I'll be home for Christmas, part III

(This story begins here.)

Eleven hours later, the C-141 landed at Ramstein AB in Germany. It was 20 December 2001, about 1500 hours local. After the usual hurry-up-and-wait, a van dropped us and our luggage at the passenger terminal.

It was a ghost-town. No flights from here except back to the AOR. The civilian employees were preparing to close the place down. Our solution was to get to Rhein-Main, and try to get seats on the last Freedom flight going to the States from there. We signed ourselves on a list for seats on a bus that would take us to Rhein-Main tomorrow morning, boarding about 0500.

We couldn't sleep in the pax terminal. "Let's call Lodging," said Advon. "Luke is with us, see if they have three."

Base temporary lodging was right across the street from the terminal. I walked over, sought a front desk of some kind, and was told I had to call a phone number. No phones here either, so I had to walk back to the pax terminal.

A woman answered. I told her our situation. She asked if we were aircrew. Noooo, not aircrew. Any of us aircrew? I asked, does a pararescueman count? He didn't. The lodging across from the pax terminal was for aircrew. Since we weren't aircrew, we had to use the lodging at the northern end of the base. Come to the front desk there and we'll get you rooms. Just catch the base bus.

The pax terminal was closing, so we had to move all our bags outside to the curb. It was about 1700 now, the sun was down, and it was getting cold. Our bags totaled 17, and I volunteered to stand by with the bags while Advon and Luke went to get us rooms. They trotted over to the bus that was idling a few meters away. Better be quick, I thought. Somebody might drive up and give me grief for wearing my brown "bear suit" parka liner as an outer garment.

My fingers were beginning to numb when I observed that the bus was still idling there. It had not moved. About that time, Advon and Luke dismounted it and were coming back to me and the mound of bags. "That's the last bus tonight and its route ends before getting to Lodging."

"OK, then what?"

Luke was cheerful. "I've got rental car authorization on my orders, I'll rent a car and get us up there."

"Not this load of groceries, though."

"No, we'll figure something out. Let's go, Advon."

They disappeared.

* * * *

The rentacops at the pax terminal, both German women, were hanging around the terminal still, maybe because I was too. There was enough snow on the ground that they started throwing snowballs at each other, laughing, giggling. These girls were old enough to be my, uh, older sisters, but in better shape and flirtier, and with more piercings. One spoke enough English to chat me up. We talked about her GI boyfriend and where he was, when he'd be back, and what it's like to travel at Christmas.

The other rentacop left, and the English-speaker had to return to her duties, whatever those were at a closed terminal.

The wind kicked up a little.

* * * *

My fingers were fully numb, and my toes were winking out, when a stakebed truck pulled up at the outer curb. An airman jumped out and asked if I was Sergeant Pund-, Pun-, . . . Sergeant Fuz? (Note, my real name is a lot like that of the revered Sgt Stryker---easy to pronounce if you know Polish.)

"That's me."

"I'm from Trans, a Sergeant Advon sent me to pick you and the baggage up."

"Great. Swing your truck over here." I started moving the traffic cones that blocked the pullup of the pax terminal from the main road, then motioned the truck into the pullup.

We had thrown the last of the bags on the bed when the rentacopette came up. "Zet vas a beeg no-no, moofing ze cones. Secuuur'ty, you know." She gestured at me by rapping her own forehead with her knuckles as if to say I had done something stupid.

"Sorry, we'll back this out of here right now and I'll even put the cones back." Which I did.

First stop, cop shop to sign the weapons into their vault. The husky black E5 woman inside the little keyhole purred over our M16's, Vietnam era: triangular handguards, pronged flash suppressors, five-digit serial numbers. "Those are collector's pieces, Sergeant."

"Glad you noticed. Merry Christmas, I'll be back at 0430 to get them."

"We'll be here."

Then off to Lodging, which was a ten-minute drive to the other end of base. Advon and Luke were waiting outside, Advon smoking, as we pulled up. "We called Trans an hour ago to get a driver to you. I had to ask for their supervisor and get him on it," Advon explained. "We thought you'd be here 45 minutes ago."

"Sorry to let you down, Advon."

"But we have a rental car, we can get ourselves to the pax terminal on our own tomorrow." Luke added. It was some Renault box, lots of room for a European car but it would have to make two trips to move 3 men and 15 bags.

We shlepped the bags off the stakebed, into the building and up the stairs. The tingling in my fingers was returning just as I dragged the last mobag into my room. In thirty minutes, we would meet and get dinner.

I showered just to elevate temperature in my extremities, then dug out a phone card from my wallet and called Barbaloot's folks' house. It would be Thursday morning, 20 Dec, in Buffalo. "Hello?" came her voice, with transatlantic echoes. "Hey, this is Fûz. I'm in Germany."

(kissy-kissy stuff deleted) I explained that I had to get to Cheyenne first, then high-tail it for Buffalo; my next call would be from our own house in Colorado.

* * * *

The little Renault box got us to the officer's club. We ate in an Italian restaurant in the basement. Drowsy after good food, fresh bread, and a couple pils, we went back to lodging. Back in the room, as I grazed the TV channels, I learned that even Germany has a Jerry Springer-style audience participation show, with lurid Teutonic subtitles flashing on-screen every time the camera panned the guests onstage.

* * * *

Up at 0300. After looking at the bags, looking down the steps, looking at where the Renault was parked, and feeling the memory of frozen throbs in my hands, I paused for a minute and looked once more out my window on the third floor. Carrying the bags down is going to hurt. The car is right there. No screen in the window either.

I opened the window and shoved the bags out one by one, to thud on the frozen ground below. None of them burst. I walked down, gathered them at the hatchback of the car, then went inside to check out.

Four bucks a night. Advon found the complimentary coffee and poured us cups of it. His bags were at the lobby entrance. Since mine were already at the car, Luke figured my bags and I go to the pax terminal first, with half of his.

We stopped at the cop shop on the way down, and I recovered the weapons just as guard mount was beginning.

A little while later, all three of us, all seventeen bags, and an idling bus were waiting at the pax terminal. Luke had turned in his car. The German bus driver helped us load our gear in the luggage compartment. The unmistakable rifle cases were the last to go aboard as an American civilian, a middle-aged slender businesslike black woman, arrived to check us aboard. We found our names on the same roster we signed the day before, and she checked IDs. "You need orders or anything?" I asked.

"No sir, just IDs." We boarded.

Then she did too, walking up and down the aisle as if to check for stowaways. We three were the only souls on the bus, and we had spread ourselves apart on the bus like men usually do after spending months downrange. Then she began what sounded like a safety briefing. We were starting to fall asleep again. Then she asked about weapons. Were there any?

I answered in the affirmative.

"You're Air Force, right?"


"This is an Army vehicle. You're not supposed to have weapons aboard."

"They're issue weapons. We came from downrange. We don't have any choice."

"Only Army weapons supposed to be aboard."

"They're the same kind the Army uses." Well, same kind they used to use. "What's the problem?"

She flipped through the papers on her clipboard. I was supposed to be complying, dammit.

I broke eye contact with her, stretched out in my seat, and relaxed. She stood there, just two or three rows ahead of me and about even with Advon.

I did not blink.

After a few more seconds of nonversation underscored by the bus's idling diesel engine, she turned, hissing something under her breath, and stalked off the bus. The driver looked up into his mirror at us, shrugged, then hit the turn signal and pulled the bus out of the pullup, into the street, and away.

Advon turned in his seat to look at me, as if to say, next time, dumbass, keep your mouth shut.

It was 21 December, the last Friday before Christmas. The bus ride took us across countryside that was emptier than I'd imagined, as day began to break. After about an hour drive, we showed IDs again to get into Rhein-Main.

The bus took us to a parking lot with a long row of luggage carts. Luke knew his way around. "The pax terminal is over there, we'll have to load our stuff up on carts and push it over." About 400 meters away.

My cart tipped over once, spilling everything, and Advon passed me with his as I was reloading mine. We both had some of Luke's bags too. Scores of other GIs were entering, with whole families, kids, strollers, luggage meant to be towed on casters, pets in carriers, all heading for the last flight to the States before Christmas.

We reached the pax terminal, where luggage scanners were set up right inside the door. As soon as we entered, we had to drop our bags on the belt. A rentacop, a big black guy, approached us as the first of Luke's bags rolled through. "You guys traveling together?"


"Who's got the weapons?"

Casting a glance at Advon, I saw no way around this one, it being an airport and all, and was getting ready to speak when Luke said, "I've got knives and stuff spread out in every bag."

The rentacop saw the two rifle cases and pointed at them. I said they were mine. Advon said he had ammo in one of his bags.

The rentacop then said, "You all come with me." We looked at each other, as he led us to a large cart, the kind of flatbed you use to lug a few bags of Quikcrete to the cashier at Home Depot. "Put it all here. We can't have weapons on the floor." Not 'you' but 'we.'

As soon as it was all scanned, all of our pocketknives were stuffed into them, and every lethal device had been either handled or seen on Xray, we loaded it on the huge cart and he pushed it forward through the crowd, which was already queued back almost to the screening belt. "Come on," he said, then he asked the crowd to part and let us through.

He took us to the very head of the queue and got the attention of the agent at the counter. "You need to check these people in first. Get the weapons off the floor." Families in the queue scowled at us, children wailed. Dogs in portable kennels barked. Tinny Christmas music descended from speakers in the ceiling.

The agent asked me to open the cases, and to see the 1297 for the weapons. I showed clear on all four pieces, then locked them back up. "You guys must be coming from downrange," he said as he pecked at the keyes on a computer.


"Good to have you back. Tough day to try to travel, though."

As a matter of fact, Advon and I had considered just how long it might take for our home unit, or CENTAF, to notice if we didn't return with all haste to the States. A few days relaxing in Germany? The prospect had lessened our, uh, sense of urgency. Cover stories abounded: "Well Colonel, we couldn't get airlift from Ramstein," or "Colonel, we got bumped from our airlift at Rhein-Main," or "Sir, the Army bus at Ramstein wouldn't let our weapons aboard, so we missed our airlift." Nobody knew whether we were in Germany at all, let alone whether we had permission to be, or an expectation to be elsewhere. We were going home on our honor as Air Force noncommissioned officers.

We contemplated a brief vacation in Germany, alright. But the prospect of getting home in time to join our families for Christmas prevailed.

We got seat assignments on this very full flight to Atlanta, then proceeded upstairs, got breakfast at the cafeteria, and tried to stretch our legs before boarding. About this time the urge to diverge returned, and we split up, either to the USO club, the phones, or the shopette.

* * * *

Aisle seat, with Advon at my elbow and Luke at the window. Families with kids with earaches surrounded us. The airline operating this contract flight had a generic name that suggested it was a CIA front. Their promotional film at the beginning of the flight, recounting the airline's long and proud history, only reinforced the suspicion.

Luke slept. Advon watched the movies, first Spy Kids, then believe it or not, a movie about how Madonna's character volunteered to bear a child for a homosexual couple. Not the movie I'd expect to see on a military charter flight.

At Atlanta, we would have an even stiffer objective: get to Cheyenne, or at least Denver, on the evening of the last Friday before Christmas, after an earth-shaking event had made airlines Extremely Anal about security and the treatment of short-notice passengers.

* * * *

We landed at Hartsfield about 1500 local and shuffled into the Customs and Immigration area. I had nothing to declare. The Customs cops saw the rifle cases and looked at me. "I bet that's photographic equipment, right?" one joked. "You want to see the hand receipt?" I asked. He shook his head and stamped my form. Luke disappeared.

We rescreened at security before entering the domestic terminal. The rifle cases went on the belt without fanfare, but my carry-on bag kept flagging the security screener. It went back through Xray at least three times. He opened every compartment and felt through it, but found nothing, so he instead patted me down and went through my wallet and boots. Still he drew a blank, so he let me go. Advon had gotten in line well behind me but he was waiting for me on the secure side. "I'm gonna call you Metalhead," he said.

We rode the tram to landside of Hartsfield, claimed our luggage and got a skycap to cart it around for us. We asked every airline for flights. Frontier had seats on the first flight the following morning, at $700 each, changing airlines to United at Denver; nothing else to be had. We reserved them rather than try standby, then started looking for beddown.

Advon suggested the USO, thinking we'd just sleep in chairs there. The skycap knew where it was and led us to the elevator to get there.

As we signed in, we saw their sign saying they were closing in only about 45 minutes. Plan B: I left Advon with another skycap while I found a phone and started looking for rooms. Since I had their phone number memorized, Courtyard by Marriott won the business. The skycap led us to their courtesy shuttle.

I went through more dollar bills in two hours than I would on a night at a t1tty bar, tipping two skycaps and the shuttle driver for handling all of the bags. Advon would cover the tips tomorrow morning.

The hotel luggage cart took up most of the room, loaded with all my bags. I looked at it while I sat on the edge of the bed, and chose to leave it on the cart until tomorrow. Let's wash up, shall we? As I pulled the shaving kit out of my carry-on bag, I felt something in the pocket that covered it.

The pocket held a Swiss Army knife and six spring-loaded autoinjectors---the kind that people with beesting allergies carry around, but packed with nerve agent antidotes---which the security screener at Hartsfield suspected were there but just couldn't find. I moved them to another bag, got out fresh clothes, and turned on the shower.

* * * *

It was 2100 hours on (still) 21 December, and we were hungry. The courtesy shuttle had stopped running, but the girl at the front desk was helpful. A Bennigans or TGI Friday's or similar was only a quarter-mile away on the same road, we could walk there easily and they would still be open.

About halfway through our meal of six-dollar hamburgers, fries and MGD's, I noticed that I was eating with my free arm resting on the table, reaching out around my plate like a fence. I looked at Advon and he was doing it too. Our eyes met, and we both straightened up in our seats and drew our arms back.

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