by Rodger Schlickeisen
Imagine my good luck. First time in London. First time in Europe. And while sight-seeing at Buckingham Palace, I’d met Araceli, a pretty Spanish girl. We were both waiting to see the changing of the guard.
Also, she and her girlfriend, Maria, were attracted to us—to me and Kerry, a fellow lieutenant in Army Intelligence—and after fifteen or twenty minutes of pleasantries, they happily agreed to be tourists-for-the-day with us. And later just as happily accepted our invitation for what was a very enjoyable, albeit early dinner—early because they had to catch an evening flight from Heathrow to Madrid.
You see, they were Iberia Airlines stewardesses who were simply cramming in as many sights as possible before helping crew Iberia’s regular outbound from Heathrow to Madrid that night.
It was September 1966, and Kerry and I were recently graduated, first from the Infantry Officer Platoon Leaders Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, and second, just several weeks before setting foot in London, from the Army Intelligence School at Fort Holabird, Maryland. Upon graduation from Holabird, we’d expected to immediately take up our assignment with the Defense Intelligence Agency at Arlington Hall Station in northern Virginia. However, after being told it would be two weeks before the required security clearances came through, we decided to take advantage of one of most underappreciated benefits of active duty, the right to catch free hops on military aircraft. And with military flights to Europe easily obtainable, we quickly decided that was good place to spend two weeks’ leave.
We managed to find our way to Charleston Air Force Base, and to score standby seats on an Air Force 707 doing a regular “embassy run.” It took us to Torrejon Air Base outside of Madrid, where our good fortune continued, as we soon had another hop to Munich. Thus, barely twenty-four hours after leaving Virginia, we were in a rollicking Hofbrau house helping the Germans celebrate Oktoberfest! Magic.
There followed a number of spur-of-the-moment decisions that took us by train to Rome, Zurich, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, London (and Buckingham Palace), Paris and finally Madrid. Two days after that, at nearby Torrejon, we again found a free hop, this time to McGuire Air Force Base, before finally working our way to Arlington Hall Station.
Home again in the US, I had no question that the highlight of my first trip to Europe was London. This because of meeting Araceli, with whom I’d managed to be informally paired for the afternoon and evening. Kerry and Maria were the tallest among us, something that may have put a finger on the scale in my favor during the pairing off.
In my favor, I say, because Kerry was not particularly smitten with Maria, whom—days later, after we had visited the Prado—he described as having pronounced “El Greco features.” While Kerry enjoyed El Greco’s paintings, his comment wasn’t to be confused with a compliment.
Because Araceli and I had exchanged mail addresses, once back in the US, I quickly wrote to her, and was thrilled when she quickly replied. Future letters flowed in a continuous stream, and over the months we became better and better acquainted. Notwithstanding geographic and cultural hurdles, we wrote our way into a distant intimacy that allowed us to move from sharing boring surface thoughts, to trusting each other with deeper insights about ourselves. From this distance, I don’t remember most of what we said, and the letters have long ago disappeared. But for my part, I recall noting how uncertain I was about what to do with my life after the Army. She was much more candid.
Indelibly inked in my memory is her almost sad description of how, whenever she flew, she experienced near-constant fear that the plane would crash. She even offered that she believed she would die that way.
This revelation of a kind of dark side to Araceli puzzled and even troubled me a bit, as it seemed so out of character with the person I’d come to know. But I decided to view it as aberration, and I remember consciously choosing to not discuss it in our correspondence. Although I’m uncertain why I made that choice, I now feel it was likely due to fear that discussing it might elevate obviously troubling thoughts.
In any event, after growing steadily closer for nearly a year, we began planning how and when we could meet again.
Because her job with Iberia provided her the opportunity to exchange flights with other stewardesses, and thus an ability to easily string together three to five days’ “holiday” in a row, we focused on my schedule. And on when and where we’d meet and go.
After reviewing my leave situation, I recommended early November—and offered that I’d heard great things about Majorca.
I then nervously waited for her response. Maybe suggesting such a romantic getaway was pushing things.
But she replied that going to Majorca together was a wonderful idea. She’d visited the island and knew people there. We’d have a great time!
We quickly agreed that I’d fly to Madrid where she’d join me on November sixth at a small hotel we’d selected. Then we’d head for Majorca. She’d make advance arrangements.
After scheduling a week’s leave, I promptly introduced myself to Arlington Hall’s “language lab” facility. Araceli spoke English extremely well, but I felt it would be respectful to learn a little of her native language. Truth is, I also figured that by learning some Spanish I might further ingratiate myself with her.
Thus, for close to two months, whenever I could spare the time, I checked out the “Beginning Spanish” tapes and sequestered myself in one of the lab’s sound-proof rooms where I could practice my version of the Spanish phrases I felt it most likely I’d have opportunity to use. So—
“Soy de Estados Unidos.” “Estoy en el ejército (army).”
“Estoy de vacaciones.”
“El menú, por favor.”
“Quiero tocino y huevos … y un café grande leche, por favor.” ‘
“¿Donde esta el baño, porfavor?”
“La cuenta, por favor.” (The “por favors” colored almost everything, as I figured they’d encourage the objects of my entreaties to help.)
“Una habitación para dos, por favor.”
Early on November fourth, the anxiously but eagerly awaited day of departure, I headed for Dover Air Force Base—and immediately entered what was essentially a travel bubble. Now, with TV screens everywhere, and one’s cell phone always at hand, most travelers are rarely out of touch with the rest of the world. But in 1967, my travel world was limited to my immediate surroundings and what was happening then and there. And snacking. And reading whatever I’d brought along. Which of course included a guidebook on Majorca. Plus my “Traveler’s Guide to Spanish” booklet that should help me once we landed. “¿Dónde está el tren a Madrid, por favor?”
My flight to Europe was one of the then dwindling few made to Orly Air Base outside of Paris. At De Gaulle’s request, the USAF had that year turned Orly over to the French, accepting a reduced presence for its own continuing operations. But that smaller presence still served my purpose, and after I arrived Orly the morning of the fifth, I headed immediately for the train station (“¿Dónde está …?”).
Although I know it doesn’t matter, it seems strange that while I easily remember so much else of this trip, I don’t remember the name of my Madrid hotel. Maybe it’s because Madrid has scores, if not hundreds, just like it. But I see it in my mind. A small lobby with a front desk, two chairs flanking a mirror and small hallway table, and a middle-aged desk clerk whom you’d guess had been a fixture there for years. A guy weary of non-Spanish-speaking tourists with questions only partially decipherable but whose meaning he could guess because of their predictability. Do you exchange money? Where can I exchange money? Will you take a check? How do I get to the Prado? A good, inexpensive place to eat? Et cetera. All of which resulted in him being, perhaps understandably, more than a little brusque.
After I’d checked in, I requested a recommendation for a nearby café, had dinner, managed both to ask for and pay “la cuenta,” and secured a small bag of fruit and bread that should satisfy my hunger next morning until Araceli arrived and we could lunch together.
Back in the hotel room, a jumble of questions crossed my mind, competing unsuccessfully for answers until I fell asleep. Would she be as attractive and appealing as I remembered? What lies ahead in Majorca, the planning for which I’d contributed nothing? What if this leads to real romance? If it does, how’s that conducted across an ocean?
Even the insanely premature. How could we deal with her probably traditional, Catholic parents, very likely to be opposed to a daughter’s romance with an agnostic American serviceman? One, two, three strikes—all in one question.
The next morning came early due to the change in time zones. But pulling the covers over my head proved fruitless. I was eager, uncertain and nervous, all at once. After all, it’d been more than a year since we’d met, and we’d only been together for maybe six hours.
I showered, dressed, repacked my suitcase so we could leave quickly after Araceli arrived, and, to kill time, snacked on my doggy-bag items and worked on Spanish. I anticipated checkout: “La cuenta, por favor.” And better try to conserve cash by using traveler’s checks: “¿Usted acepta cheques de American Express?”
As it neared noon, when Araceli was to arrive, I went to the lobby and claimed one of its chairs.
Twelve o’clock came. Then a quarter after. Thirty minutes after. I grew more anxious. By about one o’clock, I felt I should do something. But what? Araceli and I had no backup plan.
Somewhere in my bag I had her Madrid address, but taking a taxi to her home seemed foolish. What if she’d just changed her mind? Was I going to try to persuade her to change it back? Worse, I didn’t know whether the address might be that of her parents…if so, what would I say to them? Did they even know about me? If they were as socially conservative as I assumed, Araceli may have told them she was planning holiday in Majorca with a girlfriend.
Better first to try a long shot: Ask the hotel clerk to call Iberia’s Madrid office, where someone might be persuaded to contact her for me.
Communicating that to the desk clerk was a challenge. Clearly my “Tourist’s Guide to Spanish” couldn’t anticipate this circumstance.
I wrote down Araceli’s name, and Iberian Airlines. And stumbled through explaining that she was my “amiga” who worked for Iberian Airlines (“Ella trabaja para Iberia Airlines”), and that we were to meet “aqui” (a quick point down) at noon (another to my wristwatch’s 12). Could he phone (pointing to him and then the instrument) Iberia, and ask them to tell her I’m at the hotel (a finger pointing to me, and then down to where I was standing)?
Maybe it was the novelty of the questions. But for whatever reason, the normally dour desk clerk responded very positively. He picked up the phone, obtained Iberia’s number, and called.
I knew this was beyond futile. Iberia was a big company, with lots and lots of stewardesses. And besides, the Madrid central office, even if it were possible, wasn’t likely to rummage through its personnel files to find contact information for one stewardess whom a stranger was trying to reach.
But to my surprise, the office didn’t tell my clerk-turned-Samaritan to buzz off. Instead, after asking him a couple of questions, in response to which I could tell he was describing me and my circumstance, they put him on hold for several minutes. He looked at me, puzzled, and gave the universal I’ve-no-idea-what’s-going-on shrug with accompanying arching of the eyebrows.
Then he was back to listening on the line. Listening intently. With frequent glances at me. A request to repeat something: “¿Que?” Then: “Gracias.” And he hung up.
He again looked at me. Paused for a moment. And said, simply, “Ella está muerta.”
Even with my extremely limited Spanish, I knew “muerta”.
But I was so surprised by something so unexpected and so out of place, that my brain balked at making the normal, instantaneous progression from technical recognition of a word to actual comprehension of its meaning. I’m sure my face was totally blank.
It was probably no more than two or three seconds before the clerk, deciding I needed help, slowly repeated the words, enunciating each very clearly. “Ella. Esta. Muerta.”
This while simultaneously, and with a precise and emphatic motion, drawing his right index finger across his throat.
Neither the repetition nor the gesture was necessary. My brain had caught up. I fully understood.
Slowly and stumblingly I asked for more information. I couldn’t find the right Spanish words, but he guessed.
“London,” he said, adding, with his fingers gesturing over his shoulder to indicate something behind or earlier, “hace dos dias.”
And finally, a very graphic hand portrayal of the plane sweeping rapidly and decisively downward at an angle that left no question as to destination or fate.
Araceli’s dark premonition had been spot-on.
“4 November 1967. Iberia Airlines Flight 062 from Malaga Airport to London Heathrow Airport. Took off at 7:30 p.m. Crashed 10:02 pm in heavy fog 48 km southwest of Heathrow on Blackdown Hill. No survivors among 30 passengers and 7 crew. No reason could be established for the continued descent.” (Aviation Safety Network)
My remaining time in Madrid is a bit of a blur.
I booked my room for another night. Unpacked a few necessities. Considered finding someone appropriate to whom to express condolences. Concluded that even if I could figure out how to do that, it would be awkward at best—and perhaps unwelcome.
The next morning I put on my uniform and headed for Torrejon to catch a flight home.
Rodger Schlickeisen served on active duty in Army Military Intelligence from 1966 to 1968. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, not far from where he served at Arlington Hall Station.