SNAFU
 

Mary McIntosh
 
 

© 2010 by Mary McIntosh

Photo of a Pan American passenger plane, circa 1952.

Sometimes we are handed difficult situations in life, and through them we learn to cope.

I was trying to adjust to the fact I was now a widow, alone with four young children.  How was I ever going to manage, I wondered? It seemed like such an enormous responsibility, but then I remembered that trip I took, many years ago, when Greg was a young lad, and Sandy still a baby.  Now they were strapping teenagers, joined by their younger brother, Kent, and sister, Heather.  At the end of that trip, I knew I could probably manage whatever life might present to me.

And so, for the few moments of quietness I was now enjoying in our normally hectic household, I recalled the day I learned I was finally able to join my husband in Japan.

*   *   *   *   *

Sayonara,” I shouted with glee when the official notification arrived.  My two boys and I were finally going to start our journey to Japan.

We had been living at Camp Hood, Texas, as it was then called, when my career Army sergeant husband applied for an overseas assignment. I’d always wanted to travel, so his decision was agreeable to me. We were informed that concurrent travel was not possible, so I would have to find somewhere to live for myself, and my young son, Greg. I moved to Salem, VA where my parents had their home. We had no idea it would be thirteen months before we were re-united, with one more member of the family than we had originally anticipated.  It was shortly after Mac left for Japan when I discovered I was pregnant.

I figured a new baby would be too much for my elderly parents to handle. I found a house belonging to a young doctor, with his wife and child, had a vacant top floor into which we moved. Greg and I slept on the bed that I used before leaving home, and I “borrowed” some other furniture from my mother. Sandy Philip McIntosh was born in a hospital in Roanoke, VA   No military hospital this time with their policy of “let’s get these mothers out of here as soon as possible.”  I went home after Greg was born in a couple of days. At the hospital in Roanoke I was there for ten days, while Mother and Dad took care of Greg for me.  After I finally came home with Sandy and we went back to our temporary home, Sandy slept in a car bed. I kept hoping I’d hear from the Army soon as to when I could leave for Japan. I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to manage the long and, undoubtedly, arduous journey with two young children without the help of their father.

In 1952, military dependents were seldom flown to their destination. However, I was advised that we would be flying to Japan on a military plane. But first Greg, Sandy and I had to get to the west coast to board the plane there. This necessitated our traveling by train from Roanoke, Virginia, to Oakland, California, a trip of four days and three nights. There were fewer planes flying to the West Coast in 1952 than there are today.  The military made all the arrangements for me.  I do recall we had to change trains in Chicago. This necessitated being transported by car from one railroad station to the other. The Travelers Aid met and accompanied me. I was most grateful for their assistance.

Our section in the Pullman car had wide seats facing each other, and at night these were turned into sleeping bunks.  I put the luggage, carry-on bags, coats and other miscellaneous items in the upper berth where normally a passenger would sleep. Greg and I slept together in the lower, with Sandy in a car bed horizontally at my feet.

When I learned we would be traveling across the country by train, I had wondered how I was going to feed my young son.  I wanted to be prepared, in case there was no one there to help me, and luckily I discovered a Sterno stove in my parents’ attic. One of my brothers had probably used it on a long-ago camping trip.  I tucked this into my carry-on bag. When it was time for Sandy’s bottle, I walked to the end of the Pullman car to the water fountain. These fountains were difficult to operate. The button was hard to push, and you had to hold a flimsy triangular shaped paper cup underneath in order to get a drink. The fountain was even harder to operate in order to fill up my baby’s bottle, as I had to push the button over and over for the water flowed very slowly. Back at my seat I opened a small can of evaporated milk––I’d brought several with me––lighted the canned-heat, a waxy-substance similar to a candle, and placed the bottle on top of the Sterno stove, all while Sandy loudly protested at the length of time it took for his next meal to appear.

Then, too, I needed to keep Greg from running up and down the aisles.  I entertained him the best I could with stories, games, and coloring books, and I tried to answer his questions: “No, Greg, you can’t crayon on the train windows. No, Greg, I’m not sure when we’ll get to see daddy. Soon I hope.”  I had learned one other Japanese phrase besides “sayonara” – (benjo papa-san) “bathroom daddy”-– which I was trying to teach Greg.  He practiced saying it many times, much to my despair, and I’m sure that of some of the other passengers.

But we made it to California, and the beautiful roses of all shades still blooming in September convinced me I should return someday.  At Ft. Mason, shots were administered, our papers checked, and we were then transported to Travis AFB and the last leg of our journey to Japan.

We flew on a chartered Pan Am plane carrying service personnel and Department of Defense employees.  Only one other dependent, a woman with a young boy in braces, was with me.  I learned later that I was being flown rather than traveling by ship, because a military regulation stipulated no child under the age of six months was allowed on a ship without two adults present.  I liked that ruling, as I was a poor sailor.

We arrived at Honolulu for a short layover and lunch.  Soon after I entered the restaurant at the airport, a Travelers Aid Society volunteer approached me and took Sandy out of my arms. She scooped up his bag of clothes, and I didn’t see him for a couple of hours. She fed and changed him, and gave him a bath.  I never learned the name of that kind woman, but I shall be eternally grateful to her for giving me a break from my young child.

After lunch, we were told we wouldn’t be able to continue our journey at that time. The previous night, a typhoon at Wake Island, our next stop, had knocked out the water supply.  Another military regulation said no dependents were allowed to land if water was not available. I never quite figured that one out, but anyway, I thought, what is one more day. We are here in Hawaii. I might as well enjoy it.

We were put up for the night at Hickham AFB in Honolulu.  The next morning, when there was still no word of our imminent departure, I put Sandy in the base nursery, and Greg and I took a bus into downtown Honolulu. When we returned a few hours later, we learned the authorities had been frantically looking for us, as water had now been restored at Wake.  We soon took off on the last part of our trip, arriving at Wake Island at 3:00 a.m. for a brief re-fueling stop. As we got off the plane to stretch our legs, I noticed the air surrounding us was so hot I thought I’d stepped into an oven.  When our plane was ready to take off, I grabbed Greg’s hand, and with Sandy still asleep in my arms, we climbed back onto the plane.

As we got ever closer to Tokyo, I was getting more and more excited.  In just a few more hours I’d be with my husband, Greg would see his dad, Mac would meet his new son for the first time, and there would be someone else to help me take care of my sons. Wrong! - Typical Army SNAFU (Situation Normal – All Fouled Up). We were kept in Hawaii, but those in charge neglected to let anyone in Tokyo know the change of plans. The original plane we’d been on had arrived at the specified time, and Mac had been there with a bouquet of flowers, only to learn the authorities didn’t know precisely when we would arrive.  Off he went, back the twenty-five miles to Johnson AFB. The Army also forgot to let me know no one would be there to meet us when we arrived.

I can still recall the feeling I had when I got off the plane.  It had been such a long, tiring trip, an interminable thirteen months since I’d seen my still fairly new husband, and I had a brand new baby to show him. The butterflies were definitely there, but Mac wasn’t.

After I collected my wits, I went over to a desk where an Army sergeant was seated and, almost in tears, asked what had happened, where was my husband. After several phone calls, all was straightened out.  While I rocked Sandy in my arms, Greg and I sat waiting, as patiently as possible. Mac finally arrived, sans flowers this time, but I didn’t care.  He was there, and that’s all that mattered.

We had arrived in Japan, and I had taught Greg well.  Shyly he said, ”Hi, Daddy, benjo, papa san.”

I smiled to myself as I realized I, too, had learned something important.  When necessary, I could manage just fine on my own.
 
 

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