Okinawa and Appreciating Water
Preparing to ship out to Okinawa, I moved out of my apartment and into the barracks. A couple of days later I boarded a cargo plane, with 30 or so others, heading for Kadena AFB in Okinawa. Kadena is where the real missions were run, over places like China and Russia and particularly Vietnam. We all rotated out to Kadena on TDY (Temporary Duty). The rotation was 4 months in Kadena and then 8 months back in the states. Since the plane we worked on, the SR-71, was a spy plane, this was all secret stuff. That was why we were all there on TDY status, because then we would be officially in California at Beale AFB, not Kadena. Donna had wanted me to try to get it postponed. I didn't see the sense in doing that as I would have to go sometime soon so what difference would a month or so delay make. Besides, it was unlikely that my assignment would have been postponed much, if at all and I didn't want the extra attention I might get for asking and certainly did not want to discuss why.
The flight was 20 something hours long. The plane was similar in size to a commercial airline plane except it had only one window on each side. There were a few rows of airline type seats and even a couple of beds but it was primarily a cargo plane. This is where I found out exactly how the Air Force viewed us. The chairs and beds were for officers only. Enlisted guys like my self were restricted to the cargo area. There was a lot of cargo already on the plane as we boarded. It took up the majority of space but along each side of the plane there were these little mesh bench type seats. They were the kind you see in the war movies that the paratroopers would be sitting on before someone like John Wayne would tell them to hook up to get ready to jump. We could either sit on those, on the floor, or on top of the cargo. We were allowed to lie down wherever we could find space. The problem was it was freezing on the floor and stinkin' hot on top of the cargo so in either place you could not last too long. If you just sat on the mesh bench your feet would get cold so most found a spot where they could sit and put their feet up on some of the cargo to keep them off the floor. I don't know if being valued the same as general cargo was supposed to make us feel needed or was just a not so subtle way of letting us know we just spare parts. If you had to pee, you could go to the can. Literally there was a big can you could pee into if absolutely necessary. It wasn't the ride of a lifetime, but memorable nonetheless. We made one stop in Hawaii for an hour or so to re-fuel. The best thing about that was unlike the rest of the “cargo” we were allowed to get off the plane. This was indeed a treat as we got to use a restroom and hangout in a consistent comfortable temperature for a little while.
When we arrived at Kadena, it was two days later because we had crossed the international dateline. I was given the next day off to sleep and adjust to the time change which was something like 15 hours ahead. Work shifts were 10 hours or whatever was needed, and the shop operated seven days a week with missions being run daily. There were seven of us in the navigation repair unit so we all worked 6 days on and one day off, a different person off each day.
Okinawa is a relatively small subtropical island. It was still a US possession at the time, a result of WWII. We had something like 14 bases on the island. We were in the process of turning the island over to Japan and the locals were not happy about it. Okinawa had some nice beaches which I managed to visit a few times. It had lots of humidity. I had grown up with high humidity on Long Island but Okinawa kicked it up a notch, as it was often in the 90% range. Rooms came with a gecko as there were tons of mosquitoe's and other bugs. At night we would burn these spiral rings of mosquito repellent incense. They would burn through the night and in the morning our window screen would be covered with so many mosquitoes you could hardly see through it.
Right outside the base was Koza City. It was set up to cater to servicemen. U.S. GI's had money to spend. GI's were largely interested in three things: sex, alcohol, toys, pretty much in that order and Koza City had it all. On base we were briefed about the town and the message seemed to be don't get caught and don't take responsibility for anything. We were told things like if you are in a cab and the cab gets into an accident, get out and run away because you or the Air Force might be held libel among other things. Always use a condom. A Japanese greeting to use when entering a store which translated to “hey you”. Oh well, we were young, healthy, American men away from home set loose on a town selling alcohol and sex, what could go wrong?
The main drag outside the base was filled with stores selling electronics, cameras, and jewelry. The next street over was filled with clubs. The clubs had girls who would dance for you, with you, and on you. They would sit on your lap and just do about anything short of the actual sex, as long as you kept buying them drinks. No buying drinks necessary for the girls on the next street over, it was a strictly cash for sex deal. When you walked down that street girls would come up to you and attach themselves to you while pitching their services. There was yet another street, more like an alley, where the sex was cheaper and the girls were, or at least looked quite a bit older. On both of those streets the girls would grab hold of you and not let go. Sometimes they would put their hands all over you trying to get you interested. Since I wasn't in the market it was a less than pleasant experience for me. I tried to avoid these streets. Once in a while I did end up at one of the clubs with another airman. I learned to discourage the girls looking to get you to buy them drinks by acting aggressive and grabby when they came over to plop themselves on my lap. While in the city you could hardly go anywhere without getting propositioned, once you got out of the city the local people were very traditional and conservative. You would not be allowed to date a local girl without a chaperone.
I now was on a more normal schedule and getting a full night's sleep. The work was serious as the missions were real. There were no inspections. No one cared how you looked or what you did, only how you did your job. I have always been a hard worker. After a few weeks a couple of the higher ranking sergeants who I had previously worked with on day shift at Beale told me I was alright after all. They had mostly seen me as worthless before. I had time to socialize and even had a little money to spend. I had recently gotten promoted . Even with the AWOL business I had finally put in enough time to move up a rank to match the others. I was also getting some extra pay due to my assignment in Okinawa. I bought speakers for me and an SLR camera for Donna, something she always wanted.
My friend Larry was stationed here as well. Larry would pretty much continue to be one of my very best friends for the next 3 or so decades. We worked together at times at Beale but here we worked together regularly and spent a lot of time together. Larry was also a New Yorker, from the Bronx. He was smart, quick witted, and we shared a similar sense of humor. Larry really helped me to turn a corner. I began to realize just how gone I was and began to return to being more normal, whatever that is. I began to realized how my method of dealing with my situation must have weighed on Donna and how much I had damaged our relationship. I saw that a residue of my withdrawing was me effectively withdrawing from my marriage as well. I had been getting by but I had been essentially absent.
Okinawa was going through a drought. I was there for May, usually their rainy month and it hardly rained at all. The weather was hotter than normal and the water supply was low. The base started turning the water off periodically. First it was for 8 hours every other day, then it got to be 8 hours daily, then 16 hours daily. By the time I left it was 64 hours off and 8 hours on. By then it was July and it was hot and humid, in the 90's with over 90% humidity. On the return flight back to Beale, in July, we stopped to refuel in Alaska, near Fairbanks. While refueling we got off the plane and hopped on a base bus. The driver asked us what we wanted to do. Everyone on the bus yelled out “water!”. The driver turned around and looked. It was pretty funny. It would be the last good laugh I would have for awhile.