March on Washington – a brush with history

“How’d you like to see some movie stars?” a retired Navy pilot asked me on a summer day in 1963, shortly before Martin Luther King’s March on Washington event. It was the summer before my senior year of college, and I was working for Operations at what was then Washington National Airport on the Potomac River in the District of Columbia.

I was the only female among six retired Navy and Air Force officers, all former pilots, and our offices were on the field level of the airport. Even though the men had done their twenty years in the service and were drawing their retirement pay, they were only in their forties. They had opted to keep working by getting a government job, which kept them in the same place for a change.

The fellows in Operations, who were all cocky and full of charm and humor, would make sure takeoffs and landings were going smoothly. They were in charge of monitoring aborted flight departures or problems with arrivals because of engine trouble or whatever else might go wrong and did. Potential mishaps, depending upon the severity, were labeled either “Standby at the station” if it was mild—as with a plane coming in with less than all engines operating—or “Standby on the field” if it looked more serious—faulty landing gear, for instance. These competent but seemingly relaxed men were privy to what was going on around the airport in general.

As a lowly clerk-typist, GS-3, I was responsible for answering phones and typing whatever documents needed typing—monthly reports of the flights in and out of the airport, for instance. Our oak-paneled offices were nicely appointed and were historic, having been used by Franklin D. Roosevelt during his long presidency, and on our wall there was a photo of him sitting in this office. I enjoyed the job because my flirtatious but well-mannered bosses were fun to work for; there was never a dull moment if they were around. I was their built-in audience and they let me in on their little jokes. One of the them, who resembled old-time movie actor Robert Taylor, would request that I bring him his coffee just like his women—“hot, dark and sweet.”  A former Navy pilot, whose crewcut was getting sparse on top, claimed his hair was guilty of mutiny—they were all deserting the ship.

I was only dimly aware of the growing civil rights movement, which was beginning to heat up at that time. I attended William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and we had no African-American students. Although integration within Virginia schools was mandatory, it had yet to become widespread.  In 1963 Viet Nam action consisted of American military “advisors” and was very much an unknown factor; it was August 1964 before the US began a substantial military build-up, which escalated into a war.

Washington National Airport was a hub of activity in those casual days before extensive security checks and terrorism. Getting on and off planes was easy; no one cared what a traveler had in his luggage. If my bosses, who seldom stayed around the office except to have coffee or tell me a joke, spotted anyone famous in the airport, they’d tell me, especially if there was time for me to go sneak a peek. Renowned Spanish painter, Salvador Dali, with his distinctive long curling mustache, was once spotted in time for me to look him over. One of my bosses was very excited when he caught sight of NBC  television news anchor Chet Huntley, who had probably flown on the Eastern Airlines Shuttle—their gate was close to our office. I enjoyed my peek at the handsome, bushy brown-haired Huntley, who was based in New York City; his co-anchor, David Brinkley reported from Washington. Their famous Huntley-Brinkley Report was a highly popular news program of that day and broadcast from 1956 to 1970, when Huntley retired.

None of these celebrities compared to the mix of stars who were coming for the March on Washington, a massive protest for jobs and civil rights headed by Dr. Martin Luther King and his supporters.  Since then I’ve learned much about that milestone and about King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. At that time, all I knew was that King’s celebrity supporters would all be gathering at the private aviation terminal, not far from the main terminal. My bosses didn’t know who would be there, but they’d be delighted to drive me and a friend to the Butler Aviation Terminal. We just had to act like we belonged there.

To be continued…

Summer clerk-typist Washington National Airport Operations Office

2 Comments

  1. Such a well written post.. Thnkx for sharing this post!

  2. Usually I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this article really forced me to do so! Thanks, really nice article.

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