I was actually born in April of 1948. But I dropped the four, converted it to a three. And that made me 26 years old. I walked around applying for the same type of work. People gave me a little more money, a few more hours.
But even then, it was very difficult to make ends meet. One of the few things I had taken when I left home was a checkbook. I had money from work in the summers. I had some money in that checking account. So every so often, I would write a check to supplement my income– $20, $25.
The funds were there. The checks were good. But it was my friends, my peers, who would constantly say to me, you know, you’re the only guy who walks into a bank in the middle of Manhattan. You have no account there. You don’t know a soul.
You talk to somebody behind the desk, and they OK your check. Oh, well, my checks are good. But if I walked in there, they wouldn’t touch my check. You walk in there, they don’t bat an eye. Years later, reporters would write and speculate and say that that was my upbringing– mannerisms, dress, appearance, speech.
Whatever it was, it was very easy to do. So consequently, when the money ran out, I kept writing those checks. Of course, the checks started to bounce. Police started looking for me as a runaway. So I thought maybe it was a good time to start thinking about leaving New York City.
But I was quite apprehensive about going to Chicago or Miami, wondered if they’d cash a New York check on a New York driver’s license in Miami as quickly as they did in Manhattan. I was walking up 42nd Street one afternoon about 5 o’clock in the evening, 16 years old, pondering all of these things, when I started to approach the front door of an old hotel that used to be there called the Commodore Hotel– now the Grand Hyatt.
Just as I was about to get to the front door of the hotel, out stepped an Eastern Airline flight crew onto the sidewalk. I couldn’t help but notice the captain, the copilot, the flight engineer, about three or four flight attendants dragging their bags to the curb to load them in the van to take them to the airport. As they loaded the van, I thought to myself, that’s it.
I could pose as a pilot. I could travel all over the world for free. I probably could get just about anybody anywhere to cash a check for me. So I walked up the street a little further to 42nd and Park I went to crossover.
I heard a huge helicopter. So I looked up, and there was New York Airways landing on the roof of the Pan Am building. Pan Am, the nation’s flag carrier, the airline that flew around the world– I thought, what a perfect airline to use.
So the next day, I placed a phone call to the executive corporate offices of Pan Am. I remember distinctly when the phone was ringing, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to say. When they answered, “Pan American Airlines. Good morning, can I help you?” Yes, ma’am I’d like to– I’d like to speak to somebody in the purchasing department. “Purchasing? One moment.” The clerk came on.
I said, yes, sir. Maybe you can help me. My name is John Black. I’m a copilot with a company based out of San Francisco. Been with the company about seven years, but never had anything like this come up before.
“What’s the problem?” Well, we flew a trip in here yesterday. We’re going out later today. Yesterday, I sent my uniform out through the hotel to have it dry cleaned. Now the hotel and the cleaners say they can’t find it. I’m with a flight in about four hours– new uniform.
“Don’t you have a spare uniform?” Certainly, back home in San Francisco. But I’d never get it here in time for my flight. Do you understand this will cost you the price of a uniform, not the company?” I understand. “Hold on. I’ll be right back.”
He came back and said, my supervisor says you need to go down to the Well-Built Uniform Company on Fifth Avenue. They’re our supplier. I’ll call them and let them know you’re on the way. Well, that’s exactly what I wanted to know. So I went down to the Well-Built Uniform Company.
Little fella, Mr Rosen fitted me out in the uniform, black aberdeen with three gold stripes on the arm. I certainly looked old enough to be the pilot. When he was all done, I said, how much do I owe you? “Well, the uniform’s $286” I said, no problem.
I’ll write you a check. “No, um, we can’t take any checks.” Oh, well, then I’ll just pay you cash. We can’t accept cash. You need to fill out this computer card. Then in these boxes, put your employee number. Then we bill this back under uniform allowance, comes out of your next Pan Em paycheck. Well, that’s even better. Go ahead and do that.
New York had two airports– LaGuardia and Kennedy. LaGuardia was 20 minutes from Manhattan, Kennedy was 50. Naturally, LaGuardia being the closer of the two, that’s where I went. I spent most of the morning walking around LaGuardia in the uniform, trying to figure out now that I had this uniform, how the hell do you get on these planes? I got a little hungry.
So about lunchtime, I walked in the luncheonette in the terminal, sat down at the counter on the stool and ordered a sandwich. Moments later, a TWA crew walked in. The flight attendants sat in the booth, but the pilots up at the counter on either side of me, and captain right next to me. Now back before deregulation of the airlines, airline people thought of themselves as just one big family. So they didn’t hesitate a moment to talk to each other. The captain kinda leaned over “Hey, young man. How’s Pan Am doing?” Doing just fine, captain.