Articles

SHE WALKS THE ATLANTIC

After 385,000 flying miles, Hostess Helen Gagnon still loves the passengers. Just the same, she’ll never marry one

RAY GARDNER January 1 1949
Articles

SHE WALKS THE ATLANTIC

After 385,000 flying miles, Hostess Helen Gagnon still loves the passengers. Just the same, she’ll never marry one

RAY GARDNER January 1 1949

SHE WALKS THE ATLANTIC

RAY GARDNER

HELEN MARY GAGNON slips her feet into a pair of trim, black-suede ballerina slippers and works while she walks over parts of four

countries. Canada, Newfoundland, Ireland and England and, sometimes, Scotland and Iceland, too. They’re all in a day’s work she finishes 3,283 miles from where she begins. No seven-league boots just ballerinas.

Today, on her way to work, her cigarettes cost her 38 cents; tomorrow, on her way from work, they’ll cost her three shillings and sixpence. At 1 p.m. Eastern Standard Time she is driven to work from her home in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grace district by a young French Canadian. At 1 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time the. next day (actually 19 hours later) a young Englishman drives her from work and to the Palm Court Hotel in London, England.

In the meantime, Helen is lucky if she’s been off her ballerinas for mere than two hours (that’s why she calls her job “walking the Atlantic”) as she plays the perfect hostess to as many as 40 strangers whose homes may be, and on one occasion were, as widely scattered as Durban, South Africa, and Whit« Star, Saskatchewan.

Helen is one of two dozen girls who are as essential to Trans-Canada Airlines as Loran. Loran is the navigation aid that guides TCA’s giant North Stars safely across the Atlantic on their flights between Canada and Britain. Helen is a TCA Trans-Atlantic stewardess. “Loran makes sure you get where you’re going,” a TCA official once remarked. “And Helen makes sure you get there in comfort.”

Looking after the comfort of her passengers entails doing many tasks, large and small. During an average month she’ll spend 75 hours doing them as she makes five Atlantic crossings or two and a half round trips. She and the purser steward, who is her immediate superior, prepare and serve six meals during a crossing. On some North Stars she washes the dishes, on others, not equipped for dishwashing, they are left for ground crews to do.

She distributes pillows and blankets, when required. She functions as a librarian, supplying passengers with magazines and pocket editions of best sellers. She is a cloakroom girl, too. When passengers board the plane, she relieves them of their coats, returns them on landing. Together, she and the steward ojjerate as the aircraft’s information bureau.

Before each ascent or landing she must check to see that every passenger’s safety belt is fastened and that all cigarettes, pipes and cigars are extinguished. Her most unsavory task is emptying bags used by airsick passengers. She gives special attention to mothers traveling with babies. She changes diapers (paper ones are standard TCA equipment), heats feeding formula and finds a passenger who is willing to hold baby while its mother eats her own dinner.

Blue Bloods and Babies

IIKE TCA itself, her job covers a lot of territory and Helen hasn’t met the stewardess yet who was bored. “Two things make that impossible: traveling and the people you travel with,” she explains. “Traveling has always fascinated me, and I think flying is the most fascinating way to travel. Maybe the travel folders have worked that

one over so much about lunch-in-Montreal-todaylunch-in-London-tomorrow it’s beginning to sound prosaic. But it isn’t prosaic when it happens to me. When we taxi out on the runway for the take-off, Ï get as excited as a kid at Christmas.”

On one trip her charges ranged all the way from a “blue baby” on its way to the Eastern United States for medical treatment to a pair of blue bloods in the persons of Lord Strabolgi, the Labor peer, and Lady Strabolgi. Lady Strabolgi endeared herself to Helen by offering to help with the dishes.

The 19 passengers she flew with out of Montreal one day last October were typical of the people she meets at work. They ran the gamut from Dr. N. Sacks, a radiologist (X-ray specialist) from Durban, South Africa, on his way to Sweden and France to study methods there, to Mrs. H. Lemoal, a middleaged housewife who lives in White Star, Sask., going to Luton, England, to visit her biother and two sisters.

The ethers were:

William Streep, Montreal diamond merchant, bound for Amsterdam (hisbirthplace) and Antwerp;

Bern Haering, a young

After 385,000 flying miles, Hostess Helen Gagnon still loves the passengers. Just the same, she’ll never marry one

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Continued from page 17

Swiss, on hin way home to Zurich to become assistant manager of its leading hotel (“In Switzerland,” says Helen, “hotel managers rank just behind cabinet ministers so I treated him like a celebrity”);

James Burnett, a market gardener from Chatham, Ont., going home to Bucharest, Hungary, for his first visit since emigrating 25 years ago;

I»éonce Arnout, of IÂlie, France, wealthy manufacturer of women’s lingerie, who commutes by plane between France, Canada and Switzerland (He owns factories in till three countries) ;

Thomas Bourne, young foreignfreight manager fora Toronto shipping firm, off on a gut-acquainted tour of his firm’s branches in Britain and throughout Europe;

Reginald Coles, a young welder who four months previously emigrated to Toronto from Dagenham, London, called home by the death of his mother;

Mrs. Edward Kay, a youthful Canadian housewife, and her children, Robert, six, and Susan, 18 months, flying to join her husband, a TCA engineer in England;

Ernest Richardson, an employee of the London underground, who had been visiting relatives in Detroit and Toronto;

Bernard Piganeau and Jean Lavallette, French insurance men returning to Paris after a business trip to Canada;

Madame Géron de la Massuère, a frail but sprightly grandmother from Paris, going back home niter visiting her daughter in Toronto;

D. E. F. Canney, research and development manager for a Lancaster, England, firm which manufactures mechanical textiles (machine belts, etc.) who had toured Canada and the Eastern States on business (In Banff he took time out to indulge in his hobby: mountain climbing);

Miss Alice Knowles, of Birmingham, who had visited her sister in Montreal;

Mrs. N. F. Phillips of London, England, who had been to see her son in Chicago;

And Herbert Whitney, Department of Transport agent at Goose Bay, Labrador, who left the plane when it put down there to refuel.

Name Changed Three Times

Miss Gagnon’s desire to go places and meet people could be due to the fact that the Spanish Civil War, t he Second World War and the Royal Bank of Canada combined in lier youth to give her a background of life in three countries: Spain, France and Canada. Even her name has changed nationalities three times. In Spain she was Elena Maria; in France Hélène Marie and in Canada, of course, she is Helen Mary.

She was born 25 years ago on Dec. 26,1923, in Barcelona, where her father had been sent from Canada by the hank. Thirteen years later when the Spanish Civil War was at its height she fled with her mother and two younger brothers to France on a British destroyer. While Mr. Gagnon stayed on in Spain, Helen’s mother and the children returned to Canada and remained here until 1939 when he was transferred to Paris. The family was reunited in France just in time to be caught in the turmoil of another war.

In the spring of 1940 they escaped to England on a crowded Dutch refugees’ ship, by summer were back in Canada. In Canada she’s moved about so much she can’t rightly call any place home,

but when passengers ask where she’s from (their most frequent query) she avoids involved explanations by claiming Sherbrooke, Que., where her parents now live and where her father is manager of a branch of the Royal Bank.

A vague feeling of discontent and a friend’s casual remark that; TCA hired only registered nurses as stewardesses sent her to the airline in search of a joh in January, 1947. She was then a nurse at Montreal General Hospital. “1 liked nursing,” Helen recalls, “hut it; wasn’t, all that I wanted. I suppose I just wanted to get. out and see more of the world.”

TCA found she met all their requirements. Stewardesses must, be between the ages of 21 and 26 when hired; she was 23. They must not be taller than five feet, six inches, or weigh more than 125 pounds; she scraped by with an inch and a pound to spare. They must l)e single (and stay single — or quit, incidentally) and in perfect health; she w'as both.

She made*her first flight when she went to Winnipeg for a six weeks’ training course. There she studied meteorology, theory of flight, aircraft equipment and aeronautical medicine, went on training flights.

There, too, she learned to speak with the Voice That Inspires Confidence.

I CA holds that the stewardess’ most

important duty, aside from assuring the comfort, of her passengers, is to inspire confidence in them.

TCA recorded Helen’s voice, played it back and found she had the Voice That Inspires Confidence in three languages, English, French and Spanish. A sixth sense helps Helen to spot those who need that confidence soon after takeoff. The trick then is to engage them in idle conversation and subtly allay their fears without ever touching directly on the reasons for them. “People don’t like to admit they’re nervous or that they’re making their first flight,” she says. Women are more inclined to nervousness than men and more susceptible to airsickness.

Most stewardesses are much like Helen: personable, good - looking,

healthy and wholesome young women. TCA requires them to pass periodical fitness tests, insists always on immaculate grooming. Helen wears her hair above the collar in a feather cut to meet TCA regulations. She wears moderate make-up, takes meticulous care other hands. A smart, navy-blue regulation uniform which costs her $100 completes this picture of efficient neatness.

Helen can’t conceive of any job being better than hers, but resents suggestions it’s a soft one. At most she catches two hours’ sleep, fully clothed, during a trip that may take anywhere

from 14 to 19 hours, depending mostly on weather.

For a 4.30 p.m. departure from Montreal’s Dorval Airport she must be on hand by 1.30 or 2 o’clock. She checks the passenger list to see if any Very Important People or babies are to be carried. She must make sure the mothers have brought along sufficient feeding formula for the trip. Then she attends weather briefing with the rest of the crew and is told what weather they may expect during the flight. She goes through customs and checks her share of the aircraft’s equipment.

And, then, her work begins in earnest. Once she had to care for two prize goldfish who were kept alive, at certain altitudes, by the oxygen she pumped into their bowl.

Children are apt to be a special problem but ' little boys are usually perfectly behaved after they have been treated to the thrill of five minutes in the cockpit watching the crew at the controls. Drunks are never a problem: the stewardess can simply refuse to carry them. “They can be dangerous in a plane,” says Helen.

In her few idle moments aloft Helen communes with nature. “You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a sunset over Greenland,” she enthuses.

16,000 Hours in the Air

In England Helen and her crewmates are billeted at the Palm Court Hotel in Richmond. And in spite of austerity she indulges in her favorite luxury: breakfast in bed every morning.

Her stopovers in Britain vary from 36 hours to six days. Usually she has time to sight-see London, or to visit friends of the family in the country. To her hungry British friends she is “Operation Vittles” because of the fresh eggs and meat and canned vegetables and fruit she brings them.

Her air hours vary so much she can never figure them out, merely trusts TCA not to overdo it. TCA says a stewardess usually flies 75 to 85 hours a month over any three-month period. In one month Helen flew only 54 hours, another girl put in 105. But over a three-month period the monthly average for each was approximately 75 hours.

Since joining TCA in 1947 Helen estimates she has flown about 385,700 miles and has 16,000 flying hours.

She earns $200 a month and is paid traveling expenses while in Britain. As a stewardess on flights within Canada she began at $160 a month, received three semiannual increases of $10 until she reached the $190 maximum. She joined the Trans-Atlantic service in July at $190 and after six months was raised to $200. In another six months she’ll be paid the $210 maximum.

But, says Helen, there are finer things about her job than the money. One of these finer things is the people she works with; captain, first officer, navigator, radio officer and purser. They are always youthful and, she finds, invariably amiable. “Naturally the skipper is boss,” she says. “And he takes his responsibility seriously. But the discipline is as easygoing, or, at least as informal, as it is effective. We work together in a really swell spirit of camaraderie.”

She does not always work with the same crew; nor do the other members of the crew always fly together. On the flight that carried the doctor from South Africa and the housewife from White Star, the skipper was Captain John Stewart Ruddick who joined TCA in 1936. Oldest member of the crew, he is only 32. His first officer and co-pilot was 27-year-old Bob Dick who signed up with TCA in 1946 after war

service with the RCAF, and his navigating officer, Jack Harding, 29, who also came to TCA in 1946 from the Air Force. The two other members of the crew were both army veterans: Radio Officer Gordon Hykle, 25, who served with the Signal Corps, and Purser-Steward Roger Toutant, 29, who was an army lieutenant. Hykle had been with TCA in 1942, before joining up. Toutant has been with TCA since 1946.

Home Was Not Like This

The five-room apartment at 2122 Vendôme Avenue in Montreal which Helen shares with five other girls is the scene of almost as many departures and arrivals in a single day as occur at Dorval in a week. All six girls are employed by TCA, work such odd and changing hours they’ve sat down to dinner together only once in the past year.

Two of the girls are Trans-Atlantic stewardesses: Barbara Exelby, a pretty Calgarian, and Margaret (Barney) Wilkins, from Peterborough. Another, Eleanor Gaukrodger, from Ottawa, is a domestic stewardess. The other two, Patricia (Patty) Colqhoun, a blond and vivacious young lady who is known about the house as “The Beauty,” and handsome Eileen McCord, the mother of the household, alternate between TCA’s Montreal city ticket office and the airport.

“The comings and goings are so terriffic we’re thinking of putting in a revolving door,” says Patty.

On a typical day, Patty arrives home from the late night shift at the airport a few moments after Eileen has left for an eight to five day in the downtown ticket office. While Patty smears on the cold cream and clips on the curlers before diving into bed, Eleanor gulps a cup of coffee and prepares to leave for Moncton, N. B. When she arrives home shortly before midnight and is taking her whack at the cold cream, Patty will be gulping a cup of coffee before leaving for work again.

Meanwhile Helen may be enjoying the luxury of a long sleep. There’s always someone sleeping. At noon Barbara may breeze in from London. This will cause Helen to get up and indulge in some spicy international gossip with Barbara. She’ll tell Barbara what’s been going on in Montreal, while Barbara gives her the dirt on London, the Atlantic Ocean, meanwhile, being rung in as a sort of back fence. Barney is still unaccounted for. She may have passed Barbara in mid-air and may now be touching down in Shannon, Ireland, or landing in Scotland.

“Believe me,” says Helen. “It keeps the neighbors guessing. Girls coming and going all the time and at such outlandish hours.”

Excepting the definite and indefinite articles the word most often spoken during any 24-hour period in this TC Aerie is the word “Roger.” This is not the name of their most popular boy friend. They don’t share boy friends. It is, of course, flying lingo, a synonym for “okay.” All telephone conversations invariably end with “Roger.” If a new record album is auditioned and wins approval, then it’s “Roger.” When one of the girls comes home with a new hat and shows it off, the others don’t gush, “Oh, it’s darling!” They say “Rog-errr,” arid the way they say it means the same thing.

“Gen,” “type,” “wilco” and other such colloquialisms popularized by the RCAF and RAF during the late war are also among the most belabored words in their vocabularies. No one says plane, they say aircraft. Let the

uninitiated ground-lubber let slip the word “plane” in their midst and their reaction will force him to conclude he has inadvertently uttered an obscenity.

“At first 1 swore I’d never sav Roger or type or gen,” Helen recalls. “1 kept that pledge a week.”

The one topic that doesn’t, get much of a conversational play at 2122 Vendóme is the subject of crashes. Not that the girls are jumpy or unrealistic about it. The four of them who are stewardesses just don’t look upon their work as involving any unusual risk. None has yet come even close to collecting on the $10:000 insurance TCA

carries on each of them. So, they ask, why should we torture ourselves with thoughts about crashing?

“My mother worries about me,” says Helen. “Rut I seldom give it a thought. When 1 do happen to think of it, I don’t go into a flap. 1 just think of all the money and engineering skill and mechanical know-how that go into an aircraft and 1 find that’s reassurance enough for me.”

It’s not quite true that Helen wouldn’t give up her job with TCA for love nor money. For money, no. Rut love she expects will one day come between her and TCA.

TCA boasts its girls are the most eligible in Canada, as proof cites the fact that it hasn’t had to set a retirement age for stewardesses; they’re always married off long before that problem arises.

Some marry men they meet in the air, hut this is the exception rather than the rule.

“1 don’t think I’ll marry anyone I meet as a passenger,” says Helen. “Mind you, 1 love ’em all. Rut marry one and he may expect he can push a button and have you appear beside him with a tray of gum, a pillow, a blanket, a magazine and a hot meal.” ★