|By Mark J. Price, The Akron Beacon Journal|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
A job as a stewardess sounded exciting, so she sent an application, filled out forms and mailed her photo.
"I didn't even tell my mother," she said.
The former Sonya Suscinski, a little girl with lofty dreams, grew up in a house on
Heckman, 73, remembers modeling fashions and doing demonstrations on Palmer's popular exercise program on
"When I was at Paige Palmer, she more or less took me by the hand," Heckman said. "She started taking me to the television studio every morning."
Studying with Pollack, she danced in a trio called the Maryettes, which performed at local clubs and restaurants. After a girl quit, the group became a duo, the Lee Sisters, which danced at nightclubs in
In 1958, the
"All right, this is your choice," her mother replied. "Take the money and you can go to
Sonya lived for months in a
"You had to study all these different airplanes and codes and procedures," she said. "There was a lot you had to learn."
Students took a grueling test and sat for interviews with airline representatives.
"And then you just kept your fingers crossed that one of them would hire you."
At the end of training, nervous students were ushered into the mock airplane, where airline officials called off the names of the dozen or so women who were hired.
"Oh, my God, it was like
Capital flew her to
"You had to be a certain height, you couldn't be over a certain weight," she said. "At that particular time, you couldn't be married and fly."
She was fitted for a uniform -- olive green in winter and light tan for summer -- and flew into the wild blue yonder.
"Most of the people that were on the airplane were men," she said. "They were businessmen traveling. You didn't see too many families."
Airplane cabins were filled with cigarette smoke, thanks in part to the Winston packs that stewardesses distributed. Stewardesses also pushed a cocktail cart down the aisle.
"I was always scared of the champagne because I had to pop the cork," Heckman said.
One time, labor leader
"He wasn't nice at all to me," Heckman said. "When he got up to leave, it was a big mess. You might have thought you were at the zoo."
Heckman flew as far south as
Danger always lurked in the air, however. Because Capital's planes didn't have radar, pilots often ran into foul weather.
Heckman remembers flying on a twin-engine DC-3 to
"It got so terrible, I unstrapped myself from my seat belt and I ran up to the cockpit, I opened the door and I burst in," she recalled. "I said 'Guys, what's going on?' They said we're in a hurricane."
When one of the engines stalled, a pilot instructed Heckman to tell the 30 passengers to get out their pillows and assume crash positions. People started to cry and scream.
"I'm sitting there and I'm saying my prayers," she said. "I'm making the sign of the cross."
Suddenly, everything became calm. The engine restarted. The sun came back out. The plane landed 10 minutes later.
Heckman was lucky that day. Sadly, other flights ended in tragedy for co-workers. "In the years that I flew, I lost quite a few friends through crashes," she said.
She stayed in the business, donning a blue uniform and selling travel insurance from a counter at
One day in 1962, her manager took her aside and told her to report to the
"So then my anxiety attack started," she said. "Is my uniform pressed and ready? Do my shoes look decent? Where in the world are my white gloves?"
She remembers being nervous as she drove to
The president stopped, shook her gloved hand and spoke to her. A photographer captured the moment.
"Being face to face with him was simply awesome," Heckman said. "He was so good-looking and smiling at me. I mean, I'm looking straight in the eyes at him. I felt like I was going to faint."
She remembers everything about that moment -- except for the conversation itself.
"I couldn't believe the president was speaking to me," she said. "I spoke back. I don't know what I said."
Later that evening, she got another surprise when her picture with Kennedy appeared on the national news.
"I was just in total shock to see it," she said.
Heckman left the insurance business after she and her husband, Harvey, welcomed a daughter, Laura.
It was an interesting career, and Heckman is forever grateful to that 1950s advertisement "for girls who like adventure and travel." She truly reached her destination.
(c)2012 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)
Visit the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) at www.ohio.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services