JFK's Lost Suitcase
It was 1960. I worked as an American Airlines ticket and ramp agent at New York's LaGuardia Airport. It was a time of DC 3s and 6s, Convairs and later the Lockheed Electra turboprops - which began to fall out of the sky at around that time because of torque pressure on the wings.
We did everything. Nowadays you buy your ticket on the internet or from a travel agent. Then you were more likely to have bought it from us at the airport. That means that we didn't only give you a boarding pass and sling your bag onto a belt, but we also issued your ticket by hand, which made us tariff experts as well. And fares were complicated those days – there were “open jaw” constructions, which meant that you could travel from A to B but return from C to A (the open jaw being from B to C) and still get the round-trip discount, by calculating one-half the round trip fares A-B and C-A. There were also “triangular” fares – A to B to C to A, for example: New York-Paris-Buenos Aires-New York.
And just think: no computers. Can you imagine life without computers? Maybe it wasn't as efficient, but it was certainly more people-oriented. We had hundreds of so-called reservation agents, mostly female, in the NY city office; country-wide thousands. When the computers arrived, they went. “Unemployment is here to stay.” Truer words were never spoken.
LaGuardia Airport was basically an extended quonset hut and the airplanes came right up to our backs at the ticket counter making an infernal racket, especially the turboprops. Just as there were no seatbelts in cars, and everyone smoked, there was no ear protection gear and now we all suffer from greater or lesser degrees of deafness.
But I want to tell you about one of our frequent fliers (although the term didn't yet exist). His initials were JFK, but no one called him that yet. To fly from Boston to Washington, you had to connect in New York, so we saw Senator Kennedy often. American Airlines had a primitive VIP lounge where a so-called Passenger Service Manager reigned, when he wasn't calming passengers bumped from oversold flights. When JFK was around he was always offered the lounge, but he preferred to mix with the crowd, smiling and shaking hands – until he became a serious presidential candidate and the secret service goon-wall closed him in – but not enough as it turned out.
It' s hard now to grasp how a politician could be so popular, and became more and more loved as time went on, except of course by the Cuban exile community in Florida, the mafia and the military-industrial complex. When he was assassinated though, it became evident. The U.S. consulate in Buenos Aires had a line a block long for a week of people waiting to sign the condolence book. And there were similar scenes around the world.
One day in November a snow storm suddenly struck New York City and a large part of the Eastern seaboard. It was my day off, but they phoned me to come in and help with the “normal” airport chaos when bad weather hit. I sort of liked working in the chaos, especially at double pay. I started at six in the afternoon and by 9 p.m. the airport was shut down for incoming and outgoing flights – which left a lot of wannabe passengers in the airport with no place to go. If they were initiating their journeys in New York, they could go home. The problem was with those who were returning home or connecting to some other destination. We had to rebook them (on already fully booked flights – guess how), find space in already full hotels (finally impossible, so they slept in the airport), try to calm the irate ones, who seemed to think that bad weather was the airlines' fault.
The Station Manager asked me to stay another six hours and relieve the Lost and Found agent, who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Bad weather also tends to separate passengers from their luggage. To use the Washington (A) New York (B) Boston (C) example again, the pax who starts in Washington on his/her way to Boston makes it to New York on a delayed flight, sprints to the gate to make the departing flight to Boston and makes it, but his bag does not; it joins the many other bags in the Lost and Found area from that and many other flights which missed their connections. So the poor schmucks arrive in Boston and wait for their bags until they realize that they're not coming, so they go to the Lost and Found agent, who fills out a form with the bag's description and, most importantly, the tag number. Those days the baggage tags were attached to the handle by a rubber band – I kid you not – and they often came off. The L & F agent gets rid of the passengers, telling them to go home or to their hotel and the bag will be retrieved and delivered to them asap. Which was true, if it was ever found. Then the agent sent messages by telex – if you don't know what a telex is...was...I don't have time to explain. There was no internet, no email, so telex was what we considered super-fast communication – to the L &F agents in other airports trying to trace the lost bags. A good L&F agent had to have not only knowledge, but also intuition.
The young woman I relieved, Peggy, had a supernatural radar. We once pondered over a VIP's bag which had somehow disappeared between Chicago and New York. Actually he was a VIP because he told me I better find his bag “quick” or else, with an Italian accent. “Try Rome,” Peggy said. “Rome?” I objected. “We don't even fly there.” (American Airlines was still a domestic carrier then.) “Yeah, but let's try anyway; I got a hunch.” Knowing that Peggy's hunches were as solid as Swiss francs, I sent a telex to Pan Am L&F in Rome with all the information I had. The next morning they replied that they had the bag, but didn't understand how it got there, because the tag read “LGA” (LaGuardia). They sent it to Pan Am at Idlewild airport (now JFK) and we had it delivered to the passenger's hotel – the Waldorf Astoria. A few months later he was found dead floating in the East River. Apparently they didn't want to waste cement.
Anyway, there I was alone in the L&F office with piles of orphaned bags in the baggage area next to the office. I don't remember the exact time I received the call from the AA general manager in Boston. He was nervous. “Senator John Kennedy's bag is lost,” he shouted in his Massachusetts twang, later made famous by JFK himself. “Didn't you get our telex?” “Actually, no,” I said “not yet.” A pile of unread telexes covered my desk sent from L&F agents around the system tracing lost bags. It always happened during storms. I was shuffling through them, when the one from BOS caught my eye because of the word URGENT! repeated a dozen times. “Oh, here it is,” I said. “What?” he screamed, “The bag?” “No, the telex.” “Well now that you have the description, find the fucking bag, idiot!”
I held the phone away from my ear and looked at it as the blood rose to my eyes. Then I spoke to the mouthpiece without placing the earpiece against my ear: “I'm hanging up now, Mr._____, if and when you are able to talk with civility calm down and try again.” Bam.
I went out to the orphaned bags area with the telex in hand and soon found the large aluminum suitcase with Kennedy's nametag on it. The phone was ringing again as I dragged it into the office. “This is Ted _____ from Boston? What did you say your name was?” I told him. “Okay, Mr Smith, sorry about that outburst. It's just that this is so important.” I couldn't see what was so important about one lost bag among so many, except that the owner was a VIP. “You see, Senator Kennedy is going to New Hampshire tomorrow morning, and you are aware of how important New Hampshire is in presidential elections?”
“Yes, I know,” I said. “Symbolic.”
“That's right – and not only the senator's toothbrush is in that bag, but also his speech, which will be heard by the whole country. So you can understand how important it is that we get that bag to him asap.”
“I can see that, Mr_____, and I really like Kennedy, but we're closed.”
“Oh my God! It stopped snowing here hours ago.”
“Here too,” I confirmed, “but the airport closed for landings before it closed for take-offs, so we have no planes left.”
“What about 621?” he asked desperately. 621 was our late night milk-run to Boston.
“Canceled. The early morning flights will be canceled too. Always happens, no airplanes.”
Yeah, I thought, this guy probably promised Kennedy he'd move heaven and earth – mostly heaven – to get his bag to him.
“There's always the train though,” I said. I knew there as a midnight milkrun from Grand Central up to New England because in the past when there were no flights to Boston and Hartford, we'd sent passengers there – usually ones who had no money for a hotel. But this wasn't a passenger, only his bag.
“The train? Of course. Can you do that, Mr. Smith, get the bag on that train?”
“Call me Frank. I don't know,” I admitted. “First I gotta find out if the train is running. I'll call you back.”
“No, I'll hold.”
I hung up. Then I found Grand Central's number on our list and called. As expected, everyone at the other end was in a bad mood, but Kennedy's name worked wonders – as it had with me, now that I think of it. Finally I was talking to the dispatcher and explaining the situation to him..
“If you can get that bag here on time, it'll go,” he said. “Bring it to me, O'Neill, in the dispatcher's office.”
I looked at my watch. It was 11:15. “How much will it cost?” I asked.
“No time for that. I'll give it to the conductor. Colored guy, loves Kennedy too.”
The problem now was how to get the suitcase to Grand Central Station. I couldn't go, I was alone with the phone ringing off the hook and hundreds of lost bags to reunite with their owners. I decided to try the baggage handlers, although without much hope. You see, American Airlines had terrible relations with unionized employees. The president, C.R. Smith, hated unions. And the unions and its members hated him. The workers did their job, but with the absolute minimum of effort and according to the union contract. The union, by the way, was the Teamsters. They tried to recruit us as well, but we (white collar types) wanted no part of it. Luckily, every time our blue collar colleagues got raises through contract negotiations, we got more without a peep.
They had work shifts on duty even when there was nothing to do, and there were bound to be several guys playing cards now. I had pretty good relations with them because I didn't try to boss them around. They only took orders from their own bosses. I bent down and crawled on the belt through the baggage entrance. The Lead Agent and three others were drinking coffee and playing cards. The airline didn't see fit to give them uniforms, so they looked like a bunch of guys hanging out in a bar.
“Hiya, Smitty,” the Lead said. “No bags here; we dumped them all in the area.”
“Just wanna hide a while, Cassidy,” I said. “The telephone, telexes and people are all driving me crazy.”
“Gimme three,” one of them said, and threw down three cards. There were only coins in the pot, but coins were worth a lot more then.
“And now I get this call from the manager in Boston...” I told them about it. When I got to Kennedy, the youngest one, trying to sound tough, said, “Who da fuck is dat?”
“John F. Kennedy, you ignorant Polack prick,” Cassidy said. “The next president of the united States.”
“A course, I know dat,” the kid said. “Just sayin, dats all.”
“Send it by taxi,” Cassidy said.
“Yeah, but with who? I can't go, and I can't just hand it over to some taxi driver.”Lead Agent Cassidy, about 40 years old, looked at the three working class young men seated around him. “Anyone interested in going to Grand Central with the Senator Kennedy's suitcase? With his fuckin speech in it, which can help him become the president of the United States of America?”
“I'll go,” a skinny kid with big ears said, and jumped up.
“It's voluntary,” Cassidy said.
“I said I'll go, boss.”
“What's your name?” I asked the kid (actually we were the same age) after he had picked up the suitcase and we were heading for the terminal exit.
“Johnson,” he answered. “ Charlie Johnson. We don't get nametags."
There was one taxi at the entrance. The driver's head was under the hood. He backed out and closed the hood. “Goin to Grand Central Station,” I told him.
“Not with me, you ain't.” He was a black guy, very big. “I'm gone home, man.”
I repeated the Kennedy story again.
“Why didn't ya say so, lord sakes. Gimme dat bag.” He put it in the passenger seat alongside him and Charlie Johnson got in the back after I gave him ten bucks – the airline's money of course – for the round trip taxi fare. I looked at my watch: it was 11:45. I ran back to the L&F office where the phone was ringing. I lifted and hung it up, then dialed the dispatcher at Grand Central and told him the suitcase was on its way but wouldn't make it by midnight, maybe a few minutes later. He told me they'd hold the train, just to make sure that young guy Jack Kennedy gets to be president. He laughed and said thank you...to me!
I hung up and the phone rang again immediately. It was the Boston asshole of course. I told him to meet the train tomorrow morning and get the bag from the conductor. “And give Senator Kennedy my regards,” I said.
“You know him?” he said, astonished.
“Sure.” Actually, I did, in a way. Once when I was acting Passenger Service Manager because the real one was sick, I held a flight to Boston so Kennedy could catch it at the last minute. He'd thanked me profusely, which he didn't need to do. A couple of weeks later when I was back on the ticket counter, PSM badge gone, he remembered me and asked if I'd been demoted and I explained that I'd only been acting PSM that day. He said he hoped I'd get to be a real one soon.
Sometimes I think there must be some kind of evil entity charged with getting rid of the special people who appear on this earthly scene now and then and who are destined to do really good, important things. They get streets and plazas, schools and museums, even airports named after them, but their ability for accomplishment is cut short. You know who I mean. People like Jack Kennedy, his brother Bobby, who I also knew, sort of, from the airport, Martin Luther king, Gandhi – and others I guess who never become famous. I don't mean that as a conspiracy theory, no, not that. But sometimes we just have to ask ourselves why.
Frank Thomas Smith