As a young man in the Air Force, I traveled?a lot. I went to all of the continents except Australia and Antarctica, 28 countries in all. I spent months and weeks at a time wandering the world like a flight-bound vagabond. Weekends in Panama, nights on Midway Island during gooney bird nesting season, dinner in Rio and tea and cookies on the Black Sea. I ate cuttlefish in Athens and lamb in Crete and marveled at the exceptional, one-of-a-kind clouds in Madrid. There was good Italian Wine and English shepherd?s pie washed down with a pint or three, even the kimchi in Seoul was delightful, though a little spicy. It was a marvelous, and oddly peaceful, four years. I was a very lucky young man.
I few on C-130 cargo airplanes ? Trash Haulers we called them. Some crews wore personalized wings portraying a garbage can abuzz with flies with wings attached. They were much more stylish and fit our informal atmosphere better than the official silver wings we wore back home.
We flew just about anything that would fit in the airplane?military equipment, fresh produce, rugs and furniture, scrap metal, bodies on the way home, even the President?s limousine. In Europe, we sometimes ran a regularly scheduled mini-airline, The European Eagle. Sometimes we carried a pallet of airline style seats and an actual bathroom, other times we flew in the same Spartan conditions as paratroopers bound for war ? web-backed nylon seats and limited lavatory facilities.
Without a lav pallet, we ?survived? with two urinals that vented urine to the outside. For heavy-duty needs, we offered a bucket attached to a small platform and the wall and surrounded with a plastic shower curtain for those insisting on modesty. The colloquial name for these waste pots was a ?honeybucket?. Anyone who smelled one accidentally left aboard during a day when inside temperatures reached 120 degrees could appreciate the extreme sarcasm in the name.
On one Eagle flight, an Army wife on her way home to Germany toted two small children aboard. Before she sat down, she asked to use the facilities. I helpfully pointed to the aft of the airplane and said, ?Back there ma?am.? I even watched the kids while she was occupied.
She looked behind the curtain and quickly returned with a quizzical look on her face. She asked again for the bathroom. I said, ?that?s it ma?am.?
She responded, ?You?re kidding!?
?No ma?am,? I said.
Faced with the unsavory prospect, she decided to ride it out. I advised against it. If she needed to go now, the 6-hour flight in a cramped, bumpy cargo compartment wasn?t advisable. But, she put on a gritty face and, if you?ll pardon the expression, soldiered on.
She lasted exactly 30 minutes before slowly and dejectedly heading for the curtain and the dreaded pot. From the curtain, ruffling you could see her prepare, climb up onto the platform, and settle in on the cold metal seat.
I felt a bit sorry for her really. She hadn?t bargained on a trip like this, even if it was free to her as a dependent.
It was a bit rough. The airplane slipped and bumped, a fishtail here, a drop there. It was all quite normal in an airplane not designed for comfort. Suddenly we dropped precipitously. There was a movement and from the corner of my eye I saw the curtain depart its loops like a string of dominoes unfolding. The poor woman had fallen off.
From her perch, she fell to the canted ramp over which the pot sat, rolled a few feet onto the floor, and ended up at the feet of a Navy Commander. Her pants were around her ankles and her rump, shining more weakly than the Commander?s shoeshine, clearly showed to the passengers. Luckily, not a person laughed, although a few of the young troops did smile in the effort not to.
I rushed to help. I grabbed the curtain from the floor and gallantly shielded her from the passengers. She fixed her clothing and stepped out from behind it.
?Would you like me to put that curtain back up ma?am? Maybe give it another try? I?ll even stand by outside the curtain to catch you, but I?m sure it won?t happen again.?
?No thank you,? I lip read over the four screaming engines that kept all but the loudest yells unheard. She walked slowly back to her seat, eyes down, in perhaps the longest and most blameless Walk of Shame in her life.
She played quietly with the kids for the rest of the flight, occasionally shifting uncomfortably in her seat. No matter how uncomfortable, a second trip to the too crude lav was out of the question.
When we arrived in Ramstein, Germany, she gathered the kids and her things and headed for the small, fold down door. No jetways for the Trash Haulers.
I helped passengers down and said goodbyes. She was last off.
?Goodbye ma?am,? I chirped. ?I hope you enjoyed your flight,? I automatically said before I could catch myself.
She looked up at me, all mussed hair and baleful eyes.
?No, no I didn?t. It was humiliating in fact. But, I?ll get over it. Thanks for holding the curtain by the way. It helped?a little.?
She turned toward the terminal and walked slowly away. As she did, I noticed she wore a small strip of toilet paper like a tail from the back of her jeans.
I didn?t have the heart to tell her.