Story by Global Gal LaVonne
Screaming in full-blown terror, my eight-year-old vocal chords competed with the squeal of the beat up Cessna spiraling in a high-speed descent for the snow-covered, jagged Alaskan peaks below. As the mountaintop moved into closer and clearer detail with horrifying speed, I saw the broken pieces of a small aircraft poking through the snow. Frantically, I tried to yank open the door on the passenger side of the plane in an irrational attempt to escape. Luckily, the packing twine holding the door shut held. Even better, the inebriated bush pilot’s idea of a joke did not end with our plane joining the ill-fated wreck below. Instead, sputtering and coughing, the decrepit, old plane pulled out of the dive, at what seemed like the last possible moment, and went reeling back up into the clouds.
At the time, I loved to fly and the plane ride was a birthday surprise from my father who didn’t know that the pilot was drunk and prone to crazy stunts. Often, in the summer, my sister and I flew from Alaska to visit our grandparents in Iowa and I boarded the plane for the trip stateside without a twinge—that is until my ‘Cessna nightmare.’ After that, I had frequent bad dreams about my terrifying flight, and I couldn’t even think about flying without an increase of heart rate and a replay of the adrenalin pumping, dry-mouthed terror I experienced during the Cessna’s downward spiral. As it turned out, I didn’t have to fly again because my family moved from Alaska to Pennsylvania and my sister and I were able to ride the train for our summer trips to Iowa. I discovered a delight in clacking across America, watching the ever-changing vistas as I rode the train.
Unfortunately, time did nothing to lessen my dislike of flying. By the time I was an adult, my fear of flying was a firmly rooted, full-blown phobia. Thus, even though 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of commercial flight—celebrating an event that was a historical milestone since commercial flight virtually shrank the world—I was trapped in the train, boat and automobile era. When my husband, Paul, had to do his internship for his cultural anthropology degree, instead of going to China as he dreamed, we moved to Vancouver, British Columbia to live and work with the city’s Chinese community of 1.5 million. Paul wanted me to get to be with him and since I couldn’t fly, he didn’t even let me know at the time about his ‘China dream.’ When I worked as an artist in residence doing acting and theatre seminars, which positions I could accept depended on whether I could get there by train or not. When my daughter’s chosen career took her to Asia to live, I knew I would never be able to visit.
Also, while I have always had a passion for people and their cultures, I have been limited to exploring this passion by methods such as hosting foreign exchange students and working as a member of our city’s International Friendship Commission. I’ve had amazing contacts; made friends with wonderful people from around the world, and enjoyed sharing our home with delightful folks from many lands. Yet, my responses to their invitation to visit them in their home country have always been hollow because I knew, as a non-flyer, I would never go. My fear left me grounded, as well as secretly disappointed in myself for not being able to overcome what I knew was not rational. However, at sixty years old, I felt it was unlikely that I would ever overcome the results of that one nightmare experience.
Life, however, is sweet and the old cliché, ‘you’re never too old to learn,’ is a cliché for a reason. With the right set of circumstances, even old dogs can learn new tricks. In a serendipitous set of events, while my daughter was visiting me, she got an emergency call from her boss. An important project was due at the publisher that day, but the person in charge of getting it ready hadn’t been able to deliver it on time. My daughter asked her boss if she could bring me in on the job, as she knew my years as a newspaper editor and journalist had given me the ability to write and edit with the speed the emergency called for. I’ve been home on disability with terminal cancer for some years and was delighted with the chance to do some writing.
Happily, things went well, which is how later I found myself in the car going with my daughter to the soft-launch party for Global Gals®, the sister company to WorldWide Connect®, the international company my daughter worked for. I was excited about the event because I knew its special significance. After working on the project, I got to meet my daughter’s boss, Brenda McGuire, the founder and C.E.O of both companies. I learned that she had shared her idea for Global Gals with her dad and gotten his enthusiastic, “It’s a great idea! Go for it,” just days before he was diagnosed with stage-four cancer. Only 13 days after the diagnosis, Brenda’s father, Harold Hagan, passed away. Both Brenda’s parents had supported her dreams of travel, yet, as is often the case between dads and daughters, Harold always had a special way of letting Brenda know he believed she could do anything. Father and daughter even took a safari together to Africa.
As my daughter Alyce and I drove into Des Moines for the party, I was thinking of everything the event meant. I was moved by the courage behind the formation of the fledgling company. Shattering as the loss of her father was, empowered by her father’s excitement when she presented him with the concept, McGuire forged ahead with plans for Global Gals. She dedicated the company to her dad, motivated by a strong desire to create something that would give women the sort of support and inspiration to travel that her dad gave her. Though Global Gals® wasn’t totally ready to be introduced to the general public at that time, the soft-launch party we were headed for was being held on March 6, the day Harold Hagen had passed away the previous year. I knew it would be an emotional and difficult day for Brenda and for her mother and brother. I felt a particular affinity for Brenda’s desire to honor her dad because living with cancer makes you very aware of the reality of loss.
Still, thinking about the courage embodied in the soft-launch celebration, I felt a bit like a fraud going to a party for a new company that was all about women traveling when I couldn’t step foot on a plane. I thought about a trip that my daughter and I had taken to Chicago years earlier. Delayed and terribly late, the train, once it arrived and boarded the passengers, went to maximum speed over badly maintained tracks to try and make-up for lost time. As we sat in the dining car eating our supper, the train was swaying from side-to-side so violently, the doorway linking the dining car to the next car, would swing clear out of sight with each crazy cycle of the careening train’s swaying movement. My daughter, who was back in the states after years of living in multiple Asian countries, looked at my smiling face and said, “Mom, you truly do have an irrational phobia about flying! You’re sitting there with a big grin on your face and this train is more terrifying than any airplane flight I have ever been on!”
At the time, I laughed her comment off, thinking she was just spoiled from riding on the luxurious Japanese bullet train. On the way to the party, though, I knew she was correct in labeling my phobia of flying as irrational and I slouched low in my seat as we pulled into the parking lot of the building where the party was being held. I knew Global Gals was all about helping women make their travel dreams come true and I had to try and shake off the feeling that I didn’t belong at the party, since I knew that most of the women attending were global travelers. While my health had given me the perfect cover for not traveling, I knew the truth—even if I weren’t ill, I wouldn’t travel far. I would have climbed out of the car with a lot more enthusiasm if I had known that my world was about to undergo a Global Gal’s style transformation.
Once inside, Brenda’s natural warmth and energetic enthusiasm swept me up in the excitement of the event. Alyce and I were there to help decorate, which was a lot of fun, and I quickly forgot my lack of long-distance travel experiences as we hung posters and debated arrangements. When women began arriving, there was such a delightful mix of ages, backgrounds, nationalities and ethnicities, it was clear, even at that ‘earliest of beginnings’ that the concept that was Global Gals was something vibrant and enriching. Various women from around the world stood up and talked about how they knew Brenda. I was enthralled by the stories of shared cultures, amazing meetings, and changed lives. Then Brenda stood up and began to tell her story and there is a reason Brenda is a sought after speaker. I’ve come to think of her as ‘the sunshine girl.’ Though she grew up in Iowa, smack in the middle of rural-America, Brenda always had a dream to travel and her parents—who weren’t wealthy, who were just normal working folk— supported that dream. Her community and family somehow taught her not to dwell on the impossibilities, but to instead work for the possible. She was still young, yet her life was amazing. I have to resist putting ‘amazing’ in all caps.
Her international travel and business career spanned 25 years. She earned a BS in Psychology and International Relations from Iowa State University and an MA in International Communication from Macquarie University in Australia, all the while traveling. McGuire told about living and working in Japan, Australia, the U.K, Ireland, the U.S. and Switzerland; traveling to more than 70 countries (at the time); often traveling on a shoestring budget; sometimes visiting places people don’t normally go like an untouchable’s village in India. Listening to Brenda speak, I never had the sense that she was bragging. No, she was just telling her story, thanking the people who had helped her, and explaining how all her experiences led to Global Gals, a company created from a desire to help women make their travel dreams come true.
Listening to Brenda and the other women talk about their experiences, I saw the immeasurable richness of meeting people from different backgrounds. In McGuire’s story, I also saw courage. Words are powerful, stories shape our lives, and sincerity gives power to words and stories—power to transform. As the evening wound down, something new was stirring in me. I was thinking about all the times Brenda McGuire and my daughter and all the other women in the room had gotten on a plane and survived it. It may sound hilariously stupid, but it wasn’t just a desire to experience some of what the women at the party had experienced that was transforming me, it was the sheer number of times Brenda had ‘survived’ traveling on a plane that suddenly overwhelmed my fear of flying. While people were saying their goodbyes, I was standing amid the crowd vowing to myself that I would fly!
I like to think that perhaps I am the first person that Global Gals helped to make a travel dream come true. I did fly. A few months late my flight left Des Moines, Iowa at 6:00 in the morning and the Chief Global Gal, Brenda McGuire, astonished me by showing up at the airport with her signature big, warm smile to walk me through the process (which I needed), snap photos, and wave goodbye. Where did I go? Well, that’s the next story.