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'Pan Am' triggers memories from Charlotte women

Watch what you call them.

"Don't you dare call us flight attendants," warns Linda Strong of Charlotte in a brace-for-impact tone. "We were stewardesses. That's what we were - it was a different day."

Strong joined Pan American World Airways in 1964, an era recalled in the new ABC show "Pan Am" that tells a story of flight crews at the dawn of the jet age.

And it was a different day.

"When I was in New York for the job interview, she told me to walk across the room and back," recalls Marge Aultman of Charlotte. "I was 25 years old, 5-foot-6 and weighed 124 pounds. I was told, 'That's as much as you'll ever be able to weigh because our aisles are very narrow.'"

Aultman graduated from training in Miami on New Year's Eve 1967 and was on a flight to Mexico City that night.

She recently found a letter she'd written to her mother from stewardess school describing a class - she'd spent hours learning about the Pan Am "image." Grooming instructors taught them how to apply makeup (sparingly), how to stand, how to walk and how their uniforms should look.

Like the stewardesses in the ABC show, they had to wear girdles, high heels, stockings and a full slip. But there are some elements of the program that don't ring quite true.

"For one thing, we didn't wiggle our fannies like that down the aisle," says Aultman. "Or strut through the terminal."

Aultman and Strong, now both vibrantly 70 and still swinging their golf clubs, enjoy the ABC show for the memories it brings back and to pick out things that producers have taken dramatic license with. Long hair on the actresses, for one - in those days, hair couldn't hit the collar.

Stewardesses didn't serve food in high heels and their jackets, either. They had a second set of flat shoes they'd slip into and wore a smock or apron at meal time. And cabin attendants moonlighting as spies? They never heard a whisper of anything like that.

But weigh-ins were real. Aultman says if you put on too many pounds, you'd be told to work them off or risk suspension.

Pan Am was posh

Pan American was founded in 1927, carrying mail and passengers between Key West, Fla., and Havana. It grew to become the nation's unofficial flag carrier and was regarded as the luxury standard in aviation for decades.

By the 1960s, Pan Am stewardesses were in the top 10 percent of female wage earners. They had to be polished, educated and speak foreign languages. Landing a job at the airline was difficult - Pan Am was very selective.

Strong, a native Canadian, was one of 500 women who applied when Pan Am held interviews in Montreal. She and a half-dozen others were the only ones hired.

Uniforms projected image

Part of the airline's magic was its emphasis on branding and style. It was about image, and the uniform was a key part of the elegance Pan Am wanted to project.

Ane Crabtree, costume designer for ABC's "Pan Am," says the uniforms worn in the show are cut like the originals, but she altered the hue slightly from the airline's trademark "Tunis Blue."

At the end of the 1960s, the airline decided it was time to update the uniform and asked stewardesses for their input in a newsletter.

"In uniform styling, we want to get and stay ahead of the other airlines in the industry," it said, adding that it would be essential that a U.S. "name" designer be contracted.

"Our concept of the 'Pan Am girl' is a soft, feminine, elegant public image," the company said. "This is best achieved through a three-piece suit, maintaining a fashionable acceptance through the year."

Also essential: an A-line skirt, "flattering to any figure."

High-flying lifestyle

Aultman and Strong jetted around the globe, places like dreary Moscow, where a matron was stationed at the hotel elevator to keep flight crews from wandering the city at night, and to the then-glorious, cosmopolitan cities of Beirut and Tehran.

"When you needed new leather gloves, you went to Rome and got new gloves," Aultman says.

Men in Lisbon and Rome tended to be the most forward, Strong recalls. They learned what hotel rooms were reserved for stewardesses and would call up, inviting them out for dates.

Every layover started with "debriefing" - traditionally convened in the hotel bar.

Pan Am flew troops to Vietnam in the '60s under a government contract. Inbound flights were somber affairs. Return flights were giddy.

"We served them real milk, ice cream and steak," Strong says. "They loved it."

Strong once had a five-day layover in Tahiti at Christmas, which included a side trip to Bora Bora. She remembers children gathering at the island shore to await Santa, known locally as "Papa Noel." He arrived in an outrigger.

Winds of change

Pan Am eventually added jumbo jets to its fleet, beginning with Boeing's first 747 in 1970.

Aultman didn't like the big planes. Instead of a cabin crew of six or so, the jumbos could require 14 to 16. There wasn't time to get to know the passengers. You would herd them on and herd them off.

"You lost the intimacy of the 707 totally," Aultman says. "It was a huge change."

Rules were relaxed for flight attendants, too. You didn't have to be single anymore, and you could return to service after pregnancies.

"When I started, you'd sit on the jump seats and talk about boyfriends," says Aultman. "By the end, it was about babies and child care."

Pan Am struggled through the '80s and finally sputtered out of business Jan. 8, 1991. Aultman remembers hearing the news that morning while getting ready to drive her daughter's car pool.

"I was so sad," she says. "I went and got my wings, and I wore then all day."

Researcher Marion Paynter contributed.