I’ve told this story to many people throughout the years, but I’ve always wanted to write it down. So here goes…
Josh was headed to the US for training. The kids (ages 4 and 2) and I were headed to Texas for our first trip home from Okinawa. We didn’t want to spend the money for three round trip international flights, so we decided to give Space A (‘space available’, for all you civilians out there – equivalent to standby) a try.
We packed our bags and got the house ready to go (including covering all the furniture with sheets so the cat wouldn’t tear everything up while we were gone). We all went to the terminal. We all checked in. Josh got on the plane. The rest of us did not.
The kids and I went home, and they were very confused about why we were back home instead of being on an airplane. I tried to explain, but they didn’t understand.
This routine went on for three days, until finally we got on an airplane!!! A non-stop flight from Okinawa to Travis Air Force Base in California, just outside of San Francisco.
It was a good flight. The crew was great and they let the kids roam around while we were in the air. It was strange because there were no windows. For fourteen hours we were trapped inside this windowless airplane. It was very disorienting. I seem to remember that food was scarce, and Amber had a bout of air sickness. Other than that, the trip was going nicely.
Once we landed in California, Josh had arranged for a friend (whom I’d never met) to pick us up from the base and drive us to the Oakland airport. From there, the kids and I flew to LAX in Los Angeles. By the time we got to LAX, I had been awake for over thirty hours. I was exhausted, and the kids were cranky. In the terminal, there was nowhere to sit, so we found a spot on the floor in the corner. Amber stretched out and fell asleep. With another four hour flight ahead, I knew I needed to go in search of food for the kids to have on the flight. In hindsight, I realize this was not a shining parental moment, but my sleep deprivation hindered me from making sound decisions. So, I asked a complete stranger to watch my sleeping four year old while I took Austin with me to get food.
We found McDonald’s, and got in line. I remember something about chicken strips as I stood there dazed. As it was my turn to order, I began feeling like something was missing. Did I bring one of my kids with me? If so, which one? And where did he go? Uh oh! I’VE LOST MY TWO YEAR OLD IN THE AIRPORT!!!!!!!!
My sleepy eyes began frantically searching my surroundings, trying to catch of glimpse of little Austin. There, across the very wide, very busy walkway, was my boy – at the toy store. Phew! I found him. Crisis diverted.
Back at the terminal, chicken strips and toddler in tow, Amber was still sound asleep, and I was ever grateful that she was safe.
We boarded the plane at LAX, and made it safely to Houston. YAY! I could finally get some rest.
Jet lag was pretty bad for the kids, but otherwise we had a great trip and visit with family. A few weeks passed, and it was time to make the trek back to Okinawa.
We flew from Houston to San Francisco. There wasn’t a flight leaving Travis AFB headed toward Okinawa for three days after we got back to California, so the kids and I got a hotel room and just hung out. I remember walking to some restaurants, and taking a scary taxi ride to the mall so the kids could play one day. Otherwise, I guess we just stayed in our room.
I have no recollection of how we got back to Travis, but somehow we did. There is also some vague recollection of us spending the night in the terminal there. We took minimal ‘baths’ with water from the restroom sinks, and ate food from vending machines for our meals.
At this point I was beginning to feel very stressed about being alone, and essentially stranded, at a strange base with my two small children. Keeping up with them, and all of our luggage was wearing on me. Keep in mind that this was all happening before I had a cell phone, so contact with family was limited.
Finally, we got on an airplane. Just the mention of a C-5 would come to make me cringe. But for the moment, I was happy to be headed east.
Our first stop was Hickam AFB, Hawaii. We had a five hour lay-over. If you’ve never flown from military terminals, let me describe what they are like. They are very small, and have limited resources. It would be like having a lay over during the night at a small airport in a tiny town. No stores or restaurants are open. You’re lucky if you get a restroom, a coke machine, and a snack machine.
So there we were. Austin was in a mood and was getting on my nerves. We were walking around inside the building just trying to not go crazy. At one point, Austin didn’t want to come with me, so I started walking away from him. I couldn’t have been more than fifty feet away from him when this security guard started yelling at me, “MA’AM, YOU BETTER COME BACK HERE AND GET YOUR CHILD!” So I stopped walking, turned around, and waited for Austin to catch up with me. Again, she yells, “MA’AM, YOUR CHILD!” To which I not so politely retorted, “I HEARD YOU THE FIRST TIME!”
In case you don’t know, I really dislike being told what to do, or being treated like a child.
After the long lay over, we are finally escorted to the plane. C-5s are huge, double decker aircrafts. The passenger seating on this plane was on the upper level. Being a military craft, and not designed to accommodate passengers, we had to climb a very steep ladder to get to the upper level. Let me remind you that I’m traveling with a two year old, a four year old, and all of our luggage. And now I’m trying to do that while also climbing a steep ladder (ok, minus the suitcases). Not one of the flight crew members offered to help me get either of my kids up the ladder. I was pretty irritated at this point.
Once we got to the top, we found seats, and settled in for the long flight. We waited. And waited, and waited. Why weren’t we moving? When was this plane going to take-off?
There was a maintenance issue. Of course. Two hours later (drenched in sweat from sitting in the hot airplane), we took off and headed toward Guam. Deep breath. It can’t possibly get any worse…
When we landed at the base terminal at Andersen AFB in Guam, we were told that due to the delay in Hawaii, the air crew was out of crew day and we would be spending the night in Guam. Ugh. Another setback.
Many people took taxis to nearby hotels, but I didn’t really have the money to spend on an expensive hotel, so the kids and I slept on the floor of the terminal. Again, there was nothing but vending machines to provide food.
We woke up covered in ants. Ants all over the kids, all over me, and all over our suitcases. A nice touch.
My memory is a bit sketchy here, but I think there may have been another mechanical issue that caused another delay. Nonetheless, we boarded and headed to Osan, Korea. The last stop before Okinawa! Almost home!
As we were deboarding the plane in Korea, the flight crew made an announcement that their flight plans had changed and they would no longer be going to Kadena AB in Okinawa. WHAT?!?!?!?
I laughed and said, ‘That’s not a funny joke!’
It wasn’t a joke.
YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!!!!
So there I was in Korea with my two kids, and I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do.
A group of people decided that we would all try to get rooms in the new hotel on base, and figure out what to do in the morning. Unfortunately, all the rooms in the hotel were booked already.
There was another mom who was traveling with her three children (all significantly older than mine), and we decided to share a room off base. I was so relieved to have someone with me that I didn’t even think about the fact that we were about to share a hotel room with complete strangers!
Everyone had to get their own cabs because we couldn’t all fit into one. The other mom and her kids took the first one, and I grabbed the next. The driver was trying to say something to me that was obviously lost in translation. I decided he was telling me that my suitcase was too big to fit into his car. Hmm, looks like it just fit. Problem solved.
He drove us across base, out the gate, across the street, and stopped at an alley. He got out, took out my luggage, and motioned for me to go down the dark alley.
WHAT?!?!?!? Hell no.
Panic was setting in. I’m in Korea. I can’t communicate with anyone here. I have no idea where to go. I’m in charge of these two children. What am I going to do????????
I spotted an American man I recognized from the flight. I’m surprised he didn’t have me arrested for attacking him. I ran to him, grabbed his arm and begged him to help me. Thankfully, he knew where my hotel was, and he led me and the kids to it.
Good. We are in a room for the night. Kristy and her kids shared a full size bed, while my kids and I shared a twin size bed. It was like sleeping on a slab of concrete while being kicked all night. Best sleep I’ve ever had.
Let me take a brief moment to tell you about the ceiling tile in the bathroom that was pushed back just enough for a video camera lens to peak through. I noticed this only after all five kids had showered or bathed. I had nightmares of those little ones showing up in some horrible video somewhere. Nothing I could do but push that wicked thought out of my mind.
The next day, we gathered up all of our stuff and went back to the base terminal to see when there might be a flight to take us to Okinawa. There was nothing that day, but there was one flight the next day. The only catch was that it only had a few available seats, and it only allowed 20 lbs of luggage. It was a long shot, but it was the only chance we had.
We rearranged our belongings, and shoved a few extra pieces of clothing into our backpacks, and mailed our suitcases home. It felt great to get rid of all that extra luggage, but we were now really on bare essentials.
At Osan AB, everyone assigned to that base receives a ration card to use in the Base Exchange and commissary. We didn’t have one, of course. We begged the official at the door of the BX to let us in so we could purchase snacks (and diapers). I can’t remember if he let us in or not.
It felt as though everything was against us. Nothing was working out.
At some point during the day we went back to the terminal to wait until it was time to see if there were any rooms at the inn. My kids and I all fell asleep. When I woke up, Kristy and her kids were gone. I freaked out. I was all alone again. I was on the verge of complete breakdown, and simply could not be left to make my own decisions. I needed someone to hold my hand and let me ride their coattails.
A NOTE! Kristy left me a note! Bless her! They had gone to the hotel.
I scooped up my kids and headed straight for the hotel. Kristy and her kids got a room. Finally, something was going to work out!
They wouldn’t give me a room because my children were too small, and they might be loud and interrupt someone’s crew rest. WHAT?!?!?!?
My only option for staying on base was to accept a room in the old officers’ quarters. I took it, grateful to be on base. They warned me, though, that if we made too much noise, we would have to leave. Yikes!
My kids were jetlagged, and were awake most of the night. They were hungry and we had no food. There was nowhere to get food in the middle of the night, either. I distinctly remember being on my knees crying and begging them to be quiet because I absolutely could not handle being thrown out. They were far too young to understand anything that was happening. All they knew was that they were hungry, and wanted to watch Dora (which was not on in the middle of the night, in case you were wondering).
The phone in my room didn’t work. I could call out, but I could not accept incoming calls. I was able to get ahold of my mom and let her know what was going on, but I couldn’t get ahold of Josh. I asked her to have him call me, not knowing I couldn’t get calls. I spent a couple days wondering why no one cared enough to call me! The phone thing wasn’t a big deal, really, but it was just one more thing added to the mess.
The next day, we decided that we would just have to purchase commercial tickets to get us from Korea to Okinawa. The only problem was that I didn’t have the money for last minute airline tickets. Josh’s mom agreed to let me put the tickets on her credit card, as long as the travel agency could book it without having the card in hand.
After some confusion, they determined that they could use her credit card, and we got our tickets booked for the next day. At last, we would be on our way home!
There was a typhoon headed straight for Okinawa.
All flights into and out of Okinawa for the next two days were canceled. NOOOOO!!!!!!!!
Back to the travel agency to rebook. Done. (Sidenote: they charged us twice, and it took Josh’s mom six months to get the second charge dropped!).
After two more days in Korea, we loaded the bus to head toward Seoul, and the airport. We went through immigration and customs. We rode the bus from the terminal to the airplane. We boarded. We were ready to go home.
But, why were all those flight attendants looking at me? Why did they keep whispering to each other, and then looking in my direction? Uh oh, one of them was on her way toward me. She asked to see our passports. After she looked at them, she walked away. A couple minutes later, she came back and asked to see the passports again.
Then it happened.
She showed me that Austin’s passport had not been stamped when we went through immigrations. She said we would have to go back to immigrations to get it stamped.
This cannot be happening to me.
I looked at her and said, “I’m not missing this plane.” At that point, I would have gotten myself arrested in an effort to not miss that plane! She assured me that they would hold the plane for us. I had to gather up all of our stuff and my kids and get off the plane.
This was the moment that I completely lost it. I was sobbing. It was ugly. I’m sure my body was shaking and there was probably snot running all down my face. That was the last straw, and I was officially a mess.
Once back in the terminal, there was a small Korean lady waiting who took all my stuff and Amber. She said, “We wait. You go.” Then the other lady began running through the terminal, occasionally turning around to say, “hurdy prease!” (translation: hurry, please). I’m trying my best to keep up with her as I run with a two year old on my hip, all the while wanting to yell profanities at her.
We got to immigration, got the passport stamped, run back through the airport, back on the bus, back on the plane.
Passengers were clapping for me and telling me how glad they were that we got back on the flight.
I went to my seat. I don’t remember anything else that happened until I was in the car with Josh leaving the Okinawa airport. I was in a semi-catatonic state staring out the window with him asking, “Are you ok?”
In all, it took nine days to get from Houston to Okinawa, with five of those days being spent in South Korea.