Written by Barbara Force
Midnight at the Barajas Airport, Madrid, Spain. I was biding my time until my flight on KLM at 1:30 am to Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire. I arrived at the airport early. I had a late checkout at the pensione, stored my bag and headed out for tapas and wine. Proper dinner didn’t start until at least 9:00pm in Madrid. I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to travel to the airport on local buses and I wanted to allow enough time. It was 1968.
I had been working for TWA in Los Angeles for two and one half years. I worked as a Ground Hostess (working the information counter, greeting people in the lobby to answer questions, going to other airlines to pick up connecting passengers and helping out where it was needed). I had travel privileges, or passes, but very little money. Lisa, another Ground Hostess and I had become friends at work. She quit at the end of 1967 to join the Peace Corp and, after training, was assigned to a moderate size town, Agboville, in the Ivory Coast, about a six to eight hour bus trip from the capital, Abidjan.
I loved traveling, which is why I wanted to work for an airline. I would take off when time and money permitted. In my job, we could trade days with each other, working for someone on your day off, and accumulating extra time off.
When Lisa wrote from Africa about her assignment, I thought what a grand opportunity to travel to this area, a place I probably would not visit on my own. So we exchanged letters, I took vacation and trades and got 11 days off, a pass on TWA t0 Madrid, and a pass on KLM to Abidjan. My last letter to her outlined my flights (they were not booked full in those days). I planned on spending two days in Madrid to adjust to the time change and flight fatigue. I had traveled to Spain before, but knew a few places I wanted to visit that I had not seen.
At the airport, I sat in an alcove near the departure gate. The concourse was vacant, except for a lone cleaning woman two gates from me. She worked slowly, and wore clothes that were either Indian or Pakistani. There was a slight acrid smell in the air from the cleaning disinfectant.
The lights were dim. The silence had settled around me. I read for awhile. I checked in five hours early at the ticket counter, tagged my bag, and was given a boarding card. There was plenty of room on the flight. At that time, there was no security to pass through, just immigration. At first I passed the time reading, then walked the concourse a few times. I wrote a long letter to Steve, a TWA agent I was dating who had been drafted into the Marines and was in boot camp. This was the
Vietnam era. After finishing the letter, I started thinking about my destination. My excitement turned to anxiety as I realized I never heard back from Lisa that she received my flight itinerary. What if she never received the letter? What if she wasn’t at the airport to meet me? How would I find her? I didn’t even speak French, the language of the Ivory Coast. My grand adventure might become even more exciting, but I didn’t want that kind of excitement right then. What in the world was I doing? I think in one’s twenties, one is brave, adventurous, stupid and invinceable.
I boarded the flight, sat down, and realized I had a entire row to myself in the coach section of the Boeing 707. After take off, I said a prayer for safety and for Lisa to be waiting for me, and promptly fell asleep. The flight stopped in Accra, Ghana. The steps rolled up to the rear door of the 707. The sun was just blazing over the horizon and glinted off the railing I held onto while walking down the steps to stretch my legs. Some people headed toward customs, and the rest of us walked to the refreshment stand. The humidity assaulted me, as well as the diesel fuel and exhaust smell from the airport vehicles. I purchased a Coca Cola, and talked to a couple of other passengers who spoke English. It seemed like the most natural thing to be doing at 6:15 a.m. One man, white, mid 50’s, looking distinguished in a suit, had disembarked from the first class door. He joined the small group. He was a Dutch diplomat, returning to his post in Abidjan. He asked about my travels and plans, and I explained my dilemma, about Lisa. Thoughtfully he reached into his breast jacket pocket and removed one of his business cards and gave it to me. He said to call him if I had any trouble. My anxiety decreased immediately and I thanked him. We all reboarded the airplane and it took off for the thirty-five minute flight.
I was nervous, wondering what would happen and tried to read. It was useless. I then moved to the window to watch the scenery. We were flying along the coast. The land was a mass of dark green, contrasting with the blue of the ocean. Suddenly we were landing, and taxied to a stop. Walking through the door and down the stairs, the same humidity engulfed me. I really don’t remember walking into the terminal, passing through immigration and customs. It was all a blur. I could hardly wait to exit throughthe double swinging doors. As I walked out, behind a rope there was a sea of brilliant colors against dark skin. I scanned the crowd. And there was Lisa, her white face smiling and her arms waving. The next part of the adventure was about to begin.