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Two strangers met when their flight was delayed Christmas Eve 1975. Here’s how they became friends for life

By Francesca Street, CNN

(CNN) — When Cathy Poyser heard the announcement that her flight was delayed, her heart sank.

It was Christmas Eve, 1975. LAX Airport. Cathy, who’d moved to Los Angeles earlier that year, was desperate to get back to her hometown of Yakima, Washington.

Cathy had left Washington for California filled with hope and excitement. To 23-year-old Cathy, Yakima seemed confining. She wanted to experience big city living.

“I grew up in a small town, I wanted to be somewhere where there was more to do,” Cathy tells  CNN Travel today.

She’d found a small apartment in the San Fernando Valley that she’d made her own. Her job was good, her colleagues a lot older than her – but all friendly and welcoming.

But Cathy didn’t have any friends her own age. She felt lonely and isolated in the big city. She kept wondering if relocating to Los Angeles alone had been a mistake.

“I was really starting to feel like maybe this wasn’t where I was supposed to be,” says Cathy.

As she prepared to return home to her parents’ house for the holidays, Cathy decided that when she got there, she’d tell them she was moving back for good.

When Cathy joined the line to check in and discovered the flight was delayed, it felt like the final straw – nothing seemed to be going right.

She was trying to shake off her feelings of dejection when the woman in line in front of her turned around, smiled and struck up conversation.

She was in her late forties, with a friendly, warm air about her that endeared her to Cathy right away. Standing next to her was a woman who looked a similar age to Cathy – she smiled too, a little more shyly.

“I’m Millie,” said the older woman. “This is my daughter, Debbie. Where are you heading?”

“I’m Cathy,” said Cathy. “I’m going to Yakima, Washington.”

“Well, we’re trying to go to Eugene, Oregon,” said Millie. “But we’re not going anywhere right now. So why don’t we all go get a drink?”

It was 11 a.m. But Cathy only hesitated for a moment. Millie and Debbie’s friendly presence was an immediate comfort. The three women headed to the airport bar.

Airport friendship

While Millie was ordering for them, Debbie and Cathy chatted. Debbie explained she was 24 and hailed from California – she lived in a town called Norwalk, which is about 15 miles east of Los Angeles, and she and her mother were traveling to Oregon to visit family for the holidays.

Cathy found Debbie easy to chat to. She was funny and friendly. And when Millie returned to the table with a round of drinks, Millie’s vivacious, chatty personality kept the conversation flowing.

It seemed like Millie recognized Cathy’s loneliness. She was, Cathy thinks today, “friend matchmaking” her with Debbie.

“By the time we boarded the flight a couple hours later, Millie had gotten our seats changed so we could sit together and continue to chat,” says Cathy.

While Cathy had a different endpoint to Millie and Debbie, they were all flying on the same aircraft and via the same airline – Hughes Airwest, a now-defunct regional airline linked to billionaire Howard Hughes. The airplane was set to fly along the west coast, making a few stops en route.

Despite the delay and the frustrations of many of the passengers, there was a jolly atmosphere on board.

“We got on the plane and all the flight attendants had Santa hats,” recalls Cathy.

Every time the aircraft landed, disembarked passengers, and then headed back into the air, the remaining travelers were offered a round of free drinks to apologize for the delay.

“Every time we went up, there was another drink on my tray,” says Cathy. “We were in a very festive mood.”

When the aircraft stopped at Eugene, Millie and Debbie disembarked, but not before exchanging contact details with Cathy.

“I said to her, ‘Do you have plans for New Year’s Eve?’ She said ‘No.’ So I said, ‘Here’s my phone number, feel free to call me and you’re welcome to come stay at my house,’” recalls Debbie.

“Suddenly I had a friend who was my age,” says Cathy.

Christmas and New Year

At Yakima, Cathy’s family picked her up from the airport. She was thrilled to see them, but the day drinking had also taken its toll.

“I don’t even remember getting off the plane,” she says, laughing. “I was feeling it by the time I got home.”

When Cathy got back to her parents’ house, her brother and sister-in-law were there too, with their young kids. The family had been waiting for Cathy’s arrival, and were hoping to exchange gifts.

But Cathy promptly fell asleep on the coach.

“I can remember one of the boys – they were, I don’t know, four and six at the time. He came over and was sitting by me and kept trying to wake me up,” recalls Cathy.

The next morning, on Christmas Day, Cathy sat at the kitchen table with her mother. She’d slept off any potential hangover, and was feeling more human again.

“Well, how was your flight, other than the drinking?” asked Cathy’s mom, raising an eyebrow.

“I met these really nice people,” Cathy explained. “They gave me their numbers. I think I’ll call them when I get back.”

She mentioned that Debbie had invited her round for New Year’s Eve.

“That’s great,” said Cathy’s mother encouragingly. “You should take her up on that.”

“Yeah, I think I will,” said Cathy. “I really liked her.”

The rest of Cathy’s festive break in Washington passed in a happy blur of family, food and celebrations.

And when she came to return to California, Cathy found herself feeling excited, rather than apprehensive.

“I had gone from a few days before thinking I might be talking to my parents about moving home. And now I was actually contemplating getting to know somebody and having a friend down there,” says Cathy.

Debbie was excited to see Cathy again too. She never had any doubts Cathy would get in touch.

“I just had this warm feeling about our meeting. And just somehow I knew Cathy was going to call,” she says.

Becoming friends

Cathy did call, and she attended Debbie’s New Year’s Eve party. Afterwards, Cathy stayed over, and the next day experienced her first earthquake. Earthquakes are more usual occurrences in California than in Washington – and Cathy was baffled that Debbie was so laidback about the whole thing.

“She goes, ‘What do I do? Where do I go?’ And I said to her, ‘Cathy, honey, that was nothing. It’s over. Just sit down and relax,’” recalls Debbie. “We’ve been connected ever since.”

“The rest, as they say, is history,” says Cathy. “We just kept hanging out.

After she met Debbie, Cathy’s Californian world opened up. Debbie introduced her to her gang of friends, for one.

“Then shortly after, a couple people started to work where I did, in the spring, that were around my age, and I became friends with them,” recalls Cathy.

“But honestly, Debbie and her mom were probably the biggest reason that I ended up staying in Southern California, because Millie kind of adopted me. I used to tell everybody she was my California mother.”

Millie would ring Cathy up and invite her round for dinner, not letting Cathy leave until she’d pressed Tupperwares full of food into her hands to take home.

Meanwhile, Cathy and Debbie met up regularly as a pair, and talked regularly on the phone in between hang-outs.

“There was always an excuse to go shopping. We didn’t care where we went. We’d even go down to Rodeo Drive – we wouldn’t buy anything,” says Debbie.

“We couldn’t afford anything, but it was fun to wonder,” adds Cathy.

One of their favorite haunts was Dodger Stadium, home of the LA Dodgers. The two friends would spend $4 on bleacher seats and spend the rest of their cash on the 10-inch hot dogs named after the baseball team.

“We loved those Dodger games – but more important, we loved those Dodger dogs,” says Debbie, laughing.

In late 1976, Cathy planned another trip back to her hometown. She decided not to fly this time – partly to avoid more flight delays, partly to save money.

“So I asked Deb if she wanted to go on a road trip and come up to Washington with me and meet my family,” recalls Debbie.

The two friends set off, planning to drive through the night. But it started to rain so heavily they could barely see the road ahead. And then they got a flat tire.

“We got off to the side of the road. It was pouring down rain, no cell phones in those days, nothing. It was getting dark,” recalls Cathy.

Fortunately, a friendly passerby stopped and helped them change the tire. He wouldn’t accept cash, so Debbie and Cathy insisted he take some of the many sandwiches and cookies Millie had prepared for their road trip.

For Debbie and Cathy, this was all part of the adventure – travel mishaps that were embraced, rather than despaired over. After all, that’s what had brought them together in the first place.

When the two friends finally made it to Washington, Debbie was welcomed with open arms by Cathy’s parents.

Debbie’s father had passed away when she was a teenager, and Cathy’s father quickly became something of a surrogate father figure to her.

“I loved her folks to death. The first time I met her dad, he said, ‘Come here kid. Give me a hug.’ They were just a lovely family,” says Debbie.

Later down the line, Millie, Debbie’s mother, also got to know Cathy’s parents. Whenever Cathy’s family were in town, they’d meet up with Millie.

“Her mom really bonded with my parents, and they bonded with her,” says Cathy.

“It was meant to be,” says Debbie.

Connected for life

Cathy lived in California for the next 17 years, remaining close friends with Debbie throughout. In the early 1990s, she moved back to Washington. Her company was opening a new division in Seattle – it was a great job opportunity and also allowed Cathy to be a couple of hours closer to her parents.

“My parents were getting older at that point,” says Cathy.

After the move, Cathy remained good friends with Debbie. She’d still make it down to California for work regularly, and often spoke to Debbie on the phone. The two friends also went on adventures beyond their home cities.

“There were trips to Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm and a memorable trip to Las Vegas to see Paul Anka,” says Cathy.

Today, Debbie and Cathy are both in their 70s. They haven’t lived near each other in over 30 years. But they’ve stayed tight and supported one another throughout the intervening decades.

“I think you have to work at it,” says Cathy, of friendship. “You can’t just take it for granted. And I think the people that have stayed in my life are the ones who are meant to be there. I think Debbie was always meant to be there. And that’s why it’s been easy for us to maintain the friendship.”

“It might not be always once a week, but we do always connect,” says Debbie. “We remember each other’s birthdays – I will call and sing very badly down the phone to her. You have to make an effort, but I believe it doesn’t have to be this massive thing to stay connected. Send your friend a birthday card – or sing badly to them over the phone.”

In recent years, the two women have both had close friends pass away, which has made them all the more thankful for the loved ones still in their lives – as well as the roles played by those no longer with them.

They especially miss Millie, Debbie’s mother, who they always credit for her role in their airport meeting.

“We’ve been through the deaths of Deb’s mom and both my parents and other family members that we were close with, and we’ve both had health challenges over the years,” says Cathy, who went to visit Debbie and cheer her up following a hip replacement.

“I always know I can call Deb and talk to her. And we’ll probably be laughing by the time we’re done with our conversation, which is always a good thing to have in a friend, to kind of pull you out of whatever bad place you’re in.”

Due to health issues – not to mention the pandemic – the two friends haven’t seen one another in person for some years. But Cathy’s planning a trip to California in spring next year.

“I can guarantee that when we do see each other, it’ll be just like we were together the month before and we’ll slide right back into easy conversation and laughter,” she says.

In the meantime, the two friends will be sure to chat on Christmas Eve. It’s something of a tradition for them to speak on the phone that day – partly to pass on festive wishes, and partly to reminisce.

“Cathy will call and go, ‘Merry Christmas. Happy anniversary of the night we met on Christmas Eve,” says Debbie.

This year it’ll be the 48th anniversary of that meeting.

“Clearly it was the best delayed flight of my flight,” says Cathy.

“It’s been a wonderful friendship,” agrees Debbie.

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