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A Half-Decade Saving Up Frequent-Flier Miles, Stories

A "water-cannon salute," usually reserved for a retiring captain or officer, greets the arrival of Nash's plane. (James M. Thresher - The Washington Post)
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 8, 2007

If commercial air travel seems like a bare-bones affair these days, consider the beverage options Manassas resident Bette Nash offered passengers when she began her career as a flight attendant, n¿e stewardess, with now-defunct Eastern Airlines.

"Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or bouillon?" she would ask.

The bouillon came in two flavors: chicken or beef. The year was 1957. And Nash was a radiant 21-year-old who wore long white gloves and a blue pillbox hat and thought nothing of a Washington-to-Miami flight with nine stops in between.

"I couldn't tell you how happy I was," she recalled.

Fifty years later, Nash is still flying full time, making her one of the longest-serving flight attendants in the country. In a ceremony at Reagan National Airport last week, Nash's current employer, US Airways, honored her with a party, a golden anniversary pin and a rare "water-cannon salute." As her flight from New York's La Guardia International Airport pulled up to a gate, a pair of firetrucks sent streams of water over the aircraft -- a ritual usually reserved for a retiring captain or officer.

Then again, US Airways has never had a flight attendant with 50 years of service, said company spokeswoman Michelle Mohr. And Nash, spry and radiant at 71, has no plans to retire.

"It's a long and distinguished career," Mohr said, "and we hope she sticks around for several more years."

Modern air travel isn't without its glitches, of course, even for an honoree. The flight from Indianapolis that Nash was planning to take to her party at National was canceled -- without explanation -- so she flew to New York City and then caught the next flight to Washington.

As the aircraft taxied, the plane's captain broke the news about Nash's 50-year career and warned the passengers about the water cannons, lest they think the plane was on fire. They gave Nash an ovation.

More applause erupted when Nash walked down the jetway into the terminal. A tuxedo-clad co-worker led her on a trail of rose petals to the employee lounge, where a jazz band of all-US Airways workers played "Fly Bette Fly" to the tune of "Ride Sally Ride."

Co-workers from every stage of Nash's career were there, with gifts and plenty of wild stories about a bygone era of air travel. A strict social code ruled the skies when Nash started: Stewardesses weren't allowed to marry or have children. The rule led to every manner of furtive trysts and secret romances, she recalled.

"We were trained to be on time, look your best and carry yourself as if you represented the company at all times," said Kaci Jones, a Montclair resident who worked with Nash for decades, as she shared stories about having her flight hijacked to Cuba (she stocked up on duty-free rum), or the time she calmly escorted a drunk man back to his seat after he pulled out a knife to demand more booze.

For Nash, too, life as a flight attendant has been defined by long friendships with co-workers and punctuated by terrifying close calls, such as the time she and Jones were on a flight with such fearsome turbulence that the toilet separated from the floor.

Much has changed since Nash started flying. Almost everything is different now, Nash said. The changes are too many to count. "The technology is the biggest," she said. "But the passengers are the same. Except for their outfits."

According to the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the profession's largest union, Nash is the third-most senior of its 55,000 members.

There are two reasons Nash hasn't retired. Her 33-year-old son, Christian, was born with Down syndrome, and the steady income helps her as a single mom. But Nash said the main reason she's still working is that she's simply not ready to let go.

"My job is my social life," she said. "I'm addicted to the lifestyle."

Through it all, Nash still practices the little things she learned long ago in flight attendant school in Miami, such as making an effort to engage each passenger with a passing compliment ("nice tie") and affectionate small talk. "Everybody wants a little love," she said. "They just want to be cared for."

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