Being A Foreigner Can Be Hard Or Easy


Except for two things, I would have called this column, “A Tale of Two Cities.”

To begin with, that title’s been used. I know. I had to read it when I was a high school sophomore. Which was one reason I thought I might not become a junior.

For another thing, I want to talk about three cities.

Well, I want to talk about two of them. But the other one ...

You know how to make something sound good?

First talk about something that ain’t.

So let’s get to the ain’t — Reykjavik, Iceland.

Ah yes! Good old Iceland. I was there with my Air National Guard outfit. We were brought on active duty not long after the outset of the Korean War. And I could see why. The nation needed trained fighting men. Men with the ability to go over there to Korea and show those %$#@! commies where to get off. And there we were, stuck in New London, 6,000 miles from the fighting.

So they shipped us to Iceland, locating us a nice round 12,000 miles from Korea — either way, east or west.

Don’t ever tell me the Department of Defense doesn’t know how to win a war, Johnny!

Or at least how to avoid losing one.

Iceland is of course cold. If you open an atlas and take a peek at the place, you’ll see a map of an island that shows a few settlements dotted here and there around the edge, with a ring road that connects them, running all the way around shoreline.

Good questions would be: “Why don’t the roads run from town to town? Go as the crow flies? Wouldn’t it be shorter to do that?

Sure it would. But no crow in its right mind would do it.

Why? Oh nothing. Just snow. And ice. And glaciers. And ice caps. And storms that blow so hard the Air Force had to go to great lengths to make sure our quonset huts didn’t become airborne.

Now a quonset hut is not exactly a wind-catcher. It’s long, low to the ground, and built like a tin can cut in half. It’s corrugated steel, has no windows, and has its doors set flush into the ends of the building to avoid catching the wind. And it’s fastened to a concrete slab 8 inches thick.

So what more do you need to stay on terra firma?

Well the Air Force, not the most conservative outfit in the world, felt it wise to take two blocks of concrete, each weighing tons, attach them together by twin 12-foot-long, inch-thick steel cables, and hang them over the top of the huts. Two sets of them. One in the middle of either end of each hut.

When I first saw them I asked, “How could it ever blow hard enough to need those things?”

That winter I learned a triple threat answer:

When the wind blows so hard you need steel hand cables along the roads to get to the mess hall 300 yards away.

When two guys make the mistake of trying to cut across the field to the mess hall during a snowstorm and die trying.

When the wind blows so hard your eye sockets fill with snow and you can’t scrape them clean fast enough to see anything.

But it wasn’t like that every day in Iceland. Some days were almost nice.

Some days you could bend over from the hips, walk to the back of the bus, and ride into Reykjavik, the capital city.

Why bent over from the hips? The buses were built low so they wouldn’t blow off the island. Couldn’t stand up in them. And they put folding seats in the aisle, so when the bus was full, everyone in the aisle had to get off whenever someone had to exit or enter.

And so, on a cold winter’s day in June, my buddy Eddie Kowski and I made it to Reykjavik via a bus ride during which we exited at each of perhaps a dozen stops. In town, having seen a film, “The Life of Tchaikovsky,” filmed in Russian with convenient non-English subtitles, we were on our way from the Vik Theater, down past the Vik Hotel, to the Vik Restaurant to dig into a nice juicy whale vik ... uh, steak. But we were in for a surprise.

An Icelander of average size — 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds — spotted us from across the street and headed our way. I would not have noticed him, my focus being on the fact that my wool uniform and wool overcoat were not equal to the sultry breeze blowing, but this particular Icelander was hard to miss.

He began yelling at the top of his lungs in Icelandic as he crossed the road, and Icelandic being a 900-year-old guttural Germanic language, it was downright hard to miss him as he stomped across the cobbles.

He was also carrying a Icelandic Bowie knife, a 14-inch-long, 4-inch-wide blade with a handy blood groove. It made him even harder to miss as he came closer and closer to us.

Did I say “carrying?” “Waving madly in the air” would be more accurate. And as for coming closer, Johnny, so he was. Definitely!

Closer to me! Dang troublemaker completely ignored Eddie and proceeded to whip that knife around in the air in such a way that it passed every portion of my tender anatomy each 10 seconds.

Which procedure he kept repeating with boundless enthusiasm.

My reaction? Well is there such a thing as stunned stupidity?

Yes? That was it then. Describes it very nicely.

To make a long story short, 20 minutes later, two Icelandic cops explained. This was after picking up Sigismund, the perp, under his arms, carrying him to the clink, and tossing him through the door. And yes, Icelandic cops are big. BIG big.

“They are, you see,” one cop told me, “20 percent of men in communist party. And you look like maybe Norse, being blond in the hair and blue in the eyes. So offense be taken of you.”

That was my last trip to town!

Twenty percent commies? So who were we protecting up there?

Anyway, next week we get to a couple of other towns.

Like me, you won’t able to help falling in love with them.

Who could, after Reykjavik?


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