Champagne in the Air…to Turkey

Here’s an excerpt from my humorous travel memoir, Bright Sun, Strong Tea.(This is the first episode):

The champagne was at 31,000 feet and by happy circumstance so was I, cruising along at 500 miles per hour in a Boeing 707 chartered from Pan American World Airways by the United States Government.

It was September, 1967, the end of the Summer of Love, and the plane was full of Peace Corps Volunteers who, having just completed an intensive three-month training program, were on their way overseas to fight communism by helping Third World countries with their economic development.

The champagne was courtesy of Pan Am, which donated it in a gesture of thanks to the brave young people off to do good in the world.

We had our airline tray dinners in front of us, and we held up our wine glasses to be filled by the smiling stewardesses–which is what everybody called flight attendants back then.

After our wine glasses were filled we held up our water glasses, and then our coffee cups. The stewardesses filled them all. Pan Am was being exceedingly generous with the bubbly.

This was too good! We had been chosen for Peace Corps service because of our resourcefulness, intrepidness and initiative, so no one was surprised when a few of us got up from our seats, cajoled the stewardesses out of their service aprons and took over pouring the champagne.

We popped corks and formed a bottle brigade, passing bottles hand to hand from the stern galley to the foreward bulkhead. Wine glasses, water glasses and coffee cups refilled, we sipped, joked, and toasted our future.

If this was the Peace Corps, it was going to be a hoot.

We were a homogeneous bunch of upper middle-class twentysomething men and women, Christians, Jews and agnostics, the leading edge of the Baby Boom, most of us fresh out of college.

We volunteered for the Peace Corps out of idealism, a taste for travel and adventure, and in the case of the men, an antipathy to having small pieces of swiftly-flying lead lodge painfully in our bodies. For most of us men of Selective Service (ie, draft) age, Peace Corps service was the only viable patriotic alternative to service on the front lines in Vietnam. For the women, it was a foreign adventure and philanthropic service before settling down to career and/or family.

Right now the Peace Corps was a college frat party high in the sky, and it went on until we reached the coast of Europe.

It was deathly quiet in the plane as we entered Dutch airspace and the full extent of our champagne hangover took hold. We returned the aprons to the flight attendants and allowed them to serve us espresso-strength coffee. Quietly.

We stopped in Amsterdam for an hour to re-fuel, then took off again bound for Ankara, the Turkish capital. There was little sound in the 707’s cabin except for the occasional low moan.

Until the moment when the Pan Am captain eased back on the throttle, lowered the plane’s nose and dropped the wheels to land in Ankara, my future as a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching English in Turkey had been entirely theoretical. Now here it was right in front of me.

I saw a brown, dusty landscape of low rolling steppe, treeless and barren. My mind conjured a vision of the lush forests of Pennsylvania where I had been raised.

Oh God, was this ever gonna be different.

I disembarked into blast-furnace-style mid-September Middle Eastern heat which was even less bearable with a hangover.

Where was I? What on earth had I done?

It had all seemed so plausible, so worthy, so innocently good, a few weeks ago at Peace Corps training in Texas….

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(Excerpts from Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Teacopyright © 2004 by Tom Brosnahan. All rights reserved.)

(Next: Divine Calculus)


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