By Dan Bodine
Hee, hee! A true one about an ol’ Navy sailor once caught in an airport layover between duty assignments, and broke after boozing away his travel leave money! Memory stirred from long waits by thousands of Southwest Airlines passengers in the current weather-delay odyssey. Worries in layovers, they are. But don’t say rescue angels don’t exist!
My memories are from 55 years ago — this same end-of-year/start of New Year holiday layover period — when at age 24 I spent five days watching flights come-in/go-out at JFK International Airport in New York, and nights sleeping on whatever lounges I could find.
Had an airplane ticket in hand, yes, but mistakenly it was for a later date — e.g., departing not the Saturday I arrived, but the next Wednesday evening instead.
Trapped without money, credit card, or food to eat — and much too far away from family assistance — what do you do? Call 911? It crossed my mind, trust me. Five days, this was! Waiting for a flight to Reykjavík, Iceland.
All because I’d wasted travel-pay I’d gotten at the U.S. Naval Training Center on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, to fly instead to D-FW — and see area family members at Christmas. And then boozed away the rest of it visiting friends! Alcoholic idiocies!
Words from a famous writer, “Oh what tortures we mortal fools lend ourselves to,” I’d aptly remember often during this New York/JFK layover spell — while watching planes come in… And go out, over yonder rooftops…For they were an albatross of sorts.
Those words from Shakespeare had been quoted to me once by an English Literature professor — in denying me a makeup exam, e.g., after I’d overslept his first one. He’d seen enough glimpses of my true short-sighted self then, I guess!
This happened at the ol’ former Arlington State College, maybe a month or so in early ’67 before its change to UT-Arlington, I’m guessing.
“Working three jobs, you are not ever going to get anywhere in college,” the Prof politely told me.
Yeah, well, I reckoned, that’s an argument for another day. But…I didn’t reckon far enough, true.
That course, and a few others, were keeping my U. S. Military Draft Board‘s “Student Deferral” status alive. I’d already checked with the board back in Cleburne, where I was registered. No. 3 on next month’s draft list! Pending…
Dropping the course, or failing it either one — e. g., dropping status from full-time student to part-time — would surely end in being drafted and sent to fight (and possibly killed) in Vietnam. My reasoning, it was.
And with all the stories circulating then, students had no doubts about the Draft. It hovered over you like a buzzard in the sky.
So, couple weeks or so later, I enlisted in the U.S. Navy — for four years rather than the Army Draft’s two.
And after boot camp months later, I ended up at ‘Frisco’s Treasure Island. Becoming an E.T.R., as in radar tech.
And then being assigned duty to a Naval station in Iceland. Better than being killed in Vietnam! (To my scared mind, anyway)
“So why am I here at JFK so many days early?” you ask. “And without money?”
Friends, I’m glad you asked. The trip from Fort Worth to JFK was an epic one! LET ME BEGIN:
At the time (post Christmas Season, 55 years ago), my late dad (Albert Ralph Bodine) was paint shop foreman working in civil service at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth.
He had connections. Such as, What bases are those huge aircraft bombers being moved into and out of, Major? It’s for my boy, a Navy sailor! He needs a military hop to help get to some airport in New York City! They’re sending him to Iceland, of all places!
Hee, hee! It wadn’t but hours one Friday and I was seated alone (remember those huge, cavernous bombers who airlifted people out of Afghanistan couple years ago? THOSE!!), inside a giant plane!
Destined for Plattsburg Air Force Base in the northeast corner of far upstate New York — a 3 or 4-hr drive down to The City, I was told.
“You can get a ride with somebody up there!” Dad assured me. “People going and coming from Plattsburg all the time! Once inside New York, everybody knows where JFK is! Shouldn’t be any problems.”
After landing at the Air Force base in Plattsburg and walking down onto the tarmac, no one yet had spoken to me, I don’t think. I was cargo.
Except to say, “Set along that wall there,” and “Be sure to strap on this seatbelt — This may be a choppy flight,” and, finally, “Ok, we’re here, Sailor, follow us on down!”
Was I going to complain? NOooo….
Except on that tarmac…After seeing (apparently) they all intended to walk away and leave me standing there, I did ask for help from the last one — as he walked away.
“Uh…Hey, I really need to get down to the JFK Airport in New York. You know anybody by chance who might be going that way?”
The Airman stopped in his tracks, turned around…And looked at me blankly for a few seconds.
“That‘s where you’re going?!” he asked.
“Well…T-T-That’s where I’m hoping to go. I’ve got a plane ticket leaving for Iceland tomorrow night.”
The Air Force buddy system! These people know how to take care of each other.
“You better come with me then,” he said. “We’ll find someone somewhere.” We got into his car; drove to his home on the base.
After a few phone calls, the Airman found someone leaving for “The City.” BUT…First, I’d have to watch an airbase tournament basketball game. He left me at the base gym.
Several hours later, a carload of New York airmen were all carrying an ol’ Navy salt down to The City. A $4 fee, for gas. I told them the bus terminal, where I could catch a ride to JFK. They dropped me off at one. I said thanks. And looked around.
A lone African-American janitor was inside a huge, cavernous bus building — well lighted, but otherwise empty. Three, maybe 3:30 a.m., I walked up to him. Seabag on my shoulder.
“No, son, they let you off at the wrong place!” is how he answered the JFK bit. “The 24-hr. bus terminal you want is the West Side — This here is the East Side, it’s closed!”
Soon, after instructions, I was a blue-clad, white-hat, ol’ Texas Navy boy, walking alone sidewalks in a massive, clamorous downtown New York, shouldering my seabag — scared, yes, in bustling traffic, the strange city sights and sounds! Controlled chaos amidst lightly falling snow.
And part of that clamor were automobile horns. Jerking your mind here and there!
A particular loud, long-g-g sound near me off the curb nearby even had me on edge — e.g., what’s that s.o.b.’s problem?! I jerked my head to the right, and confronted the bastard. Snow falling heavier now.
It was an 18-wheeler, driver’s window on cab up there was down ’bout mid-way, and an ugly face peering out…A Yankee!
“What the hell ‘ya want!?” I answered. “Leave me alone!!!”
He stuck his hand out and waved it. Wildly.
“No, no, no!!!” he shot back. “I’m ASKING YOU!!! WHERE ARE YOU GOING???“
Then he put both hands out the window, palms up. “Maybe I can give you a ride?”
Sometimes when God confronts ‘ya in these ways, you git a little week-kneed, yeah. Life is an ongoing mystery! I shifted my seabag off’n my right shoulder, to my left shoulder. To better view him And breathed in good air.
“JFK!” I answered.
And that ugly, gnarly face turned into the biggest smile!
“That’s just where I’m going! Hop in! I’ll give you a ride out there!“
Joe, is all I can remember his name was. Had a boy in the military, too, he said. Just paying it forward! Took me to JFK, where he was dropping off supplies somewhere. First to a small diner, though, for breakfast — the last food I’d get for four more days, it turned out.
Then he dropped me off at a terminal building. I walked up to PAN-AM’s ticket window — supposedly my pot of goal at the end of a rainbow — only to be asked, “Why are you here so early? Your plane doesn’t leave until late Wednesday evening?”
Aghast, my mouth was. Staring at the date on the ticket. How could I have missed that? Too much play-time on my mind?!
Yes, it was a Wednesday evening 9 p.m. date, that for some reason I’d mistakenly read as Saturday evening 9 p.m.
“Only one flight out to Iceland every week?!” I asked. Like El Tonto!
And the ticket teller already was nodding his head, up-and-down. Slowly. “Yup.”
I walked away, locked my seabag to a post somewhere, and laid down for a nap. Later got up to watch planes land and take off.
A pattern I’d repeat for five consecutive days. Watching jets disappear over New York City’s skyline.
Probably about 7 a.m. on Wednesday, the day I was due to depart, a janitor who’d been watching me all this time came up to me, and asked me to follow him to a kitchen somewhere — where he fed me breakfast. Food at last. “I’ve got a boy in the military,” he said. “Just paying it forward!”
Thus, “Happy New Year!” to everyone, it is. Don’t think it won’t get better! Even if’n you’re stuck with Southwest Airline tickets in an airport layover somewhere. There are angels about.
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