Moving-- Military Style!
One bright sunny morning in late August the telephone rang. “I have orders for Holland!” came an excited voice. “How soon?” came a tremulous response. “November 1”, said the voice. Two months! Stunned, I began to think about the logistics of a move to Europe in half the time of what is required for an overseas deployment. It was 1988 and we had been living in Central California for the past two years at Beale Air Force Base, where Glen was the head flight surgeon. The new assignment made him the Clinic Commander at a small air base in the central part of the Netherlands. Our children were 14 and 12 and they soon became enthusiastic about the opportunity to “live across the pond.”
We had to pack--well, I had to pack-- four different ways. One pile was storage which wouldn’t be seen again until we returned to the States. One pile was slated to go by sea and would take up to three months. The third pile was going to go by air so that essential goods would be waiting for us when we arrived including dishes, pots and pans, warm clothing. The last pile was the luggage we would need for the next two months. It was a little complicated, for while California was still hot, it would probably snow in Idaho before Thanksgiving. Our white Toyota van had to be dropped off in San Francisco soon for a two month sea voyage.
In the midst of these early frantic deadlines, Glen left for two weeks of Clinic Command Training. About this time a tramp miles away burned his toilet paper on a windy day during the dry time of year in the Sierra mountains. This tiny fire was soon a raging inferno which romped around for about two weeks eating houses, jumping roads, visiting one town three times, and eventually ending up outside the base. I can remember the fear I experienced the night I packed the car with clothes, important papers, and all of our picture albums. We were on alert for immediate evacuation. Speaking of evacuation, I took Mac, our four year old yellow Labrador, for a walk that night. The smokey night was strangely bright and live ashes were falling into the housing area. Fortunately the wind changed during the night sending the fire back upon itself. When you live in base housing, it always and forever belongs to the government. Upon leaving you not only have to clean it thoroughly but remove anything that speaks of you. The border in the kitchen came down; we found a buyer for our mini blinds covering the picture window in front; the luscious grape vine covering the back patio was pulled out. My neighbor had promised to water the beautiful flowers growing under a big tree in the front of our house, but it was a futile promise; all of them were destroyed by the base housing workers. Our personal roots and rootlets were damaged as we said good bye to close friends, family, and the SR-71, the supersonic plane that was the main focus of the base. The one thing I was glad to leave behind on that hot October day were the long, very hot, dry summers characteristic of the valley of California.
Early on in the process Glen’s brother and sister-in-law, both veterinarians, drove down from Oregon to pick up our 16 year old 12 pound mixed breed dog, Shasta. Two weeks later I got a call from Chuck to say that Shasta had followed him to the mailbox that evening and did not return with him. He did not notice her. She was hit and killed by a car at daybreak, about a mile from the house. Shasta was two years old when I brought Michael home from the hospital. Another loss.
Glen’s parents drove down from Idaho and picked us up the middle of October. We set off for our two day trip about 10AM with the blue Toyota pick-up leading the way; Glen and one teen in the front seat and Mac in the back. The rest of us, the grandparents, one teen and me, followed in the station wagon. We timed our departure so we could stop in Grass Valley where the best hamburgers in the world were made! Glen left the end of October, but the kids and I had until the end of November because our household goods would not arrive until then, maybe. Michael didn’t mind because he had stayed in Weiser over the summer to get his drivers license which was legal in Idaho at age 14. But the legal age to drive in Europe was 18.... Fortunately, since we were home schooling we did not have to jerk the kids in and out of school. The teacher came with them.
Glen left and things were settling down when Mac got sick, ER sick. He might have gotten into some anti-freeze because his kidneys were shutting down. He was hospitalized for a week while we pleaded with God for his life. Losing one pet was enough. Mac survived but with kidney damage.
November 30th arrived before we knew it and Glen’s parents put a sale sign on our truck and drove us to the airport in Boise, which was 90 miles away. It was a hard separation and I wondered when we would all be together again. (As it turned out that was the last time we hugged Glen’s dad. He died of a massive heart attack fifteen months later.) We stopped briefly in Salt Lake City and noticed a large kennel on the tarmac with Mac inside. I teared up. Then came Kennedy Airport where we had to get luggage, the kennel, the three of us and the dog into a taxi to move over to the International Terminal from the domestic one. No way! Where was Glen when I needed him???? Michael and Sarah walked the dog to the terminal which was much more complicated than it might seem. They had little in the way of sidewalks and had to thread their way past crowded domestic terminals on that quarter of a mile strip. Mac stayed out with us most of the four hours before we boarded a non-stop for the Netherlands and our new home. I could not believe that we would deplane in a few hours in a completely different culture where we would live--like it or not--for three years.
Glen met us. He had been there for a month, knew his way around and was determined to keep three sleep deprived passengers awake the whole day. At one point we all passed out in his office. He had found a house but our goods had not arrived so he had obtained temporary base housing for us. The Dutch cottages, which resided in a wooded area close to the Dutch tank track, were set up for arriving and departing Americans. These cottages have three tiny bedrooms, a bathroom, a living area which contained the living room, dining room, recreation room, and a kitchen--a wall with a sink, stove top, and a little refrigerator. The dining part is a set of bar stools and a counter. The recreation and living room part is a coffee table and a few plastic chairs. The heat is forced air. Dark paneling lines the walls. It smells musty and damp. Dismal, just dismal, and it is our home for the next three weeks. AND, the air baggage shipped out in October, which was to get there before us, did not arrive. The books we needed for home school were in that baggage!
At this time of the year the sun sets at 4PM and rises at 9AM, but if it’s cloudy, which it is most days, it stays very gray. These clouds generally drip rain. We are awakened at 7:30 the first morning by the sound of huge tanks practicing maneuvers outside our front door--or so it seemed. They did this from 7:30 to 5PM five days a week. The F-15 American jets flew overhead interspersed with helicopters and I began to wonder if there was a war going on. I half expected a Nazi to show up at my door. Actually, the American Base shared space with the Dutch and there were things like the Officers Club, which was very beautiful, and the runways, that were a legacy of German Occupation. This area was the Nazi headquarters in the Netherlands during WW II.
So what is my first impression of Holland? Dark, damp, cold! I could also add unfriendly. Not from the Dutch side but from the American.
Glen was the 3rd highest ranking officer but there was:
- No welcoming committee--very odd
- No greetings from the wives--in a foreign country
- No meals brought to us--unusual
- No invitation to the American Dutch Christmas Tea, the biggest event of the year. I was criticized for not coming.
Then there was the drivers test which every American must take and pass within 30 days. I was told that “it is a piece of cake and any dummy can pass.”
A few days after this dummy failed to pass the drivers test just after the Dutch Tea, we were notified that our van had arrived in Bremerton, Germany, three hours away. We set off in our little Dutch car one dark, damp morning and stopped on the Autobahn about 10AM for breakfast. The restaurant was perched across the highway and was virtually empty. Glen had some fluency in German and the kids were thrilled to find out that pancakes were on the menu. Imagine their surprise when the waiter served them herring and onion rings nestled in a bed of lettuce. Amazingly they ate it up--without complaining. We continued on our way, got through all the paper work in good time and started back in this fashion: Glen drove the van in case it broke down, accompanied by Sarah, and I followed with Michael. The roads were dirty and it was raining so very soon the back window of the van was opaque, which meant that Glen could not see us. Glen put the pedal to the metal and off we went. I was able to keep up until we got to the border. Now my husband has a bladder smaller than mine and he was traveling with his daughter, so, imagine my surprise when they skimmed through the border crossing without stopping for a break. No cell phones in those days. Michael and I were desperate for a stop and when we got back on the highway there was no Glen and the super highway disappeared and turned into a rush hour situation at 5PM. It was dark, raining, and we were lost, in a foreign country. Like, where were we and how did we lose the highway? We found a place to stop and studied the map, which seemed to point to the highway way off to our left. We were only 45 minutes from home and if I hadn’t been so new we would have found a place to eat before setting out. Boy, was Glen ever glad to see us! There was an exercise on base that he had to be part of and he didn’t want to leave until he knew we were safe. I went to the bedroom and cried. it was definitely the lowest point of the move. How I wanted to go home!
We arrived on the first and Michael turned 15 on the 3rd of December so we celebrated by going to a restaurant in a nearby town to enjoy some Dutch cuisine. Actually, it was a very good meal. However, at one point we were completely startled by the sudden appearance of a black face over the back of our booth. The face said, “Hi!” What is this? Well, "Black Peter," or Zwarte Pete, is part of the Christmas holiday celebration in Holland. He has a black face from getting coal on it going through the chimney. From the first of December on he can be found greeting people all over the country.
The “Browns” from our days at Beale AFB had moved to Ramstein AFB in Germany about six months ahead of us. We had met Roger and Linda at the base Chapel at Beale when we first arrived in ’86 and ended up living with them for three weeks while waiting for housing. We invited them to visit us over Christmas. We were not sure which was going to arrive first, our company or our furniture. The furniture won! Our goods were delivered on Dec 21st and the Browns and their three year old son, Stephen, came on the 23rd in time for Glen’s birthday. Military families are wonderful! VERY flexible. We had put down a piece of carpet over the concrete living room floor, gotten most of the kitchen put away and had set up the beds. it was enough: good friends, good food, and a roaring fire on a wet Christmas Eve. (As an aside, the baggage we needed the most, the one coming to our rescue when we first got into country--came LAST!)
Roger and Linda agreed to take the children back with them to Germany so Glen and I could have some much needed time together. It went very well until the day of their return. The phone rang. The conversation (from my end) went something like this:
“Oh, hi, Roger, what’s up?”...
“You put the kids on the wrong train?”...
“You put the kids on the wrong train in Germany?”...
“Not to worry?”...
“Did you just say, NOT TO WORRY??!!”
In Europe the trains run on time and they do not stop very long. Roger purchased the tickets and took the kids to the platform. Within a few minutes a train arrived--two minutes early. They looked for the car number that matched the number on their tickets but it was not there. The twelve year old protested but Roger insisted that they hurry up and get on. As soon as that train left, another train arrived--the right train. Roger, realizing his mistake, went to the station master and told him that he had put the children on the wrong train. “It will be OK.” Roger, who was beginning to lose it by then, said, “You don’t understand, they are not my kids!” Meanwhile Michael and Sarah are having a lovely time. The conductor came by and said to them, “You are on the wrong train. Get off at the next stop and take the next train,” which they did. From then on everything was on the right track so to speak.
The moving experience was disorienting--filled with losses, separations, the monotony of packing, repacking and a very high learning curve. It took four months to go from beginning to end. It included the six weeks of “vacation” with Glen’s parents, three weeks of temporary housing in Holland, adjusting to a new Air Force Base in a foreign country, and finding our way in the Dutch culture. I did not handle it well. It was a lonely time, cold in more ways than one, with difficulties at every turn. However, as I began to write about our adventures it brought back some good memories and a few laughs. In the remembering much more of our time in Holland became clear and joy began to bubble up inside of me and so does another story. You see, God’s fingerprints were everywhere but we could not see this until much later.
Jane Corwin Reeves