The stay in our hanger lasted ten hours, the last five of which I spent buzzing on my cot or walking around the hanger. The amphetamine that I had taken was slow-acting and long-lasting, so it took a while for my mind and body to ramp fully up, and by the time that I got there many of the other G.I.’s had fallen off to sleep on their cots. There was a row of low windows on one side of the building and, on one of my walks around the inside perimeter, I pulled up a chair in front of those windows so that, by sitting on the back with my feet on the seat, I could look out and see aircraft arriving and departing. I would amuse myself by wondering where each arriving plane had come from and where each departing one was going. The quiet of the hanger and the pharmaceutical buzz of my brain made me go from places in my memory to places which I imagined to be in my future, and I practically moved into those fantasies and called them my home.
I thought of my last few weeks at the port, where I had announced to anybody who wanted to listen that I was through with the Army. “Retired” is what I called it. “You can’t retire” my First Sergeant told me. “Well, I have” was my response. I was moved around from one prospective job to another but I was adamant; I was through with the Army and they might as well get used to it. One day Sarge took me out into the broiling sum and pointed to a pile of sandbags resting against one side of the port’s communications bunker. “Move that pile to the other side of the bunker” I was told.
So that’s what I proceeded to do. It was a mindless task but was pleasantly physical and helped me to pass the time. The problem was that the sun was brutal, and after a while I was dizzy and drenched with sweat, and here is where the genius of the First Sergeant showed up. Inside the bunker it was air conditioned, as electronics tend to work as better in a cool environment than they do in the heat. The rules however were that NOBODY was authorized to be in that bunker except for a few people who monitored and operated the radio gear for official port purposes My sad-sack ass was definitely not on the “Authorized” list of people who were allowed to enter the air conditioned paradise which lay only the thickness of a door from where I stood. I began to duck inside anyway from time to time, and because the radioman was a friend he wouldn’t kick me out right away. We would listen to Velvet Underground or the Doors for a while, but then he would urge me to leave, as he could get into serious trouble by allowing me to be caught there. So out I would go and resume humping those by now damned sandbags.
Finally I completed my task and this time, instead of putting my friend at risk, I found a shady corner on the east side of the bunker and sat down in the dirt with my back against the sandbagged wall. First Sergeant eventually became aware of this and came out to inspect my work. “Well done Durden” he said. “Now pick them up and put them back where you found them.”
I was thoroughly pissed, mostly because I had been so completely snookered by the First Sergeant. Fuming, I indolently began to drag one bag at a time from where I had just placed them back to where they had originally rested. I moved at a glacial pace, determined to take until the day I left Vietnam to finish that job, and smarting at having been outfoxed by the First Sergeant in the first place. At one point I ducked back into the commo bunker to cool off but my friend shouted at me “Get out! There’s a general and a congressman or two choppering in within the hour. This place is going to be crawling with brass!”
I returned back to the furnace and resumed my task, and that’s when the epiphany struck me. Galvanized into action, I began to select the greenest, fullest, most intact sandbags that I could find and set out to make a gigantic peace sigh in the red dirt where the helicopter was most likely to land. I was afraid that I would be too late and worked like a dervish to complete my project, and I did complete it with time to spare. The giant sign was all but unnoticeable from ground level, but from the air it stood out like a huge sore thumb. I was once again resting in the deepening shade of the commo bunker when I heard the “Whop whop whop whop” of the helicopter rotor blades that announced the approach of all of that official dead weight who had come to inspect our humble operation.
I can only imagine the stir that my peace symbol caused, because Sarge never mentioned it to me. That afternoon I climbed aboard the bus that would return me to Camp Camelot and I never again returned to the port. I was two weeks shy of my ETS, or Expiration of Term of Service, and spent the first of those weeks lounging in my bunk, sitting in the warm morning sunshine on top of our water tower, and sneaking into the big concrete headquarters buildings a quarter of a mile behind my battalion area, where hamburgers and french fries, air conditioning and flush toilets could be found.
At the end of that week our detachment’s unit clerk came to me in the middle of the morning and said “Get your shit together Durden. You’re going home.” A week early was unheard of but I chose not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Two hours later my footlocker was empty, my mattress stripped down and folded in half on my bunk, and I was sitting in the shade at the 90th Replacement waiting for my name to be called.
These memories of the past, as well as other thoughts about my future, played in my head in that dimly lit hanger as I watched the activity outside the windows slow down. Nearly all of the guys were asleep now, and a low melody of men snoring drifted to my ears. A very few others lay on their cots and smoked. I fell into a place where everything around me blended into an unreal sense of ‘Now’; where past and future were etherial and elusive of grip. Did all of that shit at the port really happen? Am I really going home? Is this just a dream? These and other questions ebbed and flowed through my mind as I sat on the thin back of that chair with my butt becoming numb, and all of them were taking me to places and times other than there and then in a hanger in Japan, still thousands of miles from home.
Well towards morning the hanger lights snapped on, bringing me back to the here and now in the blink of an eye. “We’re sorry to interrupt your beauty sleep gentlemen, but we thought that you might want to go home.” That announcement, delivered by an Air Force NCO, would have brought a cheer from us the day before. Now, after all of our delays and discouragements, we did what most soldiers everywhere would do: grumbled about being awakened, and shuffled slowly into formation, dubious of the Air Force sergeant’s claim that we were going anywhere at all. “When I see it I’ll believe it” growled one skeptic who stood in line behind me. “I wonder where they’ll strand our asses next?” contributed another.
Still, when the word finally came to board the plane we stepped out with an optimism driven by the conviction that they couldn’t do any worse than they already had, and one by one we climbed back into our suspect aircraft and buckled in for the next leg of our journey. Somehow my old neighbor ended up somewhere else on the plane and a younger guy plopped down in the middle seat next to me. He said “Hi”, but my mind was zipping along a thousand miles an hour and I don’t believe that I responded. In a short while we were snug in our seats and the pilot nosed the plane across the base to the end of the runway, and then goosed that old jalopy into gear. Once again we lifted off, this time into the inky blackness of deep night, and began winging our way straight into the direction in which lay our homes.
The drug that I had taken had me vibrating in my seat, keeping me fully awake. My new neighbor was quickly asleep again, his rhythmic breathing contributing to the sense of stillness and night that pervaded the darkened aircraft. I had on my reading light and surprisingly found myself able to concentrate on my book. Periodically I would turn off the light and peer out the window which lay at my shoulder, straining to see the first glow of the new day into which we were flying. Every time there was nothing but black, and I would return to my book.
It is odd, now that I think back on it, how the hours were lengthened by my artificial wakefulness yet shortened by becoming part of a heterogeneous block of time, constructed of pages read, memories reflected upon, plans laid, searches out the window for the reluctant dawn, all stitched together by the sounds of slumber coming from a few score exhausted soldiers. I know it was several hours that passed between lifting off of the runway in Japan and the arrival of the long sought dawn of the new day somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, but they all blended together and seemed to form a warp in time and space that allowed me to slip, barely conscious of time itself, from the blackened sky of Japan to a point where the glow of tomorrow at last appeared in the eastern sky.
At first I could hardly believe my eyes, and I left my reading light off and stared out of the window for several minutes until I was sure. At last I decided that my eyes did not deceive me; off to the east the dawn was coming at us as fast as we were racing towards it. I wanted to leap out of my seat and cheer, but almost everyone else was asleep and I kept it down. After a few minutes the exhilaration subsided and I resumed my reading, looking up every two or three pages to measure the increase in the light that was first glowing in the east, then spreading west across the sky, and now pouring in through the windows.
Guys were beginning to wake up, and none of them seemed to be as excited about the new day as I was. Maybe it was the amphetamines, and maybe it’s because I had sat up all night searching for the glow that would announce the day that I expected to get home, but I felt this new day in a poetic sense. It was a new day in every way that I could imagine! We would be home that day! Don’t you guys get it? Apparently they didn’t get it, and nothing more than a low murmur of conversation could be heard, and that only intermittently over the background muffled roar of the jet engines under the wings which lay outside our windows.
There is one thing that we did hear very clearly though. Once the flight crew informed the pilot that we were all awake we were all called to attention by the familiar voice coming through the crackle and static of the overhead speakers. “We’ve made a change in our flight plan while you were sleeping.” A stunned silence gripped the cabin as the pilot continued with his report. “Wind conditions were not as favorable as they usually are and so we could not proceed due east. We will therefore be landing in Anchorage, Alaska, where we will refuel and you will get a chance to stretch your legs and get breakfast, if you would prefer that to the breakfast which we can provide you here on the plane. We will be landing in three hours and should be on the ground for an hour and a half, two hours at the most. We can assure you that this is all routine and we will once again be in the air and on our way to Travis soon enough.”
Well, that’s not so bad” I said to my new neighbor who had finally awakened. “Anchorage? Where’s that?” “Alaska” I told him. “We’re way north of Travis, but at least we’re on our own side of the ocean.” I resumed looking out of my window and after about two and a half hours we began to drop lower in the sky. At last we began to cross what seemed like an endless mud flat which finally firmed up and became the western end of the airport at Anchorage, Alaska. The pilot taxied up to the terminal and soon the ramp was rolled out to the side of the plane and the door opened.
I couldn’t wait to get outside of the plane and place my feet on American soil! I also couldn’t wait to get into the terminal and buy myself a beer. We shuffled towards the door and when my turn came around I popped out of the plane, and it was then that I received a shock that I had not expected.
I had been in summer for the last two straight years. From May of 1967 until May of 1969 I had been in Texas, San Diego, and Vietnam, and I had not seen the temperature below 70 degrees for all of that time. Now, as I climbed down that ramp, I was dressed in thin jungle fatigues in temperatures somewhere in the low 40’s. “Holy shit!” I cried, and made my dash with the other guys for the terminal before we all froze to death. I made my way straight to the bar and asked for a beer. “You have some I.D.?” “Sure,” I said and fished out my wallet which contained my military I.D. “Sorry kid. You’re not 21”. I looked at the bartender for a moment, dumbfounded by his announcement. “But I’m just getting back from two years in Vietnam. How the hell can I be too young to do anything?” “Sorry kid” he said. “I don’t make the rules. I’d pour for you if it wouldn’t mean my ass, but I can’t do it.”
I fumed big time, but there was nothing that I could do, so I walked around the terminal stretching my legs, cursing the Army, cursing Alaska, cursing all of the people seated at the bar enjoying their drinks and cursing anything else that I could think of that might need a good tongue lashing. A good breakfast could be had at the terminal though, and the amphetamines had worn off to the degree that a plate of sausage and eggs and potatoes and a cup of strong black coffee that weren’t dehydrated and poured out of a box in the back of a mess hall sounded like a good option. I ordered and ate one of the most delicious meals that I have ever eaten in my life. Finishing up, I paid the bill and was unaware of the glare that I received from the waitress as I pushed away from the table and left to line up back at our loading gate. I was very young, and had no idea that one customarily left a little money under a dish as a tip for your server. I hope that her next customer was extraordinarily generous.
At last, the refueling was completed and we raced back through the chilly air to regain our seats in the plane that we were coming to love a little bit more than we had earlier. Once again we buckled in, the jet roared down the runway and climbed furiously in order to get over the mountain that was inconveniently placed at the end of that strip of concrete. In a little while the pilot came on the overhead and announced “we have reached our cruising altitude and the winds are cooperating with us. If we do not have to refuel in Washington State we hope to have you on the ground at Travis by 19 hundred hours. You’re almost home gentlemen.”