Airline alums flying high again
WEST TAMPA - Month after month, they come to La Teresita and share stories over coffee and toast about the good times working for the airline industry. The dozen or so diners worked for National, which later was bought by Pan American. They worked on the ticket counter, on the ramp or as mechanics. The men love discussing the memories — even troubling ones. During a recent meeting one spoke about losing part of a finger on the job. Another remembered nearly being hijacked. "We've got a fellowship," said 80-year-old Solen Hurst, a North Tampa resident who worked for the airlines for 40 years. "I enjoy being with them."In the mid-1990s, years after Pan American ceased operations in Tampa, a group of former employees decided to hold reunions at La Teresita. Meetings became a tradition, and former staffers gather at the Columbus Avenue restaurant the third Wednesday of each month. At December's meeting, attendees ranged from 67 to 85 years of age. The group's oldest member, who didn't attend last month, is 94. Joseph Brantley, 85, of South Tampa, worked for National from 1945 to 1980 and then spent 10 years at Pan Am. After the airline folded he worked as a sky cap until 2001. "I had no desire to quit," he said. "It was a good life. I enjoyed it. I never dreaded going to work in the morning. I loved my job." Brantley, who supervised many of the employees that come to La Teresita, said he enjoys reuniting with them. "All the friendships you accumulated over the years, you want to stay in touch," he said. Jim Tapley, a relative youngster for the group at 67, worked for the airlines for 18½ years. The Seffner resident is in charge of organizing meetings. "These guys are like family," he said. "It was a close-knit bunch of guys. We still like seeing each other, enjoying each others' company, asking about their families. We'll keep coming till all of us are gone." National and Pan American have rich histories in Tampa. The original National flights landed in Tampa at Drew Field. When Peter O. Knight Airport opened on Davis Islands in 1937, the airline made use of it, then switched to Drew Field again in 1946 (it became known as Tampa International Airport in 1947). From its original cross-state route in 1934, National grew to become an international air network of 29,000 route miles, servicing 12 states, the Caribbean and Europe. In 1980, National merged with Pan American World Airways — one of the world's top airlines. But Pan Am fell victim to airline deregulation and financial strains by 1990 and ceased operations. "We'd seen the writing on the wall," Tapley said. "They kept closing station after station after station." George Triguero, 67, who worked as a ramp agent from 1968 to 1985, said meeting at La Teresita brings back the fun from working at the airlines. "This helps us remember the good times and not the bad ones," he said. "We miss the camaraderie, working together and having a good time."
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