Rambling travelogs from a world traveler

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Yokota Military Charter

"Without a family, man, alone in the world, trembles with the cold."

Andre' Maurois

Gentle Readers and Loved Ones,

This is not so much a travelog as it is a family story. As I tell it, I find myself fighting to not drop into long tedious explanations of details. I hope you enjoy it.

In September, I picked up a military charter out of ‘Open Time.’ FedEx is part of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet and in this specific charter we had contracted to fly freight for the Air Force from Yokota Air Base, just south of Tokyo, Japan to Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska and then a short hop down to Elmendorf AFB on the northern outskirts of Anchorage, AK. As my son and daughter-in-law live on Yokota AB, I jumped at the chance to trade my boring old 'been there-done that' trans-Pacific trip for this military charter and a chance to visit them.

One of the bigger headaches in my job is the problem of how to commute to work to begin each trip. As I’ve mentioned before, I live in the Twin Cities of Minnesota but am ‘domiciled’ in Anchorage, AK. FedEx expects me to be on-site in Anchorage, well rested, nourished and ready to fly at the beginning of each trip. This usually involves two legs of jump seats on company airplanes and about a day of lead time. I spend about 10 hours sitting in a long aluminum tube just to get to and from work each direction every month.

This charter was different. For operational reasons I don’t understand, the company chose to have one crew fly the jet into Yokota to ‘position it’ for the charter. They bought them a plane ticket home to the states then they ‘positioned’ my crew by buying us tickets to Yokota from Anchorage. My contract allows me then to cancel those tickets and use the money to buy alternative tickets. As long as I show up in Yokota in time to be fully rested, ready to fly and within budget, I can get to Yokota however I wish.

When scheduling approved the swap, I immediately called George and Brook. This is much easier than it would have been a generation ago. You taxpayers and the USAF have paid for them to have a US phone number and it only costs the caller US long distance rates to call them.

I knew George was due to deploy to Kuwait and the Iraqi theater for 6 months. I hoped that this charter would get me there before he had to leave but I was out of luck and I missed him. Brook answered the phone.

Readers Digest used to have a “My Most Unforgettable Character” story each month. Brook would be high on my list of unforgettable characters. As her Dad once told me, there are only two kinds of people in the world for Brook: Friends and Friends she hasn’t met yet. I have always enjoyed being around her – she is never boring and one of my favorite people.

When I told her I was coming, she said: “Great, Daddy Geoff! Since George is gone, you can be my date for the Air Force Ball Saturday Night!”

Those of you who know me well know that this filled my being with a joy and a light – Not. I didn’t even like AF Balls when I was still in the Air Force. The Uniform of the Day for one these things is Mess Dress. Since I am officially a retired Air Force Officer, I am legal to wear the uniform and I actually have a Mess Dress that fits.

I have one that fits because I bought the thing for George and Brook’s wedding. One of the requirements of a Mess Dress uniform is the complete display of the wearer’s medals, ribbons and other devices. I am very proud that I served in the Air Force long enough to earn the right to wear command pilot wings. However, the rest of my ribbons and devices reflect my mediocre career. In 1986, I chose to transfer to the Training Command from Strategic Air Command because at the time, SAC pilots were only getting 15 hours a month of very boring flying whereas an instructor pilot in the training command was getting a lot of interesting and rewarding flying time.

This means that – much to my late mother’s relief – I have never heard a shot fired in anger and if I wear a uniform my awards reflect that I was a REMF. In this day and age with so many young heroes and heroines serving voluntarily in our armed forces, I don’t particularly like to advertise that.

Don’t get me wrong….in my career I had the opportunity to put my personal thumbprint on the flying skills over well over 500 student pilots. I like to think that I gave them some perspective that stood them well later in their flying careers and that is a source of pride to me.

In any case, I chose to pack my suit instead of my mess dress despite Brook’s pleading and off I went.

My commute on this trip was the best I’ve ever had since I started flying out of Anchorage. I checked in with Northwest / Delta Airlines at the Minneapolis Airport, deposited my aging carcass in a Business Class seat on a 747 and ate and drank my way across Canada and the Northern Pacific while watching movies, reading my book and fitfully dozing. All while getting paid. This is a good deal.

On the ground in Narita International, I cleared the Japanese Health Inspection and Customs inspection in record time and found my way to the bus counter run by the USO. For $20 American, I found myself on a bus directly to Yokota AB where Brook would pick me up.

I got off the bus about 10 pm Japan Time. We had expected to go out to dinner but I had not slept well on the plane and the two hour bus from Narita to Yokota so I disappointed her and went to bed and crashed. Sorry Brook.

The next day we had breakfast, walked the dogs and got caught up. After a nice lunch at a local Indian Restaurant, we went to Yokota Base Operations to try and figure out how I would get to the airplane the next morning. A mildly funny story ensued.

I am wearing shorts and a knit shirt. I borrowed George’s flip flops. Base Operations is literally only a few hundred yards from the kid’s house on base. We walked over. I introduce myself to the sergeant and his staff behind the desk and started asking how I would make my way onto the FedEx MD-11 parked just out the large windows looking out on the ramp. After some initial confusion while trying to decide I really am who I am, the staff is a great help. It helped that I had my retired AF ID card and my FedEx ID badge.

They put me in contact with Nori-san who is in charge of getting the military charter guys like me on and off the base. I introduce myself to Nori-san on the phone and he immediately jumps to conclusions:

“You are in the wrong place! You are supposed to go to the Palace Hotel in Tachikawa! How did you get on base?”

“Nori-san, I’m not in the wrong place and I’m not going to the hotel. My son lives on Yokota and I’m staying with him. I’m just trying to find out how to meet up with you in the morning so I can be escorted onto the flight line and out to the airplane.”

We go back and forth one or two times before I convince him that I really know what I’m doing and I have a place to sleep. We agree that he will pick me up in the morning in front of base operations at 0500.

After that Brook went to get her face professionally made for the ball and I took a combat nap and ironed my suit. She looked fabulous when she returned.

Brook has been taking Taiko Drum lessons and she had invited her sensei to go to the ball. At the appointed time, Takako-san shows up wearing the traditional kimono complete with tabi and obi. Shi is a very friendly person who speaks wonderful English. I’m 6’ 6” and Brooki-san is around 6’ herself while Takako-san is under 5’ tall and very Japanese. We made quite the trio.

There are more pictures of the ball at this link. Be sure to click it.

The air force had buses going around the base picking up Ball-goers so they wouldn’t have to drive to and from the Ball. This was a great thing. Brook chatted with her neighbors and friends during the short drive over to the base Theater where the Ball was held.

The buffet layout was wonderful and had some really great sushi. (No Basashi!) I had decided that I was not going to drink that evening because I did not want to put me, the Air Force or FedEx in the position of wondering if I had quit before the appointed 8 hours from ‘bottle to throttle.’ The rest of the ball goers were having a great time.

Brook introduced me to a million people. Like most military bases, Yokota has a relationship with the surrounding community. The brass was hob-nobbing with the local government officials. The Four-Star Pacific Air Forces Commander was the guest speaker but since I no longer have to listen raptly to General Officer's give speeches, I didn’t. I’m sure he was heart-broken.

There were a lot of Japanese locals and they were having fun.

I will admit to a moment of disorientation here. I spent 22 years in the Air Force and went to a million parties just like this one. Although I knew no one personally, these were all my kind of people and I felt at home. They were talking about things I am used to talking about and behaving in ways I understand. They were partying hard. It had been 15 years since I had been to a party like this but I felt like I had never left.

Then suddenly…I realized that they were my kids - I was literally old enough to be their Dad. I still enjoyed myself, but that was a very strange adjustment to make.

At this point, I’d like to discuss party/aloha shirts. This was just starting about the time I retired. A mess dress is a very formal uniform. But somewhere around 1000 all the big brass leaves and an Air Force Ball becomes more informal. Off come the jackets and the dancing starts in earnest. A lot of guys and gals have paid tailors to modify the backs and sleeves of their Mess Dress pleated shirts to have loud and personalized designs. The best one I saw that night was a Colonel who had a nice Harley design on the back of his shirt. I wish I had thought to take some pictures. This one is of George at his wedding.

The Ball broke up around 11 and I was in bed by midnight. FedEx alerted me at 0430 and Brook made me a nice cup of coffee and walked the 100 yards over to the pickup place with me. Nori-san showed up on time and I hugged Brook goodbye.

It was a nice visit.

The flight from Yokota to Alaska was boring in the extreme - just the way you want it to be. On the west coast of Alaska we deviated from the normal track into Anchorage and flew north of Mt McKinley / Denali into Eielson AFB.

I suppose if I had asked they would have told me the details of what I was hauling but I really didn’t want to know. Freight is Freight. I did hear we had some equipment for the Japan Air Self Defense Force which was coming to Alaska for an exercise.

There was a mild icing foofaraw at Eielson AFB. It started snowing around 10pm or about the time we were full reloaded, refueled and ready to start, taxi and take-off. We had to be airborne by 11 pm local or stay the night as the base closed. Initially the AF said it would take 50 minutes for the deice vehicles to get to us. When I asked where they wanted us to stay for the night, 50 minutes turned into 10.

We got down to Anchorage and Elemendorf AFB at about midnight. There were no flights home at that time of night, so I went to Ilona’s Bed and Breakfast, got up at 0700 and had enough money left in my travel bank to fly home on Northwest / Delta.

It was a good trip.

On that note, I remain,

Dad / Geoff

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