New skies

Published 9:34 am Saturday, December 13, 2014

by James D. Howell

I’m 29 years old. I haven’t been in an active war (that means getting shot at) and I see my promotional prospects as slim to none. I do have a wide experience level and I’m thinking that it’s time to leave the cocoon of military life and venture into that other world. About 50 resumes later, I’m invited to Los Angeles to interview for a pilot’s job at Continental Airlines. Truth is, I’m not familiar with this airline; they generally don’t fly east of the Mississippi River. Makes little difference to me, the sky is the sky, and I’ve seen a lot of it.

They send me passes for flights to and from Los Angeles, and I pack my bags for a different kind of duty. Pre-employment involves a few tests, records checking and a complete FAA licensing physical exam. It’s a full two days of interviews and testing. I return to Jacksonville, via Phoenix, and another interview with another airline. There have been many consolidations and mergers of companies during this year and the industry, in general, is on an upswing.

I return to military duties in Jacksonville and await the phone call that will determine a major direction in my future. It comes less than two weeks later and it is from Continental. They offer me employment and I’m scheduled to begin classes on June 10, 1968, two days before my 30th birthday. Airlines don’t hire past 30.

Yet again, we pack for a transcontinental move. Some household furnishings go to temporary storage and I rent and pack a trailer with enough belongings to temporarily setup a household somewhere in the Los Angeles area.

I now have 12 years of active military service and there’s a severance check that will be a good buffer for our transition to civilian life. We’re not spendthrifts and have savings to add to the buffer, also. I know the airlines have a two-year probationary period and the pay is minimal during this time. It’s a way for the company to recoup some of their training costs.

On the 29th of May, 1968, I complete the discharge orders and, for the last time, exit the entrance gate at the U.S. Naval Air Station, Jacksonville. It is not a nostalgic moment; my brain is a flurry of activity, trying to foresee the future. The Navy has been good to, and for, us. I have a professional future, my family is intact and we have some reserves in the bank. I look forward to new skies and whatever the future holds, wherever it holds it.

Two cars, one pulling a rented trailer, two kids, my wife and I set out for the brave new world. We make a stop in New Orleans to rest and visit relatives, get an air conditioner installed on the second car and have some repairs done to better prepare for the long road ahead.

I’ve driven this road before, on my way to Alaska. This time I’m better prepared and better informed. A stopover in Phoenix to visit more relatives gives us a brief rest and provides a good launch pad for the miles of desert ahead. We plan to find a motel somewhere in Orange County, and use it as a base to house hunt before I start my new job. Hollywood is not in the picture.

We’re a few days ahead of schedule, but purchasing a house is not possible before starting a new job. Nobody is willing to lend money to an unemployed person. We settle for a rental in Fountain Valley, California, about 35 miles from the Los Angeles International Airport. I’m guessing 45 minutes to an hour most days, about the same time as it took back in Jacksonville. The commute is mostly freeway and it doesn’t seem too daunting; freeways will be a large part of my life in this place.

The Pacific Ocean is a few miles away and we take the kids to the beach for a day of play. There’s no lack of people on this June day, but everyone is wearing a jacket. It’s not the warm, loose sand beaches that we are familiar with. Circular concrete fire rings indicate that nights are very cool along the coast. I don’t think beach life will be a part of our leisure time.

We make arrangements to have our household goods transferred to the rental house and set about acclimating to this new place and people. Folks seem friendly enough and schools are right around the corner. A square mile of strawberry fields is a block in the other direction. We establish a base, get the kids registered and I check in for my new job. Stability.

I’m ready for the new challenge.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at