Winter

I remember 1956 nearly every time hear a newscaster say something like, “This as bad or worse than it’s ever been.” I’m not whining about then, or telling this year’s strandees to get over it. I’m just saying: It’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere, don’t you know.

Sixty-years ago, in early December, I finished advanced electronics training at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts. Snow was already ankle deep in nearby Ayer, and it continued to snow as the airport shuttle to Boston transported a full load of GIs going on leave. It was snowing even heavier when I and a number of others were dropped off at Logan International. I was late for my flight to Chicago. But, no matter, it was canceled for blowing snow on the ground and in the air. I slept in a waiting room chair.

I caught another flight in the morning. The flight scheduled to land at Chicago’s O’Hare was re-routed to Chicago Midway. O’Hare was closed – you guessed it – for snow removal. My flight to Minneapolis was from O’Hare so I took a shuttle; it went the long way to avoid streets closed for snow removal. But, no matter again. Outgoing flights were canceled. I spent the night on the floor – not a bit warm – with my ditty bag for a pillow. Had I not shipped my duffel with extra clothing to Ft. Lewis, I could have put on layers (being out of uniform under the conditions may have been met with only a minor chewing-out).

O’Hare runways were cleared and airplanes de-iced. Wold-Chamberlain Field in Minneapolis was open. Military personnel in uniform – even as wrinkled as mine – got priority, so I scored a standby seat. (Just a note about uniforms of that day; being in work uniform, unless one was on military assignment requiring such, was not allowed off-base. Travel-in-uniform meant dress uniform.) We circled several times to get in pattern for the only open runway. I caught a series of chained-up city buses to the Minneapolis Greyhound station.

You guessed it! Departing busses were canceled or delayed until MDOT was able to clear the roads. “To err on the side of caution,” an echoing announcement came, “northbound busses to St. Cloud, Alexandria and other northern destinations will not operate until daylight. I spent the night on an oak bench. I thought Chicago was cold. Remembering having spent at least ten winters in North Dakota and Minnesota had no warming affect. Every time a door was opened, blasts of frigid air further cooled the already cold lobby.

The express Greyhound was full, but standing was allowed on the town-to-town route.  Somewhere along the route, several seated passengers got off, and we standers got seats. It took that Greyhound about two hours longer than usual to reach Alexandria. I don’t remember if the bus stop was at Traveler’s Inn or another place in Alexandria – it changed several times, and I’d had no real reason to pay attention. Never-the-less, there was no taxi service from the bus stop to Mother’s house – don’t remember if there was a real taxi at any time. (Remember, this was decades before we could complain about no cell service preventing us from calling for a ride.)

Downtown merchants in Alexandria were very good at keeping their sidewalks cleared even in the heaviest of snowfalls; but, it was Sunday in an era which all but one service station and one drug store were open in town, and restaurants hadn’t yet started opening before church services were over. For the second or third time in four days, I wished I’d packed my combat boots in my ditty bag instead of shipping them. My socks were soaked from the heat of my feet, and my Army dress shoes were nearly filled with half-melted snow by the time I got home.

After three weeks in weather appropriate civilian clothing, I donned my uniform, but with wool socks Mother dyed black for me and long underwear. I caught the Great Northern Empire Builder train bound for Seattle. Snow level through northern Minnesota and North Dakota was as I expected. Then Montana! Well, one would expect snow there too, but the train was delayed at Haver and Whitefish so rotary snowplows could clear the tracks ahead.

As a pre-teen I’d experienced mild but wet, West Coast weather, so Seattle weather was not what I expected – there was snow! And, there was snow on US 99 all the way to Ft. Lewis (Interstate-5 wasn’t built yet). The shuttle was an unheated, converted school bus. It wasn’t as cold as the East, Mid-west, and mountain parts of the trip, but it was cold enough to be thankful for the converted socks inside my, now well scuffed, dress oxfords and long-johns I’d been wearing for three and a half days. It was a relief to find my duffel waiting at the casual company.

In the morning, we were issued field jacket liners; then it was snow removal duty. I wished for a John-Deer or even a Farmall Cub with a bucket or blade. I’d seen pictures of Army tanks with plows in newsreels of WWII. Where were they? By the time we had the company street, sidewalks and assembly area cleared, enough snow had fallen for us start over where we had begun.

Nearly a month passed before I got my overseas assignment orders to Okinawa finalized. I was scheduled to leave the next day to Japan on a MATS (Military Air Transport System) flight from McChord AFB via Hickam Field in Hawaii and Tachikawa Air Base, near Tokyo. Yahoo! Warm, perhaps even hot weather in less than three days. But – wait for it – that wasn’t to be so soon. Unbeknown to me, a unit of my peers had arrived lock stock and barrel from Ft. Devens. They were scheduled to ship out on the USS Frederic Funston from the port of Seattle, via Alaska, to Yokohama, Japan, and I was involuntary transferred.

We would spend half of the trip in late January sailing on an arc just south of the Aleutians – of course it was winter! What would one expect with the reputation of those turbulent waters. The unit was scheduled to leave for Hokkaido, Japan’s northern most island shortly after docking in Yokohama. I anticipated what veteran of a tour there showed in his pictures. Snow was higher than the doors to the metal Quonset huts in which we would be housed.

Upon arrival at our headquarters at Camp Drake, Tokyo, I was handed my original orders for Okinawa. The rest of the unit went by train to Chitose, Hokkaido; Chitose Air Force base was closed all for flights, except recon flights over the Russian held Kamchatka Peninsula. The next day I stepped off a military flight into a bright sunny 90-degree day at Kadena Air Force Base, Okinawa.

My duffel bag with summer uniforms went to Chitose with the unit. It wasn’t shipped to Okinawa until two weeks later. I was out of the ice bucket into the broiling pan. Was that something new to complain about? I don’t think so!

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