A Chat with... Bobbi Phelps Wolverton
DARIEN — Bobbi Phelps Wolverton’s mother never discouraged her. Whether it was taking her on a picnic on top of the fire station or supporting Phelps Wolverton while she decided to travel the world and work as a flight attendant, her mother’s encouragement left the 1961 graduate of Darien High School with a sense of freedom, one that landed her literally in the middle of a war when she was 25.
After graduating secretarial school, the Darien native began working for World Airways and, in 1967, took a solo trip around the world, which inspired her first book “Behind the Smile.”
“My mother was definitely one of those people that said go for it,” she said. “She would always encourage us. Consequently, I didn’t have ropes telling me that’s not a good thing to do.”
Phelps Wolverton wanted time off, so she said she broke her leg and took a six month leave of absence from the airline to travel the world. In June 1967, six weeks into her trip, Phelps Wolverton arrived in Cairo, early in the morning after traveling in Pakistan. She had no idea Egypt had been closed to tourists for two weeks due to the impending Six-Day War, the third of the Arab-Israeli wars.
“I just assumed because it was so early in the morning, there was no one in the airport,” she said.
Phelps Wolverton went to the Hilton Hotel where she was staying for the night, did her laundry and then left to pick up her mail from a delivery service. When she arrived, the manager was shocked she was there.
“He greeted me with, ‘What are you doing here?’” Phelps Wolverton said. “That’s when he told me war was imminent and I shouldn’t be alone.”
The manager took Phelps Wolverton back to her hotel where she met a man from Austria who the manager asked to look after her. For the next several days, the pair went sightseeing, rode horses in the desert and sailed the Nile. But the following Monday around 9 a.m., the air raids began, declaring the start of the war on June 5, 1967.
Employees of the hotel quickly went around and began knocking on doors, trying to get guests to safe locations.
“All the electricity was out and I was on the eighth floor,” Phelps Wolverton said. “I had to walk on an open, grated fire escape to get to the basement. At the basement I found out I was the only tourist. Everyone there was either a diplomat, businessman or media — so that was it.”
Phelps Wolverton was the only tourist stranded in the area at the time. She and the rest of the group remained locked in the basement for several days before American soldiers — the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet — came to rescue them. The fleet took half the group to Alexandria. There, they received a less-than-warm welcome.
“Because we were non-Egyptian, none of the hotels wanted to have us,” the Darien native said.
Finally, they found a waterfront hotel that would accept them. Phelps Wolverton was going up to her room when the harbor suddenly got bombed.
“I got down on my hands and knees,” she said. “You couldn’t see anything, it was pitch black.”
Phelps Wolverton crawled down the stairs to the blown-out dining rooms where she grabbed some chicken off an abandoned plate — she hadn’t eaten in hours — and hid in a closet with another man. As she hid, men with rifles burst into the rooms.
“That was very, very scary,” Phelps Wolverton recalled. “If they ever found us, [the other man] would’ve been killed and I would have been raped.”
Phelps Wolverton was eventually able to flee the hotel unscathed in a taxi and, with other foreigners, hid in the two-room home of the wife of a Fulbright scholar until she could be taken to safety.
“I felt like Anne Frank,” she said. “We couldn’t let anyone know we were there.”
Two days later, Phelps Wolverton and three other foreigners she was with left Egypt in the middle of the night on a U.S. Navy ship.
Heading to the harbor was the second time Phelps Wolverton said she truly felt frightened during her venture. As they drove to the Port of Alexandria, they passed through an Egyptian military base where they were forced to hide themselves by ducking and covering themselves with their jackets but Phelps Wolverton was still able to see a man hanging in effigy.
When they arrived at the ship, Egyptian customs officers went through their luggage. Phelps Wolverton had all the film from the first part of her trip taken and an elderly British gentleman with her had his gold watch taken while the Egyptian soldiers mocked him.
“He just stood there and cried,” she said. “It was really sad.”
The 6th Fleet brought Phelps Wolverton and 567 passengers across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece.
Meanwhile, back in Darien, her family knew she was in Egypt and were frantically contacting the media, asking people for info on her whereabouts, taking advantage of their close relationship with their Leroy Avenue neighbor who owned The Darien Review, the local newspaper that would eventually become Darien News. It wasn’t until Phelps Wolverton wired them from Europe that they knew she was safe.
Despite the peril in Egypt, Phelps Wolverton continued her trip. She went on to hitchhike through Kenya and other parts of east Africa.
“I was so young and so naive,” she said. “I still am naive. I do things not according to anyone else, but the way I want.”