First Encounter with the Ryukyu Islands

It was the spring of 1972. I had been in the Air Force for about a year and a half and had spent the most of that time at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana, learning my trade. As a brand new corpsman (medic) I had learned enough about the job to be considered adequately trained and competent to take on an overseas assignment.

When I was in technical training at Sheppard AFB, Wichita Falls, Texas, I had received orders to Malmstrom. Montana, huh? I knew I had heard of Montana. I knew it was somewhere up there in the Northwest. You see, I was born in Upstate New York and was raised in the Air Force. I grew up in the midwest and eastern U.S. (Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, New York and Vermont) and in France. Yeeesh!! Dad had some great assigments, huh? Ethan Allen Air Force Base in Essex Junction, Vermont and the three years in France was cool!! Poor dad... seems like everywhere we went, the base closed! Ethan Allen? Closed. Amarillo? BIG cut-backs and reductions there. Evereau-Fauville Air Base, France? DeGaulle booted ALL American military out! Griffiss AFB in Rome, NY? Closed (but years after he was there). Tinker AFB, Oklahoma and Minot AFB, North Dakota? Still going strong! In '69, dad retired and moved to Plattsburgh, New York. A perfect place to retire - absolutely beautiful part of the country and of the state! Lake Champlain, the Adirondack Mountains... ahhhh.... *sigh*.... And to make it even better, the base was there - along with its hospital to meet his and mom's medical needs and the commissary to meet their munchies needs. Yup!! You guessed it. Plattsburgh AFB... CLOSED!! Damned BRAC!!

Never got "out west" and, at the age of 19 years I was L-O-N-G distanced from the old U.S. Geography class - the one and only time I cared about where Montana is. Anyway, I ran for a map!! Ahah!!! There it is!! Hey!! I used to live close! I had lived in North Dakota back in 1960 and 61. But, what the hell did a 9 or 10 year old kid care about neighboring states? I cared about finishing up the roads my brother and I had created in my mom's flower garden out back!! Remember the real Tonka trucks?? Well, we had some of those!! We also had sore butts after we got caught running our four-lane right through the middle of mom's zinias and geraniums!! Well, it wasn't our fault that she had planted flowers right there in the middle of a development zone!! HehHehHehHeh!!

The year and a half I spent at Malmstrom was working in the emergency room and "ambulance garage" with a few months' stint in the Labor and Delivery unit. Being a "seasoned" medic, I was ready to move on. Oh, something else I'd accomplished during my first assignment to Malmstrom - met and married my lady!

One day I got my orders to a new assignment: Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan. Yes, I had heard of Okinawa. I mean, who hasn't read something about World War II? Well, if I thought I needed a map to find Montana then I knew damned well I was gonna need a GUIDE to point out Okinawa. I remember looking at a map of Asia... up and down the Japanese Islands, but... no Okinawa!! Okay, let's try this... I knew it must be somewhere near Vietnam. Kadena was a major staging area for the wounded who were being transfered out of country. Back to the map. Hmmmmm..... okay, I give up! I'll go ask the Sarge. He'll know!!

What a bummer!! I had volunteered for duty in Southeast Asia. I wasn't an idiot. I didn't want to get wasted! But I did want to get over "where the action is!" I was hoping for a cushy assignment to Tan Son Nhut. That seemed safe enough. But, nope!! Kadena AB, Okinawa. To make matters worse, I had to report there in October - I had just got married in August! Nevertheless, I kissed my bride g'bye, headed for the airport and flew off to the great unknown. You see, back in those days, a mere Buck Sergeant apparently wasn't capable of making responsible decisions. I had to go to Okinawa myself, get settled into a new job, find a place to live on the local economy and then have the Army come in to inspect my new digs, confer their blessing on it (make sure it was inhabitable for humans.) Then, and only then, was I able to get my wife "command sponsored" (meaning the government would pay for her flight over) and send for her.

I remember stepping off the plane on the runway at Kadena. Bear in mind, I had just left Montana in October - it had been COLD in Montana! When the door of the plane swung open the heat rushed into the cabin and really took me by surprise. As I approached the door and stepped out, it was as though I had to drink in the first breath of hot, humid air. And the smell.... I'll never forget that smell. At best, it was unpleasant! I soon learned what that smell was.... "benjo!"

Let's see... how do I put this kindly? Back then, the "sewer" system there consisted of a pipe that ran out of the house, through the stone wall that surrounded the yard then stopped abruptly. When you'd flush, the waste went flyin' down that pipe and shot out the end, dropping into a concrete gutter that ran along the side of the road. We're accustomed to having a curb along our roads, right? Well, imagine a "benjo ditch" with no curb, full of smelly little friends floating down to.... well, you get the idea, eh? Only ONE time did I drive a little too close to the side of a road... guess where the tires ended up... er, down! Yup!! Smelly Michelins!!!

Anyway, I got off that plane and labored to breathe the thick, heavy, wet air of my new home. Despite those first couple of unpleasant welcomes, I very rapidly took to that island!! I couldn't wait to get a car!! I also couldn't afford to get a car. There was a Tech Sergeant with whom I worked in the Emergency Room who had a very nice wife and a couple of young kids.

For whatever reason - I never questioned him, and have forever since admired the man - he took a couple of us new guys, us "jeeps," under his wing. His wife did too. She would let him bring us home whenever, and she always fed us! God!! It was so nice to have a "home" away from home. To this day I fondly remember them. To this day I regret having ever lost track of 'em!! Don and Jan Lackey, wherever you are - I love ya!!!!

Don used to let me drive his Ford Fairlane. In its day, it was a great car!! I loved it... I wrecked it too!! *Tsk!* Well, not too badly, but I did dent it!! Sorry, Don!

Back in those days, we could ship our big American cars over there and that was while we were still driving to the right. Even though I got there a few months after reversion (when the US gave Okinawa back to Japan - May, 1972) it took a long time for the Japanese to actually take full control of the island. Before reversion the "RAFP cops" were the law! RAFP was the Ryukyuan Armed Forces Police. Army... US Army... back in those days the Army literally ran that island. The US Army police had total jurisdiction and were the only official law enforcement agency on island. The U.S. military "owned" Okinawa and did anything they damned well pleased.

Now, how did I get off on that tangent?? Oh, yeah!! Don.. Fairlane...dent...

Debb came over in January of '73. By then I had rented a little apartment in Koza. Koza is now called Okinawa City *sigh* Everything changes, huh? Infamous "BC Street" is now the beautiful shopping district, Chuo Park Avenue!! What once was a hell hole - a strip of bars and whore houses - is now a lucrative, pleasant, strolling shopping area. But don't be fooled.... the bars are there. The whore houses? Well, it's a little better than that. Let me qualify that... I left in 1990. In 1990, there were many bars with "dancers." The bar owners would bring in girls from surrounding countries on 6 month work permits to "dance" in the clubs. They danced - I saw 'em. I hear they did other things too. I saw 'em... dance!! *grin*

Anyway... the apartment. The Nakasone Apartments... right across from the Koza Police Station. What a riot that was!! The Police Station, I mean. By the time I got there, the RAFP cops were pretty much staying on the military posts and were sorta like consultants. The Japanese had sent their gray-uniformed Japanese Policemen to the island and they had set up shop. What was a riot were those huge Plymouth cruisers they brought with 'em!! Anyone who's been to Japan (or even some of the European villages) knows how the roads are. NARROW!!! Narrow roads with cinderblock or stone walls right up to the side of the road... with those nasty little benjo ditches... rememebr? Well, it was as funny to watch them try to get those huge Plymouths through some parts of town. They looked ridiculous!! BUT, they didn't look near as silly as WE did, trying to maneuver our HUGER Oldsmobile metropolitan ambulances through those villages!! HehHehHeh! We were all learning! I had bought a teeny-tiny Diahatsu pick-up truck! It was maybe 75% the size of a Datsun pickup. Even the modern day Nissan and Toyota are large compared to what they were in the early '70s! Let's see... imagine this.. my Daihatsu. When DyLon was born we'd lay him in the seat between us and it would be a tight fit!! Now... before you all start e-mailing me, I know... never drive with a baby on the seat!! Baby seat in the BACK seat!!! Keep in mind... this was 1973!!

The Army said I had made a pretty good deal on the apartment so I was pretty pleased with myself. Debb had her tickets, the Air Force had packed up all of our stuff (I think we had a chair, three plates and a photo album back in those days) and she was on her way! I was proud!! I had provided for my bride!! I had "bought" us a home. The living room in this place was about 5 feet by 7 feet. I think prisoners get more floorspace than that. Whether they deserve it or not is an entirely different matter..... ah, poop!! I don't wanna go down that road just yet!! My lady was on her way!! I couldn't wait for her to get here!!! I was chompin' at the bit! I just HAD to see the expression on her face when she stepped off that plane, saw me and got a whiff of those benjo ditches!!! She'd be barfin' all over the tarmac!! She was "with child" you see.... I wanted to be sure everything was just right. I had that little apartment spotless! The couch in that room was soooo small!! It looked like a large toy couch that you'd buy for your kid and her Barbie doll!! I'd sit on it and my knee would slam into my chin if I wasn't careful! And it was naugahide!! Ah!! Nothin' like a hot sticky day when you can leave your back skin on the Japanese furniture!!!

Clean and scrub! Dust and polish!! Get the place spotlessly clean!! Oh!! The oven!! I remembered that the oven wasn't working. I cleaned the jets, reassembled it and then tried to light the pilot light. This was NOT a Magic Chef here, friends. This was a tiny apartment sized oven. A tiny Japanese apartment sized oven. I was inside the oven, searching for the pilot light... I thought I had found it... struck my StormKing lighter and POOF!!!

I remember how hot my face felt. I rememebr how I felt... I believed that I was the stupidest looking Buck Sergeant in the Air Force! Hopping, jumping and dancing around the kitchen (6' x 8' with a teeny tiny dinette), slapping and beating myself to put out my hair! Damn!! I eventually was extinguished and, yes, eyebrows DO grow back!

All set now!! Ready to bring my lady home.... she's flying in tomorrow.

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