CLOSE

Kay Graham’s big sister, always quick with advice, taught her a new word she’d soon regret using. It was just one piece of an unforgettable trip. Des Moines Storytellers Project/Mediacom

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

Editor's note: Kay Graham first told this story on stage at the Des Moines Storytellers Project: Siblings event. The Des Moines Storytellers Project is a series of storytelling events in which community members work with Register journalists to tell true, first-person stories live on stage. An edited version of Graham's story appears below.

From a very early age, I was fascinated with my older sister, Mary. 

Out of five girls in the family, she was No. 2  and I was No. 4. Three years my senior, she was tall, attractive and charming. 

A wild child in high school, dripping with self-confidence, it was as though she seemed entitled to get away with every scheme she cooked up. If she did get caught, she’d turn on the charm, and she always talked her way out of it! 

I, on the other hand, was the tomboy, lacking in confidence and grace. I hung on her every word, frequently seeking her advice. Though we both took risks, she managed to get out of them unscathed while I was often caught red-handed!

When I was a freshman in high school, she was a senior. I confided in her that I'd had a country make-out session with my boyfriend, creating lots of wrinkles in my skirt — a dead giveaway to my parents. 

Mary said, “Simple solution! Take off your skirt!” Thinking she was so wise, the next time I was out with my boyfriend, I did: Took off my skirt and laid it gently over the seat.  Several minutes later when the sheriff’s deputy tapped on our window, I didn’t think it was such a great idea! 

Luckily, he thought my slip was my skirt, warned us and sent us on. Phew! 

That next summer, a nearby town about 10 miles away was having its annual celebration. This meant carnival rides, great food and BEER! 

Mary wouldn’t wait until after my swim meet to go, leaving me with no way to get to it.  She told me plenty of people would be leaving their cars on Main Street with their keys in the ignition. Just take one, she said! They’ll forgive you later. Two friends and I took Bobby’s car. We were driving well above the speed limit, and the car engine blew up halfway there. Having to tell my dad the next day was one of the worst days ever! 

The eight steps up the stairs to his office felt like walking the plank. 

Fake it and make it?

Now, you’d think I’d have learned my lesson not to trust Mary, but no.  

After she had graduated from Iowa State where I was a sophomore, she was hired by American Airlines as a flight attendant and moved to New York City, quite a feat for a rural Iowa girl. I couldn’t even comprehend moving to the Big Apple, but she did it with ease. 

She flew the East Coast routes during her probationary period. My parents were so proud, taking every opportunity to boast to anyone who would listen about her confidence and dogged determination to fulfill her dreams.

As spring break approached, Mary suggested I visit her in New York. She told me she’d use her discounts through the airline to fly me out east. 

In my eyes, this was a trip of a lifetime! She OK'd it with our parents and preparations were made. Rather than fly directly into New York, she wanted me to fly into one of her connecting cities so we could fly back to the city together. Since this was my maiden flight, I was totally on board as I would have her with me to maneuver through the airports. A flight was booked to West Virginia, where I would connect with her. 

The morning I was to leave, my nerves were working overtime. I remembered Mary’s advice: “Fake it till you make it!” 

I took a deep breath, pretending I knew what I was doing! We loaded up my suitcase and a huge, orange rolling cooler filled with frozen meat, my mom’s homemade cinnamon rolls and chicken rice casserole, treats from home for my sister. Off to Des Moines we go to catch my flight. 

We landed in West Virginia in the midst of a snow and ice storm. I checked in where I was to meet Mary, only to be given a message she was grounded in Kentucky due to the same storm and wouldn’t arrive until the following day. The first of many tears began to flow! Here I am, stranded, when I was counting on my sister to lead the way.  

So much for faking it!

The American Airlines staff was wonderful, ushering me to a phone where I took a call from Mary. She reassured me I would be fine. The airlines would keep my luggage and cooler in a locked storage room and her friend was on the way to pick me up and keep me over night. 

The night went well and I was dropped off at the airport the next morning. I was never so relieved to see a person in my life when Mary finally arrived. 

We went to the storage room to retrieve my luggage, only to open the door to a river of bloody liquid flowing out of the cooler. You guessed it, the meat had thawed and leaked out of the drainage hole. We had a good laugh, vowing NEVER to tell our mother!! 

The cooler and all its contents went into the dumpster and we finally headed for our gate. 

Everything would be fine from here on out right?

Deadheading

As we walked, Mary dropped a bomb. She confessed she had no reservation for me.  She planned to “sneak” me on the plane as a flight attendant “deadheading” to Boston.  That's a term for an employee taking a leg of a flight to get to another location to work.

On top of my small-town-girl appearance, I had a baby face, looking a lot younger than my 19 years. Do you know how difficult it is to act when you neither look the part nor have the experience to carry something off as authentic? She put me in an American Airlines trench coat and gave me a flight bag to carry. We walked on with no problem, and she seated me near the front while she and the other attendants readied the plane for departure. 

As the plane began to fill up, Mary approached, telling me to grab my things and follow her. She took me back to the bathroom, where she told me it appeared the flight was full and I’d have to sit in the lavatory until takeoff when she hoped to find an open seat. The door wasn’t locked so she could keep me updated. It’s very convenient to be hiding in a bathroom when you have to throw up!!

Suddenly, the door flies open and a very startled woman is standing before me. The woman sternly asked what I was doing. Thankfully I remembered my sister telling me if anyone asked, to tell them I was deadheading to Boston. At the same time I squeaked out a very unconvincing response, Mary had reached us saying “Ma’am, I hope you’re feeling better. I can show you to your seat now,” as if I were a passenger.

Unbelievably, the woman turned out to be an American Airlines administrator who was deadheading to Boston! What are the odds! 

She angrily stated, “I would know who is deadheading, and you are NOT!”

She ushered us to the back of the plane where she asked us what was going on. My sister tried to explain as I stood by like a shrinking violet. The woman told Mary she would meet with us upon landing in Boston. In the meantime, she directed Mary to continue her duties. She strapped me into the rear jump seat where attendants sit during takeoff and landing. 

I wept the whole way to Boston!

Learning to lead

Once everyone had deplaned, we were led by this woman to her office to wait while she talked to her supervisor. I felt like a naughty child awaiting punishment! 

As if enough damage hadn’t already been done, Mary said, “Give me your bag, quick!”  She grabbed my carry-on bag, proceeding to dump in more than 30 small liquor bottles she’d lifted from the plane. 

She told me she figured she’d be fired so she wanted to get what she could from her last flight. Now I’m envisioning myself being arrested for theft!

Mary was right; she was fired because she had only completed five and a half months of her six-month probationary period. My maiden flight had been a disaster. I was devastated. 

However, typical Mary said, “Oh, well, time to face the next chapter of my life!”

One last thing to do: call our parents. 

They listened to her version of the story. All they heard was Mary had lost her job on a flight I didn’t even have to be on. They blamed me for her unemployment.

I tried to remain supportive of her for years after this incident. Ultimately, when she joined a cult-like group, I had to separate myself from her. I also backed away from my parents who could only see me as the trouble-maker they thought I was. 

I went to graduate school and started a new job working with at-risk children. Seeing myself in those students as I mentored them helped me develop my voice, confidence and personal. 

As for my parents, in not needing their approval, I got it. Gradually, my parents came back into my life. Setting aside those old wounds, we became closer. At the end of their lives, they turned to me for help, proud of the person I had become.

I haven’t spoken to Mary for several years. I wish her well. She’s a much different person from me and that’s OK. 

But I finally learned to quit following and decided to lead instead.

ABOUT THE STORYTELLER: Kay Graham was raised in Coon Rapids with four sisters and her experiences gave her plenty of practice to work with at-risk students. She mentored at Boys Town in Omaha for 20-plus years before returning to Des Moines to teach special education. Though she retired in 2015, you often find her in a classroom continuing her love of teaching as a substitute.

The next show

"War Stories: Battles on the front line and back home" will feature two shows, 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Tea Room, 713 Walnut St. Register journalist Mackenzie Ryan will host, and the storytellers will be coached by a variety of Register writers.

General admission tickets are $10 and VIP tickets, which include a free drink, are $25. Buy them and learn more at DesMoinesRegister.com/Storytellers.

Become a teller

The Des Moines Storytellers Project strongly believes that everyone HAS a story and everyone CAN tell it. None of the storytellers who take our stage are professionals. They are your neighbors, friends or co-workers, and they are coached to tell by Register journalists. 

Want to tell your story at one of our upcoming Storytellers Project events? Read our guidelines and submit a story by clicking "Speak" at DesMoinesRegister.com/Storytellers.

Contact storytelling@dmreg.com for more information.

The 2019 storytelling season

Season tickets to our 2019 shows — all at Hoyt Sherman Place — are on sale at DesMoinesRegister.com/Storytellers. Anyone needing assistance can contact events@dmreg.com or call 515-619-6548.

Visit the Storytellers store

Embrace local storytelling with our new notebooks, mugs and apparel, available online in different colors. Order at ShopDMRegister.com/Storytellers.

Hear past storytellers

WATCH: Mediacom rebroadcasts stories from the most recent show on MC22 periodically; check local listings for times.

LISTEN: Check out the Des Moines Storytellers podcast, which is available on iTunes and Stitcher.

ONLINE: Videos from this and other Storytellers events can be found at DesMoinesRegister.com/Storytellers under "Watch & Listen."

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/entertainment/2018/11/20/storytellers-when-visiting-my-sister-ny-became-deadheading-boston/1617504002/