours to get just to Honolulu, a distance the jets cover easily today in about five hours. We refueled at Wake Island, Guam and Borneo, and after delivering the PBY to the Indonesians we picked up a twin-engine C-46 cargo plane in Bangkok and ferried it back to the United States by way of Burma, India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Greece, Italy, France, England, Scotland, Iceland, Greenland and Goose Bay, Labrador. During the trip the plane literally came unglued. It was a mechanical nightmare. Twice we nearly crashed, once while attempting a radar landing in Greenland.
I swore I’d never fly with Jack Ford and his Fleetway gang again, if only God would get me home safely. But I was young and bold, so a year later I crossed the Atlantic with Ford in a DC-3 and returned to the United States in a small, twin-engine plane that nearly crashed in the Atlantic after icing up between Iceland and Greenland. A couple of years later Ford invited me to join him on a delivery flight to Tokyo. The long hops in small planes were made possible by adding auxiliary fuel tanks. This time I was unable to go, and several days after Ford took off I learned that the little twin-engine Beech had exploded in midair shortly after taking off from Wake Island. The scenario--the dramatic final scene--was exactly as Jack Ford would have written it. He’d become a legend among fliers.
Two and a half million miles have taken me from Anchorage to Australia and from Tonga to Tanzania. Speaking of Tanzania, I did that trip with Will Fowler, the son of the famous late author, Gene Fowler. At the time Will was fond of alcohol, and he imbibed with abandon. One of our stops was at Treetops, the hotel-in-the-tree outside Nairobi where, at darkness, guests gaze down at animals parading out of the jungle. The animals are particularly active at night, spotlighted by great shafts of light shining from the tree. I recall one gray-haired little old lady whispering excitedly, “My, look at the rhino down there.” And another saying, “Goodness, see the lions.” I got a trifle concerned, though, when someone remarked, “But what in heaven’s name is that bald-headed creature!” It wasn’t an animal . . . it was Will Fowler, who’d gone down to get a closer look at the wildlife. A white hunter dressed like Jungle Jim of the comics chased Fowler back up the tree. “You could have been killed!” he shouted angrily. “Don’t be silly,” Fowler said matter-of-factly. “I’ve never lost a fight in my life.”
At another hotel, Fowler remained up playing darts and drinking Pimm’s Cups until the bar closed. Back in the room he assembled a Masai spear he’d bought earlier and disappeared into the night. It had come to mind that he’d promised a friend back home a lion, and this being our last night in Africa, he’d gone hunting. Yes, at 3 o’clock in the morning. By coincidence, the president of Tanzania was vacationing in the same resort, which was overrun with Tanzania’s answer to our Secret Service. Shortly after Fowler left the room I heard footsteps, the door opened and the Tanzanians flung Fowler and his spear inside with the admonition that he postpone his hunting foray until Tanzania’s head of state was awake.
Earlier in the jet age, I recall an Air France flight rolling to a stop one afternoon in Paris. As the engines whined in one final gasp, behind us lay scattered more than 5,700 miles, which represented one of the longest non-stop hops in the world: Los Angeles to Paris in 11 hours, something we now take for granted. The flight was without incident, unless, of course, you take into consideration the French steward who insisted we have wine with our breakfast corn flakes.
On another flight to Europe (during the day of propeller planes) I was awakened when the steward said, “Good morning,” and did I wish orange juice? I looked at my watch. It was 11:15 p.m. back in Los Angeles. Now above Greenland the sun was reflecting off glaciers on its way to a new beginning. The steward spoke to the lady beside me.
“May I serve you juice, countess?”
This handsome woman was the American-born widow of Sweden’s Count Folke Bernadotte, a mediator for the U.N. in Palestine when he was killed by an assassin. While we visited, the plane touched down at Sondre Stromfjord in Greenland. The sun was rising and Los Angeles was sleeping--and the countess and I had coffee together in that land of ice.
Two and a half million miles. You meet a long line of in-flight attendants. The loveliest I ever saw was on a flight to Taiwan from Hong Kong. The Chinese called the plane the Mandarin Jet. The cabin looked more like the inside of a Chinese palace. I walked through a moon gate and into the arms of an Oriental goddess in a golden cheongsam. A familiar old melody wafted through the cabin as we swung up into the China sky. “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.” It was too much. With the attendant and the music I felt like William Holden. Kipling erred. Here East ran headlong into West and, well, I don’t know about East, but West was enjoying it immensely.
Looking back over the years, I have fond memories of many places--Paris in particular--and I will argue with anyone who insists that all Parisians are rude. I tramped across the city recently, and instead of surliness I found caring persons when I asked directions for some obscure bistro near St. Germain.
I am equally fond of Portugal, where several of us toured the fado caves one night in the old Moorish Alfama section of Lisbon. When a fadista sings, the heart cries. They get very emotional, these Portuguese. Even the strings of the mandolin seem to weep. Every Portuguese sings the fado . It is the folk song of Portugal. You will recall “April in Portugal.” Usually they are love songs, sad with tearful lyrics. The fado means to Portugal what the blues mean to America.
Anyway, I stopped at this place called Tipico, along a cobbled alley where gas lamps bathe ancient buildings in their yellow glow. A girl named Celeste, a fadista , sat with us and explained the fado . You sing and cry without shedding tears, she said. It relieves something. It is a beautiful sadness. She excused herself. It was time for her to entertain. “I love to sing,” she said. “I love to watch people cry because they are happy-sad.”
Now I ask you: Who could help falling in love with a country that produces creatures like Celeste?
There are poignant memories along with the happy ones. There was, for instance, Berlin during the dark days following World War II. Nowhere else were the contrasts between the free and communist worlds more vividly displayed. In the West, church bells rang out of a Sunday morning, and couples strolled along the Kufurstendamm, content in their togetherness. This was the city that had died in its own flames, a place pulverized, rendered senseless at the end of World War II. The reincarnation began a short time later. Today, magnificent, new, glass-skinned buildings fill the once empty avenues of both East and West Berlin. But at that time, in the ‘50s, the lights were still out in East Berlin. Life was solemn. Crossing into East Berlin was like switching from a Technicolor film to a drab black-and-white movie. Berlin was not a happy experience.
The datelines during those millions of miles of travel go on: Japan, Hong Kong, India, Israel, practically every country in Europe, Canada, Mexico, Central America, South America, the Bahamas, the islands of the Caribbean and those of the Mediterranean and the South Seas.
A few of those 2 1/2 million miles were taken up flying with Polynesian Air Lines between Samoa and Tonga. It was in a vintage DC-3, and during the four-hour ride a stewardess in a Polynesian print served cold chicken and champagne. Later we landed on a runway in Tonga that was shaved from a coconut grove, and we claimed our baggage in a terminal the size of a thatched hut before passing through customs.
The DC-3 seems immortal. The last one I flew was in New Zealand. We bounced along over the Southern Alps, winds screaming up from deep glacial valleys. Tasmin Glacier spilled down the flank of one mountain, and I got hazy glimpses of Franz Joseph and Fox glaciers.
A good many of those 2 1/2 million miles have been used up between here and Hawaii, which happens to be my favorite place in all the world. Recently I watched a sunset spend itself at Poipu on the island of Kauai, a sunset like no other I’ve ever known. On Maui, the drive to Hana is choked with tropical blooms, and there are beaches like those seen on picture post cards. And there’s the little up-country cow town of Makawao on the flanks of Haleakala, Maui’s extinct volcano . . . and Kona village on the Big Island where lovers and honeymooners hide out. Once on Maui I ran into Nelson Waikiki, Hawaii’s ukulele virtuoso. In the 1960s the Hawaii Visitors Bureau had been urging Nelson to play the lounges in Las Vegas and other nightclubs on the mainland. “You could make a fortune,” he was told. Nelson was driving a bus in order to support a wife and several youngsters and playing the ukulele for tourists at night. I asked him why he didn’t go on the mainland tour and with his island innocence he replied: “Why should I when everything I want is here on Maui?”
Only a few days ago I visited Nelson again on Maui. He was thinking of giving up his job with the bus company but intended to continue playing the ukulele. Although his hair is white now, Nelson remains unchanged . . . the same contented man.