Geekery of all stripes

Stand By for Space Available

· David Bishop

Earlier this year my Mom was asked to write down a story of a memorable road trip that our family went on. She immediately delegated the task to my Dad, proving that she’s the one I got my brains from. So, here is the story of how we went from Okinawa to Idaho and back for summer vacation, way back in 1986, in my Dad’s words. Oh, and The Commandant is what my Dad calls my Mom, for obvious reasons.

Stand By. Such an interesting word combination. I do not like to just ‘Stand.’ It hurts my feet and my back. I would much rather walk than just stand. And then the word ‘By.’ Neither here nor there, just somewhere close. To ‘Stand By’ is to waste time since you are neither doing anything useful, preparing to do anything useful, or even taking a nap-just waiting. Being on ‘Stand By’ is like being a spare tire; you are ignored, kept out of sight, forgotten about, but if you are not there when they need you, your one moment of fame becomes your moment of flame.

One of the perks of being in the military, or even being retired from the military, is that you get to fly ‘Space Available.’ Well, actually you get to Stand By until you get to fly ‘Space Available.’ It works like this: Military transport planes, the C130s, C5s, Ci41s, and such, often have empty seats when they are flying from point A to point B, so why not let active duty military, retired military, and military dependents use those extra seats? So if you want to fly from Utah to Georgia you can go to the Salt Lake City airport and buy a plane ticket, or you can go to Hill Air Force Base and hop on a plane heading east. The cost will be about $10.00, and that is for the inflight meal. You might not get a seat, the plane might not be going where you want to go, and you could be bumped off at any place along the way, but life is an adventure, and this is a cheap thrill.

Now the rules for a Stand By Flier going Space Available are simple:

  1. You are the least of the least, the lowest of the lowest, last to get a seat, first to be bumped off.
  2. You have to be there in the room when they announce open seats on a flight. Not at home, not on base, not in the terminal, but in that exact room.
  3. First in Time is First in Line. When you show up, you sign up. When seats are announced the passengers who checked in first get the first chance at them. But if you are feeding the children at Burger King when they get to your sign in date and time, rule #1 applies. If you come back in right after the next sign in date and time are announced, you go to the back of the line to get seats on that flight.
  4. If you are going to fly Stand By while on Leave, you have to be on Leave and carrying your official Leave papers when you sign in. Some people like to cheat and show up with dummy papers, and then have their real Leave start once they get a flight. Civilians pronounce the word Leave as Vacation.

The Marine Corps decided in 1984 that I should attend the US Army’s course for Military Police Captains at their United States Army Military Police School in Fort McClellan, Alabama in the spring of 1985. After graduating I was able to take 30 days Leave in Bliss, Idaho before going to Los Angeles, California and flying off to Okinawa, Japan. It was a three year, Accompanied Tour, in Okinawa, which meant my family got to come along and learn how to eat fish heads and rice also. Playing mind games on the soldiers at Ft. McClellan was fun, the time spent on the farm in Bliss was very enjoyable, and the flight to Okinawa was painfully boring, except for the flight crew who were trying to keep our children from opening the cabin door so they could go outside and play.

Okinawa was the first time our family lived in a foreign country. Well, actually the wife and I had lived in California for several years, but we left there when our oldest daughter was less than a year old so to our children Okinawa was their first experience in a foreign country. Okinawa is a small island in the nation of Japan. Okinawan people are small in stature compared to Americans who were raised on beef and potatoes. The houses are small, the vehicles are small, and the roads are tiny. Many intersections had large convex mirrors mounted on nearby walls, so you could see traffic coming at you from the cross streets. If it were not for the mirrors, your vehicle would be in the middle of the intersection before you could see the car that was just now running into you. I had a really bad case of claustrophobia, and the only cure was going home.

It has been nearly 30 years now, but I can still remember the summer of 1985, ambling down the road in my Dad’s 1967 Chevy pickup with the windows rolled down and the aroma of dry sagebrush coming in the open windows. I admit that the smell of sagebrush in the rain is better, but the aroma of hot sagebrush, powdered with the alkaline dust of the Alpine Desert of Southern Idaho ranks right up there with bacon, eggs and biscuits from the kitchen stove.

So suffering from claustrophobia and too much greenery and humidity, I put in my Leave application, and prepared to fly home, on Space Available, because we could not afford regular airline tickets for all seven of us.

Monday morning I took my signed Leave papers to the passenger terminal aboard Kadena Air Base on Okinawa and we started waiting for a ride. One at a time the people who were in our Sign In Date/Time Group started hopping on flights and heading for the United States. The key point is ‘One’ at a time. We needed 7 seats and that is harder to find. And the children also spent their time at the terminal with us. Great fun for a couple of hours, and then the boredom sets in, even for children who grew up with their nose in a book. The Commandant had sewn backpacks for the children. The backpacks were different sizes, depending on the size of the child. Inside she had packed pencils, crayons, and books. Bishops are patient people as long as we have a book to read.

On Tuesday we left the terminal to dash over to Burger King for lunch. Missed a flight. Wednesday we called the terminal from our house and asked if there were any flights going out that day to the States. ‘No.’ They lied. It turns out there is a subset to Rule #2, ‘Since you have to be there, calling in is an automatic disqualifier.’ Missed a flight. Thursday we went back to sitting in the terminal all day, with no flight out for us.

By Friday morning we had obtained Numero Uno status on the list, and Friday is one of two days each week that the Freedom Bird flies. It is a 747 that makes two round trips a week, bringing in new personnel from the states and flying others back home. When we came to Okinawa we came in on that aircraft. It was the last, best hope to get off the island that week. And finally we got seats. While we were at the head of the Standby List, we were still among the very last to get a seat, and they had us scattered all over the plane. The Commandant was with Joshua, our youngest. I was with Havilah, our youngest daughter, and the older three were somewhere else. But we were finally on the plane, heading back home, and scheduled to land at Oakland International Airport in California. Before we hopped on the plane I had called my folks in Idaho and Mom was on her way from Bliss to Oakland to pick us up. Havilah was buckled in, I was buckled in, and had just pulled out the Aircraft Evacuation Plan (you can never be too prepared) when THE VOICE came over the intercom: Could Captain Bishop and his family please come to the front of the plane, and bring all of your carryon luggage? (I do not know why that sentence gets a question mark because it was not a question but an order). Remember Rule #1? Just before we were ready to take off some one showed up with Emergency Leave Orders, issued only when someone back home is dead or dying. They needed seats and instead of trying to pick and choose enough people on the plane to kick off and make room for those on Emergency Leave, they grabbed the 7 of us and made things happen.

As I was standing there on the tarmac watching the plane take off I asked one of the airmen working at the terminal, ‘How about our luggage in the hull of that aircraft?’ ‘Someone will take care of it,’ was the NOT MY PROBLEM reply. We went home and I called Bliss. My Dad informed me that Mom had already taken off for California and there was no way we could contact her. One good deal after another, Mom driving to meet people who would not be there, and luggage being delivered to an airport with no one to collect it. Fortunately this was before 9/11 so unclaimed luggage was not blown up back then.

When Mom did arrive at Oakland she noticed that we were not on the plane. When a 747 unloads its passengers, you can miss one or two, but you cannot miss a family of 7. Mom started asking if anyone had seen us, and fortunately one of Sariah’s school friends had been on the plane and saw us get evicted, so she told Mom what she knew. Mom was totally lost as to what she should do next so someone took pity on her and directed her to the United Servicemen’s Organization (the USO is the same outfit that flew Bob Hope and other entertainers into combat zones, so they could handle a little lost lady from Bliss, Idaho). An airman from the USO figured out what happened to us, figured out that we probably had luggage on the 747, found it, put it in the van Mom was driving, and told her that a plane coming in the next day at nearby Travis Air Force Base was the one we most likely would be on. That airman knew more about Space Available than the people who actually ran it for the Air Force. Mom knew about a Christian family in the Oakland area that were friends with Christians back up in Bliss, so she went to their home for the night and then went to Travis AFB the next morning, hoping we would be there.

Meanwhile it was Friday afternoon in Okinawa so we went home for the day. Saturday morning we returned to the terminal and waited for our next chance to fly out. Right off the bat we found that we had two chances. The first plane up was a C141 Starlifter going to McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma, Washington. It was tempting, but our luggage and my Mother were most likely in California, so we passed on getting a ride on this plane in hopes of getting on a C5 Galaxy that was going to Travis AFB. After they had passed our Sign in Time/Date Group a soldier came up and told me that the C5 that was coming up next was going to be held up at least 24 hours for repairs. He told me that he kept silent because if we had opted for the C141 he might not have got a seat on it. Karma gets you every time. As we took off a couple of hours later on our C5 Galaxy to Travis, the C141 Starlifter going to McChord was still on the tarmac being repaired.

Time for a short history lesson on modern US Military transport aircraft, at least the main four.

Transport aircraft can carry people or cargo by quickly modifying the interior. Cargo must be their main duty because they begin with the letter C for Cargo, as in C141. The gray haired veteran of the bunch is the C130 Hercules that started being produced in the 1950s. It is pulled through the air by four propellers spun by turboprop engines and is the go anywhere, do anything cargo and people hauler. Most aircraft become outmoded after the next, better design comes down the road, but the C130 has been steadily improved and produced for over 60 years. The Air Force is still trying to find a better design but current estimates are that the C130 design might still be flying for this country until the 2030s. While the Air Force flies most of the C130s, the Navy and the Marines have some also.

The C141 Starlifter started production in 1965 and the last one left active duty in 2006. With four jet engines it was the long flight, heavy lifter of the Air Force for many years. During my time in the Marines the one plane that I spent the most flying time in was the C141. I had 5 cross country flights and 3 cross Pacific flights in them, and most of the aircraft I jumped out of were C141s. Like the C130s they can carry armed Marines and soldiers in folding seats made of aluminum pipes and nylon straps that are hinged from the interior walls of the plane. Also like the C130s there are no interior panels to cut down on noise, so you wear ear plugs and watch the flight control cables move back and forth. But C141s can also carry civilian type aircraft seats that fasten to the floor. On long flights they can load a special cargo box that has toilet facilities or even bunks for sleeping. As far as I know the Marine Corps and the Navy never flew C141s.

The C5 Galaxy is the big brother of the bunch. They were designed to carry really heavy loads, like the M1 Abrams tank. The first C5 went into service with the Air Force in June of 1970. From a distance the C5 resembles the C141, but up close the size difference is extremely notable. Besides the normal tailgate that drops down like the C130 and the C141 so that cargo can be driven into the plane, the C5 has a nose that lifts up out of the way. A person could drive a truck in one end of a C5 and out the other. Besides a cavernous cargo space there is a passenger compartment between the wings and the tail along the spine of the aircraft. It carries 75 passengers in civilian type aircraft seats and has noise absorbing padded walls and even windows that you can see out of. The decorative color pattern is beige/grey and the seats face backwards for safety reasons, but flying as a passenger in a C5 Galaxy is about as good as it gets outside of small executive jets for very senior officers and politicians. There is no replacement for the C5 on the drawing boards at this time.

The C17 Globemaster came on active duty in 1995, two years after I retired so I have never flown in one. With 4 jet engines for power it was supposed to land on short airstrips like the C130 and carry more than a C141. In September of 2013 the Air Force decided that it had enough C17s and went back to the drawing board. Sometimes people just get caught up in fancy designs. A Swiss Army knife is the ultimate in being a tool for everything, but when you go to war you take a KBar, which is nothing more than a flat bar of steel sharpened on one end.

History lesson over.

We left Okinawa around 11:00 on Saturday morning and after flying nonstop across the Pacific we landed at Travis AFB four hours earlier. Because we had no baggage we were able to clear Customs, find my Mother standing there waiting for us with all of our luggage in the van, and we were on the road to home by 08:00 Saturday morning. By 6:00pm we had our feet under the kitchen table in Bliss.

When we went through Bliss in the summer of 1985 Dad was working as a farmhand on a place south of the river. Working as a farmhand does not leave you very much time to farm your own place, and when we came back in 1986 Dad was still too busy to take care of his own place so we got right to farming. We were able to spend several weeks irrigating, fixing fence, driving tractor, visiting with relatives, and enjoying slow drives down country roads. We also had time to cut and stack hay, so I got it cut and raked prior to baling it. I tried to bale one morning but it was still too green. I left the tractor and the baler in the field so Dad could take it from there.

In 1985 I had spent my Leave farming and did not go on the camping trip to Montana with the Commandant and the children (I love to farm and she loves to camp, conflicting summer time events). In 1986, I knew I would have to leave the farm and spend several days on Lindbergh Lake in Montana with the family. By Saturday morning it was time to leave Lindbergh Lake and start heading home. We drove from Lindberg Lake to Missoula that morning and then spent the rest of the day getting the clothes washed and packed. We left Missoula after sundown and made it to Salmon, Idaho about midnight. After getting the gas tank topped off, I headed for Bliss while the rest of the family grabbed some sleep. We had a Volkswagen bus that we had managed to fix up with a table that could be lowered and turned into a bed. It was not fancy but it got the job done. On the four hour trip from Salmon to Bliss that night I followed one car for several miles, had one pass me going the other way, and had a Ford pickup drive across the street ahead of me in Richfield. Not exactly heavy traffic even for Idaho. We got to the Little House in Bliss at 04:00, got everyone into the house, and we all went to sleep.

I got up at 08:00 and walked down the lane to the folk’s house for breakfast. As I crossed the street to the house, I noticed that the tractor and baler had not moved. I immediately went down to the hayfield and started baling. It was not the best time of the day and the hay was not in the best condition to be baled, but it would not get any better. By late Sunday afternoon the hay was baled and in the stack. After showering and having supper we took off for California just before the sun went down. I had made it to Interstate 80 and was heading for Reno, Nevada when I started seeing little bluish purple things out of the corner of my eyes. The Commandant took over the driving and I slept as she drove over the mountains and down to Travis AFB.

As soon as we got to the base I changed into my Marine Corps Summer Service Charlie uniform (short sleeve khaki shirt, green trousers, black shoes, and overseas cover). One of the rules about flying Stand By that I had not mentioned earlier is that if you are active duty you must be in uniform, and that does not include Marine Corps Cammies or Army BDUs. That rule was not a problem when we were trying to get out of Okinawa since we went home every night so I could shower and put on a fresh uniform every morning, but Travis AFB was not home.

Travis had just been the site of an air show that weekend so the number of passengers trying to get out had piled up, and I was the new kid on the Date/Time Group list. We spent the day hanging around the terminal fruitlessly waiting for a ride. Oh, and one of the rules about being a Marine Officer is that you do not sleep in public while in uniform. So I spent a lot of time walking around trying to stay awake. We finally gave it up for the day, left the base, got something to eat, and found a motel to spend the night. I asked for an early wakeup call at 05:00 so I could get myself ready and the family up and back to the airfield. Then we all stayed up and watched on television the 1967 version of the film Doctor Dolittle with Rex Harrison. I also set my alarm clock for 05:00, which was a good thing because they did not call. After I got showered and dressed, and just before I started to wake everyone up, I remembered I was in California. I set my watch back one hour, and at 05:00 California time, I got my early wakeup call from the front desk. I really could have used that extra hour of sleep.

Back at the airport we finally got a flight, a C5 Galaxy going to Yokota Air Base near Tokyo, Japan via Hickam Air Base, Hawaii. We said goodbye to my Mother, hopped on the plane and took off. Now one of the rules of the family is that Momma Gets the Best. Whether it is the newest vehicle, the softest chair, or the window seat with a view, she gets it. So as we got aboard the plane she got the window seat and I sat next to her. After we took off she tried to take a nap while I tried to entertain Havilah, who wanted her Mother’s attention, not mine. By the time we landed at Hickam in Hawaii, both of us adults were tired, and the children were ready to do something.

Airbases often have ‘transient housing’, or places to stay when laying over between flights. Hickam’s housing was full, but they did have large storage lockers at the terminals. They were about 2 feet high, 2 feet wide, and about 4 feet deep. Since we had been camping we had sleeping bags for our children so I figured: 1 sleeping bag and 1 child per locker, and we could pick them up on the way to the plane in the morning. Turns out some regulation prevents you from storing live children in storage lockers, even if they do have a sleeping bag. The Air Force has some really odd rules. So we rented a vehicle and headed out into town.

Driving in a new town can be very interesting. It is more interesting when the streets have names that you cannot even pronounce like Kapiolani, Kanaina or Kalakaua. The vehicle was a very small two door car, so we had the two of us setting in the front and the five children caged in the back (this was back before they had zip ties and I had forgotten to pack duct tape). The vehicle had no air conditioning so we had the windows open and full of excited children. We found a hotel which was about half a mile off of Waikiki Beach. It was a hotel owned by the military for use by service members on vacation or traveling through Hawaii. It was the least expensive place for us to stay in Honolulu, and it was close enough to the beach that we could see the sand and water. The children were very excited to go to the beach, I was way too tired to be excited about anything, and the Commandant was caught in the middle. She took the children to the beach, and I took myself to bed. The nap kept me from falling apart but nearly 30 years have passed since that day and the Commandant still has not forgiven me for leaving her with the children.

The next day we flew off to Yokota in Japan. By the time we landed it was late in the afternoon and the on-base transient housing was full. Yokota is right next to Tokyo, which at that time was the most expensive city in the world (now Singapore has that title). A motel room for our family would have cost us hundreds of dollars for the night so we opted to stay overnight at the terminal. There was a special room managed by the USO just for women and children, no adult males allowed. Since we had our sleeping bags our children had something to sleep in, so the Commandant and the children spent the night there while I spent the night walking around (Marine Officers in uniform cannot sleep in public). Unfortunately, there were other families in the room with children, and those ankle biters were determined to not spend the night being quiet. Before sunrise those little rug rats had finally quieted down and were trying to take over our children’s sleeping bags. I am not sure who had the worst of the night, the Commandant and the children trying to sleep or me trying to stay awake.

The next morning we got the good news. Yokota was going closing down operations so they could repave the runways. If you did not fly out that day, you were walking. Unfortunately, there was a whole terminal full of people trying to fly out of Japan before they were forced to walk out. Fortunately, there were plenty of flights scheduled that day. Unfortunately, since we had just flown in, we were at the bottom of the list for a flight out. And instead of the planes going to Osan Air Base in Korea, or Clark Air Base in the Philippines, or to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, all the planes were going first to Osan, then to Kadena, and then to Clark. That made flying out of Yokota rather iffy. However, But, and On the Other Hand, there was one C141 Starlifter that was flying to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan that had plenty of room from Yokota to Iwakuni but no guarantee from Iwakuni to Kadena. The lack of guarantee for a flight on down to Okinawa was not as important to me as the guarantee that the flight would get me and mine back with the Marines, back where we belonged. It has been over 20 years I since I left active duty, but I still get homesick when I think about being back aboard a base surrounded by those Leathernecks, Jarheads, and Mean Green Amphibious Monsters that I was sworn to watch over as they watched over me.

Up to this point all of our flights on the trip from Okinawa to California to Japan had been made in C5 Galaxies, in those semi-civilized and noise insulated compartments built for carrying humans and Marines. The C141 Starlifter taking us to Iwakuni did not have that arrangement. We did sit in rearward facing civilian type airliner chairs, but there was no noise barrier except for the issued ear plugs, no windows for any of us to look out of, and the strictly utilitarian interior walls had exposed cables, hoses, metallic ribs, and cryptic signs stenciled all over the place. We made it to Iwakuni but got bumped off the leg of the flight to Kadena in Okinawa.

There are many benefits to being a Marine; classy uniforms, worldwide image of being totally insane, the right to pick on everyone else (except Navy SEALs, no one picks on Navy SEALs), and being a member of a small unit where you always know someone. One of my Military Police Staff Sergeants from Quantico was stationed at Iwakuni and he met us at the terminal. Forget about going around looking for a place to stay, forget about getting registered and having to pay, and forget about taking care of the children. He loaded us all up in his van, took us to his house, showed the Commandant and me our bedroom, and turned our children over to his wife. After a week of us traveling by van and plane, and staying in motels and airport terminals, that Marine knew how to provide us world class hospitality. And we did not even have to tip the bellboy. This is one of the times that I really regret my inability to remember names.

After a much needed nap, my fellow Marine took me on a tour of the base, stopping at the air terminal to arrange for the next leg of our journey, a flight the next evening from Iwakuni to Okinawa. My Staff Sergeant had been to Okinawa during the previous year and visited us during his stay. He continually commented to me about the wide open spaces of Okinawa, the same place that was giving me claustrophobia. A tour of Iwakuni opened my eyes to how crowded a place can be. There is water on three sides and big city housing on the other. I have been in places where you are so crowded that you have to go outside to have enough room to change your mind, but on Iwakuni there is no room outside either. If the Good Lord had taught the Japanese in Iwakuni, instead of the Jews in Israel, every one of his sermons would have been taught from a boat just off the shore to keep from being overrun by the crowd.

Before we flew out I was able to call my Marines at Camp Kinser, back on Okinawa. We had eaten all of our groceries before we left because we knew that we would be gone all month. So I gave my Marines a short shopping list of things the Commandant would need to feed the children in the morning before she went shopping to restock the house. I also gave my Marines the names of the other people on the plane, with the phone numbers of people who needed to come and pick them up. It really was great to be with Marines again, where taking care of each other is a part of your culture, not a duty assignment.

The last leg of our journey was in a Marine Corps KC130 Hercules. The KC on a Marine Corps Herky Bird means that it can be used for inflight refueling of Marine Corps jets and helicopters. The jets have to fly just as slow as they can to stay behind the KC130 when being refueled, while the helicopters are going flat out when refueling, but the Marines make it work. The four propellers pulling a C130 through the sky makes a very identifiable sound as it flies over head. I frequently hear them at night when the Singapore Air Force C130s fly over our part of the city. But the engines that spin the propellers make a terrible din if you are inside of the plane. Besides not having the interior noise abatement padding this time we did not have the rearward facing airlines type seats either. We sat on the unpadded nylon strap and aluminum pipe seats that can be folded up against the inside bulkhead of the aircraft. It was like sitting on a beach chair, but one with no arms. After a while the pressure pain on the back of your thighs helps balance out the pain in your ears from the noise. Josh fell asleep with his head on my leg. His left ear was protected by my right leg, and my right hand was protecting his left ear. This was backing up the noise protection from his ear plugs.

When we finally reached Kadena it was late at night. My Marines brought our van with the box of groceries for breakfast so the Commandant loaded up the children and headed for home. They also brought my pickup so after our luggage was unloaded from the plane and put in the bed of the pickup, I headed for home also.

The next day I headed on down to Camp Kinser and went back to work. The Commandant and the children relaxed, unpacked, and starting preparing for the fall semester at school to start. As the Commandant was working in the front room she spotted 2 year old Joshua coming downstairs dragging his backpack behind him, “Where are you going?” she asked. He replied, “I am going to catch a plane.”