I was in the Navy, about to graduate from Class A school, and my nerves were shot. At least, the few nerves I had left were shot: At that point I'd worried myself past worrying.
And why wouldn't I have?
Our biggest concern was our orders to our next duty station, which we were about to be given. Every two weeks a new class graduated, and for the five months that I'd been at school, each class's orders had been split between two places - the Philippines and Adak Island.
According to the skinny, the Philippines were a paradise ... if you liked debauchery, depravity, b-girls, brothels, exotic diseases and fulminating skin eruptions. Not knocking it or anything, since it fit a lot of guys' lifestyles - it just didn't fit mine.
I was talking to an old salt who'd spent a couple of years there, and I told him I'd never be able to last in a place like that - they'd have to discharge me as a Section 8.
"No, they wouldn't," he said.
"I'm serious, I said. "I couldn't take it. I'd go crazy there."
"So what," he said. "Everyone there is crazy."
As for Adak? Well, in case you don't know, it's an isolated island somewhere in the Aleutian chain, described as "having a girl behind every tree." The only problem was there were no trees.
We'd put in a dream sheet for our orders months before, being allowed to submit three destinations. It gave us the illusion of choice, with a hope - no matter how distant - that maybe, just maybe, we'd get what we wanted.
I came up with a strategy for my orders. My first choice was Morocco, for a few reasons. First, no one else wanted to go there. Second, I'd always been fascinated with the country and liked a hot, dry climate. And finally, because the military installation there was in violation of some treaty agreement, all the Navy guys lived in civilian housing and never wore uniforms. It was a ridiculous facade - one I learned about in Time magazine, and so much for hush-hush - but as a John Le Carre fan, it appealed to my secretive nature.
My second choice was Rota, Spain. I did that because no one in Class A school seemed to know we had a billet there, so I figured if there was an opening, I'd get it.
My last choice was Europe. I thought because we had so many stations there, my odds had to better than picking a single station.
Dream sheets come true
Finally the big day arrived, and our orders came. The class petty officer announced them and - lo and behold -not only were there no Philippines or Adak, but everyone was getting plum duty: Japan, Taiwan, Scotland, Italy, Panama and on and on. Instead of typical Navy orders, the list read like a Frommer's tour.
Still, since names were called alphabetically, I hadn't yet heard mine. So even if everyone else got good orders, it didn't mean I would.
I held my breath.
Finally, he got to me.
"Sayed-in-sten," (they never pronounced it right) - "you got Bremerhaven, Germany."
I exhaled long and loud.
Germany! Yee-haw! I don't know if at that moment I looked like the cat that swallowed the canary, but I sure felt like it.
It was such a surprise I didn't think anything could outdo it until I opened my orders packet and checked out the travel arrangements.
Everyone else at the school was flying on military planes to their assignments. I, however, had a Pan Am ticket from New York to Frankfurt. Frankfurt? I was to be stationed in Bremerhaven. Just how far apart were they?
After class I hauled over to the library, got an atlas and did some measuring. As it turned out, Frankfurt was in the middle of the country, Bremerhaven was at the very north, a cool 250 miles away. Which now brought up the inevitable question: How was I supposed to get from one to the other?
The next day I asked that question of my instructor, Petty Officer Boykin. He was a pleasant enough fellow and a perfect middle-level petty officer: capable of both following and giving orders, and completely incapable of understanding the reasoning behind them or anything else. He was, in those days before we had educational jargon, what my sainted mother would've described in her quaint fashion as "a pinhead."
"Oh, it's no problem," he said. "There'll be someone at the airport to meet you."
As soon as he said it, I had this feeling ... which was, he had no idea what he was talking about.
What to do? I did the only thing I could - on the appointed afternoon I got on my Pan Am flight at JFK, and got off it in the dead of night in Frankfurt.
White hat, red cheeks, blue lips
Surprises seemed to be the order of the night. First, when I went to pick up my baggage, I found my seabag was there but my suitcase (which had all my civvies) was not. Ever philosophic, I gave the clerk my forwarding address and kissed my suitcase goodbye.
Next, I looked around for the someone Boykin said would be there to meet me.
Not only wasn't that someone there, but neither was anyone else, except some old wretch listlessly pushing a broom hither and yon, mumbling to himself in a language I'd never heard but that sounded like its entire alphabet was k's, z's, t's and r's.
"Krrzzk," he said. "Rrr-tk. Zrk-zrk-krt-trkk!"
As I was processing that, I got another surprise - I was freezing my tuchis off. I knew Europeans didn't superheat buildings like Americans did, but I didn't know Germany was experiencing its coldest winter in 25 years. Both these factors, combined with what capped off my uniform, literally - a cotton white hat - had me chilled to the bone. Of course, I'd packed wool toques in my suitcase, but it was now as long gone as my days of sipping OVs in the Arena Grill with my boon companion Ralph Carlson.
The only advantage I had was I was jet-lagged out of my gourd, so with all my homeostatic systems kaput, the cold didn't bother me so much. I was grateful for that, only because I didn't realize what it meant - namely, I was in the second or third stage of hypothermia.
I was in a civilian airport and I knew the U.S. military airport, Rhein-Main, was also in Frankfurt, but I had no idea how to get there or even how to contact them.
Finally, I decided any action was better than none, and I stumbled around the terminal (my feet having gone numb, since they were shod in street shoes and utltra-thin cotton socks) looking for something, anything, to remove me from my situation.
Finally, in a far corner of the terminal I spotted a black and white sign, reading "MP's Rhein-Main."
I squinted at it, a couple of tears ran down my frozen cheeks. There, underneath the sign was an olive-drab phone, a phone that would put me in touch with my countrymen, who would then zoom over in a jeep and whisk me away to a toasty-warm barracks, hot food, and all the amenities of home.
Salvation at last!
I shuffled over the phone, idiotic grin plastered on my mug, when I got my final surprise of the night: Taped on the phone was a note, which in nearly illegible scrawl said, "Out of Order."
I realize a lot of people love surprises, but I think you'll understand why, for the past 40 years, I'm not one of them.