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Help From On High

June 2024
6min read

In the early summer of 1949 my psychological life was not tightly held to reality by the usual tethers. On June 19 I married the woman I loved, and a few days later I prepared to consummate a dream that I had concocted over the preceding months—to privately charter an airplane to fly forty-six students and my wife and me to Europe. My plan had been developed during the busiest year of my life: it was my first year of medical school, and I was simultaneously courting my fiancée at a campus 120 miles away. That I survived the rigors of medical school and long-distance courtship is a marvel matched only by the story I am about to tell.

Actually, my airplane idea was not mine. In the summer of 1948, as a member of the Experiment in International Living, I was one of the earliest American students to enter Germany after the Second World War. That summer all of the available passenger boats traveling to Europe quickly filled up. Somehow the American Youth Hostels procured reduced-fare air space at the last minute for student travelers, and I was one of those few who flew to Europe for the price of boat travel. It registered in my mind that I was witness to an important economic event. For the first time in history travel by air was as cheap as third-class steamer, and an additional half-month in Europe fell into the bargain! I promised myself that I would look into that in the fall.

Just before the Christmas vacation of 1948, I got a free afternoon in Chicago. With barely more than the slightest idea where to begin, I started at the top—Pan Am, TWA, and Air France. Looking as honest and grown-up as I could, I asked: “Sir, could you tell me if there would be any fare reductions available if I could fill one entire airplane with students going to Europe early in the summer and returning a couple of months later?” A negligible group discount was offered from the $800 full fare, leaving a price that was more than three times what I had paid the summer before. Discouraged, I turned to the yellow pages of the telephone book, where I discovered a number of airlines I had never heard of. I made a list of addresses starting with ‘A’ and headed for Chicago’s Loop. My first stop was Alaska Airlines and, as it turned out, I went no further.

The modest Alaska quarters more resembled the offices of a trucking company than those of an airline, and that was an appropriate analogy, since I had stumbled onto an air-freight carrier whose freight was only occasionally people. I asked my question, and the manager complimented me by taking me seriously. He asked me a few questions, consulted a scheduling chart, and said I could have an airplane that could accommodate forty-eight passengers leaving Chicago for Paris on June 23 and returning sixty-two days later for $10,500.

“$10,500 total for both flights?”

“Yes.” Quick math: The round-trip price per passenger was slightly more than $200.

“I’ll take it!” About five minutes had passed since I had come into the office. Generous terms were arranged. I had several months to recruit my student passengers before I had to pay Alaska anything more than a modest deposit. I floated out of the office an astonished, engaged-to-be-married medical student in the travel business.

I spent forty-three dollars on advertising in three college newspapers and filled our airplane within two weeks. I was married on June 19 and went off to a nearby resort hotel as stage one of our honeymoon. Stage two was to be Europe. We returned to Chicago on June 22, the day before our flight was to leave for Paris. I called Alaska Airlines to make sure everything was O.K. It wasn’t. Our airplane, routed toward Chicago from the West Coast, had been denied permission to land at Chicago’s Midway airport. In 1949 the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) regulated and directly controlled all air traffic. The people at Alaska didn’t know why permission had been denied, but they suspected that it had to do with the student passenger cargo. Why? No one knew. What to do? No one knew that either. All my passengers were planning to be at the airport for an 8:00 A.M. departure the following morning. Distraught, I took to the telephone and called each passenger to report our awful situation and promised to do everything I could to resolve the problem: “Don’t call me, I’ll call you. And stay near the phone.” The race had already begun.

The day before our flight was to leave for Paris, we learned that our plane had been denied permission to land in Chicago. Why? No one knew.

I called Alaska Airlines every twenty minutes all afternoon and into the evening. I called the airport every twenty minutes. I called the CAA repeatedly but couldn’t find out anything. I called my parents. No one knew anything, and nothing was happening. Late in the evening we opened the first bottle of wine. What was most frustrating was not being able to get information of any sort as to why the CAA had denied the flights. The Alaska Airlines officials guessed that it had to do with what was most obvious—charter travel drastically undercut commercial air fares and would ultimately threaten the large carriers. Best to quash competition early if possible. We hated to think that a federal agency was vulnerable to such machinations but had to allow that possibility. And if that was so, then the only remedy was to exert our own pressure.

We were forty-eight students: we had to have some leverage somewhere. But where? I had never before had the occasion to petition my governmental representatives. I wasn’t even sure who they were. By now it was well past midnight, but the hope lingered. I began my efforts at political influence by calling the mayor. No one answered. I called the Chicago Tribune to find the names and phone numbers of my state legislative representatives and called them. No one answered. In the middle of our second bottle of wine I realized that Washington was the answer; that’s where the CAA was.

At 4:00 A.M. the long-distance operator dialed the White House for us. On the third ring a man answered in a slow voice with an unmistakable accent.

Back to the Tribune for more telephone numbers. Operators deflected the calls to my congressional representatives and instructed me in polite detail how to reach them in the morning. Then, in a moment of slightly drunken inspiration, I came upon a solution that matched my desperation. I’d call the President! Even though it was about 4:00 A.M. Washington time! So what!

I’d made all my calls through the same person-to-person, long-distance operator, and by now she had become involuntarily involved in our plight. When I rang her once again and told her I wanted her to reach President Harry Truman, I was heartened by the fact that she didn’t ring off immediately. Dutifully she called the information operator in Washington to get the telephone number of the White House, then dialed it. I held my breath and at the edge of my mind registered surprise that the call wasn’t answered on the first ring as had been the calls to Congress. On the third ring a man answered in a slow, deliberate voice that twanged with an unmistakable Midwestern accent.

Operator: “This is the long-distance operator in Chicago, Illinois, with a person-to-person call for President Harry Truman.”

“This is Mr. Truman. Who is it that is calling?”

“Mr. Justin Simon, in Chicago, Illinois.”

“What is the nature of Mr. Simon’s business?”

Me: “Operator, tell Mr. Truman that I need his help. Forty-eight ambassadors of good will, college students from across the country, are stranded in Chicago because the CAA has denied permission for our chartered airplane to land here in Chicago and take them off for the summer in Europe.”

“Operator, ask Mr. Simon why that happened. Well, Mr. Simon, since you’re on the line, you can just tell me. Why did the CAA do that?”

“That’s why I’ve bothered you in the middle of the night, sir. I’m terribly sorry to have bothered you, but we can’t find out why the CAA did that. We’ve tried everything we can to find out what the snag is, and we can’t. All these students are stranded here and most of them can’t hole up for very long, and we just have to get our airplane or a whole lot of plans are about to be ruined, and lots and lots of American good will aimed for Europe will go down the drain.”

“Well, I don’t much mind that you’ve called me. I was up anyway. 1 don’t know anything about this, but if you’ll call Mr. Rogers in my Department of Transportation at eight-thirty Washington time”—he gave me the phone number—“I’ll do what I can to see that he can tell you something. Well, it might be best if you didn’t call him until about a quarter to nine. He’ll know something by then.”

“Thanks, Mr. President.”

“Oh, you’re welcome.”

Sleep was out of the question. The call to Mr. Rogers at the appointed time rendered the news that all the problems were resolved and the airplane was on its way. I called the passengers and then met them at the airport, and we watched together through a chain-link fence as a dot in the western sky grew into our airplane. It landed and then carried us to Europe. Our relief and elation were unbounded, but the enduring effect of the crisis was the one created by Mr. Truman. This is what responsive and responsible governance is all about, but in a detail so miniature as to be far beneath the call of presidential duty. But not the way Mr. Truman defined it. He not only saved our summer, he also instilled an optimism about government that resides in my heart to this day. I’m deeply grateful for both gifts.

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