Monday, March 27, 2006

England, 1970 To 1975

January 1970, Jeffrey was just a year old, and we were off to England. This was another example of the Air Force working in mysterious ways its wonders to perform. During the previous fifteen months I was in the MBA program at Michigan State, and at first I was certain that the Air Force would send me to Viet Nam upon completion. For the past three years the Air Force had told me my next assignment would be Viet Nam. But first I was sent for almost two years to the University of Arizona for a BS in Accounting, then Officer Training School at Medina Annex, Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas for a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant, and then immediately to Michigan State for the MBA program. Somehow the Viet Nam assignment I was “frozen” for never came up.

What did come up surprised me. Ent Air Force Base Colorado. I received a notification from the Air Force Personnel Center in the mail during summer, 1969, that I would be the Budget Officer at Ent AFB, downtown Colorado Springs, Colorado. Marilynn and I were very happy at the prospect of a Colorado assignment. Marilynn was born in Colorado at La Junta, which is in the southeastern corner and is a lot more like Kansas than Colorado. If Dorothy and Toto would have landed there, Dorothy would have told Toto: “Toto, I think we’re still in Kansas.”

Colorado Springs would be totally different. Outside of the San Antonio area – which at that time included Lackland, Kelly, Randolph, and Brooks Air Force Bases – Colorado Springs was the spiritual center of the Air Force. The Air Force Academy is just outside of town, and Ent and Peterson Air Force Bases were in town.

We started planning our move to Colorado, and one of the first things we did was buy a new car. That part was spurred by the massive engine failure of my old car, an American Motors Rambler, which excelled at giving me examples of why American Motors is no longer with us. Michigan State University is in East Lansing, which is as you would expect just east of Lansing. Lansing was the home of Oldsmobile for over 100 years until production stopped in 2004. When I was there in 1968-1969, Oldsmobile was still going strong. In the American car market, Japanese cars were laughed at, and Volkswagen just had the most humorous ads. The big three US auto manufacturers were no laughing matter. They were the unchallenged masters of all that was holy to the American male, and the gas they guzzled only cost two-bits a gallon.

I bought a 1969 Oldsmobile Vista-Cruiser station wagon, with enormous V-8 and optional third row of seats, perfect for cruising across the United States between California and Colorado with Marilynn and sons Bruce, Scott, and Jeffrey. Very soon after taking delivery, another letter from the Air Force arrived in my mailbox. Without any warning or explanation, my assignment had been changed to be the Budget Officer serving in the 81st Combat Support Group, 81st Tactical Fighter Wing, Royal Air Force Base Bentwaters, Suffolk, England, United Kingdom. Notification was soon followed by orders and information about my new assignment. Life got complicated quickly.

My support base while attending Michigan State was Selfridge Air Force Base. As I was preparing for the shipment to England, Selfridge was preparing to be inactivated as an Air Force Base and to be reconstituted as a Michigan Air National Guard Base. My initial paperwork to arrange the transportation of our family and our household goods was boxed up and sent off to I still don’t know where. After a nervous month passed with no progress apparently being made, I started the paperwork shuffle again. We drove to Selfridge on the northern shore of Lake St. Clair, north of Detroit, for passports for Marilynn and the boys, and to start the paperwork to ship our household goods and car to England. That was when I received the unwelcome good advice that I shouldn’t take my “Yank Tank” to England. It was too big for the roads, had left-hand steering in a country that required left-hand driving, and it would be extremely difficult to get spare parts and competent repairs and maintenance. In other words, it would be best to get rid of my brand new car, and buy something more suitable when we got to England. I reluctantly agreed, used the car a final time to drive us back to California on leave after graduating in early December, and luckily found a buyer for it just days before we got on the plane.

The first leg of our journey was flown from San Francisco to Philadelphia, then by bus to McGuire Air Force Base. As luck would have it, we were expected at McGuire. In fact, the guys in the Passenger Terminal almost fell over each other to gawk at the “2nd Lieutenant with a wife and three kids.” And they were also eager to tell me that, since my transportation had been arranged and I had gone off for thirty days of leave in California, the flight schedule had been changed and the plane I expected to leave on tomorrow had left yesterday. But no problem. I was booked on the next flight out leaving in three days. I guess it’s easy for a guy with a car and a house nearby to tell a guy with a wife and three little sons, no car, and no hotel room reserved, that there is no problem with spending an unexpected extra three days at a base in New Jersey in the dead of winter. Fortunately, we were able to get a room on base close enough to a snack bar that we didn’t freeze too badly while walking around in our California “winter clothes.”

We boarded the Boeing 707 and took off for RAF Mildenhall, England, late in the evening on January 13. I was impressed by the d├ęcor of the chartered plane; it was decorated in a Caribbean Islands motif, since its usual use when not chartered by the Air Force was to be chartered by tour companies to fly tourists to the Caribbean. The stewardesses were also appropriately attired for a tropical excursion, wearing high heels, light-weight flowery blouses, and mini-skirts. Little did we know as we climbed above cloudy and snow-covered New Jersey that we were embarking on one of the longest days of our lives.

The first sign that our trip to England was not going to be as simple and uncomplicated as we thought was when the pilot announced that bad weather over England and Germany was going to force us to divert to Cologne, Germany, to unload passengers going to bases in Germany to be taken by buses to their destination base, Rhein-Main AFB near Frankfurt. Those of us going to England would be delivered to RAF Mildenhall on the return flight to McGuire, after picking up passengers leaving Germany who would be bused to Cologne from Rhein-Main.

When we landed at Cologne, we were told we would have to leave the plane briefly so the ground crew could clean and refuel it, and restock passenger drinks and meals. Since all of this would be done quickly, we were advised that we could leave all our stuff on board. Fortunately, we took almost all of Jeffrey’s things with us – diaper bag, plenty of diapers (cloth ones in those days), baby bottles and baby food. We wouldn’t get back on the plane again for six hours.

(The next installment is about The Coach and Horses, Melton, where we lived for many weeks as I learned and intensively performed my Budget Officer duties. Click on the highlighted title, or here, to continue this tale.)

(Or click on the Air Force label below to go to all my stories about Air Force life)

No comments: