Satin Sheets & Flying Down To RioSaturday, December 26, 2009
On December 1964 I flew from Mexico City to Buenos Aires via Panama and Rio de Janeiro. At the time there were few direct flights and if one booked carefully there were certain advantages to flying indirectly. For one it meant that I stayed overnight in Panama City in a luxury hotel, not far from the airport of Tocumen, courtesy of the airline (Pan American) which showed its appreciation for my having to adjust to the "discomfort" of indirectness. My memory is fuzzy but I do know that the bellboy who opened the door to my room, asked me if I wanted company for the night. He added that he could arrange for it. I declined. I was surprised to find that my sheets were light blue satin. It was the first and last time I ever slept between satin sheets.
The flight to Rio was in a most unusual jet plane. Few (only 37) had been built. It was a Brazilian Airlines Varig, Convair 990. Their claim to fame at the time was that they were faster (635MPH and according to my friend and airplane expert Sean Rossiter, the fastest subsonic airliner ever) than the then standard of the jet age, the Boeing 707. My 990 had four General Electric CJ805 turbojets that generated 16,500 lbs of thrust each which were the civilian versions of the J79 that powered the Lockheed F-104 and the McDonnell Douglas F4 Phantom.
I had carefully chosen a Varig flight that did not have immediate connections to Buenos Aires. This meant that VARIG paid for my night at the Hotel Gloria. It was this hotel that had been featured in that film (all I remembered was that number where beautiful girls danced on the top of a monoplane while holding cables attached to the wing) Flying Down to Rio with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and that most beautiful of actresses the Mexican Dolores del Río. The hotel had been at its apogee when Flying Down to Rio was made in 1933 it was a tad run down but still aware of its proud heritage. I was informed at the front desk that I was obliged to wear a suit and tie if I were going to dine at the hotel.
The dining room was a huge affair complete with a spiral staircase in one corner. I was the only patron. At any moment I imagined that Barbara Stanwyck might show up or that I was going to experience a dance duo, the Carioca, by Astaire and Rogers. That did not happen. A man in a full tuxedo came in and sat down at a grand, Steinway grand. He acknowledged my presence with a pursing of his lips and began to play flowery romantic piano sonatas. After my meal the also liveried waiter asked me if my meal had been to my satisfaction. I told him it had been. I didn't want to seem rude by pointing out that my Argentine compatriots would have said that the steak (it was tough) was "carne cansada" or tired meat which is the result of allowing cattle to roam at will for kilometers to get their food. Before leaving I went up to the piano player and asked him what a particular lugubrious piano piece had been. In perfect English he replied, “That was Mort! - Lamentation pour Piano by L.M. Gottschalk which the composer dedicated to his friend Monsieur Le Comte Gioannini."
The next morning at the airport there were only two passengers getting on the flight to Buenos Aires. I was one of them and the other was a burly middle-aged American. The Brazilian authorities told us we needed to have smallpox shot before we could get on the plane. We looked at each other as both of us had a document attached to our passports that attested to it. The burly man said he did not need a new vaccination and that this was duly recorded in his American passport. The Brazilian official told him that it was not considered an acceptable one as there was no legible date attached to the proof of inoculation. The American began to scream at the official, “We Americans have propped up your country with all type of aid and money. The least you can do is to show some appreciation and wave this.” It is my belief that the American arrived safely in Buenos Aires minus his smallpox inoculation but his luggage was probably sent to Montevideo. The Brazilian doctor, before he injected me with the vaccine, smiled at me and explained that the vaccine was not obligatory and that I had an option to pay and not get it. I decided that my best route was to indulge him so I bribed him. My luggage and I arrived at Buenos Aires.