Sunday, September 15, 2013

Wings for Nurse Bennett

By Adeline McElfresh, ©1960
“Office-dressing” … That, Sarah thought wryly, was exactly what she had been as nurse to the handsome and successful Dr. Ralph Caldwell Porter. Looking wand-slim and elegant in her white nylon uniform, her heaviest duty had been to stand by serenely while Ralph administered to the imaginary needs of some fawning, simpering female. And now she was suddenly in the wilds of Alaska, newly appointed stewardess of the Alaska Passenger and Freight Airlines, about to board the frighteningly small and flimsy-looking plane for her first trip. But at least, she assured herself, here she could be useful. And perhaps, in this new land, she would get a new perspective on her life. Because she had to make up her mind about Ralph. She had to decide whether she could marry a man she loved—but didn’t respect.


“ ‘Can you imagine a man ever wanting to go to bed with Miss Davenport, darling?’ Ralph had asked her once when, miraculously, the waiting room was empty. ‘She’s a good nurse—the best in Dayton, barring not even you, but ugh.’ He had kissed her. ‘Don’t ever let yourself get fat and frumpy, sweetheart.’ ”

Sarah Bennett is working as a flight attendant on a small Alaskan airline (apparently in the old days flight attendants were nurses as well; in any case, she is one). She’s taking time away from her job working for Dr. Ralph Caldwell Porter, who is just as he sounds: A pompous, society doctor who panders to neurotic wealthy women, and who plans to marry Sarah and turn her into one.  She’s desperately in love with Ralph and can’t wait to marry him, she says, but is constantly thinking things like how great it was to be a flight attendant, “a member of the team, just as she had been at the hospital, as she had not been, not really, in Ralph’s office.” But she’s managed to tear herself from his well-groomed side for a few months to step into this role, formerly held by her old friend and wife of the pilot Paul Fergis; Jenny Fergis is pregnant, and so grounded. It’s her third day on the job when this particular flight takes off from Killmoose to Tanacross, and not half an hour into the flight, one of the passengers steps into the cockpit with a revolver and knocks out Al Malcolm, the co-pilot.

Back at air control, the radio is blasting reports of three men who crashed a stolen Cessna near Killmoose and haven’t been seen since. The men are wanted for questioning in the attempted sabotage of one of the United States’ Distant Early Warning bases in far northern Alaska—these would be the bases where, during the Cold War, people sat around and watched the skies for incoming Soviet nuclear missiles, so they could call home and say goodbye before the missiles arrived on American soil. The air traffic folks instantly recognize from the descriptions that these guys are on Sarah’s flight!! Now everyone is combing the Alaskan wilds, but it’s a lot of ground to cover, so things are looking grim…

Meanwhile, the gun-toting head basher puts the plane down in a clearing hundreds of miles off course and hustles everyone except his two co-conspirators off the plane, then takes off again. So now the story’s narrative jumps from the worried air controllers listening to the news, to the passengers trying to survive in dilapidated miners’ cabins in the woods, to Paul Fergis and a passenger who have set off through the Alaskan winter to try to find help. As the passengers trap rabbits and build bedding out of spruce boughs, Al Malcolm is increasingly warming the cockles of Sarah’s heart, though she tries again and again to remind herself that “she was in love with Ralph, she was going to marry him—to her Al Malcolm could be no more than Paul Fergis’s co-pilot.” But there’s just the small problem that Ralph is a philandering ass, and is never set up to be anything but, even to Sarah: “Sarah wished she could think of Ralph Porter without something unpleasant nudging into her mind,” she thinks before we’re a quarter of the way through the book—“Why did she keep thinking of Ralph? Remembering things that made her slightly sick at her stomach.” I wonder how everything is going to turn out.

Of course, the passengers that the bad guys have been kind enough to abandon rather than simply murder outright are prone to all sorts of health issues.  Needless to say, everything turns out swimmingly for the stranded passengers, who have the capable Sarah to steer them through their medical crises, though she is inclined to a hysterical interior monologue: “Oh, God, Sarah thought. Suppose something is going wrong?” she wonders when she’s delivering a baby, which despite her fears—“Oh, God! Was the baby stillborn? After all this—” is perfectly healthy, only now she’s got to concoct something else to worry about, like the baby catching “pneumonia, here—” But it doesn’t, so on to the next emergency: one man, unfortunately named George Jefferson, develops right lower quadrant pain and “Sarah’s breath caught in her throat. Not appendicitis! Please, God, don’t let it be appendicitis.” But it is, and now we have pages of watching George’s temperature rise: “Four-tenths in an hour? Oh, God!” But she convinces Al Malcolm to assist her with the surgery, which she pulls off effortlessly in 43 minutes. Now she’s worried that she’ll go to jail: “What would they call it, practicing surgery without a license? Or—or criminal negligence?” For crying out loud, someone get this woman a Xanax!

Eventually the two men wandering the wilderness are spotted by a rescue plane, the party in the woods is whisked back to civilization, George Jefferson recovers easily and reveals that he is actually an FBI agent assigned to nab the bad guys who hijacked the plane—not a very good one, at that—and the bad guys, not being very good pilots, are discovered to have crashed the second plane as well and killed themselves in the process. Sarah finds she’s not going to jail or lose her job, and that she does not love Ralph after all. Not to worry, though, someone else is waiting to offer her marriage on the last page, and then—oh, God!—we can finally close the book.

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