April 21, 2013

Crossing the Pond

"You got to be careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there."  Yogi Berra

Al writes:  After Washington, DC, it was time to get to Dover Air Force Base where we hoped to fly "Space-Available" to Germany.  We got to Dover by public transportation on Sunday afternoon because a Ramstein flight was scheduled for Monday evening.  Let me digress a little and explain the process.  Retirees are Cat VI, which is the lowest category for Space-A.  Each military passenger terminal has a Facebook page that posts the known 3-day schedule for flights out with tentative information on how many seats may be released. It is a little more complicated than I have explained, but nothing is firm, and the Air Force can change anything, anytime, anywhere. So, to paraphrase Clint Eastwood, "Do I feel lucky today?"  There is a roll call 3-4 hours before each flight, which is the moment of truth.  If your name is called at roll call, you are on the flight.  For retirees, chances are based on if the number of seats released gets down to Cat VI and if the date you requested your name to be put on the Space-A list beats everyone else.  Carol put us on lists about 37 days ago. 

Monday afternoon as we were getting ready to go to the terminal for roll call, we checked Facebook and found roll call had been canceled--no seats available.  Tuesday morning, two new flights to Germany popped up on the schedule, so we got to the terminal by 11:00 for roll call at 2:00.  However, we were informed roll call had been moved up to 1:00.  Then at 12:55, roll call was moved to 5:30.  At 4:30, lights were turned on in the baggage area, a platoon of Air Force guys appeared, and our name was called first.  By now, I do not believe anything, but the platoon of Air Force guys checked ID's and passports, and grabbed our luggage.  I was asked what box supper I desired--turkey, ham, or peanut butter & jelly sandwich.  Hmmm, I am now thinking I will get to Germany. 

An hour later, the security screening machines were turned on and the platoon of Air Force guys moved to this area, where we went through the same routine you would go through at a civilian airport.  After passing through security screening, I was issued my box supper; Megan calls them "box nasties".  Then a bus pulled up to the little room we had been squirreled in and it was time to go out onto the tarmac.  Just as we started through the door, one of the platoon leaders stopped us and told the rest of the platoon not to load these old people.  Hmmm, our eyes got wide, expecting that the plane has had a change of status, like a wing falling off.  Nope, the pilot was trying to get everybody on board to leave early and someone higher up than the platoon leader said no.  So we waited another 45 minutes, boarded our bus and then headed out to our plane.  As we headed out the door to the bus, we were highly encouraged to help ourselves to a little box of earplugs to protect our ears during the flight.  Now you have a little idea why we find gambling to be a little exciting.

Our aircraft was a C-5 Galaxy, which is the largest plane in the Air Force inventory.  We do not build them anymore and they are starting to show their age.  On the upper deck, there is seating for 75.  The massive cargo area (200,000 lbs) is on the lower deck.  We chose the first row of seating near the door, and soon an Air Force crew member prepared to close a large door that runs on tracks into the overhead.  As he was closing the door, it jumped the tracks and jammed in the open position.  Carol and I just looked at each other.  We were only a few feet from this action and could hear the crew member talking on his headset about how he thought he fixed this that morning, that this is not good, send up the crew chief and how it is going to be pretty windy in the passenger section.  Carol and I just looked at each other.  Two other crew members appeared and they were all looking at the tracks, shaking and banging on the door and saying how this is not good.  Now, I am not easily alarmed, but there were also miscellaneous wires and insulation dangling from the overhead around this door.  Carol and I just looked at each other.  Finally, the tall one gave the door a really good whack and it got back into the tracks and was pushed closed with only some pinched fingers as casualties.  Carol and I just looked at each other and then looked at the door to make sure we could not see outside. 

Next it was time for the safety brief.  The airman read from a script at mach speed in a mumbling manner at the same time that we all had earplugs in and the jets were whining. I never heard a word. He demonstrated what I think was an emergency breathing mask with compressed oxygen that is a backup to the masks that come out of the overhead…if you can figure out how to make them come out of the overhead.  These emergency masks were some sort of neoprene bag that fits over your entire head.  I did read that if the oxygen does not work, quickly pull off the bag or you will suffocate quickly.  Then there was the brief life vest demonstration.  I think some words were said about the straps, but there was all this other stuff hanging down.  He said we did not have to worry about that stuff (I think).  Carol and I just looked at each other.

There were only 17 old people that boarded the plane, so we had all the room we wanted.  Everyone spread out so that each of us could lie down on three seats to sleep. As we taxied Carol's eyes got very big as she pointed up to the vents above her.  There appeared to be smoke coming out.  I looked back and all the vents had “smoke” coming out.  However, I realized that the "smokey" icy blast that was hitting me was not the door flying open but the ventilation system kicking in.  What we were seeing was moist cold vapor!  I yelled this information into Carol's ear just before she was going to raise her hand to tell the airman that we were on fire and we were all going to die.  I would have been so embarrassed…

Finally, we were in the air!  Then it got cold, really cold.  I knew I was in trouble when the experienced travelers behind us pulled out sleeping bags and crawled in and went to sleep.  I put on my sweatshirt, hood and coat, pulled the paper-thin Air Force blanket around me and hunkered down for a restful night knowing that I just saved $1500 dollars because the Air Force was so kind to take me to Germany in style.  Carol did not even mind the frost bitten toes.  Seriously, thank you, Air Force; we appreciate what you do.

I know I am rambling but every experience was new and not quite what I expected.  Going through customs was another one of those things that we sort of worried about--not because we were bringing in contraband, but because we have almost a year’s worth of prescriptions.  After the passports were inspected, we were directed to the customs official, who did not look like a customs official.  He really looked like a German army sergeant getting ready to take a run.  No official logos on his clothes, just some nondescript work pants and an olive green t-shirt.  So we walked up to him, ready to put our luggage on the long table for inspection.  He said, "no no...", smiled, and asked, "Do you have anything to declare?"  Carol and I just looked at each other.  I was thinking to myself, "Can you give me an example?"  We must have both looked sort of dumbfounded because he smiled again and asked, "Cigarettes?”  I said no and he replied, "Have a nice stay in Germany.”  That was it.

Our first 5 days in Germany were spent in the Ramstein area.  We stayed in a friendly, convenient hotel outside Ramstein Air Force Base.  It was a good place for us to get used to life outside the US.  We did not want to get to Amsterdam too early because lodging there would be more expensive.  The area we are in is in the southwest corner of Germany, not far from the Rhine River and Luxembourg.  It has traditionally been an area of heavy U.S. military presence with Ramstein AFB, Landstuhl military hospital complex and Kaiserslautern (K-town) Army base.  I lived in K-town in the  early 50's when my dad was stationed there after the war.

Some of Nanstein Castle's walls are constructed on thick layers of sandstone

A huge underground room in Nanstein castle--damp walls from water seepage, a wet dirt floor
Castle walls built on layers of sandstone
 Entrance to Nanstein castle with eye holes through walls several feet thick

Here are a few tidbits of information we have learned during our first few days in Germany:

        1.  When you get a local SIM card for a cell phone, it changes your number.

        2.  Bring your own bags to the supermarket--none are provided.

        3.  You have to pay to use a grocery shopping cart.

        4.  Beer is cheaper than soft drinks (yippee).

        5.  Some toilets have two flush choices...high and low...You can figure it out.

        6.  A popular drink in the pubs is beer and Coca Cola mixed.
Poignant WW II cemetery in Landstuhl--no matter what side you are on, war is terrible

We have explored some of the local area using the regional train system, which is as wonderful, timely, and convenient as expected.  Ramstein is not a big tourist area but still has its interesting history and culture.  We are definitely not in Kansas anymore. We visited Landstuhl (5 minutes on the train) and walked through the ruins of Nanstein Castle, which was built in 1162 by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I.  Later in 1518, it was fortified by German knight Franz von Sickingen to make the castle suitable for firearms.  Yesterday we visited K-Town during a big soccer match and had a meal in a pub with the rest of the Germans watching their team.  The train coming back to Landstuhl/Ramstein was full of soccer fans doing some singing because their team won.  I am proud to report that I am blending in as long as I keep my mouth shut.  I have had several Germans asking me for directions, commenting on the game and other comments of which I have no idea of the subject matter.  Must be my hat.


Carol writes:  It's the hat.

The journey continues Monday because I have rented a car to drive to Amsterdam (cheaper than the train) and it will be easier to transport our luggage.  I went on a new site called airbnb.com that has rentals for staying in private rooms or apartments and found an apartment several minutes from Amsterdam city center.  This will be interesting.  We will let you know how it goes. 

"One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."  Andre Gide









  1. I was laughing about your C-5 experience. We have a similar problem with the one of the windows on the tanker. The pilots have sliding glass windows in the cockpits that are nice for airflow when it's hot. If it's realy hot we taxi with them open then shut them right before takeoff. Well without fail, the pilot's one always falls off the tracks when to trying close it right before takeoff. There's a small pin that is easily bent which makes the window fall off. So the SOP (standard operating procedure) is to take the crash ax and bang the pin into place then put the window back on. Of course this isn't written anywhere, just passed down from generation to generation.

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  3. Mom would have really freaked if the airmen started using a crash ax.