Travel StoriesPosted: April 20, 2012
By John Littlefield
Travel as an Air Force brat was always an adventure. Depending on where your dad was stationed depended on the kind of transportation that was going to be available to you. My dad was stationed in Germany after serving in Viet Nam. We left in 1969 (when I was 13) for Wiesbaden, Germany from Richardson, Texas. We lived in one of the three major housing areas in the Wiesbaden area. The housing areas were huge buildings with 6 apartments per stairwell, 6 stairwells per building. Our housing area was called Aukamm and it was the farthest housing area from the high school thereby necessitating us to use the school bus. German law only allowed two POV’s (Privately Owned Vehicles) per family. That meant that Dad had to have a car to get back and forth to work and Mom had to have a car for everything else. If you had a stateside license when you arrived in country you could take the SOFA (status of forces) course and you could drive. If you came of age while you were there you had to jump through a lot more hoops to get licensed. Not many of my friends were able to drive and no one had a car anyway. However, there was always public transportation: trains, buses and taxis.
As a thirteen year old I was quickly made aware that I was on my own when it came to getting from one place to another. My mom was not the type to cart my butt from one friend’s house to another or needlessly drive anywhere for that matter. To be honest, my mom was a little afraid of driving out on the “economy” (military speak for outside the base perimeter). We always had bicycles but in Germany, the weather was rarely conducive to riding about. In Wiesbaden there were a lot of really steep hills as well. Getting out of the housing area from my house down the hill took about 5 minutes. Climbing up the hill took 45 minutes, particularly miserable when the rain and sleet pounded down. Within a couple of weeks of arrival I found out how to think in Deutsch Marks (local currency) and translate the bus schedules.
Buses were great! They started early in the morning and ran until my curfew (about 10 pm). In Germany there were standards of bus and social etiquette. Children were tolerated only when they behaved civilly in public. I remember going through a German department store and watching a couple of 7 or 8 year olds running through the aisles screaming at the top of their lungs. A German matriarch quickly grabbed the two of them by the collar (damn that old lady was fast!) and started berating them in a rapid fire dressing down that curled my hair. She held them until the mother came and got them. After she released the young hooligans she gave the mom hell for allowing her kids to run crazy. Buses were not dissimilar. There was a hierarchy for standing in line. It was first come, first served except: all elderly people got priority getting on and off the bus. Men were expected to give up their seats to ladies. Also, there were two seats that a young man of my age had better not occupy at any time. Directly behind the driver and right next to the entry stairs were seats that were designated for elderly and infirm patrons. I learned that lesson late one night coming back from downtown Wiesbaden. It was the last bus to get back from the AYA (American Youth Association) club downtown. It was dark and raining outside, I was 14 and alone. I had run to the stop and barely caught the last bus back to Aukamm. I was soggy but grateful to have made it and sank in gratefully directly behind the driver. Two stops later an elderly German lady, folded up her wet umbrella and hoisted herself up the stairs. She pulled out her worn needlepoint coin purse and dropped in the 40 pfennigs for her fare and stepped toward the back of the bus. Instead of rotating left to get to the designated elderly seat she looked right at me with a glare in her eyes and told me to move out. Now, I didn’t speak much German and I don’t think it mattered a whit that I was an American. I really didn’t understand what the heck she was saying and was a little annoyed she was bugging me. Obviously I didn’t move fast enough or soon enough and she drew back her sodden umbrella and whacked the hell out me until I got out of her seat. I never made that mistake again!
Buses were great for local travel. If you had to go to another town there was the train service. I was 14 when I went to my first rock concert. My friend Billy and I had tickets to see Creedence Clearwater Revival in Frankfurt. To this day it just amazes me that my parents had absolutely no hesitation in allowing me to travel at night to another city. Anyway, we grabbed a bus to the train station, hopped the train and landed in Frankfurt about an hour later and went to the concert. It was incredible! We sat on the floor two rows from the band and rocked our socks off. We got out about 11pm and had to hustle to make the last train back to Wiesbaden. We were doing great until we got to our stop and realized that the last bus back to the housing area had left an hour before. There we were; downtown Wiesbaden, dark and late at night with no buses available and no money for a taxi. We started hoofing it from the bahnhof, still reeling from the concert, with no real idea how far from home we really were. I don’t remember how long the walk was but there was never thought of trying to call our folks to get a ride home or that we were in any danger walking home late at night. I do remember that the walk took us through the darkened city and out into the suburbs of Wiesbaden. We tried hitch hiking for a while but there weren’t many cars out. We did hitchhike on a regular basis and it really wasn’t considered a big deal. It took us several hours to get back home and I went straight to bed. I didn’t check in with my folks, I didn’t have to leave a note that I was home, I just had to get up in the morning and make sure I was ready to start the day at a decent hour.
My Boy Scout Troop used the trains a lot for travel to and from different camping locations. I took a contingent of 10 boys to Kandersteg, Switzerland for a 7 day camping trip. We took all of our food and camping gear with us (boxes and boxes of new fangled freeze dried foods and heavy canvas tents). It was amazing how we were able to haul all of that stuff and go from Germany to Switzerland without a hitch.
As I got older and we moved to England we used public transport even more. English law required you to be 18 before you could get your full driver’s license and the laws were so strict nobody ever passed the driving test the first time. I was only 17 and had to rely on public transport to get me around. My dad was stationed at a little bomb dump base called RAF Welford. It was the ammunition dump for the larger RAF Greenham Common near the town of Newbury—30 miles away. This was a tiny base. There were only about 15 teen agers on the base and we were way out in the English countryside. It was extremely difficult to get anywhere from there. There was a base shuttle bus but it only operated a couple of times per day and it was mainly used to shuttle the military folk back and forth from Greenham. Once you got to the English town of Newbury, outside of Greenham Common, you could get on the train to get to London and places beyond.
Our high school was located in High Wycombe near London. Every Monday morning at 4:30 am we boarded a comfortable charter bus with all of our belongings for the week and stopped at several locations to pick up other high school students. The trip lasted about 3 hours and we were dumped outside of our dorm, threw our stuff into our dorm room and headed off to class. We stayed at the dorms until Friday when we made the trip in reverse. There really wasn’t much to do at RAF Welford and a lot of us did not go home on the weekends. My roommate’s Dad was the Marine attaché to the London embassy and I stayed with him on a regular basis or stayed with other friends in nearby villages. I think the second semester of my senior year I only went home twice.
Getting around London via the Underground (“The Tube” as it was colloquially known) was easy and we became experts in navigating the city. We found it very useful not to admit to anyone that we were Americans. If anyone questioned us we told them we were Canadian—we were treated much better. It wasn’t until my senior year that I ever felt any trepidation about traveling in England. That year the IRA bombed one of the train stations and a lot of people died. I was in London at the time and if just seemed like the world changed and we now had to be afraid.
I was accepted to the University of Maryland, Munich campus, after graduation. I packed up my two graduation present suitcases, boarded a British Airways plane and headed for Germany. That was the first time my father ever bought me a ticket. We had considered sending me via Space Available (more on that mode of travel later) but we weren’t assured that I would get there in time for registration. I arrived late in the evening and had to use all of my German skills to get a taxi to get me to the campus on the outskirts of Munich. The other part of this equation was the lack of telephone service in those days. The local phones were difficult to use and expensive for long distance calls. I was able to contact my parents when I safely arrived only because I was able to use the Government phone at the campus and my folks had a government phone in their on-base house. Even then I wasn’t allowed to dial the phone myself. The registrar was a US government worker and she dialed the phone and handed it to me. I was allowed just a few minutes and that was it. I think I only used that phone twice more in the year I was there. All other communication with my folks was via mail (which was free, no stamps necessary).
Getting around Munich was just like London, just in a different language. We hopped trains, subways, and buses throughout the city. The adventure was always in getting home for the breaks. I only went home twice during the year, Christmas and Summer (both trips were mind bending). The other breaks I spent with classmates whose fathers were stationed in Germany.
Christmas break. My Dad had made arrangements for the whole family to go skiing in Spain for Christmas. This was one of our family traditions and one of the best Christmas presents we got every year. But the trip was to take place about a week after school let out and I could not stay in the campus dorms during that week. There was no choice but for me to get back to England and then go with the family to Spain. Since I had the time it was decided I would take a train to Frankfurt and “hop” over to England on a military aircraft. As a dependent I could use military transportation free of charge by signing up at the terminal on a standby roster. There was a priority system for travel and dependents were pretty much the lowest on the totem pole. Military members on orders, military members on leave, retired military and then dependents were the order of precedence for Space Available (Space A) travel. Nothing was guaranteed and you were taught to not expect anything. You would sign up for your destination and hoped for the best.
My trip began with two suitcases, a pair of ski boots, and a brand new pair of 205cm skis. The skis were taller than I was and the boots had their own metal rack with a handle. By tying the skis to my back with some strapping I could grab the two heavy suitcases and the boots and waddle about 100 yards before stopping and catching my breath. We grabbed a late train out of Munich and headed toward Frankfurt. There were about ten of us heading out together and as soon as we were all piled on the train we started drinking beer. It was only a couple of hours ride to Frankfurt but we were not feeling any pain when we arrived. We piled out of the train station and hustled to the base via several taxis. We all signed up for Space A. When we put in our destinations there were two categories; specific base and country. I knew that putting in a specific base would lessen my chances of getting back to England so I chose the option of just putting in Great Britain. Even if I landed in Scotland I could still get a train back home.
The clerk told us right away that there was only one scheduled plane for England that week and it was going to be full of military passengers. We all knew there were always unscheduled flights and it was disappointing news but not the end of the world. We looked for a secluded spot we could stash our gear and get comfortable in the terminal. The chairs were plastic and welded together and the floors were cold linoleum. The local Military Police kept a pretty close watch on us and cruised by our encampment on a regular basis. The rules stated you were not allowed to sleep in the terminal but we really didn’t have any place else to go. We couldn’t afford a hotel room and if you left the terminal you were in danger of missing an unscheduled flight back home.
We made the best of it by playing cards, reading, telling stories and guarding our sleeping comrades while they snoozed under the seats. We ate sparingly in the terminal cafeteria. Sparingly because we did not have much money and the food was bloody awful! Occasionally a couple of brave souls would travel off-base to get some bratwurst and brochen (hard german rolls) and they would bring them back in paper bags. Of course, we were also sparing our change for beer.
After two days of living in the terminal and running low on cash a couple of my group called their folks and begged them to pay for a commercial flight home. They left within a couple of hours and we felt slightly betrayed. The rest of us dug in our heels for long stay and checked with the Space A listing every couple of hours. The next night about 6 of the group had had enough and told us they were heading downtown for a decent meal, some music and some beer. Four of us stayed behind. I didn’t have much money left and I really didn’t want to leave the terminal in case a flight came in. About 10pm that night an unannounced flight came in from the Far East. It was a C-130 and was only going to be on the ground for refueling and it was heading for RAF Lakenheath. There was no way to get in contact with our friends downtown and no way to secure their gear. We piled it into a corner and grabbed our own stuff and headed out onto the tarmac. The loadmaster strapped our stuff down to the floor and directed us to the seats along wall of the aircraft. The seats were thin hammocks of red nylon suspended from the bulk head meant for troops heading into harm’s way. We strapped ourselves in and the engines fired up. We huddled in close together for warmth and hoped the heaters would kick in before we got to altitude. The plane was full of cargo running down the center of the aircraft and we were the only passengers scrunched in along the side. The loadmaster was an unpleasant man that looked at us like we were communist sympathizers with our long hair and bedraggled condition. We were kind of used to the attitude and tried to make the best of it. As we settled in at altitude we were allowed to unbuckle ourselves and stand up. You could feel the heaters pumping hot air down but it never reached your feet. A couple of folks stood on the seats just to get their feet off the cold floor. One of our braver compatriots went forward and asked the loadmaster if he could crash on top of the cargo. Surprisingly the permission was granted and we all scrambled on top of the cargo to get closer to the heaters and lay out. I think we all took a nap and were comfortable for the first time in days. On our approach to Lakenheath the loadmaster ordered us down and we strapped into the seats once again. The weather was typically rough and the plane started bucking around pretty hard. The pilot was saying something over the intercom but he was drowned out by the engines struggling through the turbulence.
I was watching through the port hole window as we did our final approach in the dark. Just as we settled into the final descent, one of the outside engines coughed and sputtered to a stop. The C-130 is a prop driven cargo plane with 4 engines, two on each side. It was just my luck that I was looking through the port hole on the side with the bad engine and watched it stop rotating. The plane yawed to the left and the other three engines were throttled up. We skipped the approach and went around for another attempt. The pilots turned us back into the turbulence headed toward the flight line. It was very frightening to see the pilots and the loadmaster tightening their straps as we made our final approach. We finally set down in downpour with no damage. Of course, we could not just walk over to the terminal and be done with it. We had to grab our own bags and equipment and walk through the rain to the terminal. One of my friends was stationed at Lakenheath and his dad came to get him. They actually lived in a little town near the train station called Bury St. Edmunds and his dad was gracious enough to give me a ride to the train station. There was only one catch: he had a really small car and it did not have a ski rack on top. We strapped the skis to the roof with some parachute cord and piled all of our suitcases into the boot (British for trunk) and it too was tied shut with parachute cord. Thankfully the train station was not far and everything survived the trip.
I got on the next train to London and stashed all my gear. By this time it was early morning and I was exhausted. It never occurred to me that the timing of my travel could not have been worse. At each stop, as we approached London, I was noticing that more and more people were getting on the train. As we arrived in London it was the full blown morning rush hour. I grabbed my gear and headed for the Tube. I had to make two changes to get to the correct station for a regular train to Newbury. Needless to say it was very difficult to get into and out of the subway train with the skis, boots and suitcases. I kept the skis strapped to my back and had to be careful not to turn around too fast without ducking down—otherwise I would break out the interior fluorescent lights. I learned that lesson the hard way and hit two lamps and scattered broken glass on several people’s heads. I thought it was going to be a mob scene and someone was going to throw me off the train. Somehow I managed to get to the station and call my dad to come pick me up in Newbury. Without further incident he picked me up and brought me home. About 6 days later all four of us piled into the car with all of our collective ski gear and suitcases and headed to Gatwick airport to make our trip to Spain. The only inconvenience on that trip was the 6 hour bus ride from Madrid to Formigal. I guess the worst part about the whole experience was I broke my new skis the second day we were there.
Summer break. After my previous experience with Space A travel and knowing that the PCS (Permanent Change of Station—where military members and their family transfer from one base to another) season was approaching, I decided to travel back to England completely by train. The trip was mostly uneventful until we arrived in Oostend, Belgium to catch the ferry across to England. Our group had started with about 12 people and many had gotten off the train at various destinations along the way. By the time we arrived in Oostend there were only three of us. It had been a great trip up to that point, with much consumption of beer and wine and promises of everlasting friendship as we dropped each comrade off. By the time we arrived at the ferry we were hung over and not in the most pleasant of moods. One of my compatriots had managed to misplace their passport and military dependent id card. We spent almost an hour looking for the lost items and just as I was about ready to abandon him, he found them in a coat pocket. We piled on to the ferry and ducked inside the cabin. Even though it was May it was still miserable outside. It was raining and the Channel was tipped with whitecaps. People were crowded shoulder to shoulder on the interior and the crossing began. It was horrible! The boat tossed and rolled and people were sick everywhere. It got to the point that I could no longer take the smell and the sound of the retching and I ventured outside. It was cold and wet but fresh air kept me from getting sick myself. Even though I was soaked through I was glad to be ashore and headed to the terminal to get on the train home. I was able to sneak into one of the bathrooms at the station and change into some relatively dry clothing. I made it to Newbury just in time to get a hold of my Dad, who was working in Greenham Common that week, and catch a ride home.
My final travel trail was our much anticipated trip back to the states. We arrived in Germany in 1969 and did not leave England until late 1975. The entire time we were in Europe we did not go back to the States. My brother, sister and I were all raised in Europe during our teen years and we were excited about returning “home”. We had no friends waiting for us there but it didn’t matter. We really weren’t prepared for the amount of culture shock we were going to encounter. Our first clue was when my brother and I ordered a beer on the plane heading back stateside. We had traveled separately from my folks and were scheduled to meet them in New Jersey. The stewardess asked for our id’s to ensure we were 18 years old (no one had ever asked for our ids before!) She then brought us two cans of lukewarm Schlitz beer. We opened the tops, took a swig and asked if we could get the plane diverted back to Germany to get a real beer!
We landed in New Jersey and met up with my dad, mom and sister. Mom and sister got on another plane for Dallas and my dad, brother and I picked up his new car and started driving to Dallas to my grandparents home. Dad had bought a VW Dasher. It did not have air conditioning and was a stick shift. Dad and I were the only licensed drivers and we took turns traveling to Texas. It was a warm spring but not too bad. After two days of travel we arrived in Dallas and spent some time catching up with my grandparents. We all then piled into the Dasher and headed to Dad’s new assignment in Grand Forks, North Dakota. It took us almost three days with the five of us crammed into this little piece of crap vehicle that was never meant to hold 5 full size people. It started getting hot and the windows only provided a blast furnace as we traveled northwards. In South Dakota we literally ran out of highway and traveled a dirt road for almost 100 miles. It was a rough road and got rougher as we went along. As we crossed the border into North Dakota we were amazed how flat it was! My brother exclaimed, “I haven’t seen a pancake lay this flat!” We were glad to get out of the car in Grand Forks and examined the car for any damage. We had broken one of the leaf springs on the rear axle in South Dakota and that had contributed to the rough ride.
We had been disconnected from the US for most of our teen years. The changes that had occurred stateside during that 6 year time span were immense. The gas shortage, the crumbling of the sixties youth movement and counter culture, the ending of the Viet Nam war, were all seen through our eyes through a European lens. We weren’t ardent fans of American sports (we knew who played in each Super Bowl) but we did follow who was going to be in the World Cup. We knew how to play cricket but didn’t have a clue what the teams were in Major League Baseball. Our speech patterns and expressions were completely different from our contemporaries and often set us up for criticism and mistrust. The English used the term “pissed” to indicate drunk. We called car hoods “bonnets”; car trunks “boots” and said “Ta” for thanks. Also interspersed with our language were common German terms: Danke (thanks), Das is clah (that is clear), Das is shade (that is too bad) and Bitte (please).
I started working for carpet cleaning company in North Dakota not long after my arrival and ran afoul of one of the female co workers. In England it is not uncommon call women “luv” if you are familiar with them. The term does not imply anything other than a familiarity with the person and does not imply any kind of amorous attachment. One of my co-workers took extreme offense to my using the term and reported me to management. It didn’t matter that I had addressed all my female co-workers in the same vernacular and that my English accent was still pretty strong. I was given a verbal warning and threatened to be fired if I did not cease immediately. That was the start of my purgatory assignment to the northern frontier of America. I came to loathe North Dakota for its narrow minded outlook on the world and its outright discrimination. In Grand Forks you were either a “baser” or a “towner”. My poor brother and sister were subjected to terrible discrimination and prejudice because our father was stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base. To this day they hardly acknowledge the high school there as their alma mater even though they both graduated from it. My father did not enjoy his assignment much either and went back to Germany within two years of his arrival. He took my sister and mom with him and left my brother and I stateside. I joined the Air Force to get the heck out of Grand Forks and my brother went to the University of Colorado. My sister went to the University of Maryland, Munich campus, where she started her own volume of travel stories.