Sometimes, love really is in the air.
On Mother’s Day 1976, Pan American World Airways flight attendant Toni Gil de Lamadrid was working as purser on a flight from Washington to London.
She couldn’t help but notice the tall, good-looking young man sitting near the galley in coach class. When food service time came — meals were still served in coach in those days — the man declined to eat. He said he’d just taken his parents out to dinner.
“I thought, what a nice guy, taking his mom out to dinner on Mother’s Day,” the flight attendant recalls.
After dinner in coach, she checked the cabin, started the flight’s movie and sat down in her jump seat. She realized immediately that she was blocking the nice young man’s view.
“So I sat in the empty seat next to the galley, two seats away from him, same row,” she says. The man took off his earphones and struck up a conversation.
After a few minutes, she excused herself to check the cabin again, then sat down in the galley, worrying that the man might feel he was stuck with talking to the flight attendant.
Just before the flight arrived in London, the young man walked up to the her and asked her to join him for dinner.
“To tell you the truth, I had been flying for 10 years then and had decided not to accept any invitation from passengers,” she says. “It had been my experience that mostly they were after something more than a nice dinner with a young woman.”
But against her judgment, she accepted the dinner.
“He took me to a wonderful French restaurant, where we had a fabulous dinner and a chatty evening,” she recalls. Turns out the young man, Ted Spalding, was an offshore oil engineer and traveled a lot. “By the time we realized it, the restaurant’s floor was being vacuumed, all the chairs were on top of the tables and we were being stared at with a time-to-leave look from the employees.”
At that time, most London bars closed at midnight, but the young man noted that his hotel bar was still open. Would she like a nightcap?
“I thought, oh no, here we go – one of those guys again,” she says. But it she went with him to the bar. They had a cognac and talked until 2 a.m. They exchanged addresses, he hailed a taxi for her, and she went to her own hotel.
“I can’t tell you how very excited I was,” she says, “or how very sad. Here I had met this great person but would probably not see him again because he was on his way back to work in West Africa. We would be continents apart.”
The next day she got home to Alexandria, Va., and was preparing to take a hot bath when the phone rang. It was the young man, saying he was staying in London one extra day.
He knew the flight attendant had another flight back to London that day. Could they have a picnic?
“I said yes, that I would bring the food and wine and he would rent the car. So we did, and had a really, really nice time,” she says.
Two months later, she says, the two arranged to spend a week together in Las Palmas, Canary Islands, “where we discovered we really liked each other’s company and ways. We were both in our 30s and pretty sure of what we wanted in a relationship.”
In October, they made a rendezvous in Nairobi, Kenya.
“We toured the city and some game parks, then drove down to Tanzania and hiked Mount Kilimanjaro,” she says. ” The hike was so wonderful I could write a book about it. He proposed to me right there, on Gillman’s Point, on top of Mount Kilimanjaro.”
In January 1977, Gil de Lamadrid and Spalding were married in Virginia. In 1984, Toni Spalding retired, and the couple moved to Austin and adopted a child.
The former flight attendant, who now works as a Realtor in Austin, marvels that although eight months elapsed from the time she and Ted met on the plane, they had actually spent less than a month in each other’s company.
“Most people would think a month is not enough to know someone well,” she says. “We’ve been married for 32 years, and our marriage has been wonderful.”