She survived World War II ravages in Germany and found employment as an office worker in Berlin after the War. Tall and attractive, with brown hair and eyes, she was a dedicated worker struggling to rebuild a shattered life. Then Pan American Airways came recruiting, and Kristina began a new life as a stewardess.
Based in New York after her training, she flew throughout Europe and other eastern parts of the world before transferring to San Francisco, where I met Kristina. I found her amiable and good-natured, a person of quiet dignity with a keen sense of humor and a ready smile, but I noticed that it was just a soft chuckle when she laughed. I never heard her let loose with a knee-slapping, good belly laugh.
She bought her first car after moving to California, and it took a while to learn some of the driving rules. One evening, still in uniform after a long flight, she headed home on San Francisco’s Bayshore Freeway. Glancing up, she noticed a vehicle with flashing red lights following her. Other cars were racing past her, and she mistook the flashing lights as a request to speed up, which she did. The lights remained close behind. So she sped up again but couldn’t lose her pursuer. Then she heard a siren and a voice ordering her to pull over and stop. Kristina obeyed.
“Where are you going?” asked the police officer as he examined her license.
“Home,” she said. “I just got off work.”
He was all business. “What’s the hurry?”
“I thought you wanted me to speed up because I was driving too slow.”
“No. I wanted you to stop. Your tail light is out,” the officer said. Kristina noticed the officer was trying not to smile.
He examined her license a few more moments. “Okay,” he said. “But, consider this a warning. You need to pull over and stop when you see a car with flashing red lights behind you.”
Breathing a sigh of relief, she thanked the officer and drove home, keeping up with the traffic.
Kristina was older than me, but she was my ideal crewmate, and we became good friends. Neither of us was an avid shopper or partygoer during layovers, preferring to find different adventures whenever our flight schedules matched. She was a recent vegetarian and always hungry. Her Pan Am navigator fiancé, on the other hand, liked his steaks barely dead. Theirs would not be a marriage made in heaven.
But, I digress.
Honolulu was the jumping-off point for destinations east and south, including the Philippine Islands and Singapore, and a routine layover point unless Kristina was on the crew. During one layover, we took an early morning flight to the Big Island of Hawaii, rented a jeep, and drove out to see the destruction of its reawakened volcano. We stood on newly hardened black lava flows, awe-struck at the red-hot lava continuing to explode skyward. Gazing upon the remains of a half-buried village left in its wake, we wondered about the people who could no longer call the destroyed land home. How had they escaped? Where had they gone? We could only speculate.
To temper the realization of how helpless humans are in the path of nature's fury, we detoured to Black Sands Beach, a shoreline formed of ancient decomposed eruptions. We located some fallen coconuts, broke the shells with tools found in our rented jeep, and liberated their milky sweetness.
Back at our Waikiki hotel, we watched the ceremonial burying of the luau pigs and called it a day; we needed our rest for an early morning departure and the next day’s long flight east.
We spent part of one day during a Singapore layover visiting an Indian astrologer. After consulting his books and charts, he foretold our lives in uncanny detail. How could he know my boyfriend was a businessman and Kristina’s fiancé was not a vegetarian? How could his books and graphs so accurately describe our aspirations and goals? We were semi-converted star chart believers when we left to explore Johor, a state in the neighboring country of Malaysia. Returning to the hotel, heat fatigued and footsore after a long day, we found a message slipped under our room door.
“We are two British Royal Navy midshipmen inviting you out to dinner this evening. Let the front desk know when you get in, and we will come to pick you up.”
We decided to ignore the invitation and, shoes off and feet up, settled back to relax. An insistent knocking at the door brought Kristina out of her chair to see who dared disturb our moment of respite. It was the midshipmen extending their invitation in person.
“Thank you very much,” Kristina told them, “but we’ve been out all day, and we’re tired.”
“Come on,” they urged. “It will be fun. We promise.”
“We’re just going to call it a day,” she said, shutting the door. She sighed and returned to her feet up position.
“We’re not leaving until you change your minds,” they called from the hallway. “We’ll just wait out here while you get ready.”
Thinking they would give up and go away, we ignored them.
Several minutes later, we heard, “Are you ready yet?”
Kristina thanked them through the door, again declining.
More time passed, and then we heard, “We’re still out here. Waiting.”
“They aren’t going away,” Kristina said. “We might as well give up.” So, with renewed energy after our brief rest, she opened the door.
“Okay,” she said. “We were going out for dinner later, anyway.”
“Great!” Two civilian-clad midshipmen looked pleased with their delayed success.
As we walked the Singapore streets on our way to the restaurant, one plebe regaled us with how he was an aspiring writer destined for discovery as the next Hemingway. Whenever passing any reflective surface, the other stopped to inspect himself, smoothing his hair, straightening his collar, checking his teeth, or just admiring his image. Peeking sideways at me, Kristina tried to hide her smile at the pair’s unfettered pomposity.
The midshipmen ordered hearty meals of beef, and I chose the local fare as recommended by the waiter. To the surprise of our new British friends, Kristina stuck to her fruits and vegetables, with a little cheese and a boiled egg thrown in for good measure. They seemed to think that dinner without a big helping of meat was not a meal. But, overall, it was a pleasant evening, even a bit amusing at times, and we were happy with our decision to accompany two strangers out for a night on the town of Singapore.
Some layovers were typical tourist undertakings. On a polar trip to London, we had a layover in Montreal. We toured the city, viewed the St. Lawrence Seaway, attended a powwow on the Mohawk Reservation, and visited Mount Royal in a horse-drawn carriage, just like ordinary tourists would do.
The return flight was more interesting as we headed back to Montreal. After we finished the tourist meal service, the cabin attendants drifted back to the rear galley, and the conversation turned to Kristina’s pre-Pan Am life.
“What was it like living in Germany during the War?” one asked.
“What do you think?” she said. “It was War! Everything was bombed into oblivion. I couldn’t even prove I was German when it ended.” She didn’t comment on how the damage she had seen from a reawakened volcano paled compared to what humankind can inflict upon itself. She didn’t tell them the War had claimed her husband, and she didn’t reveal that the bombings which destroyed her official documents had also taken the life of her infant son.
“How could you get this job without documentation?”
“My family had some photos and records, and some teachers remembered me. I wasn’t the only one who needed to be recreated. Sometimes they just believed us.”
“Did you ever kill anyone?”
“Really?” they chorused, stunned at the idea of being in the presence of a killer.
“Of course,” Kristina affirmed. “It was war.”
“How?” gasped one horrified stewardess.
In a wordless demonstration, Kristina assumed a weapon-holding position and rotated an imaginary rifle from side to side, complete with ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ sound effects. As four jaws dropped, she quickly changed the subject.
During a Manila layover, we rafted upriver to Pagsanjan Falls. The water was low, and our guides had to muscle the heavy wooden canoe over exposed rocks in the shallower parts of the river while we sat not so comfortable as they paddled us forward over smoother sections of the water. We watched natives husking coconuts by hand, preparing them for market. Kristina spied a woman concealed by a wall of palm fronds as she washed clothes in the river. At the end of the upstream ride, we swam in a pool dug by falling water and explored the cave behind the waterfall before canoeing back down the rapids. Downstream was a rip-roaring ride and a much easier trip for our native guides.
We rocked back to Manila on a crowded local bus, the only Caucasians on board, and surrounded by an assortment of chickens, animals, and market goods. A local man engaged us in conversation as the bus chugged along.
“See the dogs over there?” he said in heavily accented English, nodding his head towards a sizeable open-weave basket. Two mongrel dogs huddled inside.
“Yes, why are they kept like that?”
“To sell in market for food.”
“They’re going to eat them?” Kristina asked.
“Yes. And that man,” he said, nodding again in the direction of his subject. “He sells his baluts in market.”
“Yes, baluts,” he said. Seeing Kristina’s questioning look, he added, “Baby ducks. Cooked in shell. You want try?”
We passed; that was too much adventure for either of us.
On another Manila layover, we flew to Baguio, the Philippine mountain summer capital. We checked into the Baguio Hotel, planning to do some serious touring of indigenous villages the next day. But, a rowdy party in the room next to ours raged through the night, making sleep impossible. To no avail, we called the front desk twice, begging for noise relief.
By 2:00 AM, Kristina had reached her limit and phoned the front desk for the third time. In a strong German accent and with great authority, she declared, “If the noise doesn’t stop immediately, I am going to blow this place to bits!”
I cringed, knowing the Philippine police would show up momentarily and haul us off to jail for threatening a terrorist act. The ensuing scandal would get us fired. But it worked. No police showed up at our door, and the next day we visited the local hot springs, a woodcarving village, and the indigenous markets.
It was always good to see Kristina’s name on the crew list because I knew it meant a new adventure waited just over the horizon. My hungry vegetarian friend with the steak-loving fiancé was still embracing life’s fleeting moments in her most optimistic way when I left the airline. Many years have passed since then, but I always fondly remember Kristina and our many escapades in recalling my Pan Am days. I hope she never gives up on meeting life on her terms.