Do you ever get that settled feeling like things have reached the point where there are no surprises in your future? Me neither! Not long after Dan and I returned from our epic Punjab Prom expedition, our parents decided that we were in need of a more structured education. Schooling by correspondence was not achieving the desired results. The distractions of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan made it hard to develop scholastic discipline in teenage boys.
Homesick G.I.s have an expression which goes something like, “Only 21 days and a wake-up and I will be back in the world!” Dan and I were heading “Back to the World”. For us, the world was going to be a farm in rural Missouri. We had mixed emotions about leaving the family, but we were excited about trading the exotic foothills of the Himalayas for the exotic foothills of the Ozarks.
Our Grandmother Ma had recently married Archie Parks, a retired St. Louis policeman and street car conductor. Archie had returned to his roots and bought an 80 acre homestead near Doe Run, in a remote part of St. Francois County. Ma and Archie invited Dan and I to come live with them.
We packed our bags, including our Silvertone guitars, and said a tearful farewell to Mom, Dad and our sisters Debbie and Becky. Dan was 14 and I was 16. The prospect of the 8,000 mile journey was not particularly worrying to us because we knew we would be under the wing of the United States Air Force. We each travelled with 200 copies of our travel orders in hand.
Due to a tropical storm, the first leg of the trip was interrupted by an unscheduled overnight stay in Lahore, near the Indian border. We were put up in a Kiplingesque hotel complete with squawking parrots, verandas and an undulating ceiling fan called a punkah. The punkah was operated by an aptly named Punkawallah who sat on the floor, pulling a rope attached to the fan. Dan and I were the only guests in the hotel. At dinner that night we were attended to by no less than five waiters… each!
The next morning we flew on to Karachi where we met up with the rest of the passengers who were going “Back to the World”. The passengers were mostly American Airmen, and they were more than ready to shake the dust of Pakistan from their feet. They had endured an entirely different experience to Dan and me. We had been living with our family and enjoyed all the comforts of home and more. The Airmen were finally leaving what was called in military jargon a “hardship tour”. Most of the guys were Morse code intercept operators called “diddy-boppers”, a tedious and stressful job.
At Karachi airport, as part of the exit process, we had to attend a one-on-one interrogation with a handlebar moustached Pakistani Customs and Immigration officer. I think I shocked him when I said in all honesty that I enjoyed my stay in the “Land of the Pure” (Pakistan). And, I really meant it. The experience was one that is impossible to repeat, especially based on events of the 21st century.
It was jet all the way to Charleston, with an overnight stop in Madrid. Once again, we boarded a C-135 with no passenger windows and seats facing backwards. No one cared this time since they were finally going home.
We knew many of the Airmen passengers since we had entertained them during our Saturday night performances at the Airmen’s club. Dan and I were looking forward to painting Madrid red with them, but they had other ideas. They said we were too young to experience the kind of night out they had planned.
Feeling snubbed, Dan and I took a bus to the Plaza Mayor, the main square in Madrid. After the rugged austerity of Peshawar, Madrid was like nothing we had ever experienced. Sidewalk cafes surrounded the square and there was a feeling that anything goes. I had always thought that the Spanish were dark-haired and swarthy. I was wrong. After more than a year of rarely seeing a female that was not entirely covered in a burka, the sight of legions of blondes, brunettes and red heads walking arm in arm around the plaza was a shock! We felt like wet behind the ears kids in the presence of such Iberian beauty. Alas, we made do sitting in a cafe with a Coke and a sophisticated European slice of lemon.
The next morning, tales told by the survivors of the previous night explained why over half of the transiting Airmen were “no shows” for our onward flight. There is a military offense known as “Failure to Repair”, which consists of, “Missing a formation or failing to appear at an assigned place and time when so ordered.” For many of the revellers, 18 months of hard duty in Pakistan had left them with a desire to unwind. During their all night blow-out in the bars and bodegas of Madrid, no holds were barred. I never heard the outcome regarding any individuals. I hope they got off lightly.
Dan and I were not immune to trouble by a long shot. We had each carefully packed a souvenir in our guitar cases; flick knifes with 8 inch blades that we bought in the Peshawar bazaar. During a random selection by customs officials in Charleston, Dan was singled out for close inspection. You can imagine our discomfort when the inspector pulled out Dan’s knife, extended the blade, waved it around and asked, “What in the wide world of sports is this?” Dan managed to look and sound like a cherub bathed in innocence as he explained that the knife was a gift for his cherished grandfather. Incredibly, the kind hearted customs inspector let us go after delivering a stern lecture about smuggling and contraband.
Learning by our mistake, we decided that carrying dangerous weapons in our luggage was not a good idea. As soon as we got out of the customs hall, we took our knives out of our guitar cases and put them in the breast pocket of our jackets. It was smooth sailing for our connecting flights on to St. Louis. Back then, air travel was not yet an affront to personal liberty. I would not recommend trying that stunt today.