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My truck bears all the marks of a land-based life form: Baling twine, mud, scratches where a horse amused himself scraping his teeth across the tailgate.

There was a time, however, when I spent my workdays above 30,000 feet, blond-haired and mini-skirted, serving meals and endless cups of coffee to planes full of military men.

Forty-four flights to the Far East in the late 1960s acquainted me thoroughly with the cabins of 707s and DC-8s, but I never had a desire to become a pilot.

I was, however, fascinated by navigation, which seemed much more interesting. I would occasionally deadhead (no passengers to tend), and one of our navigators showed me how to determine our position with LORAN. It was quite a thrill to be the (carefully overseen) navigator from Alaska to Japan. Fortunately, a Seaboard World plane got six minutes off course and was forced down in the Kuril Islands by the Russians, after which my tutor figured he’d better do the navigating from then on.

I say fortunately, because if I’d switched careers, I’d have been out of work when computers took away that job.

Despite the circumstances, it was a pretty peaceful job. Only one page of my log book shows anything out of the norm, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, it was an important date: It was a night landing in Bien Hoa, and I was bagging up extra fresh milk and cookies for the men on the base. Abruptly, the lights went out and a thunder of feet told of the unceremonious exit of our cockpit crew. We knew there were bunkers alongside the airfield, so the cabin crew went in search of them. I brought along the milk and cookies which were happily received when we found a bunker (the cockpit crew had taken refuge in a ditch!) and when we got the all-clear, we picked up our new passengers and flew back to Kadena AFB, Okinawa. The date was Feb. 18, 1968, and the Tet Offensive had begun.

I only worked for Flying Tigers for another year and a half, but I still enjoy flying. Light planes don’t appeal much, but when I joined the National Park Service I was assigned for a time to Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco. One of my duties was to patrol the area alongside Crissy Field, a former U.S. Army airfield, and one day a San Francisco police helicopter set down a little ways off. I jokingly stuck out my thumb in the time honored way of hitchhikers and to my delight, they waved me aboard.

It’s amazing what you can see from a helicopter. The pilot pointed out a car (not a suspect in anything -- just a car) and showed how you could read the plate from the air. Then we followed it as it winded its way through the city’s busy streets. Some years later I managed to hitch a ride on a Forest Service helicopter and flew over the area where the line crew I’d worked with the day before had toiled up a slope. It was faintly alarming to see that fire had burned over much of our work.

I’m not sure how effective my outstretched thumb would be in ordinary hitchhiking (and I’m just wise enough not to try to find out), but it has certainly been effective in other circumstances.

One day I noticed a hot air balloon basket in the back of a truck, and my outstretched thumb led to a flight over Deer Lodge the next day. We descended on the pasture where our cows and calves had gathered and they stood, wide-eyed until we just touched the ground, whereupon they bolted off in every possible direction, bellowing to beat the band.

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Not all my rides have been aloft: I thumbed a ride in the engine of a freight train between McMinnville and Willamette, Oregon, and the engineer even taught me the hand signals used to slough off cars.

My only other outstanding hitch was on a Coast Guard buoy tender out to the Farallon Islands, nearly 30 miles out the Golden Gate from San Francisco (the food onboard was great!).

In a flight of fancy, I once imagined hitching a ride on the Space Shuttle, but luckily, it retired, and my thumb has retired too.

Lyndel Meikle lives in the Deer Lodge area. 


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