They didn't want to talk about being stewardesses. They wanted to talk about the Kiwis.

The Kiwi is a New Zealand bird that cannot fly. It is also the club for retired American Airlines flight attendants.

But you'll never understand the Kiwis unless you understand something about stewardnesses, especially the ones who flew when flying was an adventure. a

The first girls -- their word, not mine -- had to be registered nurses. They had to be under 32, no taller than 5 feet 4, not let their hair grow below the collar, and be pretty, trim, wholesome and white.

They also had to wear girdles.

"I had a 19-inch waist and I still had to wear a girdle," said Patti Low of McLean, here for the 14th national Kiwi convention. The Kiwis were founded in 1951 after banding together informally during the '30s, and today there are 2,200 of them.

The girdle, said Martha Bernard, of Reno, Nev., who flew in 1936 and went back on duty for the Army airlift in the Korean war, was because the girdle area is at passenger eye level during the flight and needs to be steady. gBernard was the first stewardess accepted over 5-4. She was a giant of nearly 5-5 then, and the extra height was handy on the sleeper planes. Many girls couldn't reach the Pullman-type bunks to pull them down.

"We were a disciplined group," she said, "being nurses. We knew how to deal with people. We also had to memorize all the passenger names."

In those white-knuckle days flying was a fairly intimate experience. The first planes had 10 passengers. The DC2 had room for 14. And when the DC3 came along with all of 21 seats, the pilots would slap their foreheads and groan, "My God, we got an Elks convention aboard."

It cot $14.74 to fly from Washington to Roanoke then. The average stewardness tour was 18 months -- they got married, usually.

But they never forgot who they were -- an elite among working women in the days before the feminist movement: women valued for their leadership qualities. That's why they kept in touch after they got out. That's why the club.

"World War II changed everything," said Gretchen Meadows of Vienna, Va. "The nurses were called up, so the airlines hired college girls and others. They had to teach them from scratch."

Instead of two weeks, the course given at home base in Dallas now lasted six weeks and included first aid (delivering babies, pulling bones from throats), emergency procedure, passenger psychology (drunks, shouters and other creeps), grooming and bartending.

"I could evacuate a plane in two minutes," said Meadows. "I still could, I bet."

Once Low was staying at a Palm Springs hotel with her husband, years after leaving the airline, and fire broke out in the room. Instinctively, she plugged the door cracks and went through the fire-containing drill, cool as a jar of face cream.

"It's the confidence," said Meadows. "It's that training. You're so sure of yourself that you stay calm. And the passengers pick it up from you."

Not many have had an emergency in their careers, but Meadows did have a false alarm caused by some tire spotted on the runway when they took off from Los Angles. She got everyone crouched down over pillows, gripping knees, glasses removed . . . and then word came that it was someone else's tire tread.

"You had to have a level head, and you had to be neat," she said. "All the time, very neat. They would check up on you."

Before going aboard, a girl would study the big mirror in the crew lounge: nails? stocking seams? smile? Kay Hansen of New York remembers being waked up by a phone call from a colleague about to take off. The girl had a run in her stocking. Hansen rushed a new pair out to her by truck.

"We were so dedicated," she said.

They were so dedicated they took diuretics to keep within the weight limits.

And something else: They resent the snickering about "laptime." They are furious about the book called "Coffee, Tea or Me," ghosted, they say, by a man and a somewhat pathetic male fantasy at that.

"You hear that kind of talk about women in any kind of job, in the hospital, in the office," said Meadows. "As though anyone had time in a flight . . ."

Some of the older Kiwis, the nurse ones, don't seem to think all that much of today's standards, but they won't talk about it. Sticking to their airlines training in public relations, they wouldn't admit there are any problems these days, not on American anyway. They scoffed at reports of growing violence among the crowded passengers on the wide-body flights.

You get a sense of espirit de corps. Nearly all Kiwis have careers. Bright and ambitious, traveled, accustomed to meeting the public, eminently presentable, they are in such demand that industry constantly approaches the 64 club chapters for likely people. Many go into real estate and banking.

The Kiwis are far more than a job, depot, however. They are great in emergencies, as you would imagine. If a member is in trouble, needs a home, has cancer, whatever, they rally around. Many members married pilots, and the ex-pilots have a Gray Eagles group with which the Kiwis keep in touch.

Highlight of the convention, which ends Sunday, is always the skit competition, a no-men-allowed affair. In fact, husbands don't even get to come to the convention. So what if Kiwis can't fly. They have lots of fun.