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Air Chance

Café du PortAs a wedding gift, my parents gave Margie and me a honeymoon trip to the Club Med in Martinique (a French organization, short for "Club Méditerranée"). The Café du Port at the Club village Les Boucaniers (in English, "Buccaneer's Creek") is shown to the left, as it appeared in 1970. The photo is complete with a woman in a bikini top and a Tahitian "Pareo" (in French, pareu Tahitian), which both men and women wore at the Club (the Pareo, not the bikini top).

You can click on the photo if you want to get a better look, and click again to enlarge it, although the woman is a bit out of focus. Return here using your browser's "Back" button.

Our stay included the fourteenth of July (the French independence day, sometimes called "Bastille Day", although not by the French), on which there was a massive celebration. Perhaps someday I'll write an entry about those wonderful two weeks. Note 1 

But what I'll describe here is our return to New York at the end of the vacation, scheduled on an Air France group flight. In recent years, we've flown Air France to various destinations in Europe. We've always been a bit nervous about the short connection times they allow, often only 45 minutes to transfer from a trans-Atlantic to a European flight. But we've always made the connection. In fact, we learned how big an effort Air France would put into these connections when, in 2003, we arrived a bit late on a flight from Boston. An Air France representative, holding a sign reading "Madrid", loaded us into a van, drove us directly to the gate of our connecting flight, and arranged for us to bypass the security line.

Margie on the trip to the ClubHowever, in the late sixties, Air France had a reputation as being a bit erratic, and had earned the moniker "Air Chance". It was known that their pilots were allowed to have a small amount of wine with their lunches (a practice that has since been stopped), and they didn't have the greatest on-time record. The photo to the right shows Margie on the trip down on an Air France 707, on a Club Med group flight. In 1970, the Club Med used Air France, the French national airline, whenever possible.

Flying has never been Margie's favorite activity, but she is willing to get on an airplane when necessary. Nowadays, in the age of powerful pharmaceuticals, she's helped by a little bit of Xanax, but that was not available in 1970. Note 2

The day of our return, we were advised at breakfast that our return flight would be delayed due to a mechanical problem. I thought this was fine, giving us a little more time on the beach. But for Margie, any variation from normal just fed her anxiety. We were finally told to report for departure late in the morning, and 150 or so club guests appeared with their luggage in the Club's entrance area. In those days, pretty much all club vacations ran Saturday through Saturday, so the majority of the Club's guests were leaving. As we waited, a set of buses turned up with our replacements, the guests for the following week. And as we stood around and waited some more, it occurred to us that we had been told to vacate our rooms primarily to make room for these new arrivals. A departure time for our flight still had not been determined, but the Club needed to get us out of our rooms.

Eventually, the Club loaded us onto the buses and drove their problem to the airport. In 1970, the airport in Fort-de-France was not very big. It had one runway, one terminal, one gift shop, one bar, and one restaurant. What it didn't have was even one airplane, which was pretty obvious since you could see the entire empty airport from the terminal building. The uncertainty surrounding our departure was driving Margie a little bit nuts. It didn't help that the terminal building was not air-conditioned, and she was dressed warmly for the cold airplane cabin. And Margie doesn't take well to excessive heat.

Air France decided to feed us lunch, so they gave everyone a voucher for a free meal. The first people to receive these immediately dashed off to the only restaurant, where they quickly filled the small number of tables. The lone waitress sauntered up to a table (the locals know not to move too fast in the tropics), and handed over what seemed to be the restaurant's only two menus. It seemed that the staff was going to take orders from the waiting parties one table at a time.

Margie at the airportConsidering what appeared to be the impossibility of being served any food in the near future, a member of our party went up to the bar, showed his voucher, and asked if he could use it to buy a drink. The bartender replied in the affirmative, and served him a Planter's Punch. The man handed the voucher to the bartender, who simply looked at it, said "bon", but didn't take it. Coming out of the bar, the man told everyone within earshot that just showing the voucher would get you unlimited free drinks. Looking at the situation in the restaurant, quite a few people decided to drink their lunch instead of eating it. Pretty soon, there was quite a crowd at the bar. Margie is shown to the left in her toasty flying clothes, drinking along with the rest of us. But not too much - if we ever actually got on a plane, she would need all her concentration to keep it aloft.

But the non-natives were restless; people were hot and hungry. The passengers were almost all American (the plane was going to New York, after all), and Americans are an impatient and action-oriented lot, unconcerned with French decorum and civility. Since it seemed obvious that almost nobody would get fed at the rate things were going, the crowd took matters into their own hands. A large group stormed into the kitchen, waving off the objections of the manager.

Within minutes, they had set up a food production line. A couple of people at the grill started turning out omelets at a rapid rate. French bread and assorted cheeses were distributed. Rummaging through the freezers, they found small steaks and other items that could be prepared quickly. A crew of volunteers carried the resulting lunches out into the dining room, and distributed them among the tables, ignoring the orders being brought back by the waitress. When the manager tried to protest, they waved a bunch of vouchers at him. For the most part, the staff stood in the kitchen with their backs to the wall, horrified expressions on their faces. But in an hour or so, everyone had been fed.

While rummaging through the refrigerators, the impromptu lunch brigade came across bottles of champagne. These were pulled out along with everything else, the corks popped, and the drinks distributed among the diners. This added to the general ebullience and inebriation of the crowd, most of whom already had quite a few Planter's Punches under their belts.

At the conclusion of the lunch, all the vouchers were collected and handed over to the restaurant and the bar. In addition, realizing that we had probably eaten and drunk well beyond the value of the vouchers, a collection was taken up, and a substantial amount of cash was thrown in as well, along with a bottle of whiskey from the gift shop as a thank-you for the traumatized staff.

While all this was going on, occasionally an airplane would appear, literally out of the blue, and land on the runway. Each loud and impressive arrival (the runway ran right alongside the terminal) provoked raucous cheers from the progressively drunker and drunker crowd. However, none of the planes carried the insignia of "Air France". There were, after all, other flights coming and going at the airport, although not a very large number. The planes would come in, disgorge their passengers, reload, and take off again, leaving us where we had started.

Several hours after our lunch, it seemed that Air France had forgotten us, and we wondered if we were going to have to spend the night bedded down on the hard floor of the airport. Then, suddenly, there was a strange arrival - a pair of 727s landed in quick succession. They bore the name of some airline that was unfamiliar to us (and writing this almost 41 years later, I find myself unable to remember it).

But it turned out that those planes, finally, were for us. Apparently, Air France had given up on fixing our 707. They had therefore rented the 727s, complete with pilots and crew, from a charter airline. It was also sort of the Hertz Rent-A-Car of airlines, able to provide airplanes and crews on a moment's notice (no doubt for a hefty price, I imagine). Because our Air France plane, the one with mechanical problems, was a 707, it took two 727s to have the capacity to replace it.

Each of the planes was assigned a flight number, and we were all handed boarding passes for one of the flights, apparently at random. The scene as we boarded was rather chaotic. Margie was fuming. "These people are crazy," she said, "nobody knows what they're doing." I tried to calm her down, noting that the people handling the boarding were not the pilots. I assured her that the people flying the plane were no doubt experienced pilots who were well in control of the situation.

Once on the plane, we sat around a bit longer, apparently waiting for our dinners to be loaded. One of the stewardesses later said that the flight crew had had difficulty communicating, because they didn't speak French, and the ground crew in the airport didn't speak English. I suggested that she would have done well to get help from some of the passengers, since this was a group from Club Med, and probably half the passengers were bilingual. Of course, perhaps the crew had decided that given the general level of intoxication of the passengers, the less they interacted with them the better.

Now that we were on board, our group was in generally good spirits, largely due to the quantity of good spirits they had imbibed. Thus, instead of quietly taking their places, they were socializing and whooping it up in the aisles. The stewardesses were having trouble getting everybody seated, and the plane couldn't move until everyone was strapped in. When they got one person seated, somebody else would pop up. Margie, meanwhile, was rather upset, since everybody was drunk. I again pointed out to her that the pilots were most certainly not drunk. At least, I hoped not. After all, this was NOT Air France. Note 3

Perhaps this was an early indication of Margie's mental superstition that it takes the willpower of a large group of sober and concentrating passengers to hold an airplane up in the air (see my entry, "Roots and wings" for more on this). Of course, she doesn't really believe this intellectually. On the other hand, what else could keep these things in the air? Even the smallest version of a 727 weighs over 77,000 kg (170,000 pounds).

The flight crew eventually managed to get all the passengers seated. When they made the usual announcements, we heard something like, "Welcome to flight 346 ... or maybe it's 347 ... well anyway, we're going to New York." After all the confusion of the airport and the boarding, the flight back was relatively uneventful.

The only problem was with dinner, as following their communication difficulties with the ground crew, they had apparently loaded fewer dinners onto the plane than there were passengers. Perhaps the other flight had an excess of dinners, I don't know. But this was not serious, as the passengers were mostly friends from the Club. We collected bread and cheese and any un-eaten items from dinners throughout the plane, and created ample meals for the people in the back who had not been served.

The honeymoon was over.

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#0078   *FAMILY2

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© 2011 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted April 28, 2011, and updated July 14, 2011

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Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   When I initially wrote it, that sentence read, "Perhaps someday I'll write an entry about those wonderful two weeks, although we didn't actually come out of our room." To which this footnote added, "Just a joke." To which Margie said, "Nobody will get it."

You see, kiddies, back in our day, couples were not supposed to have sex before they were married, so there were a lot of jokes about couples on their honeymoon hardly ever emerging from their rooms. Nowadays, Margie thinks nobody will even get the joke. Here's a cartoon from that era. I also once heard a reference to a "Honeymoon salad" - lettuce alone, and no dressing. Of course, we were married in 1970, towards the end of what was called the "Sexual Revolution". So really, such jokes were already passé.

July 14, 2011 update: My blog Entry #0089, Allons enfants de la patrie ... describes one day of our honeymoon - the festivities of the Fourteenth of July, a French national holiday commemorating the fall of the Bastille prison, and the start of the French revolution.   [return to text]

Note 2:   Xanax® (Alprazolam) is a mild tranquilizer made by Pfizer.   [return to text]

Note 3:   Within the past five years, there have been a number of incidents in which airline pilots have been stopped when about to fly drunk. In fairness, I should report that none of these involved Air France.   [return to text]

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