Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Holiday to Forget: Part I

I now consider myself a seasoned military traveler in Afghanistan, accustomed to the delays, inconveniences and mysteries inherent to flight schedules in a war zone. So I take full responsibility for the frustration I encountered when I tried to travel via air on the Thanksgiving holiday. I was expecting too much. I was suffering under the illusion that the local airlift command worked toward the goal of transporting passengers with a minimum of pain and suffering.

My travail began the day prior to Thanksgiving, when I left my base at 05:45, arrived at the airfield at 07:00, learned that my flight plan would be available at 10:30, and finally confirmed mid-morning that my travel was not scheduled to begin until the next morning when I was expected at the terminal at 06:00. At that point, more than 18 hours before I needed to report back for my flight, I should have simply trudged up the street three hundred yards to the transient housing office, where I would have been assigned a cot in the transient passenger tent located almost one mile from the terminal.

A night in the transient tent did not seem too appealing to me at the time for several reasons. That morning when I would have checked in for a cot, I could have utilized the convenient base shuttle to take me and nearly door-to-tent; but the following morning, when I was expected at the terminal before sunrise, the shuttle would not yet be running. I would then have to wrap my duffels about myself and hump (as the infantry says) the entire distance, negating any hygienic advantage a pre-flight shower might have brought me.

Additionally, I try always to follow the advice of my college roommate Mike Monticello who admonished me to “travel heavy” whenever possible. Mike, while an undergraduate, owned what I think was the last produced steamer trunk from Brooks Brothers into which he carefully folded his cotton and linen wardrobe for trips as brief as an overnight stay at his parents’ place ninety miles away. I often pay tribute to Mike when I travel by loading my bags with whatever I might possibly need, to include a laptop computer, bottled water, several notebooks, a few hardcover medical reference books, a selection of exercise gear, sundry laundry products … More than once I’ve been able to offer assistance to a friend – who had ridiculed me earlier for over packing – by providing Internet wireless access, a chapter from Harrison’s Internal Medicine, and a shot of fabric softener.

I also had less than fond memories of the last time I attempted to sleep in the transient tent, which is located at the runway terminus for the busy airfield. Permanent housing for airbase personnel surrounds the transient tent, and I’m not sure how those military personnel adapt to sleeping through the noise as all night long the pilots of F-16 and Prowler jets ignite the afterburners for their craft at the end of the runway, before they are even airborne, to get speed and gain a safe altitude quickly (up and away from any enemy ground fire). The sound of this maneuver for a newcomer attempting slumber in the transient tent simulates a locomotive barreling through the canvas and overhead of the exhausted recumbent. (I recently learned from an aviation crew member that the Prowler, surely the most inappropriately named acquisition in the history of modern warfare production, is the louder of the two craft.)

Instead of a night in the transient tent, I opted to lounge in the USO building located just across the street from the terminal and open throughout the night. I figured I would be able to nap there, and even use the half-day to send one or two emails utilizing the world’s slowest wireless internet service that the USO offers. After all, I had my laptop. The USO, I learned, is comfortable, but only for brief periods of time. The facility caters to the younger military troops, as well it should, which means that loud Hollywood action flicks blare throughout the building day and night, as do large screen video game devices strategically placed to foil any attempt by a patron to read a book or even converse with a neighbor. The chairs look inviting, but I found they were not designed to support comfortably a forty-two year old spine. Also, once you sunk into the soft cushions, you found yourself immersed in the lingering musky vapors of seven years of US infantry who have transited through the airfield.

I have spent more than twenty-four straight hours on duty at a hospital, and I am a field grade officer in the United States military, so I was able in the early morning to ignore my fatigue, brush my teeth, wash and shave my face, and then report to the terminal at 06:00 ready for my flight. My plan was to sleep on the plane, which I figured we would load by 08:00 at the latest. I didn’t bother scrounging breakfast anywhere, as I deluded myself into believing that lunch would surely be available shortly after noon, when I expected to be at my destination. At 09:30, though, I found myself still cordoned at a departing gate with 60-70 other passengers, wondering just what the hell was going on with our flight; and if anyone in the terminal was prepared to give us any information on when we might be allowed to leave the terminal, either via the runway or the entrance door.

About that time a gate attendant brought in several boxes of Pop Tarts and breakfast cereal (without any milk), a courtesy that is in fact a terrible prognostic indicator for a military traveler hoping to move from his present location. And shortly after the improvised Continental fare landed on the dusty concrete of the departure gate floor, we got word from our surly “flight coordinator” (who had been not-so-mysteriously absent the previous 2 ½ hours) that our plane had been grounded due to mechanical problems, but that she was trying to locate another craft for our journey. She gave us this holiday news in a clipped, imperious tone as if we were inconveniencing her. It was typical of the military customer service approach, for which I will suggest to the Department of Defense adopt the motto “How can we not help you?”

Part Two of a "Holiday to Forget" coming very soon (like tomorrow).

1 comment:

Fat Robbie said...

Wherever you are, I hope it ends up a helluva lot better than it started. . .