Friday, November 27, 2009

LBC-A Journey

There are all kinds of journeys.  A journey through life, a journey from point A to point B, a journey through time. It was difficult to decide about my journey. I'm going to talk about a journey that if I had made the wrong turn, it would have made such a difference in my life.

I think I've mentioned that I come from a very small town in Alabama.  That I wanted to be a doctor, but didn't quite make it. That I joined the Air Force and left my roots for a foreign land. This journey turned into a fantastic adventure with the good events and bad events.  A journey I wouldn't want to exchange for anything.

Imagine someone that wasn't a social butterfly, who wasn't allowed to date until she was sixteen and had to take her brother with her on her first date and made the mistake of letting him sit in the backseat of the car, another story. A person who wanted more than eating at a family restaurant to celebrate a special evening.  Who wanted to learn about life and the world from someplace besides reading a book. Just think about how her senses reeled when traveling to another state hundreds of miles from Alabama, let alone to Okinawa, a land totally foreign to anything she had known up to that point in her life.

The minute I stepped off the plane onto the ground at Kadena AFB, I met a fierce wind blowing, it whipped my clothes around my body, forced me to take a step back and almost blew my uniform cap off before I could grab it.  The island was preparing for a typhoon to hit! My welcoming Sargent whisked me away to my dorm as my plane was the last one allowed to land as all the other planes had to left for Japan to wait out the storm to prevent any damages.  Debris rolled across the road, palm trees bent with the wind.  I saw street signs made from cement, later I realized the purpose of this.  It kept the signs from bending and having to be replaced after each storm.

The storm lashed the building I was assigned to for three days.  Food was brought to us as there were concerns for our safety.  Now I know I should have been afraid, but listening to the wind and getting to know my other roommates was exciting!  I didn't feel afraid.  Finally,the wind stopped leaving such a silence that it was as deafening as the roaring wind.  Opening the door to the outside and stepping out into the aftermath it was a scene so different from any I had ever experienced back in Alabama.

My assignment on Okinawa was that of NCO (Non Commissioned Officer) of the Immunization Clinic.  My job was to be sure all military personnel had their shots up to date, especially the pilots who flew back and forth from Okinawa to Viet Nam.  They needed their shots up to date so that if they were shot down over Viet Nam and landed in the jungle, they would be protected against certain diseases.  It was also the clinics duty to be sure the families of the military people and civilians working on the air base had their shots up to date too.  You've never really experience fun until you have to give a screaming, kicking pilot  child their shots.

There was an episode where a commercial plane ferrying military personnel from Viet Nam to the United States had to make an emergency stop over at Kadena for a Gamma Globulin shot.  They had come into contact with someone at the Viet Nam airport who had Hepatitis, therefore, the military felt the commercial pilots as well as the flight staff needed these shots.  Now Gamma Globulin is a thick solution.  Think of how thick a milk shake is just as it's starting to melt.  You have to give the shot slowly, and it's painful.  I don't know if Gamma Globulin is still that way today, or if that's how Hepatitis is treated, but in 1968, that was the solution.  Needless to say, I was not a favorite person when they left.

I won't verbally say that being a non commissioned officer I enjoyed the moment of having an officer come into the clinic.  I didn't have to salute and I stuck a needle in his arm.  End of subject, I mean after all, they were risking their lives flying into a war zone.

Okinawa is an island.  The island had three columns supporting it, that is, it did have three columns.  I was told that two weeks before I arrived, there had been an earthquake destroying one of those columns.  Now it didn't occur to me to question this until years later.  I still didn't take the time to find out, but at the time it made me nervous.  The reason I mention this is because two weeks after I arrive, I'm awakened in the night by my bed being moved across the floor by a vibration, I heard several loud bangs.  My first thought, " Dear God, I can't swim!" Like swimming in the middle of the ocean , while being sucked under by the draft of a sinking island is going to help me.

It turned out not to be an earthquake though.  It was worse.  A B52 had been sabotaged.  As it traveled down the runway, the front wheels, which had been loosened by two Okinawan maintenance crew, came off. There were seven crewmen aboard.  Five immediately were able to leave the plane.  The gun operator had trouble releasing his safety belt, so another crewman stayed behind to help.  They were late leaving and took the blast of the exploding plane.  The plane was loaded with bombs to unload over Viet Nam.  One had 80% burns over his body, while the other's body was 60% burned.  I would give them shots of Morphine, which didn't help as their bodies were burned so bad the medicine couldn't travel.  The one with 80% burns lasted twenty-four hours, he left a wife with a newborn son, a son he had never gotten to see.  The other lasted three days.  One of the most helpless feelings is hearing someone cry for relief and not being able to help.

The exploded plane left a crater the length of a football field.  To understand the depth, it was deeper than a car.  This event led to militants showing up on the island.  For a week, there were sniper shootings at personnel.  We had to travel to and from work, and to the cafeteria, by a bus especially outfitted with armor bolted across the windows to prevent bullets coming through.  We didn't sit near windows at the dorm or walk along the streets.  It was a week before he was caught.

At the time I was there, most everything was imported with very little exported.  One thing I missed when I came back to the States were the beauty shops.  On any block, there were three to four shops.  I could have my hair washed and fixed for 75 cents.  Can you imagine paying that today.

I went to nice restaurants.  This one night, our meal happened at the same time as business men who were taken care of by Geisha's.  The Geisha's were very beautiful.  One played a long necked stringed instrument.  The music produced was similar to a banjo played slowly. We were pretending to eat while watching what went on out of the corner of our eyes.  It was a beautiful night.  After we ate, we walked around and at times just ran because we were young and on a life's adventure.  Do you remember feeling that way?  Exploding with the excitement of being young and alive.

My roommate was a girl from Birmingham, Alabama.  What's the chances of that happening on a regular basis?  She worked in the eye clinic.  While I was quiet, shy and a homebody, Janet was bubbly and outgoing. She never met a stranger.  One night she came racing into our room, "Judy, get dressed you're going on a date."  It turns out this guy she wanted to date, wouldn't go unless his friend also had a date.  Therefore, I was chosen.  It was the night I met the soulmate of my life, or at the time, I thought so.

Coming from Henagar, Alabama, the only men who wore suits were men who had died and lay in a casket, the pallbearers or some preachers. Can you imagine the effect of a tall, handsome man with hazel eyes walking in wearing a three piece suit?  He was from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He spoke with an accent I wasn't use to.  This was during the time of Naru Suits.  In Okinawa, it was so inexpensive to have clothes made.  He had a white silk Naru suit made, which he wore on the night he purposed to me.  It was on the tenth of December 1968, at ten o'clock at night.  He later told me if it had been the twelfth of December, he would have purposed at midnight. Sounds so romantic doesn't it.  This will have to be another story as I find that I have written a long post.

This has been a journey in time.  A journey of memories to last a life time, one that can be looked on with fondness and one that a lot of people never get the chance of doing.  I hope y'all have enjoyed taking this journey with me. The reason I say if I had made other choices, my life would have been different is that if I had stayed in the small town, I would probably have married and had three children by the time Okinawa happened to me. I think I would have always wondered "what if", and been so completely discontented with my chosen life.  I'm grateful that even though I was shy and easily pointed in directions I didn't want to go, I had the inner ambition to push leaving the known for the excitement of the unknown.


Helen McGinn said...

Judy, Oh my goodness, that was utterly amazing! I had no idea you'd served there or at all. I love your descriptions of it all and I can imagine you in your uniform, giving injections to screaming service personnel! *L* Do you have photographs? I would LOVE to see them if you did. And to meet your soul mate there is just wonderful. You must continue with these, I'm really interested in hearing more.

Rummuser said...

Yes, a journey in time, vividly painted so that we readers could share your recollection and the emotions that they evoke. You have written a very good post on a difficult subject. My compliments to you.

Grannymar said...

Judy, this is just the beginning of a series of journeys. I look forward to reading more.

Having worked on an USAF base, I felt very much at home on this post.

Maria said...

Wonderful description of Okinawa and the base in '68. What a wonderful journey and I, too am waiting for more of the story.

Conrad said...

Oh, Judy, you had me totally wrapped up in your story! That it was your life is amazing.

Thank you for opening and sharing something that gives you new dimensions for me, that enriches what we share so much.

Mattenylou said...

Life's stories are always the best... I can't wait to hear more about December 10th, sounds like you were swept off your feet! Great journeys you've had!

Marianna said...

Everyone has a story and yours kept me on the edge of my seat.

You may feel shy, but you persevered, looked outside of yourself and went beyond. Way beyond!

Margot Kinberg said...

Judy - I am truly impressed with your amazing story, and with your skill in telling it! You really have my admiration. I want to know more, and I'm so glad I visited your blog. I look forward to hearing about the next stage in your journey.

gaelikaa said...

What a wonderful post. You have lived such an interesting life, Judy!

Judy Harper said...

Thanks for your comments. Once I decided about which journey to write about, it was easy. I actually enjoyed reliving that time. It brought back fond memories!

Life has been interesting. I think y'all will be surprised by the ending to December 10th.

My sister-in-law asked me once if I ever wanted to live my life through my daughter, because she said sometimes she did, my answer was "no". I encouraged my daughter to seek her own path, so while we're similar we had different interest.

Magpie 11 said...

1968 I was at college and the news was often about Vietnam, Martin Luther King and later about Prague.

It's easy for us to forget that these things involved people like us. Ordinary individuals who have some of the same experiences and feelings as us.

Thak you.