Looking back on life through letters

Old vintage postcard and envelope with pen on table

“Dear Carol, Guess how I’ll spend New Year’s? Flying home from Goose Bay, Newfoundland. Isn’t that great?”

So began a Christmas note from Richard.

While “staying in place” during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve begun re-reading — before throwing all of it out — correspondence from men I’d dated during my 1960s airline stewardess days.

Richard was an Air Force KC-135 Tanker pilot based in Minot, North Dakota, who had been a passenger on one of my flights. After a short chat, Richard amazingly invited me to a special officers’ formal dining-in at Minot, beginning our dating and our corresponding, which saw Richard deployed to Vietnam in the dangerous job of forward air controller.

Meanwhile, several business envelopes stamped “Par Avion” bore the return address of 60 Rue Pauline Borghese, Paris, France. They were of course from Bob, who was a claims attorney for Pan American Airlines — and based in Paris.

We’d met on a ski vacation in Norway. A true bon vivant, Bob wrote letters that often mentioned dining at Maxim’s and attending various elegant events: “In July, I was in Bayreuth, Germany, to attend the opening of the Wagner Festival.”

But, alas, Bob and I were only pen pals. We were never able to arrange a rendez- vous in Paris.

A thick packet of Air Mail letters from Jerry in Salina, Kansas, would take more time to go through.

Jerry and I met under extraordinary circumstances. My flight schedule for October 1962 called for weekly overnight layovers in Detroit. Nothing unusual about that, except our airline crew was lodged at the same motel — the Travelodge Sleepy Bear — as a U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command B-52 bomber crew.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was underway. The Soviet Union had placed medium- range ballistic missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off the Florida coast. The deploy- ment represented a serious escalation in the ongoing confrontation between the two countries and their allies.

This was one of the most dangerous moments in human history. The SAC pilots, who’d been flown in from Schilling Air Force base in Salina, were on full combat alert and confined to the motel awaiting the call to launch a retaliatory mission should President Kennedy declare war with the Soviet Union. Their nuclear-armed bomber was parked at the airport, 15 minutes away.

With nothing to do but wait, they milled around the motel lobby. Whenever our crew arrived, we found them waiting for us, eager for company.

Jerry was the co-pilot. We hit it off immediately. And so, as the world teetered on the brink of WWIII, I found myself in the bizarre position of sitting in the funky old Sleepy Bear lobby getting acquainted with a warrior who was waiting to be called into action — action that could result in total annihilation!

With a fate too horrendous to imagine, denial set in. Jerry and I talked about his youth in Oklahoma and mine in Minnesota, our hobbies and the movies we both liked, as though nothing was wrong. We even promised to write each other in the future.

Once the crisis had passed, Jerry and I began a long-distance romance between Salina and Minneapolis that was chroni- cled in the letters I’d saved.

I may not be able to throw them out, after all.

Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess.