My friend Larry

As I was scratching my brain for a topic this morning, I received a phone call from a faraway friend and we chatted about other, long-ago friends. One of them was the first person I chanced to work with when I joined British Airways.

That first day on the job, I was dispatched to work at the arrivals desk in the International Arrivals Building (known as the “IAB”) at JFK.

I had a lot to learn about everything in general and in those days you were expected to learn “on the job”. No paid training courses for us. They just threw us in at the deep end.

However I knew how to read an arrivals screen, so when people came up to me to inquire about a particular flight, I had only to consult it and cheerfully relay the information. I had not actually been told that I must be cheerful, but Common Sense dictated this. One should always be pleasant and cheerful to one’s customers.

That idea got shot down in a hurry! The Air Traffic Controllers were on a work-to-rule that affected all arriving flights, so no matter that BOAC (as we then were) had done their part in achieving perfection, our attempts were doomed to fail.

When asked, I delivered a delayed arrival time to a particular inquirer and was roundly told off for being cheerful. He exclaimed “how dare you smile when delivering bad news!” Oops….sorry about that then. But he continued to berate me. “Where are you from, anyway?” He asked.

“You’re not good enough to be British!” OK not smiling now. And he continued: “South African, perhaps!” Well what does THAT mean? I’ve told this story to Grant and he laughs. South Africa had a lot of critics in those days.

Not an inspiring first transaction with the public.

I retreated to the back office, where the agent I had been assigned to chuckled and told me not to feel bad.

Larry had been in the business for some time and he was very good at dealing with irate passengers.

Being assigned to work with a trainee was a real bore because we literally knew nothing. We didn’t even know the lay of the land in those first days, so we were constantly tugging on our helper’s sleeve” “excuse me, what, who, where, why, when…” etc.

But Larry was the kind of person that took everything in stride.

He was a Londoner and memory tells me that he had originally been a steward, as we called them then, a flight attendant. He was married to an American lady which is presumably how he came to live in the States.

Larry approached everything with good-natured humour and resolve. He treated everyone the same, from Lord and Lady Muck down to the lowest-paying poor student passenger, and I don’t remember that any of them ever managed to upset him. People often tried!

Occasionally, Larry might retreat to the office for another cup of coffee and a cigarette, then he would charge back out to deal with the next ball buster, be he a passenger or an irate Captain or Chief Steward. Oh yes, we had to deal with a few of those too! We were mostly, then, regarded as the lowly “ground staff”, something you might find under your shoe.

Back then, as exhausted as we may have felt at the end of a shift, what did we know of chaos?

We didn’t even have a 747 then. Hard to imagine such a simple world.

But we handled a lot of full narrow-bodied flights and it involved a lot of running around.

However, my friend Larry seemed to move always at one speed. He certainly was not slow, but he always retained his calm demeanor and it was good if you could match it.

Most of us could not. There were some who wouldn’t move fast if you set fire to their coat tails. Unfortunately there were quite a few of those. There were others that rushed about and ran themselves ragged. Larry’s way was by far the best.

BOAC/British Airways eventually got around to sending us on training courses for things like weight and balance and ticketing.

Larry seemed already to know all these things and with his apparently limitless patience, took us once more under his wing.

Ticketing seemed to become Larry’s passion.

For me it was a nightmare, always.

Ticketing involved taking money from people and generally, it was more money than they felt inclined to surrender. If you were clever, there were all sorts of rules and regulations that you could dance your way through to achieve a more acceptable option.

This was something Larry had down pat. There was nothing he liked better than finding a good deal for a passenger. He was really good at it and he enjoyed it so much that he eventually took a buy-out from British Airways and opened a very successful travel agency.

Many of us stayed in touch with Larry and I sent many friends to him for all manner of ticketing requirements and package deals. He took care of everyone and no one was ever less than delighted.

But I really missed seeing his smiling face in the office. Sadly I don’t have a photograph. He is gone, now, but my friend Larry Coppelman will never be forgotten. Love you, Larry.

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