I'll be home for Christmas, part II

Our C-130 landed at Seeb North, Oman, in the middle of the night.

A bus with the rear half of its rows of seats removed to take baggage carried us from the flight line to the SF shop, where we checked our weapons into the host-nation safe.

The bus then brought us to the pax terminal, where Rick and Vic were waiting for us. Vic refused to speak to me, for reasons that will have to wait for another story and another day. They took us to midnight chow, where we ate the first real eggs we had known in about two months. The TCNs, though clearly Muslim, even cooked and served bacon to us.

"All the transient racks are taken, so you'll have to catnap in the pax terminal," Rick said. "You think you'll make it home for Christmas?"

Advon felt it a sure thing, but for him, home was a straight shot down I-25 from Cheyenne. For me, home and Christmas would be a harried backtrack from Cheyenne to Denver to Buffalo. Nor could I stop in Buffalo on the way home: until we inprocessed back at our home unit, we were "on the books" of CENTAF and traveling on their nickel. Our orders were report to, proceed to, return to. Variations authorized, but only on the "proceed to" segment.

We asked what would be the best way to get anywhere. "Germany. From here, everything that might have empty seats will go through Germany. Once you're there, you should be able to find something to the East Coast and then you're on the government travel card."

Vic continued to say nothing, to me at least. An occasional glare though.

We took the bus back from the chow hall in tent city, to the pax terminal near the flight line, where Rick wished us luck and Vic remained silent. "We'll be here until we find the pallet," Rick said, "but we'll be checking on you. Hope to work with you again, but under better circumstances."

"Same for us, Rick. We'll stay in touch." We shook and parted. They rode the bus back, leaving us at the pax terminal.

It was another general purpose shelter, with rows of folding chairs, a giant-screen TV in one corner and a counter at the other. The rows of chairs were packed with DCU-clad GIs, their bags, and more bags. The TV was playing one DVD after another, with the volume cranked up full. One such GI was right inside the door and right beside the TV, sleeping peacefully atop a pile of kit bags.

Behind the counter there were whiteboards, just like those back in Undisclosed Forward Location but more of them. They listed flights that crisscrossed the theater, all by their three-letter base acronyms, like MCT for Muscat (where we were) or TTH for Thumrait, IUD for Al Udeid (GI humor there) or others whose identities should not be gleaned.

We figured out soon that we were looking for RMS or FRF: Ramstein or Rhein-Main in Frankfurt. Enough of them were listed, but just in a few minutes of watching the man behind the counter, we saw them being put up, and stricken down.

"We need to get to the United States," we told the man.

"Lemmeseeyourmilitaryeyedee," he replied to us. No request for orders, or authority to leave the theater, none of that. Just proof of being a GI. He flipped them into an index box holding about twenty others.

"So now what do we do?" we asked.

"Watch this board. You'll go to Germany, on your own from there. Nothing going on for a couple of hours, no place to rack out in tent city, so have a seat." We pulled civilian clothes out of our bags, got the combination to a locked latrine nearby, and showered and changed.

This is how I watched Enemy at the Gates: alternating between watching the movie itself, forty feet away on a bigscreen TV, and stepping up to the boards to watch for flights to get us out of here. Scores of other GIs arrived, took seats, waited, napped, then stood up and trooped out to their planes, while we waited.

This is also how I watched a very dull Sylvester Stallone movie about formula racing.

At the time the next DVD was starting, a medevac flight to Ramstein was forming up. It had cancelled once already that morning, but was back on. A C-141 with space to spare. We interfered with the counter guy's view of the TV until he assured us we were on it. "Three of you on it. You, and you," he said, then pointed to the guy racked out on his stack of mobags, "and him."

Showtime would be another hour or so, and go-time well after daylight. We went outside, and shook the cramps from our legs. I cadged a John Player Special from Advon---the only cigarette I'd had since March of '92---and smoked with him.

"Nobody cares that we're leaving the theater," Advon said.

"Nope. They have enough to worry about getting people in."

"It's gonna be cold there. It'll be cold on the plane too."

So we stubbed the cigarettes and went back inside to pull out our coats.

* * * *

The only cold-weather gear I had, other than a desert field jacket, was the brown pile liner from my GoreTex parka. Advon had a civilian leather jacket.

In the smoking area, we chatted with a Chief who was moving from one base to another, discussing the hardships to be suffered at various bases, and who was running the Readiness shops at them. Once again, an airman with a disco belt and an LMR found us and told us to get our stuff ready. We got our IDs back, piled our bags up out front, and identified ourselves to the bus driver.

As we loaded our stuff into the rear of the bus, I said we needed to get our weapons. This came as a surprise to this airman. "Weapons?"

"Yeah. Guns, you know?" as I mimed a finger pulling a trigger. "We came from downrange?"

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"We told the guy at the counter."

"Oh. We have to hurry." He and I ran over to the host-nation vault, instead of driving the bus there, to sign our weapons back out. And the ammo can.

"Ammo? You have ammo too?"

"Well, the guns don't work too well without it." Remember: Air Force. Air Force members who have even passing familiarity with firearms and how they function are a minority.

We ran back to the bus, slid the cases and the ammo can aboard, and rode out to the flight line, where a 141 was receiving litter patients through the ramp. The airman dismounted the bus, and ran to the crew hatch to hand the manifest to the flight crew.

Then he ran back. "They don't want any ammo aboard."


"That's what I was trying to tell you. There's oxygen on board." For the patients. "They don't want the ammo." As if ammunition explodes in the presence of bottled oxygen?

Hmmm. We're talking about ten bucks worth of five-five-six and nine. We could sign the ammo over to the SF here on a 1297 and leave it behind. That would be Advon's call, he's the ammo custodian. But the process would take enough time that they could kick us off the flight. This would be unacceptable.

Just then, the airman's LMR squawked. He stepped back off the bus, talked to someone through it for a minute, then came back. "You can go, the ammo can go. We have to wait for the patients to get loaded."

It was full daylight now. The smell of developed city was mixing with those of nearby surf and jet exhaust.

It was then that we discovered that the third guy had no fewer than 9 bags of gear. He was a pararescueman from Moody and had to travel with the whole kit: SCUBA, parachute, field gear, night vision, chem gear, and then some. He was well over his allotted 70 pounds per bag too. If he had ammo in his gear, he wasn't saying. Note to self . . .

We loaded it all, let the loadmasters ratchet it to the floor of the ramp, and found seats on what was going to be a long, freezing flight to Ramstein.

No comments: