When she's winging it, Beverly Bleything finds herself in the limelight. The South Laurel resident, a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines, is a magnet for commentary from curious passengers whose safety, first and foremost, she is there to emphasize and re-emphasize.
"You have the most relaxing, calming voice."
"You look like Carol Burnett."
"I mean no disrespect, but will you say 'kiss my grits' "?
"What river is that? Where are we?"
On the last two questions, Bleything says "sure" to the first and repeats the line made famous on the late '70s, early '80s sitcom "Alice." On the other inquiry, she replies, "darlin', I don't know. I haven't had a chance to look out the window."
Her answers are always polite and smooth, her crisp Texas drawl peeking through the syllables.
In a post 9/11 world, where airport security is tight and nerves tighter, Bleything's down-home, refreshing style is a gift waiting to be unwrapped.
On a summer afternoon, Bleything was at home in Montpelier, unwinding from her latest whirlwind trip.
Here's how it went: "My first day, we left at 6:35 a.m. from Baltimore and ran up to Providence, [R.I.]. For the second leg of the trip, we came back to Baltimore, loaded up, and went to Portland, Maine. Then back into Baltimore."
Another part of her three-day schedule took her overnight, first to Hartford, Conn., then to Jacksonville, Fla., on the next night. She particularly enjoys trips to Texas, she explained, "because they've got so many cities so close to each other. We don't climb too high. We call it the 'Texas Two-Step.' "
Bleything, 64, acknowledged that hers "is a different way of life, and it does take getting used to. I wasn't a young chick," when she began her training. "I was 57, and I was only the third oldest in our class."
Before changing careers, Bleything, who holds a degree in fashion merchandising and design, was a territorial manager for a string of brokered companies. She called on retail outlets on local military bases like the Navy Yard, representing companies like Victoria's Secret and Levi's jeans.
After 15 years, she wanted to try something different, something that called upon her creative talent. During her college days in Texas, she went to Germany and Holland as part of a United Service Organizations show.
"I've sung all my life," said Bleything, whose father was an airplane mechanic during World War II, and whose mom was part of the so-called Rosie the Riveter corps that worked in factories during the war. Bleything knew that Southwest Airlines was famous for its singing flight attendants, so she applied and was accepted.
Landing a job like Bleything's at Southwest can prove to be a bumpy ride.
"When we opened up applications for flight attendants in December of last year," said Thais Conway, a company spokeswoman, "it took just two hours for us to receive 10,000 external applications."
Founded in 1971, the Dallas-based, no-frills airline, the country's largest domestic carrier, employs more than 11,500 flight attendants, she added.
On the list of the airline's 10 busiest airports, according to the website, Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall ranks No. 3, with 206 departures daily. Chicago tops the list with 233 departures each day.
"My pride is working for a company where only 1 percent make it," in her position, Bleything said.
Conway emphasized the airline has built a reputation on allowing its flight attendants to showcase their unique talents as part of the required safety briefing. This can be done by cracking jokes, by breaking into song or by letting passengers get a taste of their "other individual twists," she said.
The six-week course covered a multitude of aspects dealing with passenger service, anchored by the memorization of safety information, Bleything said.
"The curriculum is quick-paced, mandated and regulated by the FAA," [Federal Aviation Administration] she explained. "There's no video and you can't read it. You have to know the announcements by heart. You have to regurgitate it in front of audiences; you have to regurgitate it in front of your instructors."
To streamline things, she discovered that using flash cards to get started helped build her confidence and presentation skills. She compared it to auditioning for a play, with one big difference: "These are lines you're going to be saying for the rest of your career."
As part of her training, Bleything said the instructors take students out to a real airplane. "They walk you through a mock emergency evacuation." If you don't pass the final exam, she added, you're allowed one retake.
Mike Bleything, her husband of 17 years, said he was introduced to his wife in 1996 by a mutual friend. Before taking her out on their first date, to Timbuktu restaurant near BWI, "we talked on the phone for four hours. I liked her ease, her honesty. I could just tell on the phone" she was the right one for him, added Bleything, 69, who served 26 years on the Laurel police force. Today, he oversees the parking operation at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring.
When his wife announced she wanted to fulfill her dream of becoming a flight attendant, he gave her his blessing. "I know how important it is to be given a chance to do what you want to do. I knew whatever she was going to do she would do it well. I actually adore her and admire her still."
Her hours, he said, were something they simply worked out together. "When she's not with me at one of the Lions Club events," Bleything remarked, "it's like, 'Where's Beverly?' "
"When I met Mike, I met a whole town," Bev Bleything said. "He is always supportive," she declared. "The absence did take getting used to, I will admit that. I am working a little less now. He understands the system and how it works."
Like anyone else, Bleything, upbeat by nature, has mostly good days. "But the bottom line is, nobody cares if you're having a bad day. I put a face on it. A lot of the passengers energize you," she said, particularly the ones on their way to a cruise ship in Florida. On the other hand, business travelers who find themselves on a flight first thing Monday morning aren't always in high spirits.
Regardless of the situation, she holds firm to the reality that "there is so much to see and do out there."
Occasionally, Bleything sees people who say they recognize her and recall her unforgettable announcements, safety information disguised as stand-up comedy for a captive audience in a tubular concert hall.
Such as this one:
"Okay, folks, I've closed the front door. This Boeing is a goin'. ... As soon as the pilots ding us and say we're clear for departure, I say, 'That ding dong doesn't mean the wicked witch is dead. My mother-in-law is alive and well, and living in Texas!' "