Reinvention Of The Microwave In Iceland

YOUR TURN

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According to the World Almanac and Book of Facts, a fellow named Spencer invented the microwave oven in 1947. The World Almanac doesn't say whether Spencer was his first name or his last, however. Maybe it was Spencer Spencer. Who knows?

What I do know is this: The microwave oven was rediscovered by the Connecticut Air National Guard in Keflavik, Iceland in 1953. That I can authenticate. I was there.

The story begins a long way from Iceland, in a place called Korea. The year was 1951. We -- the United States in general and Secretary of State Dean Acheson in particular -- made a little error. After we had withdrawn our troops from South Korea, Secretary Acheson made a speech in which he excluded South Korea from the U.S. Pacific defense perimeter. Five months later the North Koreans, having been given a green light, invaded South Korea.

Oops!

The reaction of the U.S. military regarding the Connecticut Air National Guard, of which I was a member at the time, was swift and certain. Apparently, the strategy was to get us as far from the fighting as possible. We were activated and shipped to Iceland, which is almost exactly halfway around the world from Korea.

We stepped off the good ship M.B. Stewart and were herded into buses, which took us to our new home, Keflavik Air Base. The Icelandics had devised an innovative way to cut the cost of building a bus. ‘You sit down on a bus,' they reasoned, ‘so why make it high enough to stand in?' The buses we rode were just a little over four feet high inside. You got to your seat by bending over from the waist and making your way down the aisle between the seats. It was fine once you got to your seat, but that bear-walk down the narrow center aisle left a lot to be desired.

That wasn't the only way the Icelandics had found to save a buck (or a krona, I should say). After everyone was seated, they then folded down seats into the center aisle, which were filled one at a time from the rear to the front, resulting in a sardine can load of passengers.

A bus trip into Reykjavik from the air base was an experience. At each stop, all the people seated in the center aisle had to get up, fold up their seats, exit, wait for other passengers to exit or enter, get back in one at a time, fold their seats back up and sit down. The 25- or 30-mile ride from Keflavik to Reykjavik took a while, believe me.

But how did the Connecticut Air National Guard reinvent the microwave oven? Iceland, as its name implies, is cold. Not quite as cold as Greenland, but then Erik the Red, founder of the Greenland colony and father of Leif Erikson, was quite a PR man. He knew how to name a place to attract settlers. Icelandics apparently admire such talents; they have a statue of Erik right in the center of the capital city.

My squadron set up and operated radar defenses, so that if the North Koreans attacked through Iceland, someone would be there to detect them. One of our radar sets was so powerful that at night it lit up the turned-off fluorescents in our buildings one at a time as its wave swept by.

Naturally, we pulled guard duty, which meant freezing outside all night. Did I mention that we were so close to the Arctic Circle there was only one minute of daylight in winter? Some of the troops discovered a great way to keep warm. Just stand in the beam of the radar set.

Who says weekend warriors are half-baked soldiers?

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