I’ve mentioned before that my duty assignment during my last seven years in the Air Force required me to travel from base to base teaching other people how to teach. As a result, I saw a few countries I might never otherwise have seen, and that was a good thing. There is nothing that will more surely erase the false impressions we have of other peoples and nations than going there, seeing the country with your own eyes, and meeting the people.
But there was a downside to all that. A big one. It meant that I had to spend as much as eight or nine weeks at a time away from home on TDY — temporary duty. It usually only happened four or five times a year, and the average stay away from my home base was between four and six weeks, but it amounted to 20 weeks a year. And spending 20 weeks — four and a half months — away from home every year was too much. For me anyway. I’m a home boy. I had to do something to change it.
I was stationed in England, and two or three trips each year were to an in-country base. So I gritted my teeth and drove back and forth, sometimes over a hundred miles each way, five days a week. And when it was too far to make the drive every day, I at least made it home for the weekends, driving home on Friday night, and heading back in time for my classes on Monday morning.
However, that doesn’t work well if you’re on TDY to — say — Aviano, Italy. So there were times I spent eight or nine weeks away from my family. I learned something during those long stays away from home. I learned what it is that makes home, home. It’s a remarkably simple thing, something I’d like to share with you.
Take my stay in Wiesbaden, Germany, in June and July, 1970. I arrived at night, checked into the Visiting Officers Quarters, got a room in what amounted to an ugly, old, three-story hotel, spent a few hours resting, got up, tootled over to headquarters, reported in, and found my classroom and the few hundred pounds of texts, forms, worksheets, films, and whatnot I had shipped in advance. Then I began readying myself to teach six hours a day, four days a week, for nine weeks, three courses in all.
As much as I hate to say it, Wiesbaden Air Base came as a big disappointment. It was an old base, spread out over a wide, flat area. The buildings were drab War World II structures that had an odd, empty look to them. Even the buildings along the flight line — usually humming with activity — were low and drab, and looked half deserted.
On top of that, it being early June, and Europe being a lot farther north than most people realize, it was downright cold for that time of year. It was a disappointingly dreary place.
The second night I was there I awoke in the middle of the night feeling cold, sat up, leaned forward to pull up the extra wool blanket at the foot of my cot, happened to look out the window, and got a nasty surprise. It was snowing. In June.
“Oh, goodie!” I thought. “The perfect touch to complete one cold-adze looking base.”
In the morning snow was still coming down lightly as I looked out the doors of the VOQ. I always walked when I could, at home or away, it helped keep me in good shape, and so I stepped outside, ready to make a cold, mile-long walk to my classroom in blowing snow. But I soon found that the “snow” wasn’t cold. Nor was it wet, even though it had piled up against the curbs.
I knew the Germans were clever people, but I didn’t think they had warm, dry snow, so I walked over to the curb, grabbed a handful of “snow” and made a discovery. Wasn’t snow. Was the fluffy white seeds of some tree or other — linden trees I found out later. And so I walked to work that morning, and back to the VOQ that evening, through a light “snowstorm” of fluffy white seeds.
I had brought my oils and brushes and things with me as usual, so that very first evening I sat on my cot, put a little folding easel on an end table of sorts, and got to work on a 24-inch-by-30-inch painting, something I’d had in mind for quite a while. An old stone bridge in Cropredy, a small village 10 miles north of the base in England had caught my eye, and I’d brought a sketch of it and a couple of photographs with me.
With nothing to distract me, I blocked out the painting out in raw umber, got the basic layout on canvas, tinkered with it a bit, and began working, enjoying the familiar feel of brush and oil on canvas. By the time I went to bed, I had a nicely started painting leaning face inward against the wall.
I always leaned canvases that way when I was away from home. Less chance of a mishap.
So each day I walked, and taught, and ate, and painted. Then Saturday morning rolled around. I had discovered a little snack bar next to the VOQ, so I went over there, ate a light breakfast, and trudged back to my lonely room. But I had a surprise coming.
I no sooner started up the stairs to the second floor than one of the cleaning women saw me, followed me to my room, and asked me in good English if I would mind showing her what I was painting. I was surprised she had asked, but showed her one very much incomplete painting. When she got done oohing and aahing she asked me where the place in the painting was located.
I told her, and for some reason that seemed to please her very much.
Anyway, she left, and as long as I had the painting turned around I got out my palette and brushes and began work. A few minutes later came a knock on the door. I answered it and saw the same lady, two more of them, and a rotund looking German, who introduced himself as Freddy Schneider, the manager of the VOQ.
My! My! You’d have thought it was old home week for the next hour or so. It seemed that everyone who worked in the place had to see my painting. Don’t ask me why. It was nothing great, and it was only three-quarters done, but they piled into my little room.
And you know what? Inside of 24 hours, Weisbaden Air Base, Germany, changed from a cold, windblown place I didn’t much like to the nearest thing to home-away-from-home I’ve ever known.
Perhaps you can guess how that happened.
If not, I’ll tell you all about it next week.