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YOKOTA AIR BASE, JAPAN, AUGUST 1990
The ramps are empty. This base is all about transport. The planes that should be filling this acreage wingtip to wingtip are now involved in one of the most massive efforts in the history of civilization; Desert Shield is full up and operational. Real war may be a reality. The cold war hardly over, the thaw of the collapse of the Soviet Union barely felt, and all hell is now officially set to break loose.
But across a relatively small sea from here is the Korean Peninsula, where the cold war has never ended. Each report heard of Saddam's military comes with a ring of familiarity to those in this theater. The same numbers, the same tanks, the same aircraft, the same guns, are all just north of the 38th parallel. Yokota is temporary; I'm inbound to Seoul this time, returning from a brief "business trip" to Japan. And all these missing planes mean one thing to an American toeing that little finish line for the free world: there is no quick back up coming. You are on your own.
Japan, Korea, Vietnam...
A part of the world that for most of the latter 20th century would prove to be the graveyard of too many American dreams, as seemingly endless wars are waged over lines drawn on maps in an effort to appease an "Evil Empire".
Japan thrives. One thing the US invariably brings to its vanquished foes seems to be peace and prosperity. The Japanese have used theirs to develop the Ginza, the most expensive real estate on earth and the epicenter of Democracy Whiskey Sexy for Asia. In twisted irony, our need for allies against that Evil Empire has resulted in our foe becoming the dominant economic force in the Asian Pacific.
Up from the ashes, to be sure. The first American bombs fell on Tokyo in April 1942, four months following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese, driven by Bushido, would prove to be the most bloodthirsty enemy ever confronted by the US. A maniacal fanaticism and worship of an Emperor as a god would result in Banzai charges, Kamikazes, and genocide to a degree incomprehensible to Americans.
So much blood. Not a drop of oil.
Saipan, over 3,000 US Army and Marine deaths, 30,000 Japanese soldiers, and 22,000 Japanese civilians killed by their own soldiers or suicide; victims of lies and disinformation regarding their probable fate at the hands of the Americans.
Iwo Jima, nearly 7,000 Marines would die over a 36-day period to capture a 7.5-square mile island, one Island closer to the mainland. Twenty-two thousand Japanese defenders would perish rather then surrender.
Finally, the Atomic bomb would bring a horrific end to one of the most violent chapters in world history. And nearly fifty years later I would watch the inventors of karaoke practice the art in a street festival near Tokyo.
Yokota Air Base 1991: off duty GI's or their spouses drive cabs, work the BX, stock shelves in the commissary. In contrast to Korea the Americans can not afford to pay sufficient wages to the local nationals to work there. Every GI drives a used Mazda RX7, the wife has a Toyota minivan, purchased at ridiculously low prices. The used car market in Japan is non-existent as seemingly every citizen buys new every couple years. In fact, GIs cruise the local Tokyo trash dumpsters for televisions and stereo components, thrown out though perfectly serviceable by the Japanese who upgrade to current state of the art every couple years.
Peace and prosperity purchased in blood. The reality of the modern world.
Democracy Whiskey Sexy indeed.
Not far away from that tranquil island, as a direct result of those lines drawn on the maps by the glow of the nuclear flash, the sons of those Marines from Iwo would fight their war. And be spat on in welcome upon their return home to the good old USA.
ENDEX; NEAR CAIRO, AUGUST 1987
Those who've 'been there' can recognize two distinct types of jet noise beyond the typical sound you can hear everyday. The first is the horrid piercing whine of the engines of the jet you deploy on; the second is that gloriously beautiful hum of the engines on the jet that takes you home.
Endex: end of the exercise. Pack it up, time to go. Into the van for another quick ride across Cairo; camels, dust, smells, people, donkeys, cars, and buildings from every century since the twentieth BC...
Allah did not will any pedestrians to die under the wheels of our van that glorious day, so we soon reached our departure point. Shortly thereafter we were airborne, bound for Spain for a brief stopover, then on to the US.
Never did get to go to Somalia that trip. And never heard anything other then rumors as to why.
YOKOTA AIR BASE JAPAN, 1991
The empty ramps mean I won't be returning to Korea the way I came six weeks prior. A lumbering, propeller-driven C130 flight across the Sea of Japan (The Eastern Sea to all Koreans forever). And forever was the seeming length of the flight, when the steady drone of the engines, the earplugs to reduce it, and the near-total lack of windows combined to create a strange isolation tank that you exist in for the duration. Or is endure the better word?
No, I leave Yokota by van for Tokyo's Narita Airport, one of the wonders of the modern world. There I board a comfortable flight for the ride home, courtesy of Saddam Hussein.
I relax as the G-Force of takeoff shoves me gently into the seat; soon we are safely away and turning westward into the setting sun. As much improved over my company's aircraft as these big civilian birds are, I still can't help but wonder what we'll do for backup if the ol' NK Horde crosses the border southward in the not-too-distant future.
TORREJON AIR BASE, SPAIN, 1987
Touchdown, then the sensation of controlled slowdown as the pitch of the jet engines on the C141 changes. Nearly everyone experiences those tense, clenched moments until they realize that they are moving at a speed sufficiently slow that they could reasonably expect to survive a bad thing happening.
Then the plane is taxiing.
We the passengers stay on board the C141 - this is a "gas and go". No comfortable seats here. These are like canvas cots along the fuselage of the plane, and webbing similar to old lawn chairs stretched behind us welcomes us to a new definition of comfort.
And Jeeps and other heavy equipment line the center of the plane, mere inches from my knees. One learns quickly not to put one's feet up on a wheel of a jeep, as unexpected turbulence could bring the jeep down with bad results. Presto, feet gone like magic.
"Unexpected turbulence?" I ask a crew dog; "I thought you guys had weather forecasting down to a science?"
He can't hear me over the noise and motions so; I indicate never mind. I try to get comfortable but it's no dice. I read some more Clancy. Man this plane is loaded heavy! And too hot on the ground and too cold in the air and... sorry, whining.
But soon it's go time. All filled up on fuel, my whirlwind visit to Spain is over all too soon. Back to the end of the runway we taxi, then after waiting forever the thrust is applied and our big, loaded, but fortunately jet-driven aircraft begins to crawl down the road to the sky.
Slowly at first, then faster; faster then running, a bike, a car, a train! Sitting facing into the center of the craft there is no gentle push into the seat, the force is sideways to a direction you have no support. The rhythmic thump of the wheels over the sections of runway now at a pace for imminent takeoff.
And that's when it all went black. Lights out and a sudden loss of engine noise, with a massive reversal of G Forces. All in a matter of seconds. Not good, I'm thinking, not good at all... we are slowing very quickly when we were supposed to be nose up.
No one is breathing...
Shots rang out. A pause, then again. No matter how prepared you are you still jump a bit when silence is broken so violently and completely.
It's a military funeral, but not for a man killed in war. This man survived his war, as most do, and came home and married and started a family and worked in coal mines during a brief period when coal was king. He saw turbulent times; mining disasters where good men died, the sometimes bloody rise of Unions and gradual improvement of his own condition and then the onset of a Great Depression. He and his wife raised five sons and a daughter during that time, and buried a son too. They moved through mining camps until eventually getting their own place on a hillside above a creek, with a barn out back, a bit of land flat enough to plant a few rows of vegetables, and thorny berry bushes that grew along the fences. At the bottom of the hill along the road that curved with the creek through the wooded hollow sat a country store. They owned and operated that store for quite a while; the few well stocked shelves kept folks from having to go all the way to town for just a few things.
Up the hollow at the end of the paved road was a district fairgrounds that sat empty for most of the year. Then for a brief and glorious late summer period it was transformed into a fantasy world of light and sound that could claim forever the heart and soul of a 10-year old boy. Years later he'd determine in retrospect that such a place, with its neon-blur eye candy, ear-splitting calliope recordings, and mouth-watering scent of cotton candy, roasted peanuts, and elephant ears may well be among the finest places on earth. Heaven may be that place for me, will have to be, at least on late summer or harvest-time Saturdays as the sun begins to set. And if there's fiddle music washing over it all from some nearby stage as the stars begin to appear in increasingly violet sky and the air is warm but breezy and everyday is Saturday then my joy could be complete...
But in our current world Saturdays become Sundays. And there at the far end of the paved road past the house on the hill above the country store, there just before you get to the fairgrounds that for fifty weeks a year sit so empty and seem so plain and too small to hold those magic things they contain the other two, there sits the church with the steeple and the wooden pews where the man who came home from "over there" in 1918 spent the last 30 years of his life's Sunday mornings. A Deacon of the Church, a medic on the battlefields in France. A medic on the battlefields of World War One who came home to life between wars to raise sons to fight in another. Who could want that? Having seen first hand the horror, he knew full well where they were going. I can only imagine the proud anguish he must have felt. The wonder if the task of straightening the mess that was Europe could ever be finished, and at what cost?
On that day in 1976 as the Nation celebrated its bicentennial and forgot about Vietnam the good man's sons, all survivors of their wars, carried him from his final visit to that church.
The third volley cracks sharply, and echoes off the hillsides, and fades into memory. Taps is played. An end to a life lived well, though not easily, and certainly not soft.
Taps played on a hillside in mining country in America in 1976.
Run with me.
Don't worry if you haven't lately, or don't have the right shoes, this run won't hurt a bit. It's virtual, of course. You can be 10 again, or 12, or whatever age you were when last you ran for the sheer joy of it. I run for many different reasons now and joy is still one of them. I'm grateful that I can run. There's joy in that. I've planned a route. Ready?
We're out the door. We walk across the patio, turn the corner around the house, and in three steps we are in the woods. Here we can start to jog, to warm up. The path under our feet is soft and smooth, the smells are of pine rather then the car exhaust and until we begin breathing harder later the loudest sounds we'll hear are the call of birds.
I start my watch, but the time is important today only as to total duration of this run. It's a short one - half an hour at a fairly easy pace - distance is not important but the hills along the route will separate this endeavor from a truly easy day. This initial stretch is flat though, the surface soft and smooth as I said, and will serve to work out the stiffness and minor aches that keep others on the couch.
A quarter mile through the woods and the scenery changes as we emerge from the trees and enter the farm country, our path now an unpaved 'road' between a horse pasture and a planted field. The surface is flat but uneven, closer attention must be paid to ankle-twisting ground below, especially those stretches where tire ruts are deepest. This is not a traveled road, so grass grows tall and disguises treacherous footing. But eyes can not remain on the ground; we run along a hillside, and though only half way up the view is fine. Hills roll in the distance on the far side of the valley below, fading from green to purple to grey in the distance. On roads below a few cars seem like toys and move slowly through the countryside. The entire scene, even the viewing perspective, is like looking at a model railroad layout on a table. A Gods-eye view of pastoral country, quiet and serene. The parallel to hill country in my past is unmistakable.
A tree line ahead marks the turning point in the trail. We're only a half mile along, but we've been speeding up ever so slightly as we've gone. Now we must think slower as a left turn takes us in an uphill direction. Running at our current pace on this early incline will render the remaining distance a bit uncomfortable. Not a steep hill, but a quarter mile at an increasing grade will still start the real heart rate increase and elevated breathing rate that indicate an entry into "the zone" - the just beyond comfort level I'd like to maintain for the duration of this run. The hilltop is in sight, a final push and we're there.
A ridgeline actually, with a paved, single lane road running along it, a mile-long strip of concrete connecting two small towns. Turn a 360 while jogging in place and claim the reward for every hill climb you'll ever complete: the view.
Ahead the little town grows closer. I'd seen it many times from above, a postage-stamp size town from that perspective, looking for all the world like the perfect German version of a Courier and Ives postcard village offering a year-round look at life in four seasons. Snow-covered winter with smoke curling upward from chimneys gives way to spring when the fields stretched out along the valley are brought to life. Summer arrives and the ground becomes a verdant patchwork green.
Autumn follows and the fruit trees planted neatly like soldiers in formation on the hillside are ready for the harvest. I'd never visited this side of the ridgeline until just a couple days ago when I saw the village transform from matchbox town to real as I descended on this road. Now we enter it together. See the large, two story houses on either side of us? Old but solid, and the closer to center we get the older they appear. These small German towns survived two World Wars, mostly without physical damage; the battlegrounds were in other countries and there was no industry here to attract allied bombs.
The comparison to hill country towns in America is unavoidable, inescapable. Homes, small shops, and people appear virtually indistinguishable from their counterparts across the Atlantic. Slight variations in architecture and clothing, and Opels instead of Chevys in the streets, but otherwise I'm sure I've found the archetype for many a small American community.
I have a high-detail Atlas of this part of Germany back at the house. Even though it's highway system is the envy of the world, the vast majority of Germany's roads are narrow country lanes, often unpaved and rarely traveled by traffic faster then bicycles. The countryside is crisscrossed with these roads, utopian for those like me who consider the run or ride through this scenic beauty as the highpoint to plan a day around. I scouted the route the other day, before that first trip through this town. I couldn't resist when I saw the symbol for "monument" on the map in the village center. What sort of monument could such a small town boast? Surely there were no more then one hundred homes here, and a hand full of shops. I had an idea what I would find, and mostly I was right. We're approaching it now.
The paved road beneath our feet is leveling out from the downhill, the effort required to maintain forward motion is increasing. A different set of muscles is in use. My stride is returning to "normal". Around the slight bend ahead is the center of town, and though we've said hello to a few folks along the way so far no cars have passed to force us to the side of the road. We'll slow our pace now to prepare for a brief stop at the monument ahead.
And there it is, just across the main street that intersects this one at the center of town. A small fenced area, gravel covered with nice garden type landscaping and a couple benches facing a five-column memorial. The center column is about fifteen feet tall, capped with a crucifix, and bears two dates. I'd assume the first is the founding of the town and the second the date of the erection of this memorial, though based on the state of the engraving on the other four columns it appears older then it reads.
Those other four columns bear lists of names below years. 1914 is the first year listed, then 1915 and so on, until about halfway down the second column a jump from 1918 to 1940. A 22-year break from war deaths, then increasing numbers for every year of the Second World War. Fifty-six names in total, the dead of two world wars from a town that now, 60 years later, consists of about 100 homes, perhaps a few more or less.
What a price to pay. Could any of the few families of this town be untouched? Most of the twenty or so last names are repeated. The last name listed first below 1914 is Schneider, and six more follow, four in the first war and 3 in the second. The supply of Schneiders was lower then, perhaps? Klinks, Wagners, Braums and others are listed. All German names, but all of which can be found in any American phonebook, or any American military graveyard.
My heart rate is slowing; we must resume our run soon. But note this: the last year listed is 1947, though hostilities in Europe ceased in 1945. Are the additional dead based on the year they died, or the year their deaths were discovered? Did they die then from wounds received years before in combat?
All I have are the names. No cause of death, no place of death. France? Germany? Russia? Poland? Jeep wreck, gunshot, plane crash, disease? The people of this town don't need that, I suppose. They know. And this strange American in their midst will not ask them. Not today. A quick prayer then and we're off on a different road out of the town.
It does not take long to exit that speck of a village, that small cluster of humanity that seems to have paid a high price for the madness of a few. The road rises slowly out of the valley once the last of the homes of the Schneiders are behind us. We are gradually climbing up the far side of the narrow valley from which we entered. We are passing the fields and orchards we viewed as a distant patchwork quilt from the opposite ridgeline, and the incline is becoming steep. There are no farm houses here, for farmers live in the villages and work the fields. Currently there are no farmers out; we have the world to ourselves here.
Save energy, for after this long steady climb we'll have a choice. We could enjoy the view briefly then turn and take a straight and steep route back into the valley, then immediately climb straight to the top of the first ridge, then down to home. This is the shortest route, but neither the climb nor the descents are easy. The other option involves following this road, which you may notice is now rough and crumbling pavement, along the ridgeline through about 3/4 of a mile of dense and scenic woods to where it intersects the first ridge, then following the road along that ridge to our point we first joined it, then down the hill to home. Slightly longer but no steep climb. We can decide once we hit the top. We can't stop now though, we must after all, get home.
Please don't complain. After all, you agreed to join me on this run. You may feel better if you take in the view as we climb out of the valley. Spectacular. And not uncommon for this area. This beautiful and now serene part of the world has changed hands a few times in a once seemingly endless series of wars between Germany and France, and clearly a significant number of people in that town below us felt it was worth dying for.
I researched the name Schneider after my first visit there. It's literal translation into English is cutter, but its meaning is actually "German, occupational name referred to the tailor who made and sold outer garments." So Taylor then, for the English equivalent. I don't know any Schneiders, nor any Taylors, though I'm sure I've met several over the years.
Keep moving... we're almost at the top...
Did you know 17 Schneiders have their names etched in stone on the Vietnam Memorial Wall? I started counting 'Taylors' too but quit after 60. Seventeen Schneiders died for America in Vietnam. None were from West Virginia. Parts of Germany look a lot like West Virginia. I have an uncle who agrees with this. He spent some of WWII here as a POW.
Top of the hill at last, and I don't know about you but I'm sucking air and my heart's pounding like a jackhammer. A cliche, I know, but true, so I said it, though I can't talk too well right now. We'll go slowly until we return from this anaerobic intensity level, okay?
During Vietnam, West Virginia had the highest casualty rate in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. The state had 711 casualties -- 39.9 deaths per 100,000 people.
I did not know that before today. Just discovered that fact on The Wall page. West Virginia rightfully doesn't brag about it.
When my grandmother passed away some years ago the family spent long hours in that house on the hill sorting her lifetime's accumulation of things. My wife found a bible that belonged to my uncle - he did not want it. It's a hardcover, but showing its age, and probably signs of the rigors of its journey to that house. It's English language, King James Version...
And stamped on the inside cover is the imprint of the Stalag where he spent the latter part of WWII, having been shot down over Germany on a fighter mission.
I've brought that book back to Germany where it sits on a shelf in my living room. near a picture of my father in his army uniform from WWII and my Grandfather in uniform from WWI.
In my living room in a house in a small town in Germany; surrounded by hills and forest and tranquil beauty. What would be the thoughts of those who made this possible, at such high cost, to look upon this now?
Look at the view now. Did I promise you it would be worth the climb? You can see nearly the whole course we've run, stretched out behind us and over there on the far ridgeline. And look there, that's the road home, the route is in plain view. Or that longer route, if you'd prefer. It's mostly viewable except for the bit in the trees up ahead. I always tire a little in the valleys, when so little of the course is in sight. How is it I get an energy boost at the top of the hills when I can see the entire road, where I've been and where I'm going? Why are the valley roads sometimes such a chore? I know the road is there, why do I need to see it?
Part of the human condition I suppose. Come, rest awaits us at home, by the fire.
Though we've still got a long way to run.
The hillside service has ended, a folded flag has been presented to a grieving widow. This woman married a doughboy home from France and stayed married to him well over fifty years. He sent her letters home - his pet name for her was 'buddy', perhaps not extremely romantic, but obviously they were very much in love. I was privileged to read a few of those letters, but when he died she burned them all. A family tragedy. She will carry on without him for over ten more years but then join him in a place where one day I hope to see them both again.
A place that should look, at least sometimes, like that long ago fairgrounds on that Saturday night.
The mourners slowly depart. Evening is settling in. Time to go home to massive amounts of food made by folks from up and down the hollow. A few more days later still it will be time to leave these hills for the flatlands my family calls home.
By this bicentennial year only one of the man's sons still lives in his home state. The rest for the most part left in uniform for WWII and never really returned. Two served as pilots in the Army Air Force from that point through Korea and beyond Vietnam, and were only recently retired at the time of that funeral. One of them was shot down over Germany and spent more time there then he wanted, and then served all those years beyond. Another was an Air Force Weather Forecaster who moved on to a PhD and success elsewhere.
All drifted away and only one came back. And he by choice. And now, today, all their children are grown and scattered, and in some cases their children are too. And I'm not sure if more then two live in the same town anywhere. To the best of my knowledge, most are doing quite fine, thank you. Ain't that America?
But on that day in '76, one of those briefly returned sons stepped a little apart from the rest of the mourners, stooped and retrieved some objects from the ground. He moved among his nephews, and handed something to each.
I looked in my hand at the brass casing ejected from the rifle in the salute. I wondered if I would ever serve in uniform. I grew up in a time when this was not always a choice, in a nation with a draft, in a world where war in Vietnam was an ever present reality, ending truly with the fall of Saigon just a year prior to this funeral. Even then, in my mid-teens, I felt fortunate that the conflict had not claimed me or any one of my family; I grew up quite sure of the likelihood that it would.
I said thank you. I pocketed the cold brass. I got in the car and we drove back to the house on the hill above the store. My dad drove; my dad, class of '42, had served briefly in uniform before he came home and married the daughter of the man we had all said farewell to that day.
Married her and moved to a city with its own tall monument to the dead of many wars, in the midwestern flatlands where the sun sets behind tall buildings with fewer trees and no hills to block the view.
MORE TO COME...
Thank you.Posted by Peter at January 18, 2004 04:07 AM
Happy Birthday to yoooo! Happy Birthday to yoooo! Happy Birthday dear Johnyyyy! Happy Birthday to you! Tried to do this Sun. night, but better a day late than not at all. Hope you had a wonderful day. Saw an interesting parade in Minden yesterday. At first I thought it was a MLK Day parade, then I realized it must have been because it was YOUR birthday! I guess LA misses you a lot(and so do we)! Much love to you little bro. Glad to see your site is back up.Posted by Bigsisevengrayerhawk at January 20, 2004 05:18 PM
I can't wait till the next installment. I have been lurking around your blog for a month or so and decided to read Democracy Whiskey Sexy? from start to it's latest.
I'd like to link your blog to a bulletin board with a few ultra left wing X-generation idiots that wouldn't know from "Shinola".
Thanks for being here for our Country! May God bless and keep you!
Mike EymannPosted by Mike Eymann at January 22, 2004 07:23 PM
Ah, MilAir. Ever hopped around Europe on a C-9? Up->down->up->down->divert, etc. Fun stuff.
Never had the power loss you describe, though. That usually happens on tropical islands. Never could figure that out. :)Posted by Ian at January 23, 2004 07:48 PM
You're back! Yeah!
Great stuff here - thank you!Posted by Tammi at January 23, 2004 08:45 PM
I remember Korea in '51. Twenty one days by troop ship to Japan. Train to Sasebo. Sasebo to Pusan by boat with tatami mats on the troop deck. Pusan to Taegu by train with hard wood benches. Taegu to Wonju I don't remember, surely truck. Cold c-rats all the way.
The average American cannot comprehend S. Korea in '51. Mud huts roofed by straw or whatever could be obtained. Cardboards walls or whatever kept out the cold. Mud 4 inches deep aound the homes and the roads were uncrossable. These people for the most part were Koreans who made that long walk from N. Korea, voting with their feet. I wish I could take Moveon, Democrat Underground, Jane Fondle and all these frigging liberal back to those days.
We had boots of split leather half laced and top half buckled. Leaked like a seive. Used the dubbing for sterno. Field jackets with no liners. No mountain sleeping bags. We snapped the poncho together, slipped the sleeping bad inside the ponch and crawled in. No gear because wars were supposed to disappear.
I remember guarding the downtown area of Wonju, seeing the despair, hunger and living conditions and thinking "Thank God, my country is the greatest country in the world. We are the luckiest people in the world." Here I am 73 years old and such a happy person because of me and so many others have answered the call.
Posted by Al Bullock at January 24, 2004 02:31 AM
Thanks for your service, and for sharing your thoughts.
Fifty years later and South Koreans can boast of a much improved lifestyle - curtesy of you and guys like you. An amazing place, and a huge contrast from their cousins north of the border, whose lot hasn't improved much (if at all) from your time there. I think there's a great lesson to be learned in that. (In fact it will be the main point of the final part of this story.)
But I'll add that all those years later upon returning home the feeling is still the same - America is the greatest nation on earth.
Thanks again, Al.Posted by Greyhawk at January 24, 2004 03:13 AM Hide Comments | Show/Add Comments in Popup Window(7) | (Note: You must refresh main page to view newly posted comments here)