Foreword: Occasionally on this blog I take the opportunity to “wander down memory lane.” This post is one of those times. By actual count (for security clearance purposes) I took eighty trips abroad during my working career spanning fifty-four years. Only one — my first abroad — was an out and out boondoggle. It is chronicled here.
While still in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, in 1962 I went to Washington, D.C., as the chief of staff for a Wisconsin congressman named Clem Zablocki. There I became acquainted with the 9999th, an Air Force Reserve unit on Capitol Hill, composed of members of Congress and congressional staffers. The commanding general of the 9999th was was future Republican nominee for President, Senator Barry Goldwater. I was allowed to participate as the only enlisted man (turning off the lights for the slide briefings) and promised a captain’s rank. I also was allowed to join the group on a 1962 “study mission” to Mexico, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, and Panama.
Our plane was a C-118, a Douglas Aircraft cargo plane with four propeller-driven engines, a kind of lumbering workhorse of the Air Force that had been around since before the Korean War. Shown here, it had been modified into a passenger plane called the “Liftmaster.” Between 1947 and 1959, Douglas built a total of 704 DC-6s, 167 of them military versions.
We had six members of Congress on board the C-118, five representatives and one senator. Among them, shown here from left, are Zablocki, second; Rep. William Scranton of Pennsylvania, later a presidential candidate, fourth; and Senator Peter Dominick of Arizona, fifth. A large group of male staff members rounded out the contingent.
While flying across the Caribbean to Mexico City, we encountered a fierce squall line. The C-118 was tossed around, lightening was striking all around us, and ice built up on the wings. There was absolute silence in the cabin and sweat trickled down my side as I prayed. After we had made it through the storm and landed safely in Mexico City, I ate with the co-pilot, who confessed to being scared, but noted that our pilot, called “Lobby,” shown here, kept cool but ducked his head at every lightening strike.
Mexico City proved a revelation. Here was a huge city bustling with energy on the scale of New York City. As a Midwest kid I had never imagined such a place existed “south of the border.” Our group was treated to a bullfight, my first, one in which the matador made a tactical error, was severely gored in the groin, and according to next day’s newspaper, remained hanging to life by a thread. I never saw another bullfight.
Every stop was an excuse for the group to go shopping. Zablocki often was leading the way with me tagging along. When he asked me to examine a piece of jewelry he had picked out, I was effusive about it. He took me aside, explained that one haggled for price outside the U.S. and that my response hereafter was to be: “Looks like rough work.” Have used that line many times since.
Our next stop was the Panama Canal Zone where our group was taken by boat half-way up the canal by the operating authority to the town of Gamboa. Along the way we saw American troop ships going home after being deployed during the recently-ended Cuban Crisis. I had in mind going the rest of the way by train to Colon, on the Pacific side. The train left Gamboa just as I got to the station and I was forced to hitchhike back. My luck was to be picked up and taken back to Panama City by Hula Sanchez, our lovely hostess on the boat. She refused my dinner invitation, however.
Our next stop was Puerto Rico where the military duties of the day included a fishing trip in the northern Caribbean. That is me, the handsome devil catching some rays while deep sea fishing off San Juan. Then there was a quick side trip to St. Thomas where our hosts were Gen. Donald Dawson, former aide to President Truman, and film star, Ilona Massey. She had been an idol of my youth and now she was right there to talk to.
Our final stop was Guantanamo Bay on the island of Cuba where Fidel Castro had tried to get Russian nukes only a short time before. Although we traveled mostly in civvies, on Gitmo, as the Marines call it, we were in uniform and my meager two stripes there for all to see. They emboldened the enlisted Marines to ask me who this high-powered delegation might be. Shown here is Tom Hughes, my airplane seatmate as we look from the base boundary line down into Cuba itself.
Upon return to the United States, I never received captain’s bars and ended my Air Force affiliation as an airman 2nd class several years later. Before I could be commissioned, President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, took aim at the 9999th and like units on the Hill sponsored by the Army and Navy, disbanding them all. My first boondoggle, in effect, turned out to be my last.